“We have so many great photographers. Helping them reach a global audience is my ultimate reward.”
Taka Ishii Gallery
Taka Ishii had his heart set on becoming a painter while studying for a fine arts degree in Los Angeles. Until, that is, the day he saw photographer Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” prints in Los Angeles. “I was shocked to see his work,” says Ishii. “There was lots of violence and drugs. I liked it. It was like watching a documentary.”
When he returned to Tokyo from LA in the early 1990s, Ishii discovered Japan had its own photographers working in a similar vein, people such as Daido Moriyama and his iconic 1979 image of a stray dog, “Misawa”.
“That was the start,” Ishii says of his then-nascent career path. When he opened his first gallery in 1994, it was with a solo show of the same Clark that had originally inspired him. A year later, he showed Moriyama’s works for the first time. “To exhibit those two photographers was a dream come true,” Ishii says.
The reality of operating a gallery, however, was harder than he had expected. “I had worked as a private dealer, but never in a gallery before,” he says. “I didn’t know the system. I had to learn everything from scratch.”
Tokyo had few international contemporary art galleries at the time, and Ishii did not know any collectors. He reached out to magazines and newspapers to attract media coverage. Slowly, collectors followed. Fortunately, his original gallery was located in the first floor of his family home, and was therefore rent-free.
Low-key, soft-spoken and with an air of disheveled cool, Ishii is now one of Japan’s most successful contemporary art dealers, with two galleries in Tokyo and one in New York City. His stable of established artists includes Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Naoya Hatakeyama, Thomas Demand, Sterling Ruby, Dan Graham, and Cerith Wyn Evans. He also actively promotes up-and-coming Japanese photographers and mixed media artists.
These days, Ishii’s collectors mostly come from abroad. The domestic market remains a challenge. A difficult venture in Kyoto proved that point. He and a fellow Tokyo-based gallerist opened a collaborative space in the ancient capital in 2008. But collectors there, wary of outsiders, wouldn’t buy from them.
“You need a strong connection with the local people, especially in Kyoto,” he says. “We didn’t have that. I really was too bad.” The space closed in 2013.
Ishii remains optimistic – the trends are moving in his favour. Japan is becoming an international destination, and the number of young Japanese collectors is steadily growing.
“Interest in post-war Japanese photography is growing abroad. Even foreign museums are buying now,” he says. “We have so many great photographers. Helping them reach a global audience is my ultimate reward.”
TIPS & RESERVATION INFO
In recent years the Roppongi area has emerged as one of Tokyo’s centers for contemporary art galleries. There are two others (including Tomio Koyama Gallery, featured on PMP) in Complex 665, as well as a few in the Piramide Building, located just around the corner. If gallery hopping makes you hungry, stop by Honmura-An, also on PMP, for soba noodles.