Tag Archives: 山岸 章二

Discovering the Sensei Through the Pupil

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 Paths of Photography: Asphalt

When you hear the term photo magazine, it is difficult to not immediately jump onto the association of a colorful, glossy and above all, camera- and ad-guzzling publication we are all too familiar with. However, when Atsushi Fujiwara, photographer, photo studio manager and publisher of Asphalt contacted us to present the photo magazine he is publishing, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Fujiwara left behind a successful career and sold off a chain of restaurants he had started up, to venture into the world of photography by opening a hire photo studio catering for high end advertising and commercial photography clients. Since he has no formal background in photography, he has the benefit of an open mind when looking at other photographers. Looking at the commercial work going on in the studio on a daily basis, he started wondering about what else photography could be other than depicting a carefully arranged world in front of the camera for commercial purposes.

One night, he went to Golden Gai in Shinjuku [a famous stretch of small bars and restaurants that started life as a black market area in the period immediately following World War II, and the remnants of 60-year-old barracks can still be found among the bars on the street — Ed.]. In the bar kodoji, a legendary bohemian hangout in the 1960s for photographers like Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, he met by chance Shin-ichiro Tojimbara. Tojimbara graduated from Tokyo Visual Art College as a student of Moriyama and was “tasked” by his former teacher to “take over the next generation of photographers”. Tojimbara was keen to establish a forum or platform for upcoming photographers in Japan, but due to several factors, not least a mental illness with occasional fits, was looking for collaborators. The two connected instantly and decided to found a photography magazine — this was the birth of Asphalt. The pair approached two other photographers as contributors and started working on issue #1.

Hasegawa, Fujiwara (left to right)

Then another acquaintance of Tojimbara entered the scene: photo editor Akira Hasegawa, who had just retired, was asked spontaneously whether he would be interested in editing the magazine. To Tojimabara’s and Fujiwara’s surprise, he agreed.

Hasegawa was the editor for the well-known and now very collectible Asahi Sonorama Shashinshu series of 27 books published in the late 1970s. In addition to that series, Hasegawa edited some of the most famous milestones of Japanese photobooks: A Journey to Nakaji (仲治への旅) and Tono Story (遠野物語) by Daido Moriyama, Heisei Gannen (平成元年) by Nobuyoshi Araki, and Solitude of Ravens (カラス) by Masahisa Fukase, just to name a few. His editorial influence can still be felt by a wide crop of current editors and publishers such as Michitaka Ota of Sokyu-sha, who refers to Hasegawa as his sempai (‘senior’ or ‘superior’ — Ed.).

The Asphalt team hoped that a famous editor would be helpful in pulling in some of the big names of Japanese photography, but that was the last thing on Hasegawa’s mind. He was more interested in finding quality “no-names” instead, as well as provide a stronger direction on the selection and presentation of new photography.

The Asphalt concept will be exhausted eventually and there is no need to carry it forward indefinitely.

While Asphalt’s early concept was simply to bring together their own material and that of other photographers they know and to produce more a photo book than a magazine to the best of their editorial and commercial ability, upon Hasegawa’s joining from issue #2 the concept of two regulars, one guest was introduced. Hasegawa was also eager to expand the cultural horizon, which meant looking at emerging photography outside of Japan such as from China and Korea. His main motivation is to provide an improved view onto the Japanese and Asian photographic landscape and give guidance to the next generation of photographers. Asphalt was his vehicle of choice to pursue his objective.

Hasegawa has been working to reach an international audience for Japanese and Asian photography for almost 50 years. During its heyday, he was working with Shōji Yamagishi at Camera Mainichi, the most influential monthly photography magazine in post-war Japan. Even though much of the editorial content of Camera Mainichi was devoted to the usual news and reviews of cameras, lenses, and other equipment, from the start it was a space for first-rate and unconventional photography and this editorial work was perfected under Yamagishi. Yamagishi was a friend of John Szarkowski, the director of the photography division at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at a time when not a single person outside of Japan seemed to know anything about Japanese photography. In close collaboration they worked to mount two milestone exhibitions in New York, “New Japanese Photography” (Museum of Modern Art, 1974) and “Japan, a Self-Portrait” (International Center of Photography, 1979). As ground-breaking as Szarkowski’s pioneer work has been, Hasegawa believes that it still has not led to a full understanding of Japanese photography in the West.

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but if you think sceneries in Paris back in the early 20th century look beautiful and sceneries in Tokyo in early 21st century look ugly, then you have no idea what photography is all about. Photographs capture reality before anything else. As long as we live in cities such as this one, taking your eyes off of its scenery is just another attempt to drift away from what is real.

