Light Reading

November Magazine Roundup

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Nippon and Asahi Camera Monthly Magazines (November 2008)

Visit anywhere in Japan that shows even a hint of autumnal color this Fall, and you’ll probably see as many photographers as fallen leaves. The Japanese call this kouyou (literally red leaves or yellow leaves) and along with the cherry blossoms of Spring, it is the time when the cameras — everything from Mark II DLSRs to camera cellphones — are guaranteed to come out. So, it is no surprise that Japan’s autumnal colors dominate both of the major photo monthlies this November.

Asahi Camera

For me, Asahi wins this month’s head to head competition with Nippon. (Last month I would probably give the nod to Nippon if you’re keeping score at home.)

Asahi starts off the kouyou fest by bringing out some “heavy hitters” from Japan’s photographic past, in a special series they call kouyou yuuyuu or serene autumn leaves, which features one or two photos each from Shotaro Akiyama, Ken Domon, Shinzo Maeda and others. Some of these are known as primarily landscape photographers, but others like Domon are not. Nevertheless, given the over-saturation of this type of photography in Japan, it is hard to appreciate the individual craft of any of them — they all unfortunately turn into nice scenery.

Miyako Ishiuchi's Hiroshima work

Fortunately, it is not all autumn leaves in this month’s Asahi. Miyako Ishiguchi, who has an exhibition at the Meguro Museum of Art in Tokyo from November 15 – January 11, 2009, is featured with a few works each from her Yokosuka and Hiroshima projects (the exhibition is the same). Ishiuchi grew up in Yokosuka, the site of one of the U.S. military’s bases, and her work shot there goes back to the mid to late 70s, while the Hiroshima material (released as a small book this year) is a recent project, focusing mainly on the remnants of clothing that were worn by people when the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima. The clothing is lit from behind in a way that poignantly shows the tattered, ripped apart nature of the clothing and the lives of the people who were wearing it.

Among contemporary female photographers working today in Japan, it’s hard to think of two more contrasting styles than Ishiuchi’s and that of Mika Ninagawa, whose work is presented next in the magazine. Ninagawa will have her first career retrospective exhibition starting this month at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. The exhibition will run from November 1 to December 28 before going to various other cities in Japan for all of 2009.

Eiji Ina has a new book coming out in December from Nazraeli Press entitled Emperor of Japan and 12 images from this work are presented in this month’s issue, along with an interview with Ina. Ina has taken 8×10 photos of all 124 of the extant Imperial burial sites in Japan, and according to the photographer, was influenced by the Typologies of the Becher’s while working on this project.

Veteran photographer Shomei Tomatsu has been living and/or working in Okinawa for over 40 years, and some of his work done there is currently being shown in a “collaborative” co-exhibition with Yasuo Higa at the Canon Gallery in Tokyo (until December 16). Higa is someone I’m not familiar with but it’s clear his main focus is on documenting the unique customs and rituals of the Ryukyu Islands. Tomatsu has also done work similar to this (notably in his book Hikaru Kaze: Okinawa, 1979), but here (judging by what’s presented in the magazine) the work focuses on his “chocolate and chewing gum” work that will be familiar to those who were able to see the Skin of a Nation exhibit that traveled in the US and Europe in 2006-7. In addition to the sampling of work, there is also a short interview with Tomatsu, who is now in his late 70s and who reveals among other things that he recently upgraded his Canon Kiss Digital to a 40D, claiming that the “high amateur” camera is in keeping with his current “amateur” status.

Nippon Camera

Unfortunately, this month’s Nippon Camera is on the whole rather disappointing compared to its breathren.

Shinichiro Kobayashi, who as the photographer behind Deathtopia and many other similar books has established himself as the leading practitioner if not the founder of the ever-popular “Ruins” or “Urban Exploration” genre of photography, has recently issued a book of rather different work entitled Umihito: 1977 – 1988. The book consists of photographs taken in black and white along Japan’s beaches and coastal areas during the years in question, and a few pages worth of these are in this month’s Nippon Camera. Unfortunately for me, while the photographs are admittedly nice to look at and Kobayashi is certainly a very proficient photographer, the book comes with a healthy dose of saccharined nostalgia that ultimately is not very different from the Ruin books.

Russell Scott Peagler is an American living in Japan, and his work shot in Tibet is given a few pages. Given to blown out Tri-X that would make many a Japanese photographer proud, the work was unfortunately just okay for me. Judging from his modest Flickr stream, clearly the magazine didn’t pick the best representations of his work.

Lastly, Kazuo Kitai has a few pages for his “Out walking with my Leica” series, and this time he visits the printing company in Nagano that did the printing for his latest book of photographs shot in Germany, The Journey Into 1920s German Expressionism.

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Author/Editor: Kurt Easterwood

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