Category Archives: Review

Reviews of photographs, books and other topics of interest

Photography in Japan 1853-1912

As the old saying goes: “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Then again, while reading Terry Bennett’s fascinating book “Photography in Japan 1853-1912”, historic repetition seems almost inevitable as despite developments in society and technology, human nature is hardly changing at all and distinct personalities are thriving to define key moments in history.

The book, which is digestibly structured in portions of decades, starts out with a fireworks of “firsts”. The first photograph taken in Japan, the first photograph taken of a Japanese, the first photograph taken by a Japanese, the first photo studio by Japanese and foreigners alike and even the first Paparazzo-type shot of a ruling Japanese Emperor. These events, however , are simply the correlation with developments of Japan as a whole. Photography is a side-effect of political and geo-political developments in Asia at a greater scale. We soon realise that this book is not only fascinating for the reader interested in photography alone, but provides ample historic and cultural context on Japan as a place as well. This is much appreciated and holds some surprises, even for those of us who think of ourselves as being familiar with it. For example, I was surprised that in those days it was prohibited for any Japanese to leave the country. Violations would be punished by execution. You can perhaps imagine (and this is covered in the book) the treatment of foreigners by the armed population.

Japanese Wrestlers by T. Enami

Above: Japanese Wrestlers by T. Enami

Photography is always as much a technological phenomenon as it is a sociological one, perhaps even more so and even today. It should therefore not surprise anyone that the advance of photography in Japan is primarily driven by the rise of the medium in English-speaking countries, which is to say the United States and the British Empire. In these cultures, photography always seemed to have a special position. With a few exceptions, British and American residents are also the key persons bringing photography, sometimes on the sidelines of other engineering activity, into Japan. In an age where only the privileged were able to travel themselves, but the masses knew that the wider world existed, there was an enormous appetite for pictures taken in far-flung places. While our view focuses on Japan in this case, this is probably by no means exclusive to Japan.

The developments in trade, and especially maritime trade, make the arrival of photography on the sidelines of the forced opening of the country seem completely inevitable. The treaty forced into effect by Perry’s Black Ships triggered, what seemed like a primitive isolated jungle tribe to be propelled into modern civilisation as if a fast-forward button was pressed. It is fascinating to think about how much intellectual potential laid untapped during the feudal era Japan that ended in the 1850s.

Edward Meyer Kern, American Cemetery, Gyokusen-Ji Temple, Shimoda, Japan ca 1855

Edward Meyer Kern, American Cemetery, Gyokusen-Ji Temple, Shimoda, Japan ca 1855

As one would expect, the early photographic activities are dominated by Western technology and personalities. In the course of a relatively short time — how appropriate for photographic history — a transition is made that put the medium into Japanese hands under Japanese cultural terms. It is a perfect adoption process at which end photography is comfortably embedded and placed into the Japanese cultural fabric, of course as one would expect it to occur in other cultures too. There is no further need for the rest of the world to steer the course of developments. This seems like an obvious truth that can also applied to other disciplines, but here photography serves as a suitable case study. There is one aspect, that Bennett occasionally highlights, which is to separate technical ability from artistic ability. These are, unsurprisingly, up to this day two different things in photography, in any culture.

Tuttle-Photography-in-Japan-1853-1912

The book is a fascinating treasure trove of information and artifacts, which I found surprisingly engaging and entertaining for the reader. The lifestyles and work ethics of the personalities involved make it a very vivid read. True to the somewhat ephemeral nature of photography itself, there are constant reminders on the perilous Japanese environs and the vulnerability of the photographic medium. Earthquakes and, above all, fires and more fires cause an entire artistic legacy to be lost forever. Add to that the curious practice of studios buying other photographers’ works and marketing them as their own and you are set up for a never-ending mystery filled with conundrums around who did what and under what name! And more often than not, a sparkling career is ended by, what nowadays seem like trivial illnesses or conditions that were capable of ending someone’s life. I was relieved to observe that life expectations increased over time and by the end of the book, there is the odd personality getting over 90 years old, whereas around 50 years seemed to be more common in the 1850s.

Once more regarding the repetition of history: the improvement of image quality afforded by 19th century photography, you can easily find yourself looking into the eyes of people, and to some extent scenery, that belie the fact that they existed over 100 years ago. Personalities, their desires and goals, their practices and methods do not seem to have changed enough to make it appear that it happened a long time ago. Perhaps not even the now dominating digital photography and the distribution means of the internet are really changing this — we might well be in the 1850s of the digital age right now. The photographic activities we see are just the manifestation of what has always been there and what we want photography to be for us.

Japan Exposures would like to thank Tuttle Publishing for their support during this review.

Top photo: Kusakabe Kimbei (1841-1934) circa 1880 location Yokohama, Japan hand painted albumen print

Going Deeper – Kaiiki by Hitoshi Uemoto

Kaiiki, by Hitoshi UemotoI have to confess I had never heard that along with the well-known kamikaze suicide air pilots, the Japanese military had also employed suicide divers, human land mines, suicide boats, and manned torpedoes as they desperately tried to reverse their worsening fortunes in the last months of World War II. It is the manned torpedo program that forms the backdrop for Hiroshi Uemoto’s poignant Kaiiki, although its poignancy is a subtle one not readily apparent upon first view.

This isn’t a historical or documentarian look at Imperial Japan’s suicide mission program or the soldiers tasked with carrying out their tragic missions, but rather a book of landscapes, or more precisely seascapes. Nor is the sea Uemoto photographs — specifically the Seto Inland Sea, where the Imperial Navy maintained three training sites for their manned torpedo program — a rough, violent one that could help illustrate such an emotionally fraught act as sacrificing your life for a stipulated greater good. The sea we’re presented with is a disturbingly calm one, where the trail of a speeding fishing boat is the most violent thing that can be seen.

The photographs contained in the book are all in the square format, and masterfully composed. The square aids in enforcing a defined stillness, although within the square the distances and scope of the seascape and shoreline are not inconsequential. There is an expansiveness — and a surprising amount of variety — to Uemoto’s framing. The approach is much like the Seto Inland Sea itself, which is semi-enclosed (see a map here) and in many ways more like a large lake than a sea. (The Japanese title 海域 kaiiki translates to “sea area” or “waters”, as in the expression “territorial waters”.)

Kaiiki, by Hitoshi Uemoto

Although as mentioned there is a lot of variety in how Uemoto presents the Sea, there is also in the editing of the book a deliberate repeating of certain vistas, scenes shot perhaps at slightly different angles, or with slightly different foreground or background elements, where we can’t be certain whether they are of the same place or not. This has the effect — like that of the square — of keeping us mentally boxed in. Not in a negative or aggressive way, but to say, let’s stay here for a while, perhaps there’s more here than meets the eye, perhaps these views have stories to tell us if only we can have the patience to look, and listen.

The photos are almost all dark and moody, some almost impenetrably so, and many feature heavy cloud cover or foggy haze. Many may have been shot at night, although this isn’t obvious. In lesser hands this darkness could easily push the viewer to frustration rather than wonder. (The publisher Sokyusha deserves kudos for the masterful printing of what couldn’t have been easy material to work with.) But here this darkness also draws us inward, compelling us to look further, make sure we haven’t missed anything, playing upon our natural inclination to suspect there must be things lurking in the shadows.

Kaiiki, by Hitoshi Uemoto

It’s not in the shadows, of course, but that which lurks under the sea’s surface, that contains the mystery, and the suspicion that all may not be well here. A more tangible guide to what underlies all these seascapes is the handful of non-seascapes that Uemoto includes in the book, say of tunnels that must have served some military use or the one shot of a torpedo, most likely one displayed in connection with the Kaiten Memorial Museum that is located on Otsushima island, the main training site for the kaiten program. These work well to hint that this is not simply a book of landscapes, that there is a larger purpose at work, while for the most part remaining subtle enough so as to not derail the overall mood of the book. (My one bone to pick with the book is the slight tonal misstep of including two photos of a group of figures walking through the tunnels. They are probably high school boys on a school excursion, but their school uniforms give them a slightly military air and the connection is a bit too obvious for my tastes.)

Kaiiki, by Hitoshi Uemoto

Uemoto provides an afterword (available, along with a map of the area, in English in addition to Japanese) that gives a brief background of the kaiten program. In this day and age of agenda-inflected buzzwords, “suicide bomber” is a hard concept to come to grips with without the corresponding invective, but if we separate the men who carried out their training and eventual suicidal missions from the authorities who dictated them, it is difficult to fathom the psychological turmoil these young men must have been going through as they looked out from the island out onto the sea. As Uemoto writes, “I could not possibly convey here just how taut their state of mind must have been at the time. Yet the color of the sea and the aspect of the island remain unchanged today.”

There is such an obviousness to the latter statement, and yet reading this I was taken aback a bit. Of course, but for minor details here and there, the sea we gaze upon through Uemoto’s lens is the same one these young men looked upon. It is the constant and steadfastly innocent party to that which man has chosen to do with what it wants to.

Kaiiki, by Hitoshi Uemoto

Uemoto also uses the afterword to tell us a bit of he came to photograph on Otsushima. He writes that it was one of the first places he went to when he took up photography in the mid-1970s as he looked for something to shoot, but that he was unprepared to reconcile his relatively comfortable upbringing with that of the young men who prepared to die there some 30 years earlier. Comparing himself at that time to them, he writes:

[…]I recall feeling pathetic for having come of age during Japan’s economic growth spurt (that is, an era of materialism and greed) and I departed the island as if to flee from it. Now, approaching my sixtieth year, I am finally visiting this island again, feeling that I may now be able to direct my camera at it.

One can only wish more young photographers would flee from their chosen subjects in such a manner, for the intervening years and maturity have helped Uemoto produce a measured and reflective work of subtlety and craft that, much like the usually placid water surface Uemoto has captured, invites us deeper, but doesn’t submerge us.


Kaiiki is available in the Japan Exposures book shop.

Discovering the Sensei Through the Pupil

Taiji Arita - from First Born
Photo by Taiji Arita. Courtesy of Gallery 916.

Whenever I stumble upon, through old books or more often than not these days online, photographers of the past that were previously unknown to me, I feel a heightened sense of excitement. Excitement is of course common to the discovery of new up-and-coming photographers, but there’s an added thrill to come upon photographers who for one reason or another weren’t on my radar, yet who amassed long careers, were published, exhibited, written about at one time. It’s as if they were right under my nose but I went right when I should have gone left, or put the book back on the shelf instead of flipping one more page, leaving them to wait a bit more in obscurity.

A couple of weeks ago I clicked one more link on a web page and discovered Taiji Arita, who passed away last year at the age of 70. Arita (1940-2011) was a commercial and freelance photographer who had studied under Yasuhito Ishimoto and had worked in the 1960s at the Nippon Design Center advertising agency alongside other well-known photographers like Yutaka Takanashi and Hajime Sawatari. Arita would continue working commercially as a photographer through the 70s and 80s, but eventually turned his creative energy to painting and woodworking, moving permanently to the United States in 1991 and spending the last 20 years of his life there without returning to Japan.1

The famed Camera Mainichi editor Shōji Yamagishi encouraged Arita’s creative photography and from 1969 – 1975 he worked on the series of family portraits that would eventually be published over 13 issues of Camera Mainichi from May 1973 to September 1974 under the title “First Born”. The photos featured his Canadian first wife Jessica, and eventually the son Cohen they had as well. Now, the extended body of this work is being shown at Gallery 916, a relatively new exhibition space for photography in Tokyo. (If you’re in the city, the exhibition runs until December 28.)

