I‘ve recently had the fortunate opportunity to acquire for myself, and for the bookstore, three lovely photo books by Akihide Tamura, Nao Tsuda, and Toshio Shibata. These are the kind of photo books you want to carry with you all the time, to show anyone with a smidgen of interest in photography or quality publishing, anyone who loves looking at photography by turning pages, feeling the texture of the page corner between their finger and thumb. The kind of books you imagine Martin Parr or John Gossage have by the shelf load in their abodes.
When I said “new” books in the title, I was fibbing a little. Base by Akihide Tamura is in fact not new at all, either in content or in publication. The content was shot by Tamura in the late 60′s. The book itself dates from 1992, and was published by Mole.
However, apparently from Tamura’s own stock, brand new copies of this 1992 book have recently been made available, and this is a very fortunate thing. “Base” in this case refers to the U.S. military bases that to this day continue their elephant-in-the-room existence throughout the Japanese Archipelago. In the 60s their presence raised considerably more overt opposition than they do now (though this by no means implies they are any more welcome by today’s majority), and not surprisingly they proved a fertile ground for many a Japanese photographer, with Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama leading a long list.
Unlike many, however, Tamura’s camera remains on the periphery, often employing on one hand extreme zoom lenses to capture the Air Force jets that feature in several images, or wide angle lenses that help to give the book a landscape feel. Whether this was of necessity, or of artistic choice, you feel the isolation of the bases from most Japanese, even as they could never escape their ubiquitous presence. I found Tamura’s close-ups of the jets particularly striking. Like Fukase’s ravens, we can instinctively hear their obnoxious, intrusive screeching emanating from the page.
“These are the kind of books you imagine Martin Parr or John Gossage have by the shelf load in their abodes.”
The book itself is a thin volume, with just 16 black and white photographs plus two color photographs that illustrate the books front and back covers. The cover is an off-white textured card stock that feels lovely in the hand, with the title foil stamped in silver. The interior pages are printed on heavy weight, non-glossy paper, and suit the high-contrast and very grainy photos beautifully. The book is bound with two staples. A simple but elegant book.
Captions as well as technical details of the photographs are in English. Inserted unbound into the book is an eight-page booklet with essays by critic Koen Shigemori (who incidentally passed away the same year the book was published) and photographer Shinzo Shimao, but sadly these are in Japanese only.
You might be surprised to know that Shiseido, the Japanese cosmetics giant, is the oldest cosmetics company in the world. But perhaps even more surprising, and more germane to the discussion here, is that the Shiseido Gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza area is the oldest existing art gallery in Japan. They do have a long-established reputation for supporting the arts, and young artists especially, and this was on evidence at the recently staged Nao Tsuda “Smoke Line – Tracing the Windstreams” exhibition I attended a couple of weeks ago. The exhibit featured work that Tsuda created during travels in China, Mongolia and Morocco, and was divided into two parts. The first, perhaps main part of the exhibit, featured large diptych-like landscapes. Off this space, in a darkened, curtained-off space, was “Smoke Face”, more spontaneous pieces accompanied by poems written by a Moroccan poet named Omar, with whom Tsuda spent some time traveling together.
But I’m here to write more about the catalog that accompanied this exhibition, for it is an exquisitely put together package that does justice not only to the work on exhibit, but to the exhibition itself. This is because the catalog is actually two books, each corresponding to the two different parts of the show. The larger book, which is bound, features the landscape diptychs. Inlaid behind this is a much smaller book featuring the “Smoke Face” work as well as the poems (in Japanese and French) that were on view in the smaller room. It is paperback size, bound by staples, and is secured by a ribbon rather than the rubber band as seems standard in Japan.
Sewn into the front fold-out cover is a 16-page booklet in Japanese and English, featuring a piece about Tsuda’s photography by world-renown Japanese novelist and poet Natsuki Ikezawa, in the form of a prose poem, as well as an essay by Shiseido Gallery’s curator Miho Morimoto.
In the back fold-out cover, which I didn’t even notice at first, are two separate fold-out pages, one for each part of the exhibit. One side of each details the pieces (media, sizes, etc.) in the exhibit, and the other features photographs of the exhibition itself. There is also a personal statement by Tsuda, again available in both Japanese and English.
The cover is basically a thin gray matte board that has been covered by fabric on the outer side, with the title and artist’s name embossed on the front. My description may make it sound cheap and inelegant but in actuality, the catalog feels anything but. The only thing “cheap” about this catalog is the price, which is extremely reasonable and makes me think the gallery produced these at a loss.
Often photo exhibition catalogs seems more like typical photo books, and while the works shown may be the same as the exhibit, there doesn’t seem to be any real correlation between the two. But here, you feel like you are getting what is, for lack of a better word, a true souvenir of the exhibition you attended.
Lastly we come to a very newly-published — two weeks ago in fact — small book featuring early Toshio Shibata photographs, published by the Soh Gallery to accompany his Still in the Night exhibition there. At the moment, Shibata is enjoying a major exhibition of his recent Landscape work at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and there are a couple of smaller exhibitions going on in Tokyo to coincide with this show. Soh Gallery’s exhibition of some of Shibata’s early 4×5 work is one of them.
The work centers around various structures and scenes connected with the motor expressway, such as service areas, gas stations, and toll booths. Shibata shot these at night, and they date from 1982 to 1986. With the exception of one image, which was shot in Utah and is used to illustrate the book’s cover, the photos were all taken in Japan. Here we see the deceptively quiet, people-less places that are “off the road” or the gates to the road, yet full of their own life, their own motion.
Whether it is a row of empty but fully lit telephone booths, or a brightly lit but empty service area restroom, you get the sense that something is about to happen, that this is the scene of something. In the short essay about Shibata at the back of the book, by Yasuhide Shimbata, curator at Yokohama Museum of Art (translated into English), we learn that an early influence of Shibata’s were the films of Peter Bogdanovich, and indeed there is something of The Last Picture Show in these pictures.
This is a small, hardcover book about the size of a paperback (but in landscape orientation), featuring just 13 photographs (cover included). Although the prints on display were large-ish, here they measure just slightly larger than what an actual 4 x 5 negative would measure (a conscious choice, according to Soh Gallery’s owner).
Each of the three books are available in the Japan Exposures bookstore. You can also preview more of each book at the links below: