Photo-eye recently posted their annual “Best Books” feature, with a whole host of photographers and photo people submitting their top 10 books of 2009. Naturally I was interested to see what Japanese books made the grade, but was rather disappointed that on the whole so few Japanese books were chosen. This is I’m sure due in large part to a lack of access to books published here (but hey, Japan Exposures is here to help!), but I do wonder if the paucity of Japanese choices means the general feeling is that 2009 was a poor year for photography books from Japan.
The other Japanese photography books that made the various lists:
The Joy of Portraits, by Keizo Kitajima (John Gossage, Lesley A. Martin) — If you’re interested in acquiring this 13-pound, 2-volume set for a reasonable price, please get in touch; or you could content yourself with the catalog from Kitajima’s Tokyo retrospective from last Fall.
Portraits of Silence, by Hisashi Shimizu (Daniel Espeset) — Glad to see this moving book recognized.
Cui Cui, by Rinka Kawauchi (Tricia Gabriel) — Mind you this book was published in 2005, but who’s counting 😉
Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe (Sara Terry) — a 1969 book, but since this was republished in a trade edition in 2009 we won’t complain.
Binran, by Masato Seto (Michael Wolf) — technically from 2008.
Like I said, not much love as far as Japanese photography books goes.
Here are my very subjective choices for favorite books published in Japan last year:
Citizens, by Jun Abe (published January 11, 2009) If it weren’t for the “1979 – 1983” subtitle that very subtly accompanies this work from Jun Abe, there would be very little to belie the fact that these photos are 25 – 30 years old. And aside from that information, there is nothing else by way of context — but who needs it? You only need this book, and the hope that the maligned genre of street photography doesn’t get trampled by privacy pushers and the “right to my own likeness” brigade.
“Magazine Work” set, by Daido Moriyama (September, 2009) Many Daido Moriyama publications in 2009 (by my count there were at least 10 new Moriyama books relased in 2009, which is getting into prolific Araki territory). Of them all, I think that the two volumes of magazine work from the sixties and seventies, Nippon Gekijo and Nani ka e no tabi are particularly worthy additions to the Moriyama canon and essential to understanding his development as an artist. Honorable Moriyama mention for Northern, in some ways the most un-Moriyama book since the 2005 Takuno.
Tokyo Zenritsusengan, by Nobuyoshi Araki (October, 2009) 2009 was a very lean book year by Nobuyoshi Araki’s normal assembly line standards, and this book published toward the end of 2009 told us why — Araki was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 2008, which understandably limited his creative output. Maybe it’s the backstory working its magic, but this book for me feels more heartfelt and intimate than an Araki book has felt in some time. Bonus points for the slightly unconventional binding.
Yasuhiro Ishimoto “Multi-Exposure” (exhibition catalog, May, 2009) Nothing better than to visit a small, out of the way exhibition at some outlying university campus of one of your favorite photographers and find that they have accompanied said exhibition with a lovingly produced catalog that presents the work in a unique way and features contextual essays about said favorite photographer and said exhibition in English. This catalog of Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s multiple exposure collages produced by Musashino was such a catalog.
Tokyo Y-Junctions, by Tadanori Yokoo (published October, 2009) When I came across famed graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo’s book of paintings Y-Junction (2006), which take as their subject the Y-shaped intersections of Tokyo, I found myself fascinated by the serial nature of the work, and how photographic the project felt — helped in part by Yokoo’s desision to pair each intersection painting with a collage of photo studies he had made of the same intersection. So it was curious to see that Yokoo decided to make a separate project of these intersections, but this time consisting only of photographs — surely overkill, no?. But the resulting mix of part “Tokyo Nobody” Masataka Nakano, Becher-like typology, and ephemera-collecting Kyoichi Tsusuki is really a quite wonderful portrait of vernacular Tokyo.
Shomei Tomatsu: Hues and Textures of Nagasaki (exhibition catalog, October, 2009) Unfortunately it seems a very long time since we were treated to a new Shomei Tomatsu book, and so one must content oneself with the Skin of the Nation book of a few years ago, or the omnibus-like catalogs that have accompanied various Tomatsu retrospectives in Japan over the past few years. This catalog from the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum is everything you’d expect from a museum catalog — which basically means it does the job. But no matter. Any chance to catch up with what Japan’s greatest living photographer (IMHO, of course) has been doing in the “noughties” is one worth grabbing, and with over 309 color photos collected, it’s impossible to be disappointed, not the least because it proves that the near 80-year old Tomatsu is still at the top of his game.
