In between jobs the other day I stepped in to the BLD Gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Ginza is Tokyo’s High Street where all the fashion brands have their flagship stores. Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Shiseido, etc. are all here. During the 80s bubble, the area featured the highest real estate prices in the world.
That bubble has long since burst but it still retains its hoity toity air, and to be honest I’ve never felt entirely comfortable there, though I often go there and used to find it a fertile ground for shooting as well, back in the days when I actually took photos. It also happens to be a good place to take in photos, featuring a few good galleries in the area, and it used to be a camera fetishists dream with several used camera shops.
BLD Gallery is one of the newer spaces, going back just three or four years I believe. It’s on the eighth floor of a building that houses a Zara brand shop on the first floor, but fortunately the entrance to the elevator is on the side so I don’t feel so self-conscious about my rather less than foppish attire. Their shows feature established artists, particularly Daido Moriyama, but also including Toshio Shibata, Takuma Nakahira, Masato Seto, and Michael Kenna, and although they are not exlusively a photography gallery, that is what they exhibit in the main.
One thing about BLD is that their shows are always extremely well-presented. Whoever is curating their exhibits definitely seems to make the best of the space, which is one large-ish room and an awkward smaller room off to the side, in addition to a small bookstore/merchandise area. The Shibata show I saw there last Fall was simply exquisite, with large 40×50 inch prints deftly mixed in with 40 or so smaller pieces.
Currently on view is the first of a five-show Eikoh Hosoe retrospective which will run until May. The first installment features work from Kamaitachi, shot in 1965 and first exhibited in 1968, and collected in the 1969 limited edition photo book of the same name. Thankfully due to the republication of this book in 2009 by Aperture in the US and Seigensha here in Japan, more people have become familiar with this work, although sure enough some of the images have become iconic over the years.
In 1965 Hosoe accompanied Tatsumi Hijikata, who along with Kazuo Ohno basically founded the post-WWII Butoh dance movement — to Yamagata prefecture where Hosoe spent his youth (Hijikata himself was from Akita, the prefecture north of Yamagata).
The resulting work is basically various photos of Hijikata interacting with the landscape or with the local residents in this rural part of Japan, ostensibly playing the part of a kamaitachi or “weasel-like demon who haunts the rice fields and slashes those he encounters with a sickle” according to Aperture’s description of the book. We see Hijikata perched on the fence-like structures used for drying straw, or traipsing through fields, sitting on the roadside with local farm workers, or interracting with what seem like other members of his troupe. (You can hear Hosoe — in English — briefly talk about the work in this Aperture video.)
The work is playful and irreverent, a departure from the dark brooding portraits of Yukio Mishima in Barakei, and perhaps my favorite part of Hosoe’s extensive oeuvre. There is a free-wheeling sense to the work — like much of what was being produced in Japan at the time (think Provoke) but yet in some of the portraits and landscapes, a classicism as well.
What’s particularly special about this BLD exhibit is that they are showing the same prints from when Hosoe first showed the work in March, 1968, under the title “An Extremely Tragic Comedy”, exhibited where else but in Ginza, at the Nikon Salon (still operating today in Ginza, in a newer location as both showroom and gallery space). That is to say, the very same pieces of paper that hung on the Nikon Salon walls 44 years ago. Not knowing this at first I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on — why the prints had this strange discoloration around the edges (due to the oxidation of the silver into silver ions), as well as these peeling circular labels with numbers on them that were affixed to the bottom corner of each print. (This .pdf from the Eastman House is a nicely thorough guide to gelatin silver print conditions.)
Having seen a few years ago some plantinum prints from Barakei that had been done by Hosoe and his son, I thought initially that these prints were a result of some vintage printing process, but the fact that they were just simply vintage was not a let down but in fact extremely interesting from a visual point of view, and fit in perfectly with the work and the emotional connection I was having as I walked around the room. And I found it refreshing that Hosoe could see the emotional value of these messy, deteriorated prints rather than getting hung up on pristine and prissy print quality.
