Category Archives: Light Reading

Views on photography and on being a photographer

Fukagawa Photo Session Exhibition

Fukugawa Photo Session event posterThe other day Japan Exposures visited the Fukagawa area of Tokyo to take in a unique photo exhibition organized by the photographer Mitsugu Onishi. The idea is not a single exhibition in a gallery, but rather a series of exhibition spaces — and only one or two of them actual working galleries — spread out over several blocks in an easily walkable exhibition that attempts to weave photography into the fabric of both the local area and the individual exhibition spaces, to varying degrees of success, it must be said.

Two years ago, Onishi — who in addition to his photobooks has penned books about exploring his Tokyo through photography walks and often leads his students on such excursions, organized a similar exhibition in the Urayasu area of Chiba near Tokyo Disneyland. For that event, in locales as diverse as a ramen shop, a hair salon, a five-and-dime candy store, and a community center, among others, Onishi showed work both by himself and others connected with the Urayasu or Chiba area, like Kazuo Kitai, Aya Okabe, and John Sypal. At the time, I remember Onishi as being fidgety because on that sweltering Tokyo summer day there were rather few visitors and he wondered aloud whether everyone was at home watching the first day of the Beijing Olympics in the comfort of their air-conditioned homes.

A poster shows the way to the Contemporary Art museum, currently showing work related to Studio Ghibli (far right poster).

We ran into Onishi on the street on the day we went down to see the Fukagawa exhibit, and he was clearly pleased with the comparative success of the current event. Due to the exhibition area’s proximity to the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, which currently is showing a collection of art and posters from the popular movies of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, and the fact that foot traffic from the closest subway station to the museum passes directly through the main neighborhood exhibition space, attendance was the least of Onishi’s worries, and later we overheard one gallery proprietor claim hundreds of visitors to his small gallery over the 3-day holiday weekend just passed when one suspects it might normally take him two to three weeks to have the same number of visitors.

Here is a takeaway on some of the exhibitions we took in (unfortunately, on the day we visited, some of the shops were closed due to the national holiday of the previous day, so we weren’t able to see all the different exhibitions):

Onishi himself exhibited a series of about 8 photographs in the shop window of a modern home goods store. These photographs were taken with a 4×5 camera set up similarly to a pinhole camera, with 40-minute or so exposures recorded on printing out paper (POP), a process that gives the images a blue tint similar to that at work in blueprint drawings. The photos were of various summer-themed landscapes and were rather different and subdued from the ironic street work Onishi is better known for. We found the combination of long exposure, small format and the blue tone particularly appealing and would have enjoyed a closer and longer look, but with temperatures what they are in a Tokyo summer and the photos only visible from the outside we had to move on sooner than we wanted. Onishi himself laughingly commented on the challenges of spending the time during long exposures outside in summer.

Akihiko Saito's "Still Life"
Akihiko Saito - Still Life exhibition hanging from the outer wall of a local temple.

In terms of presentation, Akihito Saito had perhaps the most interesting exhibit with his “Still Life” series of seven photos suspended by twine along the wall of one of the areas temples. The fiber prints had holes punched into them to which the twine was tied. Without frames, curling, exposed to the elements, the exhibition was tactile and tangible existing in the environment of the neighborhood in a way the other exhibitions we saw weren’t. The fact that later we came across the same type of twine being used for a completely different purpose helped to seal the impression of tactility.

Yuki Kanehira -- Dojunkai Kiyosuna-dori Apartments exhibition poster
Yuki Kanehira -- Dojunkai Kiyosuna-dori Apartments exhibition poster

On the second floor of the area’s merchants’ association office, which was really a local resident’s house, Yuki Kanehira exhibited about 12 large prints from a much larger body of work documenting the dilapidated and now mostly demolished Dojunkai Kiyosuna-dori apartments that were located just a few blocks from where this exhibition was. This apartment complex was one of 16 ferroconcrete and steel complexes that were built by the Interior Ministry in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake from 1924 to 1936 (the most famous of which were the now-demolished Dojunkai Aoyama apartments along Omotesando in central Tokyo). Kanehira himself moved into the apartment complex after his early attempts to document the place were met with derision from the residents, and over a seven year period documented the almost exclusively senior citizen residents. His close connection with these apartments, and more importantly with the residents who lived there, was clear to see in the photos. However in our opinion, the work could have been strengthened by including more of the residents and less of the dilapitated buildings, images visible in the supplementary slideshow running on a computer in the room.

We were disappointed to find that Japan Exposures-featured Sachiko Kadoi‘s work was being shown in a reflexology clinic which had customers, so we weren’t able to go in and had to content ourselves with looking through the window. We were excited to see new work from Kadoi-san focusing on the rivers that run through Tokyo, including one very large print that occupied a dominant place in the shop, and hope we will be able to catch up with her on a different occasion so we can see where this new direction is taking her.

