Category Archives: Review

Reviews of photographs, books and other topics of interest

Yutaka Takanashi’s Field Notes

Yutaka Takanashi’s current retrospective at The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, — it runs until March 8 — is a great opportunity not only to view the trajectory of a career that has spanned close to 50 years, but also to trace the city of Tokyo from its pre-1964 Olympics days up to the present day. Over 11 different series, we can follow Takanashi’s varied takes on the loose theme of “The City”.

Figures of commuters solitarily ensconced in the bubbles of private space on a packed train.

Early on we have Takanashi as “economic miracle” chronicler in the mold of Shomei Tomatsu with the series “Tokyoites”, a series of 15 photos all taken in the year 1965. The photos are not all about boom and prosperity, to be sure, but the mood is generally upbeat. The images for the most part are intimate, a single figure captured in his or her world — a boy peering into a doll house, a woman nursing a baby in a speeding Mazda, or the figures of commuters solitarily ensconced in the bubbles of private space on a packed train.

Yutaka Takanashi: from "Towards the City" series
Yutaka Takanashi: from “Towards the City” series

But on the other side of the wall, literally and figuratively, we have the series “Towards the City” of photos from the 60’s and 70’s. It is one of the few series where the capture details — when the photos were taken, the locales, etc. — are not provided, an aberration for the inveterate note taker Takanashi (the exhibition does after all bear the subtitle, “Field Notes of Light”). Takanashi was one of the founding members of the short-lived avant-garde group Provoke, known for their grainy, blurry black and white aesthetic, and these pictures, like that of the other “Provoke” artists of the time, are grainy in the extreme, poised between carefree and careless, and without any focus (both types). In contrast to the “Tokyoites” photos, the images here are generally long distant scenes, landscapes in a way. The angles are skewed, sharpness definitely a bourgeois concept. You get the feeling these were taken out in the country, from speeding cars, no doubt traveling “towards the city”.

Takanashi settled down after that heady time, and we don’t see again the same level of angst in his later work — but the restlessness is there in the ways Takanashi has taken on various projects and adapted various modes of working to accomplish them. Some more successful than others, it has to be said, in part I think because some of this work was driven by series published in the camera monthlies of the time, and carries with it vestiges of Takanashi’s commercial photographic work.

Along a long wall of the exhibit is the series “Hastukuni: pre-landscape” shot from the mid-80s to the early-90s, across the whole of Japan from Okinawa to Hokkaido, often taking as its focus various shrines and temples, as well as festivals. It’s a difficult series to grasp, in part because many of the photos for me are not compelling in their own right. You get the feeling it is a project that comes better across in book form, though personally I’m not familiar with Takanashi’s 1993 book of the same name.

Empty, people-less spaces, yet stolid, girded for the coming decades.

Yutaka Takanashi: From the series "Visages of the Metropolis"
Yutaka Takanashi: From the series “Visages of the Metropolis”

The series Visages of a Metropolis, from the late 80’s (published in book form in 1989), are photos Takanashi shot at night with a 6×7 camera, focusing on Tokyo buildings and structures that date from the 20s and 30s. They have a film noir feel to them — empty, people-less spaces, yet stolid, girded for the coming decades we know in retrospect they have survived. Though in earlier series on view — Machi (Town, 1977) and Text of the City: Shinjuku (1982-83) — Takanashi explored space as a type of city-dweller in and of itself, both series (one of storefronts and store interiors, the other of bar interiors) seem a bit cold and inaccessible, the various tightly framed, claustrophobic spaces more typological than individual. In the “Metropolis” photos, we get something in between the ephemeral gobs of grain of Towards the City and the specificity of these two series.

In the current decade, Takanashi has continued to explore the spaces of the city, alternating between a static, formal mode of exposition, and a decidedly more fluid one. In Nostalghia (2004) and Kakoi-machi (2007), he uses color film to explore the modern urban landscape of Tokyo and its environs. These two series are presented together, and unlike any of the series on view at the exhibition, here the photos are printed large and hung mosaic-like along three walls, so that walking through this semi-enclosed space indeed does feel like walking through a city where city planning has been thrown out the window, a city moving forward by accumulation rather than regeneration.