[Please see the accompanying article about Gallery 916. — Editor]

I found the exhibition at Gallery 916 a bit hard to get into initially — the large exhibition space of the gallery combined with the relative smallness of the prints certainly was detrimental here, as was the fact that the early work in the series had a bit too much hippy-dippy-ness for me. (I kept conjuring up scenes from Zabriskie Point, or closer to home, Ikko Narahara’s Celebration of Life (1972)). However, as Arita began to place his wife in more contrived setups, and particularly when their newborn son began to be included, the series started to lose its late 60s trappings, becoming less a celebration of the body and sexuality and familial-ity and more a carefully constructed exploration of a complex triumvirate, Arita the unseen member we end up feeling we know as well as his wife and son. It is those images where the pose itself — that of his family-cum-models, the props, the conceptual thought — and the messy intimacy of family, are indistinguishable.

Photo by Taiji Arita
Photo by Taiji Arita. Taken from the accompanying catalog.

The photos where the son takes center stage are especially powerful, though not without an accompanying irritation at Arita for playing on our emotions. In one photo we see the baby boy in his carriage at the edge of the frame, while the background is a barren landscape with what looks like a massive concrete “A” on fire a seemingly unsafe distance away — with only some of his mother’s winter coat visible to let us know he’s not alone. (In fact we reasonably know he’s never alone — after all his father is taking the photo.) In another he’s in his child seat, this time mother nowhere to be seen — though one has to look carefully, for Arita loves the subtle inclusion of figures through reflections and shadows — and almost completely obscured by a curtain that looks to have blown on top of him. The image is at once serene, the translucency of the curtain showing a swaddled, calm toddler, and violent, the curtain ready to strangle a trapped, defenseless boy.

Amidst so many dark, carefully crafted photos, the most affecting image for me is one of the relatively few color ones in the series, a photo of real aching and tender beauty. Jessica is outside of the house in a rustic setting, hands on the glass window, looking in on the sun-dappled room as her baby boy is caught mid-crawl, his oversized head looking away, but with an expression almost uncannily similar to his mother’s. She temporarily outside her life, outside her model-ness, her motherhood — we can’t even be sure she’s at that moment actually looking at her child, so deeply in thought she seems — gazing in on a life (her’s, his) already beginning to recede away from her.

Photo by Taiji Arita
Photo by Taiji Arita. Courtesy of Gallery 916.
It stands out from the other photos in part because it seems one of the least staged — it can’t be staged, one feels the need to assure oneself. We’ll never know of course, but perhaps to wonder is to miss the point: Arita’s ultimate staging ground is not the rooms or the props, but the four walls of the frame.

The critic Kotaro Iizawa has written an excellent introduction to the exhibition which the gallery has made available on their site in both Japanese and English. Iizawa speaks to what must have been a creative relationship fraught with conflicting roles, especially as the series entered its later period:

Particularly among the later “First Born” shots are a number marked by a palpable tension, and an excessively staged look in reaction to it, to the extent that some of the images verge on the painful. Conversely, the feat of strength required to negotiate such a tightrope of emotions is perhaps the series’ greatest attraction.

According to the gallery, the original intention was to mount Arita’s own prints from the 1970s. However, they were deemed not sufficiently preserved enough for an exhibition of this size.2 Instead, in an interesting twist, photographer Yoshihiko Ueda, who along with G/P Gallery director Shigeo Goto serves as Curatorial Director of 916, and who had served as an assistant to Arita in the early 80s before striking out on his own (he refers to him as “sensei” in a note in the exhibition catalog), took it upon himself to reprint the photographs that ended up in the exhibition. Ueda’s personal dedication to this task is of course admirable, but not necessarily dilemma free. He is not a hired craftsperson approaching this with a detached professionalism, but rather as a successful photographer with his own distinct vision mounting a show of the prints by his former mentor in a gallery he co-curates. “He was a photographer I loved,” writes Ueda.

Quinault is perhaps Ueda’s best known work outside of Japan, shot in the early 90s in the Quinault Rain Forest west of Seattle. It is not taking anything away from the work to describe it as one that works with limited tonal variations. His black and white portrait work that I have seen has a similar flatness to it, faces and figures barely raising themselves off the paper they’re printed on.

