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French photographer Vanessa Franklin has been living in Japan since January 2011. Among the many things that caught her attention in her new country is an object so simple, so deeply rooted in everyday life, that the Japanese don’t notice it anymore, a nylon blue sheet whose colourful surface conceals multiple layers of significations. Present in many important moments of life in Japan, from fireworks parties to emergency kits or construction sites, this apparently insignificant item is a truthful companion of the Japanese and, probably more than any other, embodies a large spectrum of aspects of contemporary Japanese culture.
Why most of these sheets are blue remains a mystery. Blue, the colour of sky and water, paradoxically chosen for a piece of artificial fabric. Blue, the colour of heaven and of the absolute, transferred on a cheap object. This choice is probably a mere wish to find an agreeable colour that stands out on any background, the consequence of the repetitive and practical character of industrial manufacturing. But, even if not deliberately, the prevalence of blue on the sheets, by linking the trivial and the divine, gives a more poignant dimension to their frequent use as a shelter for the homeless, as a way of hiding unwanted items from the view, or even as a welcoming space where to celebrate the transient beauty of sakura.
Fascinated by the multiple metamorphosis of the blue sheet, Vanessa Franklin therefore decided to explore these numerous identities, photographing her friends wrapped in the azure cloth, with the collaboration of stylist Kosei Matsuda. Settings vary, and each picture enhances one particular relation between the model and the sheet. In doing so, the artist goes further than a simple portrait and expresses important concepts of Japanese culture, such as a profound awareness of the impermanent nature of life, that the frequent natural disasters, but also the fugitive beauty of cherry blossoms, regularly remind the Japanese of. From religion to bondage, Vanessa’s images deliver glimpses of the jigsaw that is Japanese society, impressionist touches divulging to the attentive onlooker many clues about what makes the identity of Japan.
Nevertheless, the images have a more universal appeal to them, and may also be seen as a portrait of a generation, the generation of the models, and of the artist herself. Taken as a whole series, the pictures draw a self-portrait of Vanessa Franklin, of her personal world. They also talk about beautiful encounters, between a photographer and her models, who are often her friends but also, in some cases, almost strangers that will become her friends through the shooting session. The camera operates as a link, a facilitator, bringing together the energies and emotions of several people, for a brief moment that may evolve in a deeper relationship. It is a manifestation of serendipity, of magical and furtive instants that will remain forever suspended in time. One can feel the engagement of the models in the process, the way they plunge body and soul into the shooting. The camera creates a silent bond between the photographer and her model, their mutual respect is palpable. The printed image later implies another meeting, between the viewer, the model and the artist. The models seem to play with the other two, sometimes feigning to ignore them, sometimes daringly looking at them, seducing them. The series functions conjointly on intimate and universal levels, revealing the personalities of young women from various backgrounds and the culture of a whole country, as seen both by its inhabitants and by a foreign eye.
Vanessa Franklin’s pictures break the boundaries between the various categories of photography, portrait, nude or landscape, the quality of light acting as a unifier. The images explore the relations between the human body and its environment, the way in which human beings mould nature or cities to their needs, and how they move in it, live with it, for better or worse. The young women gracefully invest their surroundings, the atmosphere is sometimes lively and baroque, theatre like, sometimes peaceful and minimalist. The models’ complete investment in the shooting process, the liberty allowed them by the photographer, the choice made by the artist of using films with her analogue C type Hasselblad camera and her refusal of any retouching, all add to the general feeling of honesty and generosity, of frankness, so refreshing in a world dominated by artificial imagery. One cannot remain unmoved by the direct look addressed by a young naked woman, nor fail to feel the tenderness and intensity conveyed by the images.
The artist twists the stereotypes of fashion and commercial photography in order to transcend them. She seems to bend the notions of luxury and brands by transforming a cheap and purely practical object into an elegant outfit, by recycling as a fashion item a piece of plastic canvas whose usual utilisations are rather unglamorous. The models could be princesses in a fairytale, with their Cinderella-like dresses which will turn back to their previous state of rags after the shooting. In so playing with the codes of fashion and of the culture of advertisement, Vanessa Franklin gently mocks her own world – the world of a fashion and advertising photographer - but firmly reminds us that beauty can lie within the most mundane of things. The series also points out to the importance of uniforms in Japan. These conventional outfits somehow erase the characteristics of each personality, categorizing people according to their activity, an attitude symptomatic of the Japanese habit to define the individual by its relations to the collective. Hence, under the apparent lightness of most of the pictures, emerge deeper interrogations, confirming that Japan is not a fantasy land, as many foreigners persist in believing it is, and that the preoccupations of people are the same everywhere, whatever the country.
Vanessa Franklin celebrates the beauty of life, of each and every aspect of life, but also shows its fragility. The contrasts created by the blue sheets, the pink hair, against the more subdued palette of Japanese cities, or against the typical reds of religious architecture and the soft clouds of seasonal blossoms, allow for visually stunning pictures, between flamboyance and softness. The images are imbued with a natural and restraint elegance, a tranquil, seductive and strictly ironic assurance, which are the very definition of iki, an essential concept of Edo’s aesthetics. Above the numerous clichés associated with Japan, Vanessa Franklin has attempted to grasp the souls of these beautiful country and people, and enriched her own journey with the presents offered by her Japanese friends. More than anything, the blue sheet series is a chance encounter, a dialogue, between a young French woman and her Japanese counterparts, between an individual and a different culture.