Category Archives: Review

Reviews of photographs, books and other topics of interest

Life Within Death – Nirai by Manabu Someya


You shall go on a beautiful boat.”

— Farewell to the dead on Yoron Island (Amami Islands, Japan)

Put simply, a photograph reproduces what has been in front of the camera at the time of exposure, a moment in time, a selected fraction of reality. More philosophically, it also records what went on behind the camera in the photographer’s consciousness when the image was taken. These notions are now widely known and accepted.

When looking at Manabu Someya’s photographs in his book Nirai, I was instantly strongly attracted to them. My problem was to understand as to why this was the case and to write a review on them. The challenge was two-fold: not only did the above theory not seem to apply so I could find an entry-point for analysis. I also could not find the words to write about them in an appropriate manner commensurate with what I was seeing in front of me in the book.

On parts of the Sulawesi island of Indonesia, when a newborn baby dies, the body is laid inside a hole carved into a large tree, which contains a white sap like that of mother’s milk. This is to prevent the baby from ever feeling hungry. In time, the hole in the tree closes, but it is believed that the leaves that grow on the tree allow the baby’s spirit to reincarnate into a new life.

–Manabu Someya in the afterword

Reading the accompanying afterword, it became clear that the overarching theme of the work was that of life and death. Of course, this could be said for a lot of photographs we see, so what is different here? Someya has chosen tropical regions of Asia as a geographic foundation of his work. Since there are no captions with the images, we only later realise that we have seen Taiwan, Indonesia, The Philippines and Okinawa, but visually they are so well connected that any captions would have only been distracting. I have struggled to find some adjectives that would describe the work, and whatever I think of does not seem entirely adequate so the reader should not put too much weight on them. One word is “lush”, even though that is certainly not what the photographs are meant to show primarily. The exquisitely warm and brownish color palette, signs of earth and vegetation set an important fundamental tone. We are in a hot and painfully humid place here, a place that lets us move only slowly and longing for rest in the shade of a forest, surely with the expected amount of various exotic insects that would soon settle on us.

In such a climate, Life is certain to thrive. Vegetation grows quickly, trees and bushes carry rich fruit that unless harvested become the basis for more life. It is this thought that for the first time brings us nearer to life and death.

The thought of falling ill or being injured is always unpleasant, but one of my greatest personal fears is to fall ill or be wounded in a relentlessly hot and humid place, naturally without the luxury of an air-conditioned room. I remember (with quite some disgust) a documentary film by Werner Herzog, tracing the path of a sole survivor of a plane crash in a south American jungle (Wings of Hope — Ed.). The person was injured, flies and other insects promptly using the wound as breeding ground. It was promptly populated by a vast amount of maggots, which was illustrated by showing a horse with the same condition. Life is always battling with death — for more life.

You don’t need to get too philosophical to realise how inseperable the two are. What is notable is how Someya somehow seems to be able to approach such a grand theme with saying so little. I believe the key is that what is happening in front or behind the camera is really not relevant. We are finding ourselves truly immersed, not just in a visual sense, but on a very emotional level.

Nirai Kanai — a world that exists beyond the ocean”

The parts of Asia we are being taken to are not just physical locations, they are a state of mind and a way of being. Humans, obviously part of nature and the great game of life, are prominently featured by means of various portraits. We understand that they also battle with death for the own lives in an environment that is so fertile and yet demanding so much from life forms inhabiting it.

The term Nirai Kanai refers to what the people of the islands of Ryukyu around Okinawa believe as a “world that exists beyond the ocean”, an otherworld that brings happiness and fertility, but also bad and evil. It is also a place where the spirits of the dead will go to when the time has come.

I aimed to visualise Nirai Kanai as a place existing in this world where we live now. This idea derived from my feeling that our lives are much too vulnerable in the state we are in today. Thus, the world of death is often perceived as being close by us, making us feel as if our spirits are ceaselessly crossing the ocean as we live our repetitive daily lives.

Nirai is a soothingly thoughtful and, within the right frame of mind, emotionally greatly accessible if not intense photo book. I very much enjoyed looking at it, and I thank Manabu Someya for producing it.