Blue Period 1973-1979, by Akiyoshi Taniguchi (April, 2009) There seem to have been a lot of books published last year of work done in the past, but of those I’m not sure there were any that featured photographs taken by an artist when they were in their teens, besides this one. Akiyoshi Taniguchi — who later studied photography under Leo Rubinfien before becoming a Buddhist priest — shows that while he may have been a teenager, the photos he took evidenced a mature outlook and calm reflectiveness that no doubt have served him well in his current career.
Hana Dorobou, by Eikoh Hosoe (November, 2009) This lovely book by one of Japanese photography’s undisputed masters resurrected a project from the mid-60s that even Eikoh Hosoe himself had forgotten about. Hosoe took some dolls hand made by a famous lingerie designer, put them in decidedly un-doll-like situations, creating a book that can be enjoyed by parents and children alike — if the parent is not averse to dealing with the frank questions that surely will result. Beautifully printed too.
Takashi Homma’s extended photographic survey of Tokyo remains, to my mind, the most complete and persuasive body of work completed on the city. (With one caveat, that is: Nobuyoshi Araki’s fictive, sexualised playground, which actually says more about the photographer himself than than the real city of Tokyo.) Over a period of nearly 15 years, Homma has created a cohesive photographic study of the city and its inhabitants, taking in disaffected youth, suburban space and the plasticity of modern life. His work is, above all, always concerned with and reflective of the changing attitudes of a post-Bubble Japan.
Homma’s work is always concerned with and reflective of the changing attitudes of a post-Bubble Japan. ”
Homma’s career in the visual arts began at the Light Publicity advertising agency, where he stayed from 1985 to 1991. From there he moved to London to become involved with the fashion magazine I-D. These early, formative years are important to mention, if only to establish that Homma has a deep and complex understanding of the power of visual imagery, underpinned by extensive experience in the advertising and fashion industries. There is no ‘accidental genius’ to his photography. It is as deliberate and considered as an advertisement, and no less effective.
Homma returned to Tokyo in 1993. An early work, Baby Land, failed to make a serious impression on the Japanese art community. That didn’t happen until the publication of Homma’s ‘telephone directory sized’ book Tokyo Suburbia in 1998. The book contains sixty-four images of the newly constructed suburban areas of Tokyo, known as Kogai, or Newtown. Homma’s photographic approach, which has remained largely consistent throughtout his Tokyo survey, involves muted, neutral colour and a remarkably formal, almost architectural viewpoint.
In a series of images from 1995, Homma uses a long exposure to show a fireworks display hanging over Urayasu Marina East, one of the city’s Kogai developments. Viewed from a vantage point some way away from the display, the fireworks appear as a childlike white scrawl on the sky. There is nothing celebratory about the image. The barely visible, unlit tower-blocks in the foreground suggest an emptiness and gloom at odds with the notion of fireworks and festivities. If any image can confirm the suggestion that Homma’s early work is ominous and ironic, it is this one.
While remaining visually cohesive, Homma’s work has gone through a very subtle shift in tone and subject in reaction to the newfound optimism in Japan following both the end of the ‘Lost Decade’ and Takashi Murakami’s Superflat art movement, which has engendered a new-found nationalistic pride in Japanese art and culture.
To explain, Superflat is both a post-modern art movement and a visual style. It represents the ‘leveling’ of high and low culture (for example ukiyo-e and anime). It is both a celebration of the uniqueness of Japanese culture and an acceptance of the imperial influences that have shaped it. In this way it has cracked open the discourse about what it means, culturally, to be Japanese, and it is this debate that Homma engages with in his photography.
Somewhere around the turn of the new century, a barely perceptible shift occurs in Homma’s work. He begins to title his images with the name of the architect, if a building is present. This simple act implies ownership and pride in the base material of the city. Secondly, Homma’s visual treatment of glass and metal ‘takes on a quality of beauty, not of sanitisation’ (Ivan Vartanian, in his essay accompanying Tokyo, published by Aperture in 2008) providing a corrollary to this newfound pride implicit in Homma’s image titles. The image “Omotesando 1” could, in itself, be a metaphor for the ideals of Superflat. Layers of glass, metal, concrete, reflections, light and space are condensed into the abstract graphic surface that makes up the photograph.
Homma himself makes obscure reference to the ideals of Superflat in his essay in Vartanian’s 2006 essay collection Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers. The essay begins, ‘I am standing once again on the burned field…’ simultaneously an allusion to the scoured, levelled surface of Superflat and the WW2 bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Homma implies a parallel between the end of the war and the rise of Superflat. A new start for Japanese society, this time with the imperial ideals of America subverted and transformed into a cultural export the nation can take pride in. He further compounds this sense of hope in the following statement, which somehow manages to encompass both the failure of the bubble generation and the optimism of the ‘newly enfranchised’, post-Superflat Tokyo:
As a generation, we have missed the boat. Fine! So let’s start from here.