— Akira Hasegawa, in his introduction to Asphalt III

Right from its conception, Asphalt was created with the intention to produce a finite series of just ten issues. The three believe that the concept, as it stands now, will be exhausted eventually and there is no need to carry it forward indefinitely. As an experienced entrepreneur Fujiwara was also mindful of the fact that apart from creative and artistic concept, the long term continuation of the project was crucial to its overall success. Like a group of friends who join up to establish a band or other creative group, the project usually stalls or fails after the first attempts of producing output, even though it may be an initial success. Conceptual disagreements and battling egos will threaten the long-term sustainability of such a venture, not to mention financial responsibilities and obligations. Therefore the group was keen to define key responsibilities from an early stage, for example conceptual, editorial and the business aspects.

Fujiwara is keen to emphasize his underlying motivation of providing a reflection on Japanese photography, present and past. In his view, despite the enormous general interest in photography in Japan, there is a great lack of institutions or individuals examining the cultural context within which photographers operate and images are produced. Of particular importance is the need to find the connection and evolution path between the previous generation of photographers from the 1960s and 70s, with the more recent wave of artists since the mid and late 1990s. Academic institutions that look at the medium and art of photography are far and few between (with Tokyo National University of the Arts or “Geidai” a notable exception). Education is most commonly concentrated on teaching technology and technique in vocational schools, preparing photographers for a commercial career, while putting aside the aspect of personal expression. This void does not only include image creators, but also the role of the traditional photo editor like Hasegawa. The legacy of Camera Mainichi seems distant in a world where commercial needs dictate or at least heavily influence what a magazine is to draw their readers’ attention to.

Front and Back Cover of Asphalt V
Front and Back Cover of Asphalt V

Despite a lack of institutional support, the artistic photography world in Japan is kept alive by to the strong energy of the working community of photographers. Publishing a photo book remains one of the top ambitions of photographers, and since the books are essentially financed by the artists there will be a continued stream of publications as long as these individuals can afford to do so. The only exception to this system are within the thin layer of top league artists like Moriyama and Araki or cases where a school or sponsor steps in to provide financial support – obviously, not always without self-interest, which again will have an impact on the range of work being published.

During our conversation, Fujiwara and Hasegawa introduced me to the concept of yotei-chowa (予定調和 [よていちょうわ]), which the dictionary translates as “pre-established harmony”. Fujiwara explains that the photographers he sees working in his studio to the highest standards of commercial photography on a daily basis have all started with the desire to produce art in some way or the other. However, after becoming so skilled and technically sophisticated they have great difficulty expressing themselves freely photographically now because the results of their daily work are pre-determined by the demands of the client. Their skill and mind are aligned to achieve that result. So when they, perhaps longing for more artistic creative output, try concentrating on their personal work and attempting to produce a photo book or magazine like publication, the results will look just as polished and immaculate as their commercial work – but lacking a raw energy that makes the images interesting. Hasegawa adds that to be successful in producing artistic photography, the artist is better off engaging with the unknown, not knowing where it will take him and, taken to the extreme, whether his work can pay for the bills the next day.

The photo editor’s job is like cooking a meal with a range of ingredients put at your disposal.

Asphalt is published every six months and prints around 600-800 copies. Volume 1, 2 and 3 are sold out and no longer available. That should not imply any commercial success as Fujiwara made great efforts to distribute sample copies to museums and photo galleries around the world to promote the magazine. A commercial distribution is also made more difficult because book sellers find it difficult to categorise it between “real” photo magazines and the art photo book. However, the main goal of the project is not commercial. It is a journey for the photographers and editor, a document of personal development. Like sitting down with a photographer friend every six months with your latest prints for a discussion, Asphalt is a vehicle for everyone involved to periodically review one’s own growth and progress. The concept of two regulars and one guest mixes elements of consistency and surprise, which is surprisingly engaging for the magazine’s readership.

Since he is such an experienced editor, I asked Hasegawa-sensei whether post-retirement he finds the work on Asphalt challenging or a routine. He makes it clear that editing remains a challenging task. The photo editor’s job is not to say whether a photograph is good or bad, in fact, he would not comment on that aspect at all. It is more like cooking a meal with a range of ingredients put at your disposal. The editor is not just collecting quality images and then publishing it the way he likes — which would be easy. The difficulty lies in working with a set of photographs that are brought to the editor and presenting them in a meaningful way. Despite having worked on over 100 photo books of photographers, both famous and unknown, the most complex aspect remains to find the best way of showing the work to the viewer.


Please also see our gallery of work that has been featured in past and current issues of Asphalt.

In-print issues of Asphalt are available in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.