After leaving the gallery, I passed by one of the used camera shops I used to window shop at, marveling at how far prices had fallen for some of the cameras I would lust after in the past, like a Wista 4×5 Field camera, or the Fuji Papageorge Special 6×9. No customers were inside, and no other window shoppers either, for that matter, and I wondered how much longer for this world were shops like these. Amidst some vague self-promises to start shooting photos again, I continued on my way thinking about a fleet(ing) Hijikata and Hosoe’s deteriorating silver particles.
(Update: January 30, 2012) You can see some examples of the prints via a few pictures from BLD Gallery’s Twitter feed: here, here, and here.
Japan Exposures is pleased to add small Japanese publisher Super Labo’s books into the fold of publications being sold in the Japan Exposures bookstore. While we don’t shy away from established, mainstream publishers, what really tickles our book nook’s chin are the small publishers carrying on the tradition of the Japanese photobook.
Super Labo is not only doing that, but bringing a little bit of the Japanese photobook to established Western photographers also known for the craft and care they have brought to their photobooks — photographers like Alec Soth and Todd Hido.
Super Labo is the creation of Yasunori Hoki, an extremely nice and courteous man whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the recent Tokyo Photo Fair event this past September. Hoki used to run Gallery White Room on Tokyo’s ultra fashionable Omotesando Boulevard, bringing artists like Eikoh Hosoe and Joel Meyerowitz to the Tokyo high street. Hoki had to close the gallery in early 2009, but through the experience of publishing catalogs to accompany the exhibitions he put on he established Super Labo. In fact, it was through the relationship he had established with Meyerowitz during the creation of a special exhibition catalog that helped get Super Labo off the ground, and get other non-Japanese photographers interested in collaborating on these small, almost zine-like books.
While some photographers like Meyerowitz have used it as a platform to revisit in an abridged form work from the past (Redheads and Wild Flowers), or used it as a print outlet for a project originating in a different medium (Alec Soth’s Ash Wednesday), others like Todd Hido have conceived books specifically for Super Labo (and according to Hoki, Hido really got into the making of his book, Nymph Daughters). It’s perhaps no wonder that Nymph Daughters is the first of Super Labo’s books to go out of print, although Japan Exposures was able to secure a few copies before it did.
While the majority of Super Labo titles so far have featured non-Japanese photographers, books by Naoya Hatakeyama and Takashi Homma are on the horizon, and combined with already published titles like Osamu Kanemura’s Stravinsky Overdrive and Tomonori “Rip” Tanaka’s Night Riders, certainly Super Labo cannot be accused of ignoring Japanese photography.
Here’s a list of the Super Labo titles we’re currently carrying (those marked with a * indicate titles that won’t be restocked when the extremely few copies we have are sold):
Never meet your heroes — or so they say. Those who do live on to tell the tale. About twenty years ago, I remember it being a cold winter’s day as I once more browsed the photography section of the public library in central Frankfurt, Germany. My interest in the medium was just firming, and like all of us I was trying to take in as much as I could, on technique and on the art. I knew little about the ‘masters’, much less about Japan and its contributions. Nonetheless, I found myself strongly attracted to a book by a photographer, whose name I was not even sure how to pronounce; it meant nothing to me at the time and yet for quite a while afterwards, when being asked, I would name him as my favourite photographic artist. The book was called Embrace by Eikoh Hosoe.
Last week Japan Exposures were invited to the launch of a new book by Hosoe titled Hana Dorobou (「花泥棒」, lit. Flower Thief). Of course, given my own first encounter of many years ago, I was delighted to finally meet him all this time later. And, as it turned out, it was not a connection of past and present only for me: even though the book has just been published, the photographs themselves date back over 40 years.
“She presented to Hosoe a series of her handmade dolls and told him, ‘Do with them what you want’.”
In 1966, Eikoh Hosoe was introduced by his sister-in-law, the photographer Hisae Imai — who passed away earlier this year — to women’s undergarment designer Yoko Kamoi (1925-1991). By that time, Kamoi was well-known in artist and fashion circles for revolutionizing the undergarments Japanese women wore, and was once described as “someone who has advanced the cause of women’s liberation through her underwear designs”. But beyond this, Kamoi was an essayist, an exhibited painter, and — pertinent to this new book — a maker of handmade dolls.
