“We can have some more / Nature is a whore / Bruises on the fruit / Tender age in bloom”—lyrics from “In Bloom,” a classic track off Nirvana’s Nevermind album. It’s the song that French photographer Jean-Vincent Simonet borrowed for the title of his own paean to “more.” In Bloom, Simonet’s 2018 publication with Self Publish, Be Happy, is about the “bruise” and the “fruit,” the desires and the appetites of the city.
A particular city. If it’s more you want, you want Tokyo. More lights, more faces, more karaoke, more kitsch, more strangeness, more stimulation. Simonet first visited the city in 2016, taking photographs of Tokyo’s dense, urban skyline, its metros, and its pedestrian throng. The subways alone transport over six million people across 180 stations per day, and not just backwards and forwards. Swarms of commuters move in all directions: dozens of stories above the earth, several stories below, inward and outward, around, between, and through dimensions that can only be described as “psychedelic,” says Simonet.
How to capture that dizzying experience? Not directly, which the photographer quickly realized while arranging his original shots. Something was amiss. The landscapes and portraits, the street views and night life, resisted one another. Some of that tension remains in the book. On the first page, for instance, beer cans, cigarette butts, and plastic bottles float in a street puddle, billboard lights reflecting off the water. The scene changes on the next page to a bar, captured (from the looks of it) off balance. Streaks and blurs give us a sense of pace. I imagine Simonet nudging his way through a hundred patrons, cell phone or camera raised above his head. Then, two or three images of metropolitan sprawl from behind a train window take us, somehow, straight into a hotel bathroom. A woman is showering herself in the dark.
Much of the book is driven by this kind of disorienting time/place-skip. We’re meant to feel somnambulant, always on the move but never quite awake, blinking into one place, then another. In Bloom prepares us for that journey from the start: closed eyes on the cover of the book, open eyes on the back.
But Simonet saw more than buildings and pedestrians. “I had this strong feeling of the city as something organic,” he said. “You are part of living stuff.” A metabolic flow, a flux and swell, a pulse, a petal—as the title suggests. Mixed into the sequence of images are a number of flowers, as thickly crowded as the city, often in bloom, but just as often wilting and brown.
To accentuate this strange confluence of flora and ten-floor buildings, Simonet experimented. Not only did he shift between digital and analog, but between printing techniques as well, inking the image on plastic surfaces, for example, in order to keep things wet and melting. The photographs look sticky, like honey ladled over orchids. That liquid quality endows even the inorganic with a slight shiver of vitality. Violet hotel signage, watery and warped, fuses into the rouge underglow of nearby bars. A lattice of green lasers flickers from the dance clubs. Even the bathrooms are refulgent, glistening like wet tangerines. And if there’s an erotic sheen to the pages of In Bloom, it’s not just intimation.
An ode to decadence without sex would be disingenuous. Only two or three images toward the end make the frenetic orgy of Tokyo’s nightlife explicit. But encounter by encounter, the sensuality of the place leaves its smear on the image. The first third of the book winds and wanders. It’s all street and electricity and—looking over your shoulder—sudden heavy petting near a bus stop. Onward. The middle of In Bloom invites us toward more intimate encounters. A number of portraits, most likely strangers in a club, meet us eye to eye. They’ve been ladled with honey too. Strings of light quiver in the fluid. Decisions will be made. We are T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock. “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?”
In the final images, the color palette changes. Fiery reds turn cold and blue. We’re in the bedroom. The bed is underwater somehow, and in one particular photograph, octopus tentacles overlay our lovers, as if projected onto their backs like a film on a screen. Given the prevalence of Tokyo’s red light districts, sex seems almost inevitable, even a little unimaginative, at the end of this party. But Simonet elevates the prosaic by washing it all into the sea. Tentacle erotica has a long tradition in Japanese art. The most famous image of that convention has to be Hokusai’s woodblock print, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, in which Leda and the Swan gets a rewrite, and the bird makes way for a cephalopod.
That aesthetic touch, in the end, complicates In Bloom. In artistic representations of places like Tokyo, distinctions are very rarely made between sex and sex work. Photobooks that seduce the eye the way Simonet’s does provoke questions like: What do I not see? Having walked through many of these areas myself, one thing missing is the black-suited hustler in sunglasses, beckoning out-of-towners into the “love” hotels. Missing too is the unsettling, fifteen-foot billboard advertisement of school girls with lollipops. Tokyo’s downtown pleasure industry employs hundreds of young men and women, many of whom (according to research at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University) are trying to help their struggling families. And in a highly gendered economy, the options, especially for women, are limited.
But In Bloom is not documentary. It belongs to a rich history of psychotropic awakening. Tokyo is to Simonet what the opium den was to Thomas De Quincy or Las Vegas to Hunter S. Thompson. In Bloom is saturnalia: urge, dream, heat, motion, trance, and reality peeled loose at the corners. In that sense, Simonet belongs to a twenty-first century romantic revival. I’m thinking of Ryan McGinley, Marie Tomanova, Gaël Bennefon, and others whose work sheds propriety, climbs naked and mortal towards planes of (sometimes) perilous excitement, and leaps. In Bloom is a worthy addition to a genre I can’t get enough of.