Tag Archives: photo book

Our Day 1960 – 2004

Tomiyama Haruo - Our Day

An analog photograph and a digital photograph cannot be compared. It is because their images are completely different. I like to call the photographic image of the digital camera an “optical picture.” It is not easy to recognise that an analog photograph and a digital photograph are completely different images.

The above words and the photo are those of Haruo Tomiyama, another lucky find at my local library who always seem to be able to surprise with photo books. But maybe it is also just me making an extra effort looking at Japanese books right now and learning from this country’s visual artists. This book is called Our Day and features the photos of a series of the same name conceived in 1964 by the Asahi Journal.

When first flicking through the book, I was a bit mystified by the titles of the pictures, such as Overcrowding, Independence, Fixation or Allowance. It is suggested in the good foreword of the book, that Tomiyama is a socially critical photographer, but since most of the time is rather difficult to associate the content of the pictures with the titles, one feels a bit left out like when being confronted with a very long series of inside jokes. Later, in the epilogue it is revealed that the words were made up combinations of a series of Japanese characters (Chinese of you want to be really precise) by established writers and the like, and the intention was to parody society using those expressions. For me, this is a rather risky way of starting out, and there is a discreet underlying sense of disconnection due to the permanent fear of not getting the joke. Strangely I found this rather distracting from the photographs. Page for page one wonders whether one can decipher the next Sphinx-like riddle and I had a hard time focussing on the images first time round.

It is not easy to recognise that an analog photograph and a digital photograph are completely different images.

Looking at the photos, however, there is some really exquisite material featured in the book, a witness to the great timing and general mastery of the craft that Tomiyama is capable of. On his website you can run a commentated slide show of some of the featured images. There are many pictures that are a joy to look at many times over, and given enough sensitivity on part of the viewer, the critical or tongue-in-cheek message will reach its destination without the repeated imaginary subtitle these are critical photos from and about Japan. In other circumstances of life in Japan I learnt that while the Japanese don’t like directness and are masters of subtlety, they just often need seem to need obviousness. This may be one of those occasions.

I think there is a strong need for portraying Japan in the way it is being done here. In my opinion the population of this country seems to be accepting to suffer too many disadvantages all too willingly in exchange for the well-being of the Japanese collective or the elite classes. Examples are crowded and often outdated housing, ruined landscapes and cityscapes, and a completely hopeless work-life-balance resulting in a drastically inferior quality of life when compared to other industrial nations. Photographs like Tomiyama’s can help bringing these conditions into our consciousness, provided there is an audience out there that wants or at least is ready to hear it. This is doubtful and could explain the cynic undertone that I feel I have detected here.

Could Tomiyama be an outsider? Some anecdotal stories in the preface of the book about his biography seem to indicate that this is the case. It is emphasised as a virtue, but as we all know, there is a delicate line to tread between the detached outsider (that we also often are as non-Japanese) and the uncritical and immersed insider. Pronouncing the outside view may make you more relevant and to the point elsewhere, but may alienate the subject of criticism back home where it is most needed. I am not saying this is the case here, and I am certainly not the one to judge, it is merely and observation and lesson for at least myself.

Tokyo 1934-1993

This is an interesting and rather hefty book with street photographs by Kineo Kuwabara. One of the ever-returning realisations about photos about Japan is, that often you simply cannot tell the day and age that the photos were taken in. So even though the photos are in roughly chronological order, the reader is sometimes challenged to guess – until you read the caption (and the image on the left is also not one of them, of course). Another very prominent aspect in the photos is the heavy feature of written text, of shops, posters, signs. This is rather appealing, equivalent to looking at unknown products in a Japanese supermarket, attractive even if the meaning of the text is not completely comprehended by a non-Japanese speaker.

A surprising, if not somehow disappointing omission are photographs from the period of WW2. I can only think that either the photographer was in the military as well and had no opportunity to take pictures, or photographic materials became too scarce to continue taking photos. In the middle of the book there is a section of Kuwabara’s colour photographs, while the rest is in black and white. The colour work seems a little haphazard, however. Coming to the 1970s, Tokyo is more and more becoming the town we know today, while up to the 1960s some views of the town seem rather shabby, and still we see some traces of that nowadays.

My only gripe with many of the photos is that too often they seem to display a little too much timidness of the photographer. We see many backs of people or people in the distance, sometimes both. Formally speaking there seems rather little personal visual language in the photos, although I may be applying a value system of the year 2004 with this statement. Kuwabara was after all an amateur as a photographer (if that means anything, apart from only taking pictures for himself), even though a photo editor by profession. The images are however getting a large lift by their documentary value, by showing things as they used to be. Whether that’s enough is for the reader to decide. For me this is probably a “borrow” book, not a “buy”, although there is enough material in the book to encourage the occasional browse if you own it, and I admit I find myself drawn to it in a nice way. Alternative review here.