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Review: Outsiders View: Photographs of Japan – Henry Woodley at Unit 51

Outsiders View: Photographs of Japan – Henry Woodley
at Unit 51. Saturday 16 January 2016 – Saturday 13 February 2016.
Words and photographs by Patrick Kirk-Smith

Henry Woodley is a Liverpool based photographer with a fortuitously timed exhibition at Unit 51. The exhibition runs in parallel to The Atkinson’s Shojo Manga and stands in strange contrast to its accidental-sibling exhibition. In Outsiders View, Woodley seeks to capture the varied cultural shifts happening today in Japan, and what we are given is a summary of very human, very modern relationships touching on tradition and contemporary influences.

The photographs range from geisha girls having faces pulled at them to lit up sky scrapers and they continue to remind us, sadly, that England has failed miserably to retain traditions when compared to Japan; a country which celebrates tradition even in the most modernised cities. The photographs juxtapose common forms of Japanese architecture against the westernised cities suffering from a weird kind of metal gigantism. It’s that which makes this interesting, and a perfect accompaniment to Shojo Manga for anyone with enough time to visit the two.

The contrasts between this show and Shojo Manga at The Atkinson are endless. The obvious one is that these are photographs, and those are manga comics. But sarcasm aside, they join together to illustrate two completely different, yet two completely current views of Japanese identity that somehow form one whole. Children grow up with this new-tradition of western culture that screams of post-war connections, and now, it seems when they grow up they end up being part of that world. In Shojo Manga, the exhibition focuses on a period of time when girls were receiving the same cultural chances for the first time, and it does so through graphic illustration. That style of manga had a very specific selling point at the time; the west; the idea that this grand world existed that Japan was going to emulate. Now it has, and Outsiders View at Unit 51 is a brilliant representation of how that change has manifested itself.

Family remains important, tradition stays solid and progress is critical to it all. It’s what most other countries wish they could be. In a sense, the people in these pictures serve as a caricature of Japan, but with more sensitivity than cultural photography generally has. There’s no joke when it comes to this selection, it’s simply a set of images of real life moments. Any stereotyping that occurs as a result is happenstance, and puts smiles on faces.

They are charming images of a country that will spend a lifetime on the fence between tradition and change. A reality that makes it such a fascinating destination for the outsider. It’s difficult to imagine a Morris Dance on Bold Street, because we’ve let our traditions go as we updated popular interests to keep things in sync. Japan took the challenge of maintaining those traditions while they embraced the 20th century, and Henry Woodley brings us his own document of that.

Outsiders View by Henry Woodley at Unit 51
Outsiders View by Henry Woodley at Unit 51