Category Archives: Feature

Reviews, critiques and essays on selected topics

Draped in Uncertainty – The Other Side by Masako Miyazaki


What is
On the other side
In the forest
draped in uncertainty
I am alone,
gazing in admiration

— Masako Miyazaki

When presenting and discussing Japanese Photography I often wonder whether myself and everyone else share our definition of what Japanese Photography is (or is not). Whether there is even a need to ask for a definition or leave it open to everyone to substitute their own. Still, sooner or later someone might ask “what do you like about Japanese photography?” or “what do you think is different in Japanese Photography?”. Then you would have to ask back, what the person means by Japanese Photography at the first place. Is it a signature style or technique? Probably not. Or simply a Japanese photographer, or a photograph taken in the country of Japan? Possibly, but that’s not all. Could a non-Japanese person produce Japanese Photography at all, or a Japanese person be unable to do so? Probably yes. There are no obvious answers, only clues. I have been looking for such clues for a while and even though my answer is not complete, I feel that gathering traces is a legitimate way to approach it.

Masako Miyazaki’s book The Other Side, published in late 2011 by Tosei-sha, offers such a clue. Not too unlike Manabu Someya’s Nirai (incidentally also published by Tosei-sha), I very much enjoyed looking at this book as it felt like being taken by the hand onto a journey into different places. That is not just physical locations, but places in the mind. Studying the images closely, they were taken in a variety of locations. There are images of Japan and elsewhere (I suspect the Mediterranean and/or Central Europe). Despite that variety, the image content, texture and style allowed them to be presented together while maintaining a common theme between them. Location or subject is not what strings them together.

On a depictive level, a commonality between the images soon becomes apparent: the square black and white images almost all seem to be focussed on the very remote distance, irrespective of whether the near distance contains a subject of interest. Additionally, a very close distance object is often obscuring our view slightly – a wall, high-grown grass, a tree, bushy vegetation or similar. We are often peering over or around those obstructions with a sense of safety as if guarding us from the scene from waist level (presumably due to the use of a medium format camera with waist level finder), like a child who stumbled upon a scene accidentally while running after a ball or a butterfly. Now we find ourselves slightly outside our comfort zone, exactly on the thin line of being equally thrilled and curious to move further while at the same time frightened and wanting to go back to familiar grounds. Here we stand still now, hearing only our own breath and the sounds of nature, frozen in time by our minds and in turn by the capture of the photograph. We have become one with the scene, with the environment, except that unlike the trees or bushes around us we have a gaze into the scene and our view is set on the horizon, the infinite distance.

Few people appear in Miyazaki’s photographs and if they do then they are largely coincidental and visually insignificant. These are introvert photographs, but not of self-importance or exhibitionism. A wanderer in a foreign place is strolling across the landscape with a hint of melancholy. The scene is alive yet abandoned, as if everyone just left to go home for lunch or dinner time a short moment ago. We are still out here, perhaps nobody is expecting us to go home or we just want to enter slightly into the lapse of time and be “too late”, that is not return home on time. Not too late for anyone to worry about us or to scold us, yet enjoying once again finding ourselves on the border between what we should or shouldn’t do.

Towards the end of the book the nature of the images changes slightly. We are now in motion, gazing out of a moving train or car. Are we leaving a place we enjoyed so much as described above? In the final pages we are indoors, the same low level views towards or out of windows and doors. A peek into the living room, over the window sill seeing the roofs of opposite buildings, or inside a shop, church or boutique. Have we returned home from a summer vacation in the countryside back into the hometown, perhaps? The feeling is once more on the middle ground of being saddened by our timely return, yet inside ourselves treasuring the experience of the weeks we roamed on our own on The Other Side.

Miyazaki’s photographs represent just some of the things that Japanese Photography are for me; a quiet yet strong undercurrent of expression that does not present itself to the viewer too easily and besides sensitivity requires patience. At the same time there is an element of child-like honesty and innocence that make the images more than simple documents of localities; we are being offered access to someone else’s inner self as a companion or visitor, just close enough to share some personal time together and not too close to offend or invade the privacy of our host.