Please also see a special gallery with more images from Someya’s book.

Signed copies of Nirai are available for purchase in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.

The Built-Up Country, in Detail — Zaisyo

Review by Peter Evans for Japan Exposures.

Z aisyo means something like the country or one’s country. The photographer is Mitsuru Fujita, and this is his second photobook. The book tells us that he was born in 1934, became a freelance photographer in 1961, set up a company called Fujitaman in 1966 (man is an alternative reading of the character for Mitsuru), won various advertising awards, taught photography part time at a technical school and a university for 26 years, closed Fujitaman in 2007 to concentrate on the photographs he wanted to take, and has had a number of photo exhibitions.

Zaisyo, published by Tosei-sha in May of this year, presents about 140 monochrome photographs, reproduced 24×17.5 cm, of scenes that are almost all in the Japanese countryside, much of which (I add for readers who haven’t been there) is as densely populated as suburbia elsewhere in the world. Most were taken between 2000 and 2009, although some date back to 1995. Almost always it’s the built-up countryside, and often much of the frame is taken up by buildings less than ten meters away. (There are few distant vistas here.) No people are directly visible, even – so far as I notice – in the background. The complete absence of people might warn that the project is dogmatic and sterile, but this isn’t so: Fujita does sometimes photograph a building head on, but he works to no template: he prefers diagonals and indeed he points his camera in whichever direction he wishes.

Mitsuru Fujita, Toujin, Saga City, January, 2007 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Toujin, Saga City, January, 2007 — from Zaisyo

Fujita seems to like old-fashioned buildings: those covered with wooden slats, and traditional earthern warehouse kura. But he also clearly likes corrugated iron. What with the rust, dark clouds, puddles and little pick-up trucks, this book is no tourist souvenir. Yet there’s no insistence on age, wear, the vernacular or even the rural: on p.53 is a glass-fronted building in Saga City. (Right next to the building is the entrance to a temple, however.) And there’s also no insistence on architectural quality, oddity, authenticity or a conventionally pleasing ensemble: on p.69 for example is charmless nowheresville, a view redeemed by a dark sky. Yet anonymity is outweighed by quiddity: the one view (p.71) of Tokyo shows what appears to be a suburban fortress, incongruously supporting a prefabricated house of modest size with an imitation exposed timber frame.

The complete absence of people might warn that the project is dogmatic and sterile, but Fujita works to no template — indeed he points his camera in whichever direction he wishes.”

I lack the expertise to say whether the printing (by Toppan) is duotone, tritone, quad-tone or something else, but it’s excellent and it’s easily good enough for the non-fetishist. The grey isn’t grey, exactly; instead, it has an hint of gold for an appealingly warm tone to the whole. (Only a hint – there’s no “sepia” for canned nostalgia.) And the resolution is so fine that you’d be able to see any grain visible on prints of the same size.

Mitsuru Fujita, Gojo, Nara Prefecture, January, 2003 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Gojo, Nara Prefecture, January, 2003 — from Zaisyo

Yet there seems to be no grain. Depopulated townscapes are of course the province of view cameras, and indeed there’s sign of lens shifting for perspective correction. The angle of view seems to be wide, sometimes very wide, and I started to wonder what gadgetry had produced it. This isn’t mentioned in the short preface by Fujita, or, it seems, in either of the substantial afterwords by the photographer Osamu Kanemura and a Mr. Hayashi. (Indeed, Kanemura seems not to mention the work or its creator, though he does have a paragraph on Gregor Samsa.) However, googling brought blog commentary that said Fujita had used an 11×14 camera. Fujita’s first book, Ki‑ryo 羈旅 (2000), does show and describe the equipment he used. Sure enough, 11×14: film size 355×280 mm, image size 345×265 mm. For that earlier book he used a 165 mm and a 210 mm lens (divide by ten for the rough equivalent at 36×24mm). The camera weighed 11.8 kg and five film holders added 11.6 kg. If this is what he used for Zaisyo too, then the reproductions in it are about half the size of mere contact prints. With today’s emulsions, it’s not obvious why 5×7, let alone 8×10, isn’t enough for anything other than bragging rights; but anyway this man deserves a floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography to exhibit thundering great silver gelatines of what we see miniaturized in the book.