The prints on show at Gallery 916 do seem to have a distinctive Ueda-esque quality to them, a lovely subtlety of tonality to them where the figures, the faces, and above all the small details in the scenes are slowly discovered by the viewer over time. Not having seen the original Arita prints, nor any of the Camera Mainichi issues the work originally appeared in, I can’t comment on whether Ueda has enhanced the original work or hindered it in some way — whether, in the parlance of adaptation, Ueda has been faithful to the original, and to his sensei.

To speak to this tangling of sensei and student roles, and the intermingling of styles, it might be illustrative to look at Ueda’s series at Home that was shot from 1993-2005 and collected in the 2006 book of the same name. Spanning 13 years, from when he married actress Karen Kirishima through to the birth of their 4th child, Ueda documented his family. Document is perhaps too strong — these were family snapshots first and foremost (albeit taken by a very accomplished photographer). As Ueda writes,

The compulsive quest of my youth for total perfectionism, power and beauty was giving way to a need to engage with the uncontrollably boisterous glow of daily life, to notice, accept and above all to treasure the ordinary yet unrepeatable events before my eyes, to capture small slices of the fun.

Yoshihiko Ueda -- at Home
Yoshihiko Ueda — at Home. Published in 2006 by Little More.

It was only much later that the work formed itself into a series as such and became a book only at the behest of a publisher. There certainly isn’t the edge you find in many of Arita’s photos, and yet for all of Ueda’s “boisterous glow of daily life”, it isn’t without sadness and pain. (This comes through much more in the heavily edited set of photos presented on Ueda’s site than it does in the far larger selection of photos presented in the book, it has to be said.) But it isn’t anything remotely like the contrived and artful darkness we find in Arita’s series.3

So in terms of intention and approach, Arita’s and Ueda’s two “family” series couldn’t be further apart. Nor is it a given that Ueda was in any overt way conscious of his mentor’s earlier series as he took his family snaps. But the terrain is common enough to both to make one intrigued as to how Ueda must have felt as he negotiated this re-printing of Arita’s “First Born”, no doubt with the best intentions of paying homage to his former sensei and doing the original work “justice” — another loaded term like “faithful” that implies a value judgment.

Sacrosanct notions of “original” and “faith” seem misplaced here. Rather than sifting through the messy intersections of influence and inspiration, reproduction and reworking, I prefer to view this convergence of styles, themes, and teacher-pupil roles more as a collaboration, unwitting obviously on the part of one — or perhaps both, for this balancing act could not have been easy for Ueda, who says as much when he writes that he “battled for almost two months in the darkroom with photos left by my teacher.”

In his essay Iizawa expresses regret that Arita never really went further than his “First Born” series, or pursued photography in any meaningful way in subsequent years, while at the same time wondering if “the very absence of such a follow-up offering could also be what allows this series to retain its rare brilliance.” That last bit seems overly fanciful to me, suggesting as it does that Arita spared us from being let down by ending on a high note. That he didn’t do more with photography is perhaps regrettable, but rather selfish on our part. By all accounts Arita suffered no similar regrets as he channeled his creativity into painting and woodworking, leaving his “first born” to the past as he moved on, both in the context of family — we know he remarried in 1984 — and art. Fortunately for us, this hasn’t stopped the work from being re-discovered, or discovered anew, and his former pupil Yoshihiko Ueda deserves our gratitude for his part in that.



1. This period of Arita’s career is covered in a recently-published book entitled PURE – Taiji Arita in California: Life and Work.

2. Incidentally, the “First Born” portfolio of 68 photographs is owned by Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo, Japan, as part of their permanent collection.

3. I think an argument — and further investigation — could be made about the difference in tone having something to do with Arita’s first wife being a Canadian, an “other”, whereas Ueda’s wife is not only Japanese, but a well-known actress at that.