Please also see a special gallery with more images from Miyazaki’s book.

Signed copies of The Other Side are available for purchase in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.

Yoshiichi Hara’s Mandala Zukan

We’re going to start a new series of posts here on some of the photo books in our collection, the theme of which would be something like photographers you’ve probably never heard of before but should, or alternatively photo books you’ve probably never seen before but should. Sometimes those two themes might overlap. Without further ado, let’s begin with:

Mandala Zukan (曼陀羅図鑑), by Yoshiichi Hara
Published by Banseisha, 1988
Softcover, 21cm x 21cm, approx. 610 pages, 300 photos.
Original price: ¥5,800

Mandala Zukan, by Yoshiichi HaraYoshiichi Hara was born in 1948 in Tokyo. He attended the Chiyoda Photography Vocational School but dropped out. He first exhibited his photography in 1973. In 1978 he self-published his first book, Fubaika. Those are the basic facts and I have to admit I know little beyond them.

I do know that much of his book oeuvre has the word “stripper” in the title and he has published various “stripper guide” books. I have never looked at them beyond their covers (honest!), so I have no idea if these are straight commercial jobs or not, but their covers would seem to indicate they are. I had seen a couple of recent and decidedly non-commercial books of his at the Japanese publisher Sokyusha, but paid them very little mind for the longest time, sad to say. It was only after someone in Europe contacted me about purchasing some of Hara’s out-of-print books did I become intrigued to look a bit further. (You can find said recent books here and here.)

Two page spreads from Yoshiichi Hara's Mandala ZukanMandala Zukan is a thick, square-shaped book, containing exactly 300 black and white photographs. Most of the photographs are in a square format, with “sloppy borders” to emphasize that we are seeing them full-frame, without cropping. They fill most of the right-hand page, giving them a sense of scale that is nicely counterweighted by the subject matter itself, which is rarely grand. On the left-hand page, there’s an almost completely empty page except for a simple caption denoting the number of the photograph, the city and district where the photograph was taken (in Japanese only), and the year the photo was taken.

The subject matter is all over the place, but never feels scattershot or give the impression that Hara doesn’t know what he’s doing. We always feel he is in control, that there is a vision he is trying to put forth but it is up to us to decide what that is. There are some images that might repel, and a few that could upset those with delicate sensibilities, but again one never gets the sense that Hara is shocking for shock’s sake. When I met Hara in person recently, he mentioned that the late Kiyoshi Suzuki was a friend of his, and that they had exhibited together. Like Suzuki’s books, Hara’s have that same feeling where the thread from photo to photo is often thin and hard to see, but always strong and firm.

Two page spreads from Yoshiichi Hara's Mandala ZukanThere are a lot of portraits, people posing for the camera a la those we find in Arbus or Suda, projecting a sense of self that can’t help but be undermined by the camera. Vulnerability is everywhere. There are more than a few children or young people scattered throughout the book, and by contrast they almost seem self-assured. One feels the urge to protect them, shield them from the harsh world of the main of the book — but not to protect them, but to prop ourselves up, give ourselves some hope.

The book’s design plays off the contrasts between a formal, clear-cut structure (one caption page/one photo, exactly 300 photos) and the vague, polyphonic subject matter, the candid, messy nature of the photos. The cover presents a constructionist motif, yet the book’s spine has the title angling over it in a diagonal, and Hara has handwritten his name and the letters that correspond to the Chinese characters. As well, one appreciates the little touches like different colored end papers, or small snippets of what seems like Hara’s diary randomly printed on the inside fold of the dustcover.

Two page spreads from Yoshiichi Hara's Mandala ZukanMore importantly, the book is very well edited, and it’s obvious great care has been placed on how the images are sequenced, how they might resonate off of each other. A visual motif we subconsciously took in in one photo, might come back to the fore via another photograph several pages later. If there are occasionally visual puns, they are subtle, and don’t pull us out of our reverie.