Yutaka Takanashi: From the series "Kakoi-machi"
Yutaka Takanashi: From the series “Kakoi-machi”

In both series, but in Kakoi-machi in particular, many photos use as a visual motif those blue billowing tarps that are used to enclose buildings as they are being constructed, or the solid fences that enclose — and cut off — construction sites from the rest of the city. (We can translate the title as “enclosed city”). Takanashi uses these veils, as it were, to explore the fact that while the intention is to keep these places from view until their unveiling, we as dwellers of this place can’t avoid what is in effect the proverbial elephant in the room.

Takanashi has taken the idea of enclosed space in a completely different direction in the two other series that close this retrospective, WINDSCAPE (2004) and silver passin’ (2008), both a return to black and white and a more hand-held aesthetic. In the former series, which was included in book form as a supplement to Nostalghia, Takanashi shoots the landscape, both urban and rural, from local trains throughout Japan. (The series was shot between 2001-2003). There is no attempt to hide the fact that Takanashi is behind the glass of a train car, often incorporating the reflections and glare into the photographs.

Yutaka Takanashi: From the series "silver passin'"
Yutaka Takanashi: From the series “silver passin'”

Likewise, Takanashi’s most recent work has been a series of photographs taken while riding Tokyo’s city bus system. Taking advantage of his age to qualify for a “silver pass” — a reduced-fee bus pass for senior citizens — Takanashi haunts the city in an entirely different way. Unlike the train journeys, here he is in the midst of the city, only a meter or two from the sidewalk, and while there are one or two photos that give away he’s on a bus, the overall effect is a disconcerting one where Takanashi is both on the street and above it.

We have the catalog for this exhibition in the bookstore. While not outstanding by any means, it does reproduce every photograph in the exhibition and therefore serves as a good overview of Takanashi’s career. We also carry Takanashi’s 2007 book Kakoi-machi.

Takanashi’s early books like Towards the City (1974, self-published) and Tokyoites, 1978-1983 (1983, Shoshi-Yamada) are works of art in their own right that would cost you dearly if you can find them (expect to pay upwards of $2000 for the former, Takanashi’s first book). If you ever have the opportunity to see these books in person — the library at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography is one such place — I recommend you seize it.

Hiroshi Sugimoto Visions in my Mind

My first encounter with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work was in a 1980s compilation of Japanese modern art featuring his movie theatre and seascape works. Not surprisingly, it took me quite a while to wrap my own mind around his visions.

What is fascinating about Sugimoto’s photographs is that even when looking at work from 20 or 30 years ago, it still seems very much contemporary and recent. The reasons for this are surely manifold, but not least because of the use of black and white, the often archetypal subject matter and ultimately the work’s examination of timelessness itself (which would make an interesting nested double conundrum). This short documentary is an attempt to get a better impression about the man behind the pictures.

I have hundreds of different ideas always in my mind, secretly.

The film opens with Sugimoto experimenting with a Van de Graaff static electricity generator throwing sparks between the machine’s and the handheld spherical devices. The sparks are to be recorded on sheets of 8×10 film and later to be enlarged to prints resembling giant fireworks of lightnings, x-rays or even aerial reconnaissance images. He states that he had the idea to explore this when removing or inserting dark slides into the film holders during dry winters, which generated sparks, ruining the film in them.

His statement “I have hundreds of different ideas always in my mind, secretly” is the thread that appears to lead us from one project to another. Sugimoto is a quiet and persevering explorer of fascinating small details in the world which most of us would not care to look at for extended periods of time. While this may be valid for any noteworthy photographer, Sugimoto’s approach is unique in that it appears to completely isolate the subject matter, place it under the microscope (or rather the camera) and then records it in a quasi-scientific manner, often in a variety of subtle variations. While watching the film it occurs to me that a comparison to Edward Muybridge is not too far fetched.

The film continues to follow Sugimoto around during the preparations of his major retrospective. We join — presumably invited — visitors being shown around and explained selected works by the artist himself. Technically inclined viewers will certainly appreciate a glimpse at the working practices of a master, including his darkroom or the explanation of the “double-infinity” technique used in the Architecture series. Large format or film photographers in general will be assured that dust on film and prints will treat everyone equally, master or novice.

This documentary film by German art historian, curator and independent documentary filmmaker Maria Anna Tappeiner provides some valuable views on Sugimoto and his works. However, overall its approach appears rather detached, even restrained, showing little desire to dig its teeth into such rich subject material. Mostly for this reason I feel it ultimately falls short of giving the viewer the deeper thoughts behind the works, the influences, motivations and intentions. We see a lot of the well-known art works, results of brilliant craftsmanship, the Sugimoto studio with staff working on computers or work-in-progress images lined up against the walls – but even though these things catch the film viewers attention we are not enlightened about them, which is a shame. We are left with the impression of having scratched only the surface of a universe, about what makes the man tick. While this film is a must for all Sugimoto fans, to me at least it at no time seems to get near enough to reveal the title theme of visions in the mind.

