The apparition of these faces: Glenn Specht’s Tokyo

by Eikona

From Glenn Speccht's "Tokyo"


Looking at one of Toronto photographer Glenn Specht’s images brings to mind Ezra Pound’s Haiku-style, Imagist poem, In a Station of the Metro. The image is of a crowded street of walking umbrellas. A flash of a face here and there suggests the different stories beneath the shields, but all are otherwise united in a sea of white and black parabolas moving in and around each other, frozen in the moment as with Pound’s commuters.

It’s an apt image to introduce Glenn’s new self-published e-book, Tokyo because it depicts both the sort of spectacle he’s fallen in love with, and the attempt to visually access closed communities. The book is the result of his 2010 and 2011 photo sabbaticals to one of the largest, most intriguing cities on the planet. Glenn has taken advantage of Tokyo’s unusually safe, hospitable, and endless urban sprawl by allowing himself to disappear inside it completely, with only his camera and the hard-won realization that not all public maps in the city are posted North-side-up.

The resulting work is both a geographical narrative and a study in Japanese aesthetic sensibilities, through the eyes of a Westerner. The photographs emerge from questions of someone fresh to the Japanese public sphere and built environment. They seek to deconstruct the overwhelming visual culture shock: How is space negotiated? How is it mediated by objects and people? What informs the architecture? Why are these patterns or those rituals important? Does this all shape the social narrative, or the other way around?

I’m reading conscious intent into what was likely an unconscious process of unstructured, liberating visual exploration, but Glenn’s images are exactly the sort of moments and observations that tend to fascinate me when I’m new to a radically different social context. As a photographer, one can’t escape the deluge of mental activity this sort of environment will provoke.

At the very least, the images make me want to explore this city for myself: the curving brick walkways and imposing post-modern colonnades that guard quiet zen gardens; the secret spaces tucked inside towering environments; the way people read — and doze — everywhere in public places; the great carpet of skyscrapers and high rises from horizon to horizon; and the anime billboards and cosplay bands that have arisen from the complex Japanese psyche. I am compelled to shed my responsibilities and personal baggage like a coat, and disappear forever inside the city as though it were a fantasy park.

For all this wonderful imagery, the curation of Tokyo leaves it firmly in the perspective of the outsider. As a gaikokujin without fluency in Japanese, Glenn is understandably hard-pressed to insinuate himself further inside the society he photographs. It’s difficult to photograph people closely in public here (indeed it’s outright forbidden in some areas), and so the visual narrative remains a panoramic survey of a culture that remains cloaked in its tiled walkways and street festivals.

This is in spite of the friendliness and hospitality Glenn finds among just about everyone he meets. Though it may be the friendliest city he’s ever been to, Tokyo gives the impression that his Japanese hosts politely but firmly keep their interior worlds tucked away out of sight. I have no lasting illusion that this is any fantasy playground — it’s but another society made of hopes, fears, desires, triumphs and tragedies. The edit is thus an engaging aesthetic study of an engaging culture’s design and use of the public sphere. I hope that Glenn is able to return again and again, and access that private space we otherwise only see mysterious glimpses of, as with the faces under the umbrellas in the rain.

Tokyo is available at