What follows is a short (and silent) slide show that I hope will give you an idea of the book even as it can never really be more than that. (To view the video larger, click on the “Vimeo” mark in the bottom right hand corner of the video.) This is a book whose weight, physically (for a softcover book, it is quite heavy at over 600 pages) and of course emotionally, needs to be experienced in full, first hand. Reasonably priced used copies do come up once in a while — if you would like us to try to obtain a copy for you, please get in touch.

Dizzy Noon: An Exchange of Culture and Awkwardness as Guests Entertain Hosts

Review by John Sypal for Japan Exposures

Reflecting on an special event held on a Sunday in the mid 1960s photographer Takao Niikura writes in the afterword of his book Dizzy Noon that:

“This was a chance to enter into the “other world” just for a day, a world surrounded by a two-meter, twenty centimeter tall barbed wire fence. I grasped my camera, together with seven or eight rolls of color film, which in those days was still something of a rarity, and set out.”

Dizzy Noon, by Takao NiikuraThe world which Niikura was allowed to entered that spring day was the US Naval Air Facility Atsugi, an hour southwest of Tokyo. An airdrome built in 1938 to serve as base for fighter aircraft tasked with defending Tokyo from American bombers, it was on this runway that General Douglas MacArthur first set foot on Japanese mainland after the end of hostilities. While many Japanese photographers spent the post-war era exploring the shadow of Americanization that crept over their homeland through a foreign military presence, Niikura’s slim and charming collection eschews broad emotional depth to simply focus in on the cross cultural happenings of one particular afternoon; “Friendship Day”, the annual open house and Airshow held on base at Atsugi on May 9th, 1965.

Dizzy Noon, by Takao Niikura The book opens up directly and literally from the base gate. With one arm on the wheel of his pale blue Volkswagen beetle an American man in aviator sunglasses looks out the window while an MP looks off into the background. The Japanese national flag billows above. Once inside we’re treated to a strange land- Niikura spends a frame of a pre-war wooden building- possibly barracks or an administration building. One wonders if the beginnings of the short lived “Atsugi Revolt” in the days following the Japanese surrender were planned in one of these buildings. As Niikura makes his way deeper into the facility we’re consistently shown his interest in the kitschy oriental decor he encounters. A “traditional” Japanese style bridge spans an small and quite empty concrete pond in a grassy spot near a parking lot. Over a pay phone hangs a large watercolor of the Great Buddha in Kamakura while a sailor, with cigarette in hand, waits behind his comrade. Vivid red Shinto tore gates appear here and there in the backgrounds.

Dizzy Noon, by Takao Niikura While Shomei Tomatsu may have been ironic or even malicious in his representation of foreign servicemen, Niikura captures his Americans with a sense of bemusement. Here we a smartly dressed officer caught in awkward pose- a sandwich in one hand with a camera around his neck. Later we discover a pot-bellied Army Sargent squinting ahead while his jeep sits covered in young Japanese children. In between all the soldiers and aircraft and Jeeps and tanks Niikura keeps a steady lens on his countrymen. Japanese fathers with wives and children, all dressed in their Sunday best, cooly meander in and out of the frame. The youngest of the children obviously enjoy the chance to poke, prod, and climb on all the spotlessly clean military hardware. Little boys laugh as they sit on the wing of a jet trainer while on other pages young men snap photos with their Nikons. Visitors line up for a chance to walk through cargo plane. In one somewhat dark frame a very young brother and sister grasp the

The message of this book is situated in the faces and bodies of the adult Japanese visitors in contrast to their American ‘guests’.

propeller of a Boeing B-50, the upgraded version of the B-29, the very bomber which reduced much of urban Japan to smoldering ash twenty years before. Self assured, broad shouldered, and grinning, American men, women, and children drink 7-up and munch from bags of popcorn.