The Visions in my Mind DVD is available in the Japan Exposures bookstore. We also have a couple of recent special magazine editions devoted to Sugimoto.

Ufer! Art Documentary, Germany, 2007, DIGIBETA, Colour, 43 min, English with Japanese subtitles

Film official site and trailer

Official Hiroshi Sugimoto home page

X-mas crossed: processing slide film with the Naniwa Colorkit N

Text and images by Christoph Hammann for Japan Exposures

Germany is full of Christmas fairs this time of the year. They are to be found in every larger town and even in some villages. Visually, they are an assault of colored lights, vivid vendor‘s stalls and people mingling and socializing while sipping Glühwein (mulled wine) and nibbling Lebkuchen (gingerbread).

C Hammann Naniwa Cross Process Review

What better to represent this mood photographically than cross-developed color slide film? So I found myself visiting the Nordhausen Christmas fair on the first Advent Sunday with my Nikon S3, Nikkor-P.C 1:2 f= 8.5 cm lens on it and Fujifilm Provia 400X in it.

Back home, I developed the film as if it were a C41 color negative film. I used the Naniwa Color Kit N with exactly the same procedure as in my previous article. Cross-development is always kind of an experiment, and you get surprising results.

As I said, Glühwein is an important part of the German Christmas fair experience, this vendor was happily counting his revenues.

C Hammann Naniwa Cross Process Review

These fellows seem to have consumed a fair amount of the spiced red wine.

C Hammann Naniwa Cross Process Review

The tonality lends a dystopic mood to the cosy scene, colors are rendered a bit off, gradation is steep and saturation is way up for some colors and rather subdued for others.

These are the results if you choose to scan the cross-developed slide film as a color negative film. It looks that way, too, minus the orange mask.

But sometimes you chance upon a „negative“ that makes sense as it is. So then you can of course scan it as the slide film that it was before you mistreated it in C41 chemistry. This is what that looks like after some levels and curves in Vuescan:

C Hammann Naniwa Cross Process Review

Here, of course, we‘re no longer at the Christmas fair, this is the facade of Jenoptic, one company that split off the east german branch of Zeiss.

After some straightening in Photoshop, you get the instant Warhologram that is the image at the top.

This is what this picture would have looked like had I scanned it as a negative:
C Hammann Naniwa Cross Process Review

I think I like both ways of treating cross-processed slide film in post-processing. Each one has it’s own creative possibilities.

So, if your lab would scoff at you for such an unreasonable demand, why not try it yourself? Dunk the wrong kind of film into the Naniwa Color Kit N and see what you get. It’s easy and fun!

Merry Cross-mas!

Christoph Hammann is a fine art photographer from Waltershausen, Germany. He works with traditional film and silver halide papers as well as digital post-processing and alternative printing techniques. His website is “Mostly Black & White”.

Nobuyoshi Araki’s Koushoku Painting

Nobuyoshi Araki’s recent Koushoku Painting show at Rathole Gallery (October 17 – December 7, 2008) featured 10 very large silver gelatin black and white prints that Araki had then painted over with various colors. Most of the photos depicted different models in various states of bondage, or “kinbaku” as it is known in Japanese. This is of course very familiar territory for Araki, and on first thought it was hard to get excited about the prospect of seeing more of these, but the show was well worth seeing.

The majority of the painting has been applied in an abstract way, splotches of color here and there, brushstrokes here and there, all with bright, primary colors. While the paint obscures what we can see in the photos — sometimes frustratingly so — it is also quite appealing in its own right. There were also more literal uses of the color, such as in one photo where an eating fork looks to pierce the model’s breast, and here starts a brilliant red daub of paint that eventually runs down the remainder of the canvas. It’s obvious to be sure, but coupled with the artifice of the photo itself, it seemed in keeping for this “wound” to erupt in blood-red paint splotches.

On a purely visual level, the works were stunning. The size of each canvas (each over 130cm by 160cm), the sumptuousness of the black and white, and the vibrancy and texture of the color paint, created works which were gorgeous to look at, despite whatever reservations one might have about the subject matter.