She presented to Hosoe a series of her handmade dolls and told him, “Do with them what you want.” For Hosoe, they were more human than doll, and they seemed to take a life of their own, the scenes he eventually photographed them in seemingly situtations these dolls were getting themselves into — or so Hosoe felt, so strong was their human-like nature.
Hosoe photographed these situations around his studio in Yotsuya, Tokyo, and even took the dolls — more companions than props — on trips to Aomori and Nagano.
The photos were eventually used to illustrate a small book of Kamoi’s underwear designs called Miss Petan, but only 300 of these were printed. Hosoe would go on to make Kamaitachi (1968) and Embrace (1971), and promptly forgot about the project until earlier this decade when someone found a copy of this long out-of-print book and reminded Hosoe of the project. Digging up the negatives, he realized he had completely forgotten about this project. Thanks to the perseverance of publisher Tosei-Sha’s Kunihiro Takahashi, the negatives were reprinted and assembled in this book, which Hosoe considers, as he writes in the book’s afterword, a gift to both Imai and Kamoi who have reached heaven before him.
Of course a good opening event should be more than having a few drinks and snacks in a gallery space with the artist present. Hosoe was keen to explain some of his philosophy to the audience, what he is occupied with right now and what is still to be done. As the director of Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts and his role in the Japan Professional Photographers Society, Hosoe was keen to emphasize the importance of nurturing young talent for the photographic arts. He lamented that unlike in other countries, in Japan photography is not part of art education in schools and went on to say that a country not involved in manufacturing photography equipment such as cameras appears to have greater creative potential than one which does. In Japan, the ultimate camera manufacturing super-power of today, there is simply too much emphasis on the technical aspects of photography and not enough attention paid to the creative side. Obviously the endless obsession with equipment is a challenge we are all only too familiar with. He called upon giving up the Kingdom of Cameras and move towards establishing an artistic Kingdom of Photography .
For this to occur, making the younger generation sensitive to the world and role of photography is absolutely key. However, how to go about it? One of the many possible ways to do so are photo books aimed at children, which there are only very few of. In fact, I could only think of a single one: Hosoe’s own Taka-chan and I: a Dog’s Journey to Japan, now long out of print. On the night I asked him whether he is aware of any other photo books aimed at children, and apart from the classic Show Me by Will McBride he also could not think of any and immediately added that he would love to create one.
Even though Hana Dorobou is not directly aimed at children, the images are magical and not quite of this world. Like in other Hosoe works, reality and the dream world appear to be merging, and in this case in an entirely benign and bright manner. While some of the images could be interpreted by adults as unsettling, I think this says more about the lost innocence of our own minds than the suitability of the photos for children. Or would a comparison to Grimm-style fairy tales be too far off? The dolls in odd spaces such as a broken television set or crammed into a travel bag, floating in the air or hanging in trees, or just the subtle signs of human nudity of the dolls make for good picture book quality that a child would enjoy and should easily be able to deal with, especially when viewed together with an adult. Make no mistake, the qualities of the photos are not naïve or too lighthearted by far. These images carry the typical Hosoe flair we know from so many of his works, but here we can also detect a playfulness that makes them accessible to not just an adult audience.
Hana Dorobou, created 40 years ago, and yet new today. An artist enjoyed by me 20 years ago and met in person last week. The creators of tomorrow being shown a fantasy world conceived by a spirit which has already passed. Photography and time, this eternally bonded pair, with moments that last a fraction of a second, and yet for all time.
Over the last decade the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has established itself as one of the best American museums to see Japanese photography. Senior curator of photography Sandra Philips curated the first North American retrospectives for Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama. Continuing this focus, assistant curator Lisa Sutcliffe has two new exhibits at the museum, “The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography” and Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea.” “Provoke” offers a concise introduction to the generation of photographers that Tomatsu and Moriyama were a part of, while “Photography Now” shows how Japanese photography has become even more diverse in the last decade. Both exhibits run through December 20th.
Provoke is the magazine most often associated with the generation of photographers working in the 1960s and 1970s – even those that did not actually publish in the magazine. It is an example of a small, short-lived, but legendary publications, whose influence is still felt. Early editions had print runs of just 1,000. In 2001 Steidl published “Japanese Box“, featuring reprints of the magazine, but with a price of $2,000. More recently, a flickr tribute group named after the magazine has collected 4,000 images in the Provoke-style. The images are by photographers from around the world, many of whom have never seen the original publication.