Dizzy Noon, by Takao NiikuraThe message of this book is situated in the faces and bodies of the adult Japanese visitors in contrast to their American “guests”. Perhaps no image sums this up better than the one of a father interacting with an American pilot in his flight suit (“Rus” is written on his helmet). The pilot wields the leverage in the encounter with his index finger raised as to make a point. Certainly a language barrier was at work but the father, with his son’s arm hanging on his own, listens on with his hands drawn up before him. It’s by no means a confrontational scene but the contrast in confidence is marked by the body language shown. Page after page we see Japanese visitors with hands together, an expression of reservation? No one ever really looks comfortable, not when trying to order fifteen cent hamburgers at a window in English, and certainly not when partaking in a square dance with Americans in their Roy Rodgers Western Dress shirts. Younger Japanese women group together in threes and twos as they look apprehensively at the photographer. Indeed, the only young Japanese woman we find smiling is one arm in arm with her sailor boyfriend. Often we find Japanese men standing huddled together with arms crossed looking out at the spectacle before them. All the while brand new F-4 Phantoms, soon to see action in Vietnam, sit glistening off in the distance.

Dizzy Noon, by Takao NiikuraIn the following 45 years Niikura went on to become a professional photographer and in 2010 published Dizzy Noon through Tokyo-based publisher, Sokyusha. A rather well put together little photobook, it is slim, with thirty six color images printed on a firm paper stock. It fits perfectly in your hands, just slightly taller than it is wide. The effectively simple layout respects the integrity of his 35mm frames with vertical images siting at the edge of the pages and horizontal ones centered. The book concludes with a thoughtful closing from the photographer in Japanese and English.

Dizzy Noon, by Takao NiikuraWhile enjoyable, this is a somewhat a peculiar book to find an audience for. Perhaps it is too particular to that single day it pictures to make much sense outside of its context to an international audience. On the other hand, it is charming and often entertaining. Maybe the best audience would be the Americans appearing in these photographs. I’d like to think that through the internet someone stationed at Atsugi in the mid 1960’s will come across this article and buy a copy. After all these years, they’ll be able to see how they and their home away from home appeared through a Japanese lens. I think they’d be interested in what they find.

Dizzy Noon is available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.

The moon is there, even if I am not looking at it

Review by John Sypal for Japan Exposures

The Moon, Following Me is the debut book from Emi Fukuyama, a young photographer living in Tokyo. It is an elegant, nuanced, thoughtful, and beautiful creation, the product of a highly attuned and sophisticated intelligence.

Fukuyama’s mesmerizing and beautifully reproduced photographs settle the viewer into a very distinct and particular point of view. Much fuss is made over the ideal of a “Photographic Vision” that many photographers aspire to but few actually achieve. Fukuyama is in this minority. Rather than attempting political or social commentary she is able to drive her work around a core desire to reveal visual understanding through photography. The fact that she does so without simply trying to illustrate a political concept or visual idea makes time spent with her book that much more rewarding for those interested in an aesthetic based on the delight of straight photography.

A viewer will readily see some visual patterns appear as they look through this book. Thematically her physical point of view allows for plenty of fences laced over and in frames. Various doors sit ajar and monolithic structures loom in the distance, often jutting out of a spot of lush vegetation or neatly rowed houses in the distance. Each image features some form of plant life and nearly all feature a prominent manmade object. But to reduce these images to simply being about man and nature, or even worse a ruddy celebration of the literal visual shapes they make together is to not fully understand them.

Fukuyama’s best pictures are intriguing because of more than simply what’s in the center. It’s not that what is often centered isn’t in itself interesting, but through slightly obscuring what most people may regard as the subject, the entire entity is revealed to be enhanced through her precise framing which creates a heightened awareness of how the world can be organized both in heart and in mind. A picture with a lone chair in an empty lot isn’t simply about that one chair. Three umbrellas hung out to dry is not simply a picture about umbrellas. What I personally find most engaging about this entire affair is that at no point does her technique lower itself to that of a simple gimmick. At the same time the images are never about any one thing directly pictured in them and Fukuyama steers clear of the common misconception that a photo needs to operate as some coherent narrative device. Each image is somewhat mystifying but independently strong. Bound together the effect can be a moving photographic experience.

We are not for want of lunar substitutes.

The emotional responses they may spark are from her ability to show the viewer the closest thing one might get to looking dead on at what can usually only be hinted at out the corner of an eye.