The Spacious Warmth of Gallery 916

Gallery 916
Gallery 916 — even the entrance feels spacious.

The other day I was surfing online and I came across a new to me photography gallery just by chance. I was intrigued because one, it had earlier this year staged a Ralph Gibson exhibition, and two, I noticed that Yoshihiko Ueda, who is a well-established photographer both commercially and artistically, was serving as co-curator along with Shigeo Goto, a figure I’m familiar with through the G/P Gallery in Ebisu where he serves as Chief Director as well as a previous association with Gallery Punctum Photo+Graphix Tokyo(sadly no longer open). Seeing as their upcoming exhibition was work by a Japanese photographer I had not previously heard of, it seemed the opportune time to tick off two boxes in one shot.

Gallery 916 -- The building exterior
Gallery 916 — The building exterior. Look for the shell.

Opening its doors in February of this year, Gallery 916 is in the district of Tokyo called Hamamatsuchō, an area not normally associated with galleries. The space is on the 5th floor of a big warehouse-y building, and were it not for a small sign for the gallery near the entrance to the building, I would have assumed I was in the wrong place. It’s quite common in places like San Francisco or New York to have galleries in these kind of industrial warehouse-type spaces, but not all that common here in Tokyo.1 The gallery space itself is huge — 600-square-meters apparently — leading me to wonder if it isn’t now the largest photography gallery in Tokyo.

Though admittedly it’s not a place most would consider warm and intimate, especially on the cold and rainy day I visited, the gallery felt heartwarming somehow, knowing that such a large and relatively unadorned, unpretentious space was being given over to photography.

Gallery 916 - Building entrance
Gallery 916 — The building entrance, with hard to spot gallery sign.

In size it felt like one of Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography’s exhibition spaces, but sans the obligatory museum shop, coat check, silent black-suited watchers making sure you don’t touch anything, and most importantly, any admission charge, much more relaxing.

Exhibitions held at the gallery so far have been one-artist shows running between six to eight weeks in duration. Both the Gibson and Arita exhibitions have been accompanied by substantial exhibition catalogs normally not seen from galleries2, and in its catalogs and on its clean, well-designed website, English translations of critical essays and biographical information are given equal footing with the Japanese. (Well-translated English it should be noted, which is far from a given in Japan). [Both the Ralph Gibson and Taiji Arata exhibition catalogs are available in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.]

Of course such a large space does not come without its challenges, number one I’m sure being to remain a financially viable concern for its backers. But there are challenges for the Ueda/Goto curating team as well.

Gallery 916 - Interior
Gallery 916 — The main room.

On view when I visited was a series of photos by the relatively obscure Taiji Arita from the late 60s/early 70s, for whom Ueda once served as an assistant. The prints were not large, and it felt a struggle sometimes for the photos not to be completely dominated by the space. No doubt the curators are aware that a space this large will not be appropriate for just any work, and care will be needed to select photography that works best in the space. Alternatively, perhaps occasionally the space will need to be changed — closing off the two spaces in the back that lead off the main hall, for example — for some exhibits.

[See our accompanying review of the Taiji Arita “First Born” exhibition being held at Gallery 916. — Editor]

Gallery 916 -- Interior two
Gallery 916 — Lots of room to play with.

In its first year, two of the five exhibitions were of Ueda’s work. This may well be part of the arrangement, for all I know. But certainly from the neutral’s perspective, one will hope that this is more a gallery served by Ueda’s creative vision rather than the other way around.

That said, having co-curators of Ueda and Goto’s standing, approaching the gallery from the differing perspectives of photographer and curator respectively, leaves what appears to be have been an excellent start in good stead. It remains to be seen what will come in 2013, but I for one am looking forward to it.



1. The Kiyosumi Gallery Complex, which houses Taka Ishii, Hiromi Yoshii and ShugoArts, among others, is an obvious exception.

2. The old Min Gallery and the current Zen Foto Gallery being two worthy exceptions that come to mind.

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

Dizzy Noon, by Takao Niikura 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.