When Americans picture Japan during its economic boom of the 1960s, it usually involves the optimistic marketing images from Datsun, Olympus and Sony. In stark contrast, these photographs with their are-bure-bokeh style refute the vision of a unified land made up of smoothly-functioning corporations and their employees. We see Tomatsu’s photographs of the Shinjuku riots, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s voyeuristic expeditions in Tokyo’s public parks and Hosoe’s well-known photograph of Yukio Mishima wrapped in a garden hose.
The “Provoke Era” exhibit is not large, with less than 100 photographs all from the SFMOMA’s collection, yet it manages to select a handful of works from each photographer. There are many well-known works, but also photographs only found in out-of-print books. The exhibit traces changes in style from the mid-1940’s, through the late 1970s and even the 1990s, using the 1995 Kobe earthquake to mark the end of the post-war era and the exhibit.
One of the many things this exhibit does well is give a sense of the art of the photo book, something that is still a challenge for museum exhibits. “The Provoke Era” acknowledges the importance of books with with wall text and vitrines that display books (and magazines) in every gallery. Many of the prints on the wall have a work print quality, which they often were, with the book or magazine displayed in the vitrine being the end goal. There are exceptions, the most notable is “La Nuit” (1968), a series of photogravures by Provoke’s founding editor Takuma Nakahira. At this size and resolution, the are-bure-bokeh feels like it is being used precisely, with a specific intention.
Japan Exposures asked curator Lisa Sutcliffe a few questions about the exhibits.
Interview and review by Wayne Bremser for Japan Exposures
Japan Exposures: Many photographs in this exhibit respond to the detonation of nuclear bombs over civilian populations in Japan. Shomei Tomatsu carefully document the immediate aftermath, the burned objects and scarred human flesh. What influence did this event have in the work of the photographers that never directly confronted the subject?
Lisa Suttcliffe: The bomb was the single-most influential event on postwar Japanese society. Many of these photographers were children during the war and grew up in the tumultuous postwar atmosphere. Japanese national identity was deeply affected by the bomb and the defeat in the war. Some photographers made work that referenced the bomb symbolically – for example, Kikuji Kawada made photographs of veterans and relics of the war that created a memorial. These visual fragments represent the multiple layers of memory and history. The work of later photographers from Provoke, such as Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, reflects the incendiary political atmosphere. Their dark urban scenes are punctuated by bright flashes of light that indirectly reference the immediacy and violence of the bomb.
JE: Moriyama, Araki, (and thanks in part to the SFMOMA exhibit) Tomatsu are now well-known in the US. Is there a photographer in the exhibit that you think deserves greater recognition?
LS: All of them! The whole generation of postwar photographers made interesting and revolutionary work that is enhanced by seeing them together. If I had to pick one it would be Masahisa Fukase, whose varied body of work is deeply haunting, melancholic, and beautiful. His best known work comes from Karasu (Ravens), published in 1986. In this series he travels throughout Japan making photographs that reveal his dark psychological mood after he was estranged from his wife. Our exhibition also offers a good chance to see rare photogravures made by Takuma Nakahira from his series “La nuit.” The richly dark prints are a dramatic, and unsettling examination of urban street culture. (And they are really stunning to see together at this size).
“ Japan had no culture of fine print photography in the 1960s and 1970s. ”
JE: While these photographers have different subject matter and styles, frequent book publishing was common in the group. You’ve included many books from the period, displayed in vitrines. Aperture’s recently released volume, Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70s is a good companion to the exhibit. Why was the photo book a primary medium for so many Japanese photographers? How do you think creating collections of work rapidly, publishing and then moving to the next book, shaped the work of these artists?
LS: You’re absolutely right. The Aperture volume is a fantastic reference for these revolutionary and prolific books. I love how it shows multiple page spreads from the selected books. As a country that popularized the woodblock print the print medium of books and magazines was a natural outlet. They’re really more like art objects than books. Japan had no culture of fine print photography in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead they published their work in books and magazines. The book as object was a vital aspect of this culture and the photographers had this in mind as they produced and sequenced their work. Moriyama and Nakahira sought to emphasize the format of the book and that certainly would have affected their artistic choices. Each picture is part of a whole series and they function together. There is less insistence on the single famous image.