They say that wherever you go, there you are, and given the title we might expect that wherever Fukuyama is the moon ought to be as well. Interestingly enough, while the actual moon is never actually shown in a single image we are not for want of lunar substitutes. Plenty of glowing and circular shapes appear within the various frames but it may also be that the best analogy to explain an encounter with her photographs would be to liken the feeling to that of looking up at a blue morning sky before eleven to see the white moon above, that odd feeling of familiarity combined with the wonder of seeing something so terrifically beautiful off in the distance.

More work from The Moon, Following Me can be seen in a special extended Japan Exposures gallery. The photobook itself is available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.

“I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it” — Albert Einstein

Life Within Death – Nirai by Manabu Someya


You shall go on a beautiful boat.

— Farewell to the dead on Yoron Island (Amami Islands, Japan)

Put simply, a photograph reproduces what has been in front of the camera at the time of exposure, a moment in time, a selected fraction of reality. More philosophically, it also records what went on behind the camera in the photographer’s consciousness when the image was taken. These notions are now widely known and accepted.

When looking at Manabu Someya’s photographs in his book Nirai, I was instantly strongly attracted to them. My problem was to understand as to why this was the case and to write a review on them. The challenge was two-fold: not only did the above theory not seem to apply so I could find an entry-point for analysis. I also could not find the words to write about them in an appropriate manner commensurate with what I was seeing in front of me in the book.

On parts of the Sulawesi island of Indonesia, when a newborn baby dies, the body is laid inside a hole carved into a large tree, which contains a white sap like that of mother’s milk. This is to prevent the baby from ever feeling hungry. In time, the hole in the tree closes, but it is believed that the leaves that grow on the tree allow the baby’s spirit to reincarnate into a new life.

–Manabu Someya in the afterword

Reading the accompanying afterword, it became clear that the overarching theme of the work was that of life and death. Of course, this could be said for a lot of photographs we see, so what is different here? Someya has chosen tropical regions of Asia as a geographic foundation of his work. Since there are no captions with the images, we only later realise that we have seen Taiwan, Indonesia, The Philippines and Okinawa, but visually they are so well connected that any captions would have only been distracting. I have struggled to find some adjectives that would describe the work, and whatever I think of does not seem entirely adequate so the reader should not put too much weight on them. One word is “lush”, even though that is certainly not what the photographs are meant to show primarily. The exquisitely warm and brownish color palette, signs of earth and vegetation set an important fundamental tone. We are in a hot and painfully humid place here, a place that lets us move only slowly and longing for rest in the shade of a forest, surely with the expected amount of various exotic insects that would soon settle on us.

In such a climate, Life is certain to thrive. Vegetation grows quickly, trees and bushes carry rich fruit that unless harvested become the basis for more life. It is this thought that for the first time brings us nearer to life and death.

The thought of falling ill or being injured is always unpleasant, but one of my greatest personal fears is to fall ill or be wounded in a relentlessly hot and humid place, naturally without the luxury of an air-conditioned room. I remember (with quite some disgust) a documentary film by Werner Herzog, tracing the path of a sole survivor of a plane crash in a south American jungle (Wings of Hope — Ed.). The person was injured, flies and other insects promptly using the wound as breeding ground. It was promptly populated by a vast amount of maggots, which was illustrated by showing a horse with the same condition. Life is always battling with death — for more life.

You don’t need to get too philosophical to realise how inseperable the two are. What is notable is how Someya somehow seems to be able to approach such a grand theme with saying so little. I believe the key is that what is happening in front or behind the camera is really not relevant. We are finding ourselves truly immersed, not just in a visual sense, but on a very emotional level.

Nirai Kanai — a world that exists beyond the ocean

The parts of Asia we are being taken to are not just physical locations, they are a state of mind and a way of being. Humans, obviously part of nature and the great game of life, are prominently featured by means of various portraits. We understand that they also battle with death for the own lives in an environment that is so fertile and yet demanding so much from life forms inhabiting it.

The term Nirai Kanai refers to what the people of the islands of Ryukyu around Okinawa believe as a “world that exists beyond the ocean”, an otherworld that brings happiness and fertility, but also bad and evil. It is also a place where the spirits of the dead will go to when the time has come.