Silas Dominey recently graduated from Leeds College of Art’s BA Photography Programme and currently works as a freelance photo assistant. His work can be seen at www.silasdominey.com.
Japan Exposures: So where are you from originally? Where did your interest in photography come from and are you a photographer yourself?
Ivan Vartanian: Well, I grew up in Queens, New York. I have no formal education in photography, actually. I have a B.A. in biochemistry from New York University. But after I graduated I got a job interning at the Aperture Foundation (New York) and was eventually kept on as an assistant editor in 1997. Then after a year or so, a Japanese publisher, Korinsha Press (Kyoto), co-published Michiko Kon: Still Lifes with Aperture and I was basically the Aperture side liaison for that project. Through that I got to know Korinsha and they eventually offered me a job to come to Tokyo. And, no, I am not a photographer and I only just recently purchased my first camera – a point-and-shoot pocket camera.
JE: This job offer sparked your interest in Japanese photography, I’m guessing?
IV: The main reason why Aperture did that co-publication together was because I was interested in Japanese photography. I worked here in Tokyo as a book editor at their international desk until about 1999. Since I was the only foreigner at Korinsha, I was responsible for all their foreign clients, publications, and distribution. This included selling co-editions to other international publishers. That put me in this bizarre position of creating book projects and then also trying to place them with foreign publishers. I went from being an editor to also serving as the salesperson for my own projects.
“No, I am not a photographer and I only just recently purchased my first camera – a point-and-shoot pocket camera.”
JE: Wow, that’s a pretty intense position to take on right away in foreign country.
IV: Yeah, I was totally clueless and terrified the entire time. It took about ten months for the ringing in my ears to stop. On top of which, my Japanese was pretty bad when I first started. Just when I was getting settled, Korinsha went bankrupt in 1999 and I was left in the position of having created book projects for which I had sold publications rights to foreign publishers. After the bankruptcy, the clients to whom I had sold rights suggested I package the books for them myself. That meant completing the production of the book—printing, binding, and delivery—and paying everyone myself. So that’s how I started this whole book packaging, entrepreneurial thing.
My involvement in photography, of course, started with Aperture and at Korinsha they were both publishing a lot of fine art, including Japanese photographers. So that gave me some entrée into that world.
JE: What were some of your major publications after leaving Korinsha?
IV: With Japanese photography, the first book that I made on my own was Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers (Aperture, 2005). I anthologized and translated writings by Japanese photographers. I made that book because, while at Korinsha, the photographers we were working with would submit lengthy texts as accompanying elements to their photography. Plus, Heibonsha—just at that time—was publishing the multi-volume compendium of writings by Nobuyoshi Araki. I noticed there were numerous text-only books by Japanese photographers out in the market. It was really remarkable to me that they were writing so much because at Aperture even to get a list of captions from a photographer was like pulling teeth. Nobody seemed to want to write anything, or to commit to putting any words on paper, I should say. Eugene Richards was a huge exception.
I became very curious as to what these photographers were writing about so profusely. I soon came to realize that what these photographers were writing was quite integral to their photography as a whole; it was part of the project and the process of photography. Words and images were quite closely linked in Japanese photography. This was also in part due to how these photographs were being reproduced; magazines, newspapers, books, to be specific. On the printed page, a photograph could be buried in a sea of words. We see this from a lot of post war photographers such as Ihei Kimura or Ken Domon.
JE: Kind of like a photojournalist in a way…
IV: Yeah, so these photographers, by our standards, were, yes, basically reporters, covering a story. They were producing their own shoots and providing a story. That is, the information that is provided by the photographs. This was also true with some French photographers a bit earlier, but it was quite prevalent in Japan. The writing varied from reportage to historical/personal history. Or it was a meditation about the work itself. More often than not, photographers up until the last generation were quite adept at writing and wrote extensively.
So that’s the main reason I wanted to make Setting Sun, I wanted to make more sense out of these texts. After translation, it became apparent that viewing Japanese photography as isolated images was tantamount to stripping bare the project and looking only at one aspect of the photography. This is particularly true of photobooks. In creating Setting Sun, I was trying to provide western readers a means to have some sense that the image functions in a larger body.
JE: Setting Sun has a photograph by Araki on the front cover. What of his writings were included in the book?