Coming from crude triangular cut-outs hiding the genitalia, to be confronted with life-size, full-blown labia, was needless to say a rather breathtaking experience.

Personally I found the works to be highly erotic, which was surprising to me. Frankly I have never cared for this side of Araki — nor of this side of Japanese sexuality and eroticism. Although I realize that I’m looking at it via Western eyes, it remains for me threatening, violent, and when you get right down to it, just not my cup of tea. Despite these prejudices, however, I found myself quickly warming to the idea that there might be more to this art form — and Araki’s treatment of it — than I previously was prepared to cede.

One thing that immediately jumps to mind when you look at the works is that it isn’t often you see such unabashed exposure of the female nude form, especially in Japan with its somewhat outdated restrictions against showing the pubic area. Araki’s own early books are a perfect example of this censorship, with their crude triangular cut-outs hiding the genitalia. Coming from this, to be confronted with life-size, full-blown labia, if you pardon the expression, was needless to say a rather breathtaking experience. More than erotic though, the pictures were very beautiful. And, as with a lot of Araki, they are also ugly and base.

One of the most arresting pieces in the show was one where the model has been suspended in mid-air by ropes. Because we don’t get to see the apparatus by which she is hanging — coupled with her calm, reposed expression — the ropes lose something of their menace. The model seems to be floating, like a diver in water, or an astronaut in gravity-less space. Unlike other kinbaku of this type, where an apparatus is used to suspend the woman in mid-air, and where the photos of models suspended like this are often shown hung upside down, or with their bodies contorted, Araki instead opts for a frontal approach. The model faces us, her legs suspended with ropes in a way that makes her look like she is sitting down for us. It could almost be a portrait. As such, she is presented as a more complete entity than the models in other photos.

The background in this photo helps to set it apart. It is clear that it was shot in a traditional Japanese house, and through open doors we can see outside beyond the model to what we imagine is a Japanese garden. Whereas the other works’ settings have a decidedly Western — or neutral, in the case of one photo with a studio backdrop — feel, spaces enclosed by walls with peeling patterned wallpaper and occupied by old Europe furniture, the airiness of this particular setting enhances the floating impression. On the floor lies an object which looks like one of Feininger’s seashells or some kind of elongated snail. Compared to a Godzilla figure or a rubber lizard that feature in other works, it is non-threatening, but earthy, helping to collapse interior and exterior space. The model’s kimono pushes the traditional aspect further, as does her fringe haircut. With its elaborate design, its excess of material and folds, the kimono makes this particular model the most-clothed of those on display. It is therefore with some irony that anatomically speaking, this is the most exposed of all the models, and Araki has resisted obscuring the woman’s sex with daubs of paint as he has done elsewhere.

There is another work by Araki done along the same lines, not shown at the Rathole exhibition but included in the accompanying catalog. It makes for an interesting contrast with the just-described photo. Here too a woman is hoisted in the air. Again, we cannot see from where she is hanging, only that she is suspended in air, giving us the same sensation that she is not hanging so much as floating. And here too, the model assumes a calm, almost bored expression. However, unlike the image in the show, the background is yet another interior, with a mock-Doric column nightstand with a black cat doll atop it. More importantly, here the model is completely nude. Because she is without clothes, there is no mistaking that her hands are bound behind her back. In fact, the hands can be seen dangling behind her, like a perverted extension of her vagina, or something — a fish, a butterfly — emanating from it. It’s a disconcerting appendage, if you will, but it also viscerally notches up the woman’s vulnerability. It’s a shame there wasn’t enough space to include this and a couple of other works that are shown in the catalog.

The lizard is a stand-in for a Warhol-like Araki that we know instinctively is just off-frame, turned on by the spectacle, and turned on by his control of the power cords.

If it was possible to have a show-stopper in this exhibition of show-stoppers, it was one photo where a woman lies on a hardwood floor with her legs kicked up in the air, her hands reaching up to grab her heels in an ultimate “do me” pose. Her arms and legs are tied together as if to seal her available condition. Her head is completely obscured and the ropes give the impression of tied-up meat or a stitched together assemblage of Hans Bellmer body parts. A vibrator has been inserted into her vagina. We presume that it is “turned on” because we see it tethered to it’s battery-powered controller lying on the floor, and because the picture allows us no other realistic choice. As if to power the point home, on the floor lies another vibrator, still sheathed in a used condom, as if it had been castrated in flagrante delicto. The two vibrator cords are mildly tangled up with each other, and together with the slack power cord of a lamp in the background, they all seem to be mocking the taut ropes that bind the model. Near the vibrators is a rubber lizard, its mouth agape, poised between a lascivious grin and a heckling laugh. More threatening than a snail, yet much less self-consciously artificial than Godzilla, the lizard on the periphery of the action is a stand-in for a Warhol-like Araki that we know instinctively is just off-frame, turned on by the spectacle, and turned on by his control of the power cords.