In addition, Moriyama and others embraced Warhol’s philosophy of the consumer culture driven nature of photography. The concept of the photograph as a “copy” was an important part of their philosophy. Both Moriyama and Araki made books on Xerox machines. The fine art print was not the preferred end product for them. I had to show the books and it was a shame I couldn’t show more than one page from each. This is one of the most important aspects to the exhibition that I hope people understand.
JE: You’ve included many photographs of women by this group of male photographers, such as Hosoe’s “Man + Woman 6” and the four photographs from Moriyama’s “Hotel, Shiyuba.” How is the era’s view of women reflected in their photographs? How has the view and role of women in photography changed between the Provoke era and work seen in “Photography Now”?
LS: I’m so glad you picked up on this. There are actually no female photographers in the entire Provoke exhibition. (There were a few female artists at this time, but they are not in the show). The attitude toward women reflects a “macho” point of view – women are portrayed as sexual objects, objects of desire, and are often seen engaging in the act of sexual intercourse with the photographer. It was a boys club – male artists, publishers, etc. Obviously, it is much different now. There are so many female photographers working in Japan and many of them are represented in Photography Now. The attitude toward women has changed as well, as it has throughout the world. I wanted to highlight this shifting attitude because it is reflected in the work.
JE: In the first gallery of Japanese photographs in “Photography Now” you offer some interesting comparisons. Younger photographers have a different photographic approach, while the Provoke photographers have changed their styles. A wonderful comparison is between Miyako Ishiuchi’s photos of her mother’s burn scars (not from the nuclear bomb) with Tomatsu’s. What are the major changes you are trying to illustrate with the selection in the Japanese gallery of the “Photography Now” exhibit?
LS: There is a very stark contrast between the postwar work and the contemporary gallery. The major change is that there are many varied aesthetic styles (color!), voices and themes. Many of the photographers working during the Provoke Era were united by a grainy, blurry, black and white graphic style and an urge to create a new visual language that challenged photographic conventions. The more recent work reveals artists working in diverse methods including color, black and white, and large format, and dealing with various issues such as the changing urban landscape, cultural identity and appropriation and poetic domestic daily details. There are also quite a few women, who nearly dominate the show. The work is driven toward a more personal vision. Rinko Kawauchi makes pictures of very poetic domestic moments. Miyako Ishiuchi carefully examines her mother, contrasting the texture of her scarred skin with the lacy undergarments which still hold her shape after her mother’s death. It is a no longer the desire to create a national memorial, but a personal one.
On current view at the Setagaya Art Museum is a wonderful photography exhibition entitled Japan: A Self Portrait, that uses the works of 11 photographers† to give us a view onto the incredibly important 20 year period following the end of World War II. The milestone events of this period are well known — the ending of the war via the atomic bombings, the American occupation, and the rapid rebuilding of the country and following economic recovery, including the citizens’ self-esteem, that culminated with the hosting of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But while these might form part of the structure of the exhibit, what’s really special about this particular exhibit are the details of how those years were lived — details that have manifested themselves in the 168 photographs that make up the show.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Paris-based curator and writer Marc Feustel, one of the driving forces behind Studio Equis, which has organized several important traveling exhibitions of Japanese photography in recent years. Feustel can also be found at the two blogs he maintains — eyecurious and Shashin etc. — which are essential stops for anyone interested in what’s going on with Japanese photography.
Japan Exposures recently asked Feustel via email to talk about the unique evolution of the current exhibition, how he himself got involved with photography, and his thoughts on how an exhibition of Japanese photography curated by a European might be received in Japan.
The following interview was conducted via email at the beginning of May.
Japan Exposures: Marc, anyone interested in Japanese photography and browsing the web will eventually come across your name, a true beacon in the Western cultural landscape. Could you give us a bit of personal background information about yourself and tell us how you came to be so involved with curating and writing about Japanese photography?