IV: The book does include some of Araki’s essays, talking about how he photographs, why he photographs, what he photographs, the effects of the death of his mother, his father. Apart from essays such as this, the nature of the other texts included are quiet varied. One short text is a meditation on a text by the poet Basho. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s text discusses time. Daido Moriyama’s text is the story on how he produced one of his early series about hitchhiking. The photograph in Japan doesn’t exist in a vacuum, isolated from other elements. Context, as provided by texts or the medium by which the image is distributed, is integral.
JE: I noticed on your site that you have done more than just photography books. Some design-related books, and other forms of art. Tell me a little bit about that.
IV: I’m very interested in other genres apart from photography. Especially books on architecture and even books on science, but these are subjects and projects that take a little longer for me to develop since those fields aren’t my specialty, but I hope to make more books in these areas in the future. I’ve always been interested in all visual arts…performing arts too. So the advantage I’ve had by working for myself with book packaging is that I’ve been able to do any book that I want. If I decide to do a photography book, I’ll find a publisher who has a strong sales presence in photography. Or if I want to do a design book, I’ll find a publisher with an established design reputation.
I really like to focus on art on paper when it comes to writing books, so for design, almost anything goes. But for photography, I’ve mainly only been interested in Japanese photography. And there is no better source for books on photography than here in Japan. This really became most apparent to me after making Setting Sun. The photobook, itself, has such a big place in Japanese photography….
IV: Nojima reached the publisher warehouses last week, and it was previously only available for sale in at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, since they had an exhibition of his photographs in their permanent collection.
JE: Does Nojima have any published books of his own? I don’t think I’m aware of any.
IV: Nojima did not have a monograph that he edited on his own. There is one publication that came out posthumously that was made by a circle of friends and colleagues. It was more of a remembrance. There was one exhibition catalogue that came out about ten years ago from the museum in Kyoto after they received the trove of his vintage prints. Even though Nojima never made his own photobook he did publish a periodical called Koga. It was a magazine devoted to new modern photography. He was the publisher and benefactor of this project but it was only a short-term enterprise. Other than that, that’s it, in terms of book publication. So essentially, this book that I made is his first monograph. What’s more, it’s the first time the tones of the original prints have been faithfully reproduced. Nojima used a variety of printing techniques, each of which had its own tone.
“I try to avoid bookstores actually. As someone who makes books I can’t walk into a bookstore and not get overwhelmed by all the great ideas I wish I had made myself. ”
JE: Is this the main reason you chose to make a book of Nojima’s photography?
IV: Yes — and I love the work. It’s really beautiful. He’s almost totally unknown. I thought I could bring something to the conversation of contemporary photography by showcasing this particular body of pre-war work. He was an amateur photographer, a lot of photographers from that area were amateur photographers. This was also interesting to me. So I wanted to do the Nojima project for this reason, instead of doing a book on a body of work by an established photographer who had made a career of it.
Nojima was a wealthy man and did photography simply as a hobby. Once in a while he had an exhibition, but nothing really that would define him as a photographer. So what that means is that his work is kind of all over the place. But he was photographing for quite a while, so over time, his printing techniques changed, his cameras changed, the models changed…even though there are only 250 artifacts remaining of his work, it’s quite spread out. So I basically wanted to try to bring it together in this book.
JE: Most of his work is located in Kyoto?
IV: Almost all of his vintage prints are in Kyoto, there is a trove of archival material at the Shoto Bijutsukan in Tokyo which is where there will be a show opening from late-September. There’s a print here, a print there, but, yes, it’s mostly concentrated in Kyoto.
JE: So tell me a little bit about Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s. You listed some of the photographers included in the book on your site. Did you work directly with any of these photographers? Are there any direct contributions or is it all biographical studies into the specific books that you chose?
IV: I did talk directly with several of the photographers. I worked a lot with Eikoh Hosoe, Miyako Ishiuchi, Daido Moriyama. The book has a long interview with Moriyama, actually.
The best help I got was through my co-author, Ryuichi Kaneko, who is a senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Photography here in Ebisu. He is the authority on Japanese photobooks. This is mainly because he’s been collecting this material for 40 years, he personally knows all the photographers and also works with them directly as a curator. He’s always attending their exhibition openings. He also often receives photobooks directly from the photographers. On top of this, he holds the credentials of a scholar in the field. So, what I couldn’t get through the interviews and meeting with the photographers directly, I relied on him for decades of personal involvement and expertise on the material.
There were times that I’d be sitting with him and discussing some of the books, and I thought I was being so insightful, really getting at something essential and then Kaneko-sensei would say something like “You’re way over-thinking it.” He’s been an amazing influence on me.
JE: [Looking through a proof copy of the book] And are these books in any particular order?