I aimed to visualise Nirai Kanai as a place existing in this world where we live now. This idea derived from my feeling that our lives are much too vulnerable in the state we are in today. Thus, the world of death is often perceived as being close by us, making us feel as if our spirits are ceaselessly crossing the ocean as we live our repetitive daily lives.

Nirai is a soothingly thoughtful and, within the right frame of mind, emotionally greatly accessible if not intense photo book. I very much enjoyed looking at it, and I thank Manabu Someya for producing it.

Please also see a special gallery with more images from Someya’s book.

Signed copies of Nirai are available for purchase in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.

The Built-Up Country, in Detail — Zaisyo

Review by Peter Evans for Japan Exposures.

Z aisyo means something like the country or one’s country. The photographer is Mitsuru Fujita, and this is his second photobook. The book tells us that he was born in 1934, became a freelance photographer in 1961, set up a company called Fujitaman in 1966 (man is an alternative reading of the character for Mitsuru), won various advertising awards, taught photography part time at a technical school and a university for 26 years, closed Fujitaman in 2007 to concentrate on the photographs he wanted to take, and has had a number of photo exhibitions.

Zaisyo, published by Tosei-sha in May of this year, presents about 140 monochrome photographs, reproduced 24×17.5 cm, of scenes that are almost all in the Japanese countryside, much of which (I add for readers who haven’t been there) is as densely populated as suburbia elsewhere in the world. Most were taken between 2000 and 2009, although some date back to 1995. Almost always it’s the built-up countryside, and often much of the frame is taken up by buildings less than ten meters away. (There are few distant vistas here.) No people are directly visible, even – so far as I notice – in the background. The complete absence of people might warn that the project is dogmatic and sterile, but this isn’t so: Fujita does sometimes photograph a building head on, but he works to no template: he prefers diagonals and indeed he points his camera in whichever direction he wishes.

Mitsuru Fujita, Toujin, Saga City, January, 2007 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Toujin, Saga City, January, 2007 — from Zaisyo

Fujita seems to like old-fashioned buildings: those covered with wooden slats, and traditional earthern warehouse kura. But he also clearly likes corrugated iron. What with the rust, dark clouds, puddles and little pick-up trucks, this book is no tourist souvenir. Yet there’s no insistence on age, wear, the vernacular or even the rural: on p.53 is a glass-fronted building in Saga City. (Right next to the building is the entrance to a temple, however.) And there’s also no insistence on architectural quality, oddity, authenticity or a conventionally pleasing ensemble: on p.69 for example is charmless nowheresville, a view redeemed by a dark sky. Yet anonymity is outweighed by quiddity: the one view (p.71) of Tokyo shows what appears to be a suburban fortress, incongruously supporting a prefabricated house of modest size with an imitation exposed timber frame.

The complete absence of people might warn that the project is dogmatic and sterile, but Fujita works to no template — indeed he points his camera in whichever direction he wishes.

I lack the expertise to say whether the printing (by Toppan) is duotone, tritone, quad-tone or something else, but it’s excellent and it’s easily good enough for the non-fetishist. The grey isn’t grey, exactly; instead, it has an hint of gold for an appealingly warm tone to the whole. (Only a hint – there’s no “sepia” for canned nostalgia.) And the resolution is so fine that you’d be able to see any grain visible on prints of the same size.

Mitsuru Fujita, Gojo, Nara Prefecture, January, 2003 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Gojo, Nara Prefecture, January, 2003 — from Zaisyo