Beyond the ropes and these props however, it is with his paint — the paint that is after all this show’s reason for being — that Araki gives us his final coup de grace. Unlike the majority of the works in the show and accompanying catalog, where the paint is applied relatively sparingly, here the entire canvas of the original print seems to have been stained with some sort of yellowish layer of paint. Since it shows up most clearly against the naked white body of the tied-up model, it gives one the further impression that this is no longer a woman on the floor but mere body parts, as if they were soaking in formaldehyde. But Araki doesn’t stop there. He has painted a circle around the model. This circle, even as it marks her as the haloed/hallowed focal point around which the tawdry props revolve, also demarcates the limits of her existence. Of course the shoot will end, and the model’s rope burns will fade with time, but as canvas she will, like Rauschenberg’s goat, be trapped in that circle, the paint mixing with silver gelatin to fix her twice.

The catalog accompanying this exhibition, Nobuyoshi Araki: KOUSHOKU PAINTING, is available for purchase from the Japan Exposures bookstore. Images from the book can also be seen there.

Tomoko Sawada’s School Days

The first impression you get from picking up and open Tomoko Sawada’s School Days is that while it is a standard, small sized photo book and specified as a paperback, the pages are thick cardboard pages like a children’s book. This gives the book a chunky feel, but also means that the number of pages and therefore the number of plates included are limited; only 10 images are on display here. However, this should not be of any concern since once you look at the material it becomes clear that these are essentially ten very similar images and adequately communicate the intent.

As many other now well-known photographers, especially the recent wave of female photo artists, Sawada’s career breakthrough came via the annual Canon New Cosmos of Photography contest and exhibition. She has won the prestigious Kimura Ihei Award in 2004 and is now one of the well-known names in Japanese photography. The majority of – if not all – her work are portraits or perhaps better images of herself. Since a portrait is – or perhaps is supposed to be amongst many other possible things – an image, usually of a person, that reveals something about that person, it would be appropriate to say that Sawada’s images do not reveal anything about her person except her obvious desire to assume different persona and appearances. For this reason she is often compared to the work of Cindy Sherman. This comparison seems only superficially valid, however, as the primary commonalities are that both of them are female artists that take pictures of themselves in different situations and with differing appearances. This again leads to the obvious thought that the images are about identity and the role of a woman in society.

The Japanese group photograph has a long, great tradition and is socially significant. In a culture where the molecular social fabric consists of groups of people it seems only reasonable to document the group photographically as if to reassure the viewer of its existence or the subject’s actual integration with the network. Formal group photographs are taken in a wide variety of occasions: in schools, at weddings, travelling tour groups and employees at company outings to just name a few. School Days chooses the convention of the class photograph with the typical backdrop, ideally a blossoming cherry tree, or simply the standard boxy Japanese school building. Since all the subjects in the photographs are girls in their identical high school uniforms with the exception of the teacher, it takes a few moments to realise that everyone including the teacher is actually one and the same person, or rather, have the same face with differing hairstyles and facial expressions.

This introduces another angle to the series, which is that of homogeneity and conformism in Japanese society. I see this interpretation with some scepticism and an overly Western view, which presupposes that all Japanese look similar and are brought up to be similar. While there is an element of truth in this, such an interpretation appears to be exaggerated. If the artist had indeed intended to examine this aspect of society, then the choice of a group of people in uniform is not a very subtle approach. Quite the opposite, since at first glance the girls all look different it would suggest that individuality in a literally uniform environment is possible, which is not always obvious to the untrained Western eye.

Tomoko Sawada School Days

School Days is not and does not have to be a book of beautiful photographs. The images are clearly digitally composited, including the dropped in background. The printing quality reminds of inexpensive digital output, but this is not of great importance here and perhaps even appropriate as this is what you usually end up with as group member whose photo was taken.