IV: Yes, they are pretty much in chronological order. We typically chose one book (from a certain photographer), but sometimes two. The reason why I decided to focus on one book is because it’s not a catalogue. I wanted to make a book that was showing readers how to read a Japanese photobook. And that’s one of the major differences between this book, and what Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s book did, which was hugely important in establishing the photobook as a viable genre and is an excellent source for some otherwise inaccessible rare books. Here and there you see some serious interests about Japanese photobooks happening, like in that book (The Photobook: A History, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), and it’s growing. But rather than show 200, 300, or 400 books, I really wanted to slow it down and through looking and various types of photobooks—the series-driven book, the memoir, the document, the meditation on form, the nudie book, etc. I wanted to give the readers a guideline for how to work with the object itself, what elements to look for and how to synthesize a comprehensive reading of the photobook. It’s more fun when you can appreciate all the details.
“Japanese photography is the photobook. Communicating that simple idea, to even a Japanese audience, is the main homework of this project. You’d be amazed how revolutionary that idea is to people in the West.”
JE: Martin Parr is a major collector of photobooks. Are you as well? I would assume you have a few nice Japanese photobooks?
IV: Yes, Parr certainly is a collector. But, no, I’m not one. I try to avoid bookstores actually. As someone who makes books I can’t walk into a bookstore and not get overwhelmed by all the great ideas I wish I had made myself.
JE: So, from the eyes of a novice in the Japanese photobook world, how should we look at a Japanese photobook? Is there something we should be looking for? What should we be thinking about while reading your book?
IV: Well, after you’ve read through the text that I’ve written, it shows what aspects you should be paying attention to, what you should be considering while looking at a Japanese photobook. There is a lot of wishy-washy writing about Japanese photography, but there is so much to be said and so much to be understood.
So, apart from helping the reader learn how to understand Japanese photography books, I want them to know how essential it is to Japanese photography. It’s very different from western photography, which has this idea that photographs must exist as a print. Japanese photography, in its ultimate form, is the photobook. Communicating that simple idea, to even a Japanese audience, is the main homework of this project. And you’d be amazed how revolutionary that idea is to people who are well versed in photography in the West.
Another way of saying it is that… [points to the book proof ] … this is a facsimile, this book is a facsimile of that work. So the books included in this book are not facsimiles, these are originals. That one subtle shift in the way we look at the book is so important.
It’s like an edition in and of itself; the book becomes an original print. No one image is more important than the other and in the photographer’s eyes, the prints themselves, which are going to make the book, are useless. They have no value other than the reproduction at the printing plant. So the photographs as a collection don’t exist beyond the book. This can be true of non-Japanese photobooks as well but it’s taken to an extreme with Japanese photobooks.
JE: So you’re saying, as far as Japanese photography goes, we need to put more emphasis on the book and stop worrying so much about the prints? How about modern day exhibitions of old photographers? Being that galleries and museums have gotten better, has that changed anything?
IV: Even if you have an exhibition of the work, the photographer takes the prints and warps them or blows them up or crop them; they’ll change the contrast; they’ll mount them/not mount them, so that the work that is shown on the wall almost bares no resemblance to the work as it appears in the book. And, also, photographers go through such a process with the design and the printing that the printed (book) image is very different from the photographic print. It still doesn’t convey the feeling from the book.
JE: Yes, with your mention of “the process” that goes into design, I can’t help but imagine the books of Kiyoshi Suzuki. Would you say that after John Szarkowski opened the doors to the rest of the world with his exhibition in New York in the mid 70s of Japanese photographers, that this changed a westerner’s view about Japanese photographers and the photobook as well?
IV: Yes, Szarkowski did that exhibition with Camera Mainichi’s Shoji Yamagishi. He was a massively influential editor. But he did have reservations about showing Japanese photography out of context, like as a single image, because when you isolate an image from its larger collective, it loses meaning to a great extent. Every photo is like an artifact. They all support each other. It’s almost unfair to ask a Japanese photographer from that era to isolate one print. Whereas in the west, generally speaking, there is a predominance of the single image.
JE: Right, like a Robert Capa or a Dorothea Lange style photographer, who had linked projects, but were photographers who were typically known for a random handful of amazing stuff…
IV: Yes, it’s basically a “decisive moment” type photographer.
JE: Well, this book looks really great. Is there an official date this comes out? I noticed it’s been pushed back a few times.
IV: It took us years to complete this book. But I am happy to say the book arrives in New York on September 18th, so sometime around the end of September. [As of this writing, it looks like the book has been delayed again until November. — Ed.] There are three different editions—English, Japanese and French. The French edition will be published in October and the Japanese edition in October as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to it.