GPS technologies have seriously shifted our experience of place to something passively attuned to a computerized voice, allowing us to avoid the discoveries that come with getting productively lost. Sohei Nishino’s sprawling, labor-intensive photographic works are a powerfully subjective counterpoint to this condition. He explores cities as a flanneur with a camera, shooting with actual film no less. He spends months photographing on the ground, or from elevated perspectives, to amass thousands of images that he pieces together by hand, also over the course of months, and then re-photographs, to create an impressionistic map of each place. On view through February 26, the SFMOMA show, his first solo show in the U.S., includes seven works that he calls Diorama Maps, of cities including London, Rio, Havana, and Jerusalem. The large-scale prints are in silvery black and whites that, from a distance, seem to depict cloudy swarms of insects. They reveal themselves, and grow more complex, when seen up close, where the elements of architecture, pedestrians, and topography are fractured into tiny pieces of a complex social fabric. The works are absorbing, but also overwhelming: they have no central focus but rather spread out, as cities do. We scan for landmarks that get lost in the monochromatic sprawl.
Nishino’s large compositions bring to mind the flattened perspectives of medieval paintings crossed with David Hockney photo collages, with a bit of the dazzle of Daniel Gordon’s colorful, internet-sourced still lifes. But Nishino’s project seems both sobering and loopy in its inefficiency. The work hearkens back to the verité black and white of street photography, and while that tradition is rooted in decisive moments, Nishino’s practice, which involves thousands of quick shots, is impressive for its painstakingly slowness and connection to craft. The exhibition also includes a new series of 20 inkjet prints that trace the data from Nishino’s GPS mapped routes through the city by poking pinholes into pieces of paper placed over his computer screen. Titled Day Drawings (San Francisco), these come across as glowing abstractions or seismic fissures. They trace a direct path through the landscape, and like the Diorama Maps, emphatically reveal how deceptive a photographic depiction of a site can be.