Aside from the information it gives us, the earlier book merits a look. Ki‑ryo is B4 format, so the reproductions are bigger than in Zaisyo. But Zaisyo has almost three times as many of them, and is less than half the price. (And the reproductions in Ki‑ryo lack the hint of gold that subtly helps Zaisyo.) Best of all, the work itself in Zaisyo is on average more interesting than that in Ki‑ryo. For Ki‑ryo, Fujita mixed material similar to that in Zaisyo with head-on portrayals of Famous Buildings (and Ancient Trees) that – with apologies to Eiji Ina (Emperor of Japan) – I already get quite enough of in old postcards. So even aside from value for money, Zaisyo is the first choice.

Mitsuru Fujita, Ogi, Niigata Prefecture, September, 2000 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Ogi, Niigata Prefecture, September, 2000 — from Zaisyo

And so back to Zaisyo. It provides at least five Y-junctions (pp. 13, 31, 72, 75, 92) for your inner Yokoo. As well as the timber, corrugated iron and asphalt, you get individual private houses, riverfronts, and even the occasional viaduct (p.39) and station platform (p.57). The mood often tends to the melancholy, but it’s rarely if ever bleak: the sun does shine in numerous pages. There’s plenty of detail to draw you back. Every photograph is inconspicuously but clearly captioned on the page, so you don’t have to keep flipping to and from the back; yet in the back there’s also a list of photographs so you can quickly see what’s on offer from, say, Okayama prefecture. Though the book is covered in cardboard rather than cloth, it’s well bound in sewn signatures. As the colophon is in English as well as Japanese it’s odd that nothing else – captions, preface, afterwords – is in anything other than Japanese. If you can put up with this absence and you appreciate black and white views of the stuff of man-made Japan, this book is for you.

Please also see our extended gallery of images from Zaisyo. Signed copies of the book itself are available in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.

Peter Evans lives in Tokyo, among piles of photobooks.

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.

Tokyo Stories in Stockholm

Rickshaw Driver, Ginza,Tokyo, 1938. Photograph by Hiroshi Hamaya

Review by Lars Epstein for Japan Exposures.

The photographer Hiroshi Hamaya (1915-1999) was only 16 years old when in 1931, with his then-new Leica camera, he took the oldest of the pictures displayed in the photographic exhibition “Tokyo Stories”, which opened at the Kulturhuset (House of Culture) in Stockholm on March 6th. Hiroshi Hamaya was the youngest and perhaps the first Leica owner in Japan (the Leica appeared in 1929), according to Marc Feustel of Studio Equis in Paris, which has produced an exhibition which provides a composite picture of Tokyo’s development from the pre-World War II period to the super-modern society it is today. In addition to images by Hiroshi Hamaya, documentary photographs by Tadahiko Hayashi (1918-1990) and Shigeichi Nagano (born 1925) are also on display.

Curator Marc Feustel with a photograph by Tadahiko Hayashi in the background.
Curator Marc Feustel with a photograph by Tadahiko Hayashi in the background.

Hiroshi Hamaya (who received the Swedish Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography in 1987) strolled around in Tokyo with his camera in the 1930s and took a kind of “westernized” pictures, although he had no contact whatsoever with western photography. He documented a traditional Japan with geishas, rikschaw drivers and fortune-tellers, but also the emerging modernity of the city, and always with nerve and empathy.

Mother and children in a war-devastated area, Tokyo, 1947. Photography by Tadahiko Hayashi.
Mother and children in a war-devastated area, Tokyo, 1947. Photography by Tadahiko Hayashi.