Yet there seems to be no grain. Depopulated townscapes are of course the province of view cameras, and indeed there’s sign of lens shifting for perspective correction. The angle of view seems to be wide, sometimes very wide, and I started to wonder what gadgetry had produced it. This isn’t mentioned in the short preface by Fujita, or, it seems, in either of the substantial afterwords by the photographer Osamu Kanemura and a Mr. Hayashi. (Indeed, Kanemura seems not to mention the work or its creator, though he does have a paragraph on Gregor Samsa.) However, googling brought blog commentary that said Fujita had used an 11×14 camera. Fujita’s first book, Ki‑ryo 羈旅 (2000), does show and describe the equipment he used. Sure enough, 11×14: film size 355×280 mm, image size 345×265 mm. For that earlier book he used a 165 mm and a 210 mm lens (divide by ten for the rough equivalent at 36×24mm). The camera weighed 11.8 kg and five film holders added 11.6 kg. If this is what he used for Zaisyo too, then the reproductions in it are about half the size of mere contact prints. With today’s emulsions, it’s not obvious why 5×7, let alone 8×10, isn’t enough for anything other than bragging rights; but anyway this man deserves a floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography to exhibit thundering great silver gelatines of what we see miniaturized in the book.

Aside from the information it gives us, the earlier book merits a look. Ki‑ryo is B4 format, so the reproductions are bigger than in Zaisyo. But Zaisyo has almost three times as many of them, and is less than half the price. (And the reproductions in Ki‑ryo lack the hint of gold that subtly helps Zaisyo.) Best of all, the work itself in Zaisyo is on average more interesting than that in Ki‑ryo. For Ki‑ryo, Fujita mixed material similar to that in Zaisyo with head-on portrayals of Famous Buildings (and Ancient Trees) that – with apologies to Eiji Ina (Emperor of Japan) – I already get quite enough of in old postcards. So even aside from value for money, Zaisyo is the first choice.

Mitsuru Fujita, Ogi, Niigata Prefecture, September, 2000 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Ogi, Niigata Prefecture, September, 2000 — from Zaisyo

And so back to Zaisyo. It provides at least five Y-junctions (pp. 13, 31, 72, 75, 92) for your inner Yokoo. As well as the timber, corrugated iron and asphalt, you get individual private houses, riverfronts, and even the occasional viaduct (p.39) and station platform (p.57). The mood often tends to the melancholy, but it’s rarely if ever bleak: the sun does shine in numerous pages. There’s plenty of detail to draw you back. Every photograph is inconspicuously but clearly captioned on the page, so you don’t have to keep flipping to and from the back; yet in the back there’s also a list of photographs so you can quickly see what’s on offer from, say, Okayama prefecture. Though the book is covered in cardboard rather than cloth, it’s well bound in sewn signatures. As the colophon is in English as well as Japanese it’s odd that nothing else – captions, preface, afterwords – is in anything other than Japanese. If you can put up with this absence and you appreciate black and white views of the stuff of man-made Japan, this book is for you.

Please also see our extended gallery of images from Zaisyo. Signed copies of the book itself are available in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.

Peter Evans lives in Tokyo, among piles of photobooks.

Hideo Takiura’s Tokyo Products

Due in part to the heat, and in part from being extremely busy of late, I haven’t been able to take in as many photo exhibitions as I would like. However, when I received a postcard advertising Hideo Takiura’s latest show, “Tokyo Products”, I knew that this was one show I would make a special effort for. And I’m glad I did.

The show, currently at the Konica Minolta gallery in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward until August 10th, features work shot by him over a 10 year period. You may remember that back in April Japan Exposures featured work from Takiura entitled “Tokyo Bodies”. Both that series, and the work currently on show, were shot at the same time. However, when he began to shape the work into a series and ultimately his first photo book (also Tokyo Bodies), he focused on the “street photography” aspect where random strangers formed the central subject. However, for this show and a new photo book, Tokyo Products, there are no people present in any of the shots.

I say that there are no people, and on the surface that is very much true, but in reality, the people are everywhere — their presence is unmistakeable. This presence manifests itself in two ways: on the one hand, what often attracts Takiura’s eyes are shapes and scenes that bear a human-like quality (for example, a rubber glove stuck on the end of a pipe on the side of a building conjures up with nary a leap a human arm and hand); and on the other hand, Takiura is constantly providing us with scenes literally man-made, as if he had snapped the scene just after a set designer had finished setting it up (for example, an old washing machine that has now become an impromptu plant holder, or a shot of a door with two wires inexplicably snaking out from the door’s mail slot).

