Sohei Nishino is a contemporary Japanese photographer known for his unique and intricate photographic cartography.
He’s gained international recognition for his “Diorama Map” series, which is a painstakingly detailed and artistic representation of various cities around the world.
Nishino creates these maps by walking through the cities and taking thousands of photographs, which he then assembles into a collage-like representation that captures the essence and complexity of the urban landscape.
But after 20 years of getting under the skin of places like Berlin, New Delhi, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Bern and Tokyo, what’s the best way to get to know the character and energy of the cities he portrays?
Dundee is first time Sohei Nishino has featured a Scottish city
The Courier caught up with 40-year-old Sohei as he took to the streets of his latest city subject – Dundee.
It’s the first time a Scottish city has featured in his series.
Sohei spent six weeks living and breathing life in Dundee, taking around 20,000 photographs which he’ll combine across multiple canvases into a Dundee diorama.
He met with lots of local people, including community and photography groups such as Stobswell Community Forum, the Maxwell Centre, and community officers from wards right across the city.
He took part in tours of Verdant Works, Dundee’s mills and industrial heritage sites, visited the Maggie’s Centre and photographed the city from the top of multi-story car parks across Dundee.
He shot photographs from the top of the DC Thomson building at Meadowside, spent an afternoon with the communities officer for Strathmartine, visited Tannadice – the home of Dundee United FC – sampled local pubs, and even tried a Dundee ‘peh’ and a Forfar Bridie.
What will Sohei Nishino do with his 20,000 photographs?
He’s since returned to Japan where he will recreate a geographical representation, expressing Dundee through human memories and images.
The idea is that next year, the large-scale ‘collage’ image of Dundee he comes up with will feature in an exhibition related to photography and cities at V&A Dundee.
When The Courier spoke exclusively to Sohei on a visit behind the scenes at Dundee City Archives, however, he revealed that for the last 10 years or so, he’s developed another more intimate way of getting to know a city.
He runs the potentially dangerous gauntlet of going for a ‘local’ haircut!
What happened when Sohei Nishino asked for a ‘Dundonian’ haircut?
“For me this has become kind of like a ritual,” he laughs.
“The first idea I had was this – it’s really important for me to get into a city.
“A local barber is the place where people are gathering. People talk.
“That is really curious for me.
“In Japan it’s quite different. Not many people chat when cutting hair.
“Here, it’s a community space. That’s why I decided to cut my hair in a local barber.
“To find out more about the heart of the city.”
Sohei tells an amusing story about how early on during his Dundee stay, he was taken to Lovett’s Barbershop in Broughty Ferry by Dundee man Troy Nelson, who was filming and photographing his tour.
Rather than asking for a specific style, Sohei simply said to the barber – ‘it’s up to you. Give me a Dundonian haircut!’
Sohei laughs when he recalled the “really really scary” moment that the barber Liam Thomson – who is Troy’s friend – made eye contact with Troy and smiled, as if to say ‘I think he’s going to regret this!’
It came as the man in the next chair was getting a typical ‘skin and fade’ type haircut.
Sohei said: “I saw a conversation without words between Troy and the barber.
“It was a scary moment! In the end he went easy on me and changed the cut.”
Sohei was “very happy” with his “Dundonian” cut.
However, he revealed that he’s not always been so fortunate when travelling the world.
“One time in New Delhi, it did not end well!” he said.
“When I visited there were barbers in the street.
“The guy who cut my hair, he made a completely bad shape.
“I don’t know how to say – he looked very confident. But I was like ‘oh no’!
“Also when I visited a barber in Johannesburg, they were quite popular. A famous barbershop.
“But there was a really interesting point. They didn’t know how to use scissors! They only used a razor. It was really fun!”
Who is Sohei Nishino?
Born in 1982 in Hyogo Prefecture, Sohei Nishino graduated in 2004 from Osaka University of Arts after studying fine art and photography.
He still enjoys drawing and painting, but since graduation has been working as a photographer with bases in Kanagawa and Shizuoka.
Among his major exhibitions in recent years are the “Out of Focus: Photography” exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2012, “A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial” in New York in 2013, and the “New Dioramas” exhibition at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery in 2015.
A solo exhibition was held at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in autumn of 2016.
His work blurs the line between photography, cartography, and art.
His Diorama Maps are notable for their meticulous attention to detail and their ability to convey the character and energy of the cities he portrays.
Each map is a unique, handcrafted piece of art that reflects the artist’s personal experience and perception of the city.
Drawing inspiration from the 18th century Japanese mapmaker, Inō Tadataka, his prints re-imagine the cities he has visited.
After exploring many vantage points and taking thousands of photos, he then painstakingly prints the photographs by hand and compiles them to form the tableaux he will use as the basis for his limited edition photographs.