Neither in my view is in this series the angle of femininity of great significance, although it is not surprising if this aspect would be emphasised by Western viewers as it is conveniently presented for such interpretation. Replace these high school girls with uniformed boys and the result would be the same. Consequently Sawada’s work appears to want us to think primarily about aspects of our identity, that every person is unique and probably can be unique in an infinitely number of ways (some of her early passport booth work consists of hundreds of photos of herself). That a single person can appear different on the outside in a myriad of ways but will always be the same person internally. Ultimately she seems to ask over and over again what is the connection between personality and the appearance of a person and whether there is such a connection at the first place. Sawada’s work not only examines social aspects of identity but also photography’s ability to represent reality – a classic question, but in my view the work presents only few new answers and one is left desiring more profound insight than currently the case.

School Days is available for purchase from the Japan Exposures bookstore.

Elsewhere on the web

More of Sawada’s images can be seen at Zabriskie Gallery

Tomoko Sawada’s home page

Developing color negative film with the Naniwa Colorkit N


Text and images by Christoph Hammann for Japan Exposures

When I took up a new project this fall, I decided to try my hand at developing color negative film. This is supposed to be difficult and prone to developing errors. In fact, though I had bought some Fuji Pro800 rollfilm and a Naniwa Colorkit N C-41 developing kit earlier, I held them back for just such fears. Then when the fall color got very intense this year, I couldn‘t go on photographing in black & white. The first two rolls of 120 film I dropped off at my local photo shop, getting a digi-evangelization in the process. They came back developed rather grainy and the test prints were off-color. Having them developed wasn‘t cheap either!

This I can do better, I thought.

Turns out I was right! Here‘s the material I used:

The temperature was kept constant at 30 °C with a Jobo Temperbox TBE2, essentially a heated water bath with a thermostat and receptables for bottles, graduated beakers and the developing drum. I collected some exposed rolls of Fuji Pro800 and proceeded to mix the solutions.

The Naniwa Colorkit N comes with concise, clear instructions in English in addition to Japanese, for which I was grateful…

Mixing the solutions

The developer takes on an appealing pink color once mixed. The blix (short for bleach/fixer) on the other hand is of an ugly brownish cast and smells bad.

Developer and Blix

Ready to start developing. Times for all C41 process films seem to be the same regardless of ISO, as long as you expose them at their native ISO. So this is how those automatic minilabs work! The kit comes with tables for dev times for push development plus one or two stops, too.

Pouring back the developer and getting ready to blix it.

Watering at about 30 °C and for a defined time, this washes out some of the orange mask. My first two self-developed rolls of color negative film hanging to dry!

Rinsing and drying

This works for sheet film, too. I used Fujifilm 160 NS 8×10 in film, the developing drum this time was an old Durst Codrum originally meant for the Cibachrome process.

It has ridges inside so the film comes into contact with the chemicals from both sides and takes 200 ml of solutions.
Sheet film processing

Getting it out of the drum without scratching the delicate, wet emulsion is best done with the drum filled with water to the top.

To end with, here are some results.

The shot at the top is the 8″x10″ nighttime shot, I was delighted that the film could render the different colors of lighting and had such a high latitude and subtle graduation of tones. Exposure time was 8 minutes at f/45.


This picture is from the fall colors project called „diffugium“. The Fuji Pro800 rollfilm proved to be quite fine-grained, the negatives were easy to scan and the pictures were versatile in post-processing in Photoshop.

For example, as this picture from the same roll of film (but from a different project) shows, it is easy to increase saturation and still keep good colors.

I will definitely be using these films and the Naniwa Colorkit N for current and future color projects.

Coming soon: Christoph will use the Naniwa Color Kit N to cross-process some slide film.

Christoph Hammann is a fine art photographer from Waltershausen, Germany. He works with traditional film and silver halide papers as well as digital post-processing and alternative printing techniques. His website is “Mostly Black & White”.

Ryuichiro Suzuki’s Odyssey and Druk

Even though Ryuichiro Suzuki has been a photographer for close to 45 years, he has until recently remained relatively unknown and unheralded, even in Japan. However, with the publication last year of Odyssey, a retrospective monograph of Suzuki’s career, as well this year’s release of Druk – both from the Japanese publishing house Heibonsha – this will surely change. Indeed, earlier this year Suzuki was awarded an “Annual Award” from the Photographic Society of Japan in recognition of the work compiled into Odyssey.