Shigeichi Nagano’s photographs, also never shown before in Sweden, depict the emergence of modern Tokyo”

Tadahiko Hayashi’s images, never previously exhibited in Sweden, focus on the period just after the Second World War when Tokyo was in ruins and misery and poverty was widespread in the city. They form a deeply moving document of this period in Tokyo’s development. Shigeichi Nagano’s photographs, also never shown before in Sweden, depict the emergence of modern Tokyo, with students protests and the new emerging management philosophy.

Tokyo, 1995. Photography by Shigeichi Nagano.
Tokyo, 1995. Photography by Shigeichi Nagano.

The famous Swedish photographer Anders Petersen is a great friend of Japanese photography. He inaugurated the exhibition and expressed his delight that we now in Sweden have the opportunity to see some of the rich Japanese photographic tradition that foreshadowed photography giants such as Daido Moriyama and all his followers. You just have to agree with Anders Petersen. Those who miss this exhibition only have themselves to blame. The exhibition continues until May 2.

Anders Petersen inaugurates Tokyo Stories at Kulturhuset.
Anders Petersen inaugurates Tokyo Stories at Kulturhuset.

Lars EpsteinLars Epstein is a Swedish photographer and journalist, now retired. He has worked for 35 years at Sweden’s biggest daily morning paper Dagens Nyheter (Daily News), where he now has a photo blog.

Straightforward: I Don’t Sleep by Aya Fujioka

Japan Exposures’ contributors John Sypal and Dan Abbe recently had several online chat sessions about Japanese photographer Aya Fujioka and her new book, 私は眠らない, or I Don’t Sleep, published late last year by Akaaka Art Publishing. They were nice enough to send the transcripts over to us, and we present below an edited version of their thoughts about the book.

Dan Abbe: You know, I showed this book to two people – one a photographer, and one not – and they both really enjoyed it. It was interesting to watch their reactions while they flipped through it, like at first they did not know what they were looking at, but by the end they were very much in the book’s grip. I’m interested in the sequencing of the book — I feel like it relates things in a pretty coherent way, from start -> middle -> end.

John Sypal: There are two distinct chapters in it, aren’t there.

DA: At least two, I suppose.

JS: You know, I have always assumed that these pictures are in chronological order. Of course there is no way of knowing, but that was my impression.

DA: That was definitely my impression as well. It seems that way to me. But who knows. However, it’s interesting that we both had that impression. I think everyone who looks at the book feels that way. The sequencing was entirely different.

JS: It is truly convincing, this sense that it is sequential.

DA: Definitely. It produces a very strong effect. There’s a strong current flowing through the book — it’s going in a direction. It could be just as simple as saying that this current equals the direction of time, going forwards in time from one point to another.

JS: Yeah. More than “Place”, the photographs are about “Time”. And photographs in general are fundamentally structured through, with, and in time. Rinko Kawauchi has a book called Cui Cui which deals with the death of a family member in a far more literal — visually literal — way than Fujioka has in this book. But after photos of Kawauchi’s grandfather’s funeral, a few pages later he comes back. It’s like “Hey look! There’s grandpa!”

DA: He was resurrected???

JS: He was — photographically.

DA: Haha.

It’s not a book about Japan, it’s not really a book about Death with a capital D, it’s not a simple “Girly-Photo” snapshot collection. ”

JS: You just don’t know what is what in the book.

DA: What do you mean?

JS: It’s not a book about Japan, it’s not really a book about Death with a capital D, it’s not a simple “Girly-Photo” snapshot collection. Things are recognizable — for the most part. Maybe I’m getting tripped up on that photo of the hands rising out from behind a table with tangerines on it.

DA: I don’t think that she was really worrying too much about how the audience would receive this, i.e. as “a book about Japan,” etc

I Don't Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.
I Don’t Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.

JS: It’s a good example of how her images are straightforward but feel like they’re coming around a bend of some sort.

DA: It’s certainly very complicated, but I don’t think that’s because she wanted to make a “complicated book.”

JS: Right, and I am glad about that. It isn’t a book about Japan. Or the Japanese. It’s about her immediate surroundings at a particular time. Literal and Emotional. It’s this sideways kind of take — a slight slant. Not in a formal sense but rather in aligning reality with herself. ずれ (zure) in Japanese works better to describe it.

