A Map Like No Other: Three Questions for Sohei Nishino

You've probably never seen San Francisco depicted like the way this "diorama map" does.

For his “Diorama Maps” series, which is on exhibit at SFMOMA through February 26, Japanese artist Sohei Nishino creates city maps that resemble photographic pointillism. By hand, Nishino layers each map with more than 10,000 images — each photo a window into the city’s (and Nishino’s) doings at the moment of conception. The maps hue to the cities’ general geographic outlines, and from a distance, Nishino’s San Francisco map looks like it was taken from a blimp. But the closer you get, the more you see the details of each distinctive image. The experience is enthralling.

By email, Nishino spoke with SF Weekly about the process that goes into his Diorama Maps — and why he won’t soon forget the people he met in San Francisco.

In your diorama maps, you spend weeks and months on a single city — walking widely as you take photos. You’ve said the experience is very personal. Are your maps a way to understand a city for yourself only? Or are you conscious of the fact that many people will see your work on exhibit, and does that influence your map-making?

Creating my works involves a lot of process, and I use my hands for each part of the process. That helps me recall the time I spend in each place. At the time of shooting, I’m not conscious of the viewer, and I’m more focused on how I adapt the place. However, when I’m arranging the pieces, I’m conscious of the viewer a little bit, and I think how I can include a point of view that we have in common. Also, I’m thinking a little bit about where people might focus on my map. Because I use tens of thousands of images instead of narrowing them, sometimes there are too many pieces — it depends on a certain place — and that causes the distorted shape of the map. So, sometimes the shape of the map will go beyond what I imagine, but I think that the unexpected shape reflects a personal experience.

You’ve said that you let chance and coincidence help dictate your maps. Can you describe the chance and coincidence that marked your San Francisco map?

The shooting of San Francisco was so smooth — more so because of the cooperation of SFMOMA for the project letter, which helped a lot when I talked with local people about San Francisco while I shot photos. At the same time, I was more conscious of the traveler’s point of view, and I felt I needed to actively dive in to the city. I had lots of communication with local people, and I learned a lot of information about the area, trends, and events. For example, I attended the Bay to Breakers race and also joined a silent disco event, which I heard about from local people. When I stayed at Haight-Ashbury, I was walking on the street one night, and an old man who looked like a hippie talked to me and asked me to take his photograph. When I was about to take his photo, he just walked away. After that, I saw him walking around the street doing nothing, and every time I tried to take his photograph, he just walked away. So, I thought he was rejecting me, but later he talked to me, and we kept doing this same loop of strange communication for many times. So, in that area on the map, you can see the trail of this communication and my approach to take his photo.

After you’ve taken all your photos, and are putting them together on one map surface, is it hard for you to pick the photos? Like a film or book editor, are you leaving out lots of images – and does the editing process surprise you and, perhaps, make you take more photos to fill in certain sections?

All the process is analog, and I use my hands for each process as I think this analog process is important for my work. Since I was a university student, I’ve liked looking at contact sheets. Although I liked choosing one photograph from the contact sheets, I more enjoyed looking at other sequences as we can see the trails and very personal preference of the photographer in the whole contact sheets.

So, when I started this “Diorama Maps” series, from the beginning I’ve used contact sheets, and so after I shoot in film, I make contact sheets and cut out all the photographs as a single piece of one image. Instead of selecting the images, I use almost all the photographs I take as I reflect on all my memories and the footpaths of my journey. Compared to the early works, my recent Diorama Maps have been growing much bigger — they’re about 10 times as big as my initial Diorama Map. It shows how my experience and time has changed and increased for my single journey. In that sense, I normally don’t fill out the additional parts after I take photographs — though for some special occasions, I do. For example, when I created a map of Tokyo in 2016, I was living in Tokyo and not traveling, so it was very difficult to decide when I finish shooting Tokyo, and I spent more time than I expected. Also, when I shot in Havana in 2015, there was an accident in which the photograph of Parliament disappeared. As it was a very symbolic and important building, I visited Havana again just to take that photograph. That had never happened before.

New Work: Sohei Nishino, through Feb. 26, 2017, at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., 415-357-7500 or sfmoma.org/exhibition/new-work-sohei-nishino

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