Suzuki was born in the Kamata area of Tokyo in 1942. He attended Tokyo’s Waseda University, and it was during this time that the 19-year old student began to take photographs. The first plate of Odyssey is a 1962 photo of a young woman that Suzuki took in Sanya, a slum populated by day workers where Suzuki lived while attending Waseda. The photo’s title claims – perhaps apocryphally – that this is Suzuki’s “first negative”. Whether or not it is his first negative, it is apparently the only one that survives from this early period. The story, as told in Mariko Takeuchi’s essay about Suzuki included at the end of Odyssey, is that Suzuki was so ashamed of sneaking around taking candid shots of his Sanya neighbors that he burned all of his negatives except this one.

After graduating from Waseda (from the School of Political Science and Economics), Suzuki’s work began to be published in various magazines, namely Mainichi Camera, a magazine instrumental in launching the careers of many who would go on to dominate Japanese photography, such as Daido Moriyama. Unlike his contemporaries however, Suzuki was never able – or was reluctant – to turn these opportunities into something greater, preferring instead to work under the radar. From this period three series are included in Odyssey: “Tracer Bullets”, a look at the heated early 60s conflicts between the Left and Right, centered around the nationalist Yasukuni Shrine (1964), “Base”, photos shot at the Yokota American Air Force base (1969-70), and “Banners and Stones”, a look at student protests (1969).

Suzuki was so ashamed of sneaking around taking candid shots of his Sanya neighbors that he burned all of his negatives except this one.

These issues and themes were almost a rite of passage for Japanese photographers who came of age in the 60’s, with Moriyama, Shomei Tomatsu, and Akihide Tamura, among many others, exploring this ground, and to this author, both the “Base” and student protest series suffer by comparison. According to Takeuchi’s essay, the “Base” series was basically shot on one occasion, at a carnival at Yokota base that was open to the public, and so it is no wonder this series lacks substance and the photos feel derivative. The same could be said for the protest photos, although certain individual shots are in and of themselves powerful. Their inclusion leaves the unfortunate impression that they function in this context as more an attempt to add credibility and prescience to Suzuki’s oeuvre, rather than because they help to broaden Suzuki’s photographic odyssey.

1964 photo of war victims, by Ryuichiro SuzukiOn the other hand, the series centered on Yasukuni Shrine, the earliest work presented in the book other than that “first negative” from 1962, reveals a young Suzuki confident enough not to toe the party line. Indeed, which party line Suzuki sympathizes with, if any, is rather unclear from this series, and this unsettling ambiguity gives the photographs a sense of ominousness and foreboding. There are several very strong images here the belie the photographer’s youth. For me, the strongest one is a photograph where the foreground is taken up with the artificial leg of what is presumably a war veteran. The focus point is here, and the hinges where the knee should be seem to gleam and sparkle. In the background, out of focus but very legible, a robed man is on his knees and bowing, propping himself up by two artificial arms. The caption says the location is unknown, and these two men are on the street. We don’t know what they are doing either, but within the context of the series, it’s hard not to see them as praying to a shrine committed to honoring Japan’s disgraced military. For Suzuki, it is enough to put the contradictions out there, and leave it at that.

In 1975, Suzuki was awarded the prestigious Taiyo-sho (The Sun Prize) for his series of photographs entitled “Pilgrimage to India.” For better or worse, India has been a fertile ground for Japanese photographers – Kikai Hiroh being one prominent example – looking for “other” photographic subject matter away from the home front. Suzuki mentions in his brief intro to the India work presented in Odyssey that his 100 days in India was his first time outside of Japan. While not about confrontations like his previous work, ironically the photos see a more confrontational Suzuki. Away from home, Suzuki starts to engage his subjects in a more direct and open manner, and often they stare back.

I had pleasant dreams and nightmares, looking through a frame measuring just 6cm x 6cm.

The India work seems to have presented Suzuki with a turning point, a chance to re-assess his photography up to that point, and the work that comes after and extends up to the present day has a different feel to it – almost a melding of the distant, observant Suzuki of the 60s and the in-your-face quality of the India work, a happy medium as it were. For this writer, the most interesting series in Odyssey is one entitled “Fables”, a modest grouping of images shot in Japan using the square 6cm x 6cm format. Whether this was an actual project Suzuki was working on at the time, or merely an arbitrary bringing together of disparate work for the purposes of this book, the series helps to show how Suzuki’s odyssey changes after India. It is not just a return to Japan that sets it apart, but for the first time, domestic scenes – most likely Suzuki’s own home, his own children – become a subject. Suzuki captions this series by writing, “I had pleasant dreams and nightmares, looking through a frame measuring just 6cm x 6cm”, and indeed there is a dreamlike quality to the work here, photographs taken out of context as it were. Children appear with masks, or they are shot behind screens or from behind, and there are a couple of portraits that would not be out of place in a Diane Arbus monograph. This collection of nine images finds Suzuki embracing artifice in a way he only had hinted at in the past.