DA: I like the word “straightforward”.

JS: It’s sometimes a crutch when describing photos — but here it works.

DA: I guess what I’m getting at is that she is trying to take “straightforward” photos of a situation that is definitely not “straightforward” — even though, at the same time, it kind of is, in that it can be condensed down to one sentence – a relative is dying.

JS: I think the challenge is that it’s hard to express how closely this must feel like. That is, how it must feel to be able to see out from inside someone else’s head. The pictures are structured and filtered through her own reasonings — of course this is true for any photographer but Fujioka pulls it off unassumingly. I don’t feel like there’s any real lesson to be learned, or any broad preachy emotive expression about the Human Condition.

Fujioka is trying to take “straightforward” photos of a situation that is definitely not “straightforward”, even though it can be condensed down to one sentence – a relative is dying.”

DA: I agree. It seems like a very honest attempt to communicate her experience during this time.

JS: Death does make many subtle appearances — the mourning Kimono, the Funeral Photograph, the tangerine carcasses on the beach.

DA: You never actually see her mother’s face — there’s one shot where she’s facing the camera but she’s got this heavy face mask on.

JS: How important is it to know that it is her mother?

DA: Hmm…

JS: I didn’t find any contextual information in the book.

DA: There isn’t any, although maybe if you spent a lot of time with the book you could put it together. I’m not sure. It could be vitally important, or not at all. It definitely affects the way I look at the book, but I think it would still be possible to get something from it otherwise. Sorry, that’s not a very good answer — but I liked your question.

By the way, there are a number of photos with “mistakes”.

JS: Light leaks?

I Don't Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.
I Don’t Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.

DA: Yeah. I wonder how (or why) they were produced.

JS: There’s certainly a Toy Camera boom… but again I think that her work is different. Lazy viewers might dismiss her work as “snapshots” or “Hiromix” (or Japanese Girly Photos, etc) which is done at the expense of missing out on a wonderful and challenging collection of photographs.

DA: Yeah, I mean many of the photos are certainly unplanned. But the editing of the book makes it entirely different from a “snapshot book”, just in the way those books approach experience.

JS: I’m a big fan of true snapshots (although I hate the term). I have a Japanese book called “Childlens” on my shelf – – it was a disposable camera project where kids of ages 2 to 5 were given cameras with which they made photographs which were both mind blowing and humbling (to me as a photographer) at the same time.

DA: I saw a copy of Araki’s “Sentimental Journey” today (selling for $3000), I wonder if that might be closer to this in spirit. I wouldn’t really know, not having seen more than 10 of the photos, but just as an example of something that’s more closely connected to what’s happening to the photographer.

JS: With Fujioka — I mean, you have a name on the cover and a few lines at the end of her words — but I don’t feel all that close to “her”.

DA: For me it feels almost uncomfortably close.

JS: Experiencing Fujioka’s work is to me akin to trying to remember a dream in those moments right after you wake up. But that sounds like a super lame tag line. Her work is beyond such gimmicks.

I Don't Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.
I Don’t Sleep, by Aya Fujioka. Published by Akaaka, 2009.

DA: I dunno, it doesn’t seem quite that vague to me. Images might be hard to process directly as “information” but as I said before, there is a strong current going through the book, whether that’s a kind of narrative, or her feelings, or whatever.

JS: I’m interested in the visual themes that resurface throughout the book. Vegetation, hands, looking through things…

DA: Dirty windows…

JS: Being looked at through things, like the paper door and the woman’s facial mask…

DA: hula hoops, oranges…

JS: …and arms held out. Also the old man’s face is previewed as a sketch on a stool. Across from the photo of the woman face down on a bed.

DA: So many hands!

JS: And on one page, trees have fingers. It’s a photo across from a picture with hands in it. There’s also tile roofs and tatami-mat covered rooms

DA: Right. Well, how much do you want to make of these recurring things?

