Back in 2016 when photographer Marco Arguello was on his first trip to Japan he, like many other bewildered tourists before him, spotted the Japanese’s penchant for creating plastic food to sit in the windows of restaurants. He didn’t think too much about it and “just chalked it up to another quirky aspect of Japanese culture that I didn’t understand,” he tells It’s Nice That. Years later, the subject popped up again and further research proved it was far from a quirk, but “an artisanal craft”.
What Marco discovered was that the development of painstakingly crafting lifelike plastic interpretations of individual ingredients (and whole meals!) actually developed from the area of Gujo Hachiman. Marco – who first picked up a camera as a hobby in his early 20s while working as a producer at an ad agency – felt photographing a project centring on this subject would sit nicely within his style, offering “a nice contrast to all the beautiful and quiet visuals that usually come from Japanese craft stories”. After pitching the story to Lucy Pike over at WePresent – “they loved it” – off he went to Gujo Hachiman with writer Katherine Whatley.
Spending two days in the area, Marco and Katherine spent their time at workshops, met with the generosity of the makers who let them roam around freely. On top of his research before embarking the project, the trip was full of discoveries, for example, “The most interesting discovery, while I was speaking with the owners, was that you don’t just sign up and become a factory on an assembly line, you have to train for years in order to make some of the more complicated foods,” the photographer points out. “If all the food was made by machines in a factory I think it would have been a way less interesting story.” Marco was additionally offered a large amount of freedom from WePresent too, who didn’t place “parameters on the creative process and just let me run with it.”
In turn, the result is a series with a garish quality which heightens the overwhelming detail in each subject photographed, whether it’s a hot dog neatly warped in clingfilm, a whole fish or orange segments, each bounces off of his camera flash. “Since the fake food was made of plastic and had a sort of gloss on it, I wanted the hard flash to elevate the already hyper-realness of the food and its colours,” Marco describes. “Aside from some of the obvious, over the top examples (sky high burger), I wanted the viewer to question whether the food was actually real or not.”
But overall, Marco’s favourite element of the trip wasn’t the act of photographing instead pointing how, “honestly, just being able to enter that little world and see how everything works” was a real highlight. And of course, “discovering that Gujo Hachiman was a charming little town was also a really nice surprise.”
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