Cities like you’ve never seen them before: A Japanese artist’s giant ‘Diorama Maps’


With GPS technology at our fingertips and Siri available to navigate our every turn, paper maps have been rendered obsolete.

But that is exactly what Japanese photographer Sohei Nishino has created with his series of collaged “Diorama Maps,” which went on view Friday  at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

After initial research of a city, Nishino spends up to three months walking it while snapping photos in black and white. He captures not only landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, but also everyday street scenes, people and buildings.  

“He climbs up to rooftops and high floors of buildings to get a multifaceted bird’s-eye view,” curator Corey Keller said. “These vantage points give him an alternative perspective of the city.”

Detail of “Diorama Map London.” (Sohei Nishino / Michael Hoppen Gallery)

Back in his Tokyo studio, Nishino, 34, creates his collage. He cuts the tiny individual frames from hundreds of contact sheets, assembles them onto an enormous white board and then digitally prints the work.

Inspired by the 18th century Japanese mapmaker, surveyor and cartographer Ino Tadataka, the layers of Nishino’s dioramas are re-imagined as his experience of a particular city.

At first glance the maps may appear as pencil drawings of abstract landscapes or apocalyptic wastelands in gray tones. Upon closer inspection, details begin to emerge, such as the walls of Jerusalem or London’s Millennium Ferris wheel, on large-scale prints that can run up to 6 by 10 feet.

“He recently inserted spots of color in the carnival scene in Bern, Switzerland, and faces of his friends in New Delhi,” Keller said of the seven maps on view at SFMOMA.   

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Also on display is a new series of “Day Drawings.” After uploading the GPS data from his walks, Nishino places a piece of paper over the computer screen, then traces his path with a pin perforating the paper.  The result is a white, lightning-like line across a black background depicting the meanderings of his urban journeys.

The show, Nishino’s first solo exhibit in the U.S., runs through Feb. 26, 2017.

Sohei Nishino's "Diorama Map San Francisco," 2016. (Sohei Nishino / Michael Hoppen Gallery)
(Michael Hoppen Gallery)
Detail of “Diorama Map San Francisco,” including City Hall. (Sohei Nishino / Michael Hoppen Gallery)

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