JS: I think that recurring elements are very important. But I don’t think that she is a collector out there thinking “oh boy here’s some more oranges” and then fires off 8 frames of film. It seems more likely that as she shoots she begins to see patterns emerge. That’s how it should be, anyway. The patterns emerge from looking at prints or whatever way it is that she deals with the physical aspects of her photography.

Aya Fujiya -- from I Don't Sleep
Aya Fujiya — from I Don’t Sleep

DA: I agree. They strike me as a (maybe unconscious?) way to order her experience, maybe as she was taking the photos or, like you’re suggesting, maybe after it. Everyone is drawn to certain things.

JS: Yeah. By the way, the picture of the square-ish cube-shaped frozen octopus in the round plastic bowl blew me away and to place it across from the photo of the nude woman in a square wooden bath was genius.
Let’s talk about the book’s design — it’s pretty amazing. It’s big, and the pictures are big. The white frame keeps them separate from the reader’s own world. And we shouldn’t neglect the fact of how some of the vertical shots are postioned! This was the first time I had seen a book where “down” was the gutter for two facing pages of pictures. (the photo of the woman with the apple and the observation point ceramic sign).

DA: I agree — it’s a really well done book. The vertical spreads only come at the beginning, no?

JS: Around there.

DA: I was thinking about making some nice color copies of the pages to put up on my wall. The colors are fantastic.

JS: Yeah! Her palette is so different from most other Japanese photographers working in color. It’s richer, but not saturated. She shoots film– and the grain works in her favor. For whatever it’s worth, I know she uses a little Nikon FM2 with a 35 or 50mm lens. I have also met her when she had a Werra over her shoulder. It’s a clever little German camera that has you advance the film by rotating a collar around the lens. How this affects her photographs, I don’t know. I’d like to think that the physical necessities surrounding her camera operation lends itself to the quiet feel of her work. And in the way Fujioka responds emotionally to places and events, she utilizes time to create these pictures which are truly beautiful. Beauty might not be her end goal, but we shouldn’t ignore their aesthetic poignancy in addition to the emotional impact of this fantastic collection of photography.

Please also see our gallery of Aya Fujioka’s work along with an introduction by John Sypal.

I Don’t Sleep is available in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.

John SypalJohn Sypal, was born and raised in Nebraska, USA, and currently lives in Matsudo city (Chiba Pref.). John has been exhibiting his photographs widely in the US and in Japan. His photographs are frequently featured in Japanese photo magazines. He is currently a member of Machikata Sampo Shashin Doumei (Walking Photographers Alliance). John also enjoys meeting people and photographs their cameras for tokyo camera style.

Dan Abbe

Dan Abbe lives in Tokyo and writes a blog about photography called Street Level Japan.

My Favorite Japanese Photobooks of 2009

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.

Ivan Vartanian‘s survey Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s shows up twice (Ed Templeton, Richard Gordon), which was both heartening and worrying — let’s hope that it’s not an indication that we need to harken back to those halcyon days to get our photobook fixes.

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 AbeCitizens, 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.

Honorable mentions to the following: Gyahtei, by Manabu Yamanaka; Faraway Eyes, by Jiro Nomura; Hong Kong Reminiscence 1958, by Shigeichi Nagano; and Banta, by Osamu James Nakagawa.

What were some of the 2009 books from Japan that Japan Exposures readers enjoyed?

Welcome to the Asadas — Masashi Asada’s Asadake

Review by Dan Abbe for Japan Exposures.

Earlier this year, a friend mentioned to me that he’d recently seen an award-winning show at the Konica Minolta gallery. It had apparently made a real impression on him, so when I next found myself in Shinjuku I decided to stop by. As it turned out, the show was “Asadake” by Masashi Asada, who won the 31st career-making Kimura Ihei Award. (Hiromix and Rinko Kawauchi are two recent winners whose names may be familiar to readers.)

Having only recalled a bit of my friend’s description — something about family — I didn’t really know what to expect. Walking in to the room I saw about 15 or 20 large color prints, with no clear visual order. I remember thinking to myself: “what am I looking at?” Even looking at the first print, I couldn’t process the image properly. Why was it so big? Who were those people? Why were they in a ramen shop? Who takes a large format camera to a ramen shop anyway? And why was the woman in the corner giving the camera such a strange, knowing smile?