Suzuki is still traveling though, with most of the post-India work presented here taken in places outside of Japan. Suzuki has made several trips to Ireland, and there are two different series of this work in Odyssey, including his most recent work shot in Dublin in 2004 and 2005, using a panoramic format. Suzuki prefaces this last series as one finding him alone in the streets of Dublin, “looking for traces of the Ireland from the days of James Joyce’s Ulysses”. A lot of Suzuki’s travels have been to other parts of Asia, work that is collected in the series entitled Druk (Bhutanese for “dragon”), which was released as a book earlier this year. (A vastly reduced sampling of this work is presented in Odyssey.)

Druk features work Suzuki shot in Singapore, Taiwan, and Shanghai, and the book is divided along these lines into three sections. It’s hard to avoid the realization that these three places were all occupied by Japan during World War II, although there are only a few images that seem to consciously point this out. Nevertheless, by focusing on these three locales, there is a sense that they allow Suzuki to satisfy his wanderlust yet remain somehow tied to Japan.

All of the photos in Druk (about 130 in all) were taken using the square format, which helps to make the work cohesive despite the different locales and the years when the material was shot. More than that, the square frame serves the material well, imposing an artificial, formal order on the often chaotic life occurring both within and out of the frame. Although there are no portraits per se in the book, there are quite a few shots of individuals, most caught in un-posed reflection or curiosity directed at the photographer. More than a few are captured behind sunglasses, lending them a slighly raffish air.

Actually, “raffish” is probably a good word to describe a lot of the city scenes in Druk, though I’m not sure how good a thing that is. I have no doubt that there is plenty of blight to go around in the places Suzuki has taken his camera, even in a place like Singapore which tends to be perceived by the West as more “like us”. And to be sure, there is a substantial amount of photos that can be said to be capturing that crossroads of developing and developed — a theme of the book in and of itself. But there is also the inescapable feeling that Suzuki was, if not exactly looking for the “old world”, certainly attracted by this aspect of it. You wonder if Suzuki is traveling to these places not so much to capture a bit of what life is like there as to capture what life used to be like here, in Japan.

These three locations, each with complicated relationships to their former occupier, are certainly a fertile ground for Suzuki’s traveling dragon, and for the most part you feel Suzuki is aware of the contradictions even if he isn’t fully capable of harnessing them. That he isn’t may be down to a subconscious desire to find again that young girl of Sanya that opened the Odyssey collection. I for one would rather have Suzuki looking ahead and therefore, as much as much of the photos themselves in Druk are wonderful, the book as a whole doesn’t wholly satisfy.

Book recommendations

Both Odyssey and Druk are published by Heibonsha, a publisher with a long history and a strong pedigree in photo book publishing. The books are well-printed, and feel sturdy and substantial. The photo captions, as well as the essays about Suzuki and his work, are translated into English in both books. The Druk book is a bit larger, as are the photos themselves. Pricing for both is identical.

As detailed above, Odyssey is a retrospective look at Suzuki’s career up to the present. Druk, on the other hand, is a body of work that Suzuki shot in Singapore, Taiwan, and Shanghai, and is grouped as such in the book. Odyssey features approximately 150 photographs, mostly one to a page, although for the later work done with a panorama camera, sometimes a single photo is spread over two pages, or there are photos printed two to a page. Druk, on the other hand, features 132 plates, all one photo to one page. The images are all in a square 6cm x 6cm format.

If you were to limit yourself to one, then it is a bit of a toss-up as to which one to get. Odyssey is of course an obvious choice, since it is a retrospective look at Suzuki’s entire career from the early 60s up to the present decade. Those who enjoy what they find in Odyssey could then add Druk to their collection. On the other hand, it must be said that in this writer’s opinion, the sampling of the “Druk” work in Odyssey is not as strong as it could be, and it would be a shame for people who like Suzuki’s work to pass on Druk because of it. Furthermore, of the two, Druk feels the more substantial, and the more likely to reward repeated viewings, despite my misgivings noted above.