Marc Feustel: I am from a fairly international background: one part German, one part Australian, English by birth and Parisian by upbringing. To add to these layers I studied Economics and Politics in Dublin and then International Development in London. I don’t have an academic background in Art History but spent most of my time at university loitering around that department. My central interest has always been photography since I saw a William Klein show at the Maison Européene de la Photographie in Paris, about fifteen years ago. I began to focus specifically on Japan through the book that I authored on postwar Japanese photography, Japan: A Self-Portrait, Photographs 1945-1964. The book was published in 2004, in English and French by Flammarion and in Japanese by Iwanami Shoten.
“I think that there is a lot that contemporary photography can learn from the intensity of the engagement of these photographers with the society and the nation around them.”
JE: It was from this project that Studio Equis began, right?
MF: Yes, that’s right. During the research for the book, we were put in touch with Managing Editor of Illustrated Books at Iwanami Shoten, Tsuguo Tada. He was instrumental in introducing me to the photographers and obtaining their approvals for the project. After the success of the book we agreed to form a company to continue our involvement and to find other ways of introducing more Japanese photography in Europe and in the US. Studio Equis is myself, Tsuguo Tada and my mother, Helen Feustel. Our aim is to promote the work of the individual artists that we represent but also to find projects that promote a better understanding and closer relationships between Japanese and Western photographic circles. We are also involved in helping museums and collectors develop their collections of Japanese photography. Studio Equis is a three-man band so everyone does a bit of everything, however my main role is Artistic Director. I curate the exhibitions that we present, manage our publications and identify those photographers that we represent.
JE: The current exhibition at Setagaya — which we understand will also travel to Yamagata, Aichi, and the Kiyosato Museum†† — is based on the book Japan: A Self-Portrait, which was published in 2004. It’s interesting that this is an exhibit based on a book, when usually it is the other way around. Could you tell us more about the original book and how it came to become an exhibition.
MF: Yes, this exhibition has followed an unusual path. The book initially began as a stand-alone project, but over time we realised that it had the potential to make an interesting exhibition and (hopefully) one that presented these works in a new light. The book is both a study of the extraordinary transformation of Japanese society after the war, as well as a study of the incredibly dynamic evolution in the photography of the period. This was a period where Japan changed radically, and one where photography played a major part in documenting and processing the changes that were occuring. This idea formed the basis for the exhibition as well as the book and while many of the works from the book appear in the exhibition, I modified and expanded the selection of images to 168 prints in total, accompanied by first edition publications from the period. The exhibition was initially planned to first open in Europe, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, however because of changes in their photography department this was no longer possible. We then decided to collaborate with Tokyo’s Setagaya Art Museum to open the exhibition in Japan and then to travel it in Europe afterwards.
JE: Do you have any thoughts on how an exhibition curated (or co-curated) by a non-Japanese will be met by Japanese, or is that a non-issue? What would be different if this same material was being solely curated by a Japanese person?
MF: I think that the fact that I am a foreigner is a central feature of this exhibition. The eleven photographers in this show are all well-established artists in Japan with several decades worth of exhibitions and books to their names. However, many of them have been lesser known in Europe and the US and, even in Japan, have not often exhibited in a group context. When I began this project, I wanted to try and bring a fresh look to the photography of this period. As an outsider, I didn’t have to contend with the context of the Japanese photographic canon and I made my selection from a different perspective than a Japanese curator would. Of course many ‘key’ images are present in the show, but I have also often been told that my selection is ‘surprising’ or ‘unusual’, which I think is a good thing in this context. As an outsider in Japan you can allow yourself a certain number of choices that maybe would be more difficult for a Japanese curator who is very aware of established photographic relationships and reputations.
However, I think that it is very unlikely that there will be a consistent ‘Japanese’ reaction. Already in the first week I was very interested to see how differently different generations reacted to these images. For the older generation, this exhibition is a more emotional experience, one which is tied to their memories of the era. For younger generations there tends to be more of a reaction to the photographic developments of the time and a sense of surprise at how modern these photographs are. My hope is that this exhibition will succeed in presenting these works in a new light and to highlight just what a crucial period this was in the artistic development of photography in Japan.