I couldn’t process the image properly. Who were those people? Why were they in a ramen shop? Who takes a large format camera to a ramen shop anyway?”

Soon I remembered the concept behind the show: Asada takes portraits of his family (in Japanese, the “Asadake”) in highly staged situations, often engaged in activities that would have some resonance for a Japanese audience: working at a ramen shop, gathering at a school assembly, campaigning for votes in a white van, and so on. (It’s worth noting that others are less specifically Japanese, like playing in a rock band, reporting a news story on TV, or fixing up a car.)

It seems to me that the intent of using these activities is not to comment on contemporary Japanese culture, as they’re never scrutinized in any serious way. Rather, they are a medium through which Asada can heighten the feeling of his portraits. Using these artificial situations brings out the personalities of the members of his family, and also creates a relationship between the work and its audience.

Masashi Asada, from Asadake (2008)
Masashi Asada, from Asadake (2008)
To create these portraits, Asada had to put his family into some fairly strange situations. For example, how often do you pretend to be on the set of a fashion shoot with your family? The obvious relish with which Asada’s parents (an older couple) tear into their roles in this image is what makes it work. As a model being photographed, the mother wears a glamorous all black outfit, and two gaudy purses more likely to be found on a woman at least half her age. She affects an almost contemptous look, while the father, an art director, sports a bowler hat, a ludicrous shawl of some sort, and a posture that suggests, “I’m thinking very deeply about what’s going on here.” Throughout the work, the audience finds the family wearing silly outfits, or pretending to be something they’re obviously not. This reveals the person to the audience—the mother’s come-hither pose communicates something tangible about her ability to take herself seriously. Depending on the situation, there can be genuine feelings of humor, warmth, or seriousness in the way that the subject approaches their role. This feeling breaks through the artificial conceit of the scene.

Masashi Asada, from Asadake (2008)
Masashi Asada, from Asadake (2008)
Asada’s work makes it easy for the audience to establish a relationship with his family. Although the scenes are obviously staged—and there can only be an initial, fleeting doubt about this—they play a small but useful trick on the audience. In an uncanny way, it’s as if the audience already knows them from the beginning: here are the farmers you see when you visit your grandma in the countryside, here are the drunk office workers you see around midnight, here is the staff at your local ramen shop. Taking an American audience, for example, scenes at a drive-through fast food restaurant, a high school football game, or the parking lot of a big box retailer could produce the same effect. Even if you don’t love those things, they would be immediately recognizable in the way that a white political campaign van will be recognizable to anyone who lives in Japan. Asada effectively removes a barrier to identification with his subjects by placing them in these situations.

Masashi Asada, from Asadake (2008)
Masashi Asada, from Asadake (2008)
The charm of “Asadake” is that it seems as though everyone could be about to break into laughter. This is actually the case in the ramen shop photo, where the mother gives the camera a sly grin, but it’s even more pronounced in the political campaign van photo, where everyone is cracking up. Each person shows the role they are playing, but they show themselves as well. It’s not a surprise that this image got quite a lot of attention at the gallery, where people would come up to it and share in the absurdly joyous moment.

Masashi Asada, from Asadake (2008)
Masashi Asada, from Asadake (2008)
The audience at the Konica Minolta exhibition was certainly in tune with the humor running through Asadake. Almost without fail, people walking into the gallery would stop for a few seconds, figure out what was going on, and then laugh all the way through the series. The feeling of walking through an exhibition where most people were laughing, gesturing at a photo, or calling a friend over to see something outrageous was certainly much different than most photography exhibits I’ve seen. In such an atmosphere, it was hard to not feel close to the subjects of the work. I haven’t ever heard of such a thing, but the exhibit felt like a getting-to-know-you party for the Asadas.

You can purchase a copy of Asadake (The Asadas) in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.

Dan Abbe
Dan Abbe lives in Tokyo and writes a blog about photography called Street Level Japan.