Like most photographers exhibiting their work there was a statement on the wall that Takiura wrote. To be quite honest, I rarely read these, whether they are in English or in Japanese. But this one was so short I was intrigued. Beyond what it said — something to the effect of “when I walk around I often notice that the landscapes and scenes I pass resemble something human, or on the other hand, perhaps they don’t” — what I thought was significant was that this statement was placed in such a way that it could have easily been missed, and in fact I didn’t see it until I had seen the entire show. Not surprisingly, Takiura confirmed to me later that he would rather not write anything and let the photos speak for themselves, but in the end bowed to a feeling that visitors might feel empty without some explanatory text, however oblique (and obliquely displayed) it might be.

Hideo Takiura

I felt fortunate to meet Takiura at the gallery. Previously we had corresponded via e-mail regarding selling his book and featuring his work on Japan Exposures, and it was clear from those interactions that he is very serious not just about the work itself but how that work is positioned, talked about, and put into context. Part of those email discussions revolved around the fact that Takiura would prefer that the work be judged on its own merits, rather than in comparison to other photographers. So, it was with some trepidation that I suggested to him — in response to his genuine query as to whether overseas photography viewers would understand work that didn’t feature any people in it — that his photographs in this current series reminded me of Hiroh Kikai’s two “Tokyo labyrinth” books (here and here). That is to say, beyond the superficial square format that both works share, there is a humor and irony in what both choose to capture, and that to my mind at least these “still lifes” of Takiura’s interact and resonate with his street photography in much the same way that I find Kikai’s people-less Tokyo cityscapes bounce off and inform (or are informed by) his better known “Asakusa Portraits” work. (For his part, Takiura was non-committal to this comparison, as I expected he would be.)

In person I found Takiura to be humble and soft-spoken yet with very clear, well-considered opinions that he no doubt had formed over a long period of taking pictures and thinking about photography. But by the same token, he was very keen to get my opinion on the photographs or on particular aspects of the exhibition. One thing that is very apparent from listening to Takiura is that this — taking photos, and publishing these books — is very much a labor of love. By that I don’t just mean that he doesn’t make money from these endeavors — although clearly he doesn’t — but that rather money or recognition doesn’t seem to interest him in the slightest. He wants to takes pictures, as time and the mundane business of making a living (from photography, but not his own) allow, and he wants to show them to people, both in shows like the current one (although I get the impression these exhibits are fairly “one-off”) and more importantly, in the two books he has so far self-published.

Hideo Takiura - Tokyo Bodies and Tokyo Products Photo BooksIn early June, Takiura’s Tokyo Bodies photo book was featured as one of 60 self-published photobooks at the “Self Publish, Be Happy” 2-day event held at the Photographer’s Gallery in London and organized by Bruno Ceschel. Takiura was candid with me that he could very easily pay one of the handful of small photography publishing houses a tidy sum to publish his work under their imprint (in Japan, the prevailing model is artists pay publishers to publish a book of their work, not the other way around), but has chosen not to. Aside from being cheaper to do it himself, there is the much more important aspect of control — Takiura is a control freak in the best possible sense of the phrase, and for him not only the editing but also the design, and the look and feel of the book, are especially paramount. No surprise then that the new work Tokyo Products is again of the same, considered design as Tokyo Bodies, with Takiura even going so far as to design a slipcase that will house both of them.

Before taking my leave, Takiura pulled out his camera, the one he used to take all these Tokyo “portraits”, the only camera he uses for his personal work — a pre-war Rolleiflex with Tessar lens (sorry, didn’t get the specific model, but this is one of the early Rolleiflexes with the “Rolleiflex” on the nameplate in an old semi-cursive font, not the later boxier font). While it’s true that these tools should hardly make a difference, I can’t deny that seeing this 75-plus year old camera, so obviously lovingly looked after, and seeing the excellent work on the walls that it had a small hand in producing, and meeting the humble but assured Takiura, who had of course the biggest hand in all this, heartened me to no end as I went back out into Tokyo’s sticky summer heat.

Both Tokyo Bodies and Tokyo Products are available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.