JE: The time period of the exhibit is 1945 – 1964, a time of intense rebuilding leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. But I’m curious about another Japanese fascination or obsession — that of the “Showa Boom” of recent years, which has manifested itself in countless photo books and exhibits. What do you think is behind this nostalgia for the “Showa” years [The years 1926–1989 in Japanese history, corresponding to the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) — Ed.], and how do you see your book/exhibit in the context of that nostalgia?
MF: As I don’t live in Japan, I don’t feel the ‘Showa boom’ that intensely, but I think the nostalgia for this period is understandable. Since the 1989 financial collapse Japan has been left somewhat adrift, and a new direction hasn’t really been forged for the nation. For a country where there was a strong sense of the group and the collective, many of these collective institutions (the family, religion) are being eroded by more materialistic and individualistic aspirations. Within that context, I think people are nostalgic for the postwar years, as the end of an extremely difficult period of several years of conflict and one when there was a real collective sense of a brighter future. That nostalgia is probably exacerbated by the fact that for the younger generations in Japan, the future seems very precarious and uncertain.
In terms of Japan: A Self-Portrait, as a European in his thirties, nostalgia was not a strong motivating factor for me. While the show may be linked to the current Showa fascination, I don’t think that it presents an overly romanticised image of these years. In my view, while these works portray a sense of positivity and optimism and perhaps sometimes describe a simpler ‘traditional’ life, they also highlight the extraordinary hardships of the time and the negative consequences of the social changes during these years. Whether driven by nostalgia or not, in purely photographic terms, I think that there is a lot that contemporary photography can learn from the intensity of the engagement of these photographers with the society and the nation around them.
JE: If you were going to curate a similar “self-portrait” exhibit of Japan during the “Heisei” years (say the last 10-20 years), at this point in time, how would that exhibit look?
MF: That is a very good question… maybe I should take you up on that idea! I think an exhibition on contemporary Japan would be a very different animal. It would be an interesting challenge, particularly as there would not be the benefit of hindsight that I had for Japan: A Self-Portrait. A few names spring to mind: Miyako Ishiuchi, Osamu Kanemura, Hiroh Kikai, Tomoko Sawada, Yutaka Takanashi, Hiromi Tsuchida, Miwa Yanagi and of course Araki and Moriyama, but that list would take a long time to refine. Happily you would see a much more significant number of female photographers, who have carved out an important place for themselves in the contemporary Japanese photographic landscape. I think that this landscape has become increasingly fragmented, with fewer groups such as Vivo or Provoke, and therefore it is perhaps harder to identify coherent photographic movements. Visually the exhibition would of course be dramatically different, particularly as the changes that have occurred over the last two decades in Japan do not have the visual drama of the postwar years and as photographers today have a radically different visual vocabulary. Also photography today inhabits a very different space than it did during the postwar years, where it was a crucial source of ‘information’.
In terms of approach, you would see far less visceral images that display the engagement of the photographer with the subject. Contemporary photographers tend to have a more detached, sometimes deliberately cold and distant approach and many more works deal with major societal issues through the prism of personal identity and the ordinariness of the everyday. Overall, I think that a contemporary self-portrait of Japan would leave viewers with a very different impression, one which is less dramatic and perhaps more uneasy and uncertain, but one which certainly confirms the richness of the Japanese photographic landscape. •
† The 11 photographers are Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Ihei Kimura, Takeyoshi Tanuma, Shomei Tomatsu, Ken Domon, Shigeichi Nagano, Ikko Narahara, Hiroshi Hamaya, Tadahiko Hayashi, and Eikoh Hosoe.
†† The dates of these other showings in Japan are as follows:
August 27 – October 28, 2009
Domon Ken Photography Museum, Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture
November 6 – December 13, 2009
Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya
June 5 – August 31, 2010
Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, Yamanashi Prefecture
Japan Exposures Reader Giveaway
For those unable to see Japan: A Self Portrait for themselves, we are excited to offer to a single Japan Exposures reader a copy of the official exhibition catalog. This hardcover catalog measures 18cm by 25cm, features an introductory essay by Feustel (in both Japanese and English), and all 168 photographs included in the exhibition (captioned, also in both Japanese and English).
Simply answer the question below by 15 June 2009 and we will randomly draw the winner from all correct entries. (Please note that the book will be sent via Economy Air, which normally takes two weeks and is uninsured and not traceable).