He explains that the overall effect is not a traditional bird’s-eye view but an enlightened way of seeing three dimensions in one plane.
Although geographical accuracy is important in this process, scales are altered and locations occasionally repeated, “mimicking our own fluid memories of place and time”.
From a distance, the maps are almost abstract.
Only when they are examined in detail does the full diorama unfold.
“I take pictures of many many different places which is not only high places,” he explains.
“Sometimes I take picture from the street, inside a building, or people. Whatever.
“Anything that I find really curious while I journey.
“This depends on the city.
“I use all of the pictures combined together to create a map.”
How does Dundee compare with other cities Sohei Nishino has visited?
Having visited 20 cities since 2003, the processes he uses are very similar wherever he goes.
However, what he’s enjoyed about Dundee is its relatively small size.
“Before I came here to Dundee I didn’t have any idea of anything,” he said.
“I just explore. It’s really a free mind how to explore Dundee.
“That’s why the first week I stayed in Dundee I just walked to many places and took some images.
“I have discovered what I feel about Dundee. I was focussing on how I was getting into Dundee.
“But I have since discovered that people are very friendly, very kind.
“I have been to lots of places.
“It’s quite difficult to say what my favourite has been.
“I really like to walk along the river and also the parks are really really nice. Especially I like Baxter Park.
“But what I really really feel is a really really big difference compared to big cities is the size of Dundee.
“I have tripped to London for a few days when being here and coming back, I realise there’s a huge huge gap. A totally different feel which is nice.”
Does Sohei Nishino admire the work of V&A designer Kengo Kuma?
Commissioned by the V&A, he’s been curious about the way people “connect” with the design museum.
He says it’s become a “symbolic” place since it opened in 2018.
He’s been curious about the city “before and after” the V&A.
In Dundee City Archives, for example, he’s been looking at photographs of the Logie Housing Estate – Scotland’s first council housing estate – and images of the city from the 1920s and ‘30s “back in the day”.
But a bit like how famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma acknowledged the role of the River Tay in Dundee when he designed the V&A building itself, Sohei says the river will also likely be an important part of his finished collage.
“Kengo Kuma is a really well known name in Japan,” he said.
“I love his work. He is know for his very daring architecture in Japan.
“For me I have seen how Dundee has the Tay river which is really important.
“I think it’s a really important symbol for Dundee and I’m thinking about how I expose, how I make the river part of my work.”
How long will it take for Sohei Nishino to create his Dundee diorama map?
Sohei says it will take him “three or four months” to create the collage.
While he enjoys the image gathering, he also enjoys the process of “re-imagining” the city and the time he then spends in the studio creating the work.
“I don’t know yet what the finished creation will look like,” he said.
“But I’m seeing more images that people who imagine – what is Dundee in their mind? In their head?
“That kind of image is really influenced by how I capture, how I decide the proportion of what I will do.”
V&A Dundee excited by Sohei Nishino’s ‘unique and unusual’ work
Francesca Bibby, assistant curator at V&A Dundee said Sohei Nishino’s urban diorama maps are a “unique and unusual way of documenting a city”.
They require Nishino to immerse himself in the city he’s photographing by spending time meeting local communities and walking the length and breadth of the city.
“The aim of these distinctive large-scale works is to record a portrait of a city through one individual’s perspective,” she said, “highlighting how architecture interweaves with the lives of a city’s inhabitants and how a city is shaped by its occupants.
“So far, Nishino has created diorama maps of cities such as London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam, San Francisco, and soon: Dundee.
“Nishino’s time in Dundee was shaped entirely by the people he met, from local photography groups, communities officers from different wards across Dundee, and individuals from organisations in the city which form part of the area’s cultural, community, entertainment and sports offering.
“He was taken on walking tours, to football matches and skate parks, and visited places like Baxter Park, Lochee bowling green, Maxwell Centre, Maggie’s Dundee by Ninewells Hospital, and Dundee City Archives to learn about the Logie Housing Estate.
“There was an emphasis placed on visiting less well-known but much-loved areas – and not just focusing on the obvious tourist spots such as the Waterfront and The Law.
“His approach was to walk everywhere around Dundee, always with his camera in hand to photograph his experiences of meeting local communities and the places he visited.
“Nishino’s process is to then collage thousands of photographic fragments across multiple canvases, using a map of the city for reference whilst also integrating his memories and experiences of a place.”
How and when will Sohei Nishino’s work be displayed in Dundee?
A film is also being made of Sohei Nishino’s time in Dundee, capturing his experiences and engagement with people across the city.
There are additional plans in development to continue to work with local community photography groups.
The new Diorama Map of Dundee will go on display at V&A Dundee in 2024 as part of one of the museum’s upcoming exhibitions and will be free to visit.