The photographer Toshiya Murakoshi runs TAP Gallery, one of the few actual galleries to serve as an exhibition space for the Photo Session. It is a small place, and the lighting was not the best. Another problem was that it was not easy to see a connection between the work and the area, although there was a handwritten statement on the wall that did attempt to explain why these photos were being exhibited. Nevertheless, it seemed something of a missed opportunity, and the work itself was not nearly as strong as the landscape work which was on view in a series of photo books Murakoshi has published over the last few years.

Kiyosumi Shirakawa storefronts
Kiyosumi Shirakawa storefronts - the establishment on the right was part of the Photo Session, but sadly closed on the day we visited.

While the Fukagawa Photo Session Exhibition will be over in a few days, if you do find yourself in Tokyo, a visit to the Kiyosumi Shirakawa area is well worth a visit. The aforementioned Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Japanese architect Takahiko Yanagisawa, is a wonderful museum with a lot of varying exhibits from all genres in very large exhibition spaces (a huge Daido Moriyama exhibition from his Sao Paulo series was held there a couple of years ago). In addition to that, there is also the small but highly recommended Edo Fukagawa Museum which contains 11 full-scale replicas of traditional houses, vegetable and rice shops, a fish store, two inns, a fire watchtower, and tenement homes, arranged to resemble an actual neighborhood. Several blocks away a warehouse is home to some of Tokyo’s most important galleries including Taka Ishii (Moriyama, Naoya Hatakeyama, and Nobuyoshi Araki among others are represented), Shugo Arts (Takuma Nakahira, Shimabuku), and Tomio Koyama Gallery (Yoshitomo Nara). No wonder then that last year, when photo book publisher AKAAKA was looking for a place to set up a combination company office and art gallery, they settled on the Kiyosumi Shirakawa area.

Framing Space in Japanese Photography

Essay by Marc Hohmann for Japan Exposures. Photos courtesy Shingo Wakagi for Famous Aspect.

For me as a Creative Director and Editor, visual creation is always about the formation of a new world. A “Gesamtkunstwerk”. Old harmony. New combination. What form should go with this image? Which sound should surround this product? What word is an extension of this shape? And so on. When I am working with a photograph it is about working with or against a context. It exists as personal art before type (a word or a price) is on it. Afterwards it is an art product and its success is measured by its universal rather than personal or regional appeal. As a designer, photography is one of the graphic ingredients at my disposal and I frequently utilise the work of Japanese photographers.

Japanese photography (and I believe a lot of Japanese 20th century art, architecture and music) has always been strongest when in a most direct reaction to a cultural, most often Western, current: The 60’s psychedelic era, the 70’s punk movement, 80’s post-modernism, the 90’s individual & technology changes, the 2000’s and still current authenticity vs. imitation trends and so on. All of these created peak examples of photographic brilliance everywhere in the world. However, the decades’ highlights in Japanese art photography (both personal and commercial) survived this better than most Western images because, a) emotionally their creators were never as invested in these Western currents as the ones in the originating countries; and, b) the Japanese are by nature more society-conscious and therefore more careful in execution; and finally, c) their creator’s tendency to replace emotional and fashionable advances with overly methodical, technical skills. Curiously from a modernist perspective, these ingredients (or, in minimalist terms “positive restrictions”) are major in creating a universal appeal.

Emotions are mostly expressed through contrast, focus or composition, rather than direct expressive attitude or subjective gestures.

Something specific that comes to mind here is the intentional, pragmatic and architectural use of space in Japanese photography and Japanese film since the 1920’s. Their use of negative space – mostly composed, controlled and open – is not as intimidating and less filled with expression than their Western counterparts. Emotions such as anger, for example, are mostly expressed through contrast, focus or composition, rather than direct expressive attitude or subjective gestures. To me, quintessential Japanese photography is strong because of its open, compositional distance and its emotional constraint and not because of its Western, in-your-face, “aggressive” spontaneity or directness.

I find these qualities very attractive and it is important as a (Western) designer to understand their artistic dimension as they can be treated as design statements in themselves. Personally for some time now, my work has been about a refined “more with less” approach which is rather about framing space than occupying it. This means finding the most elegant, non-forced position for a design element or message with the intention to elevate the total experience. When I’m working with great Japanese images I am attempting to create a strong field that supports the photo’s structural distance and openness which I find so modern. Instead of pushing a dominant message against the image to create tension, I am trying to work off of its inherent qualities. From the depth of a title, or the size of the type to the precision of the crop, it’s all about keeping nuances while creating a new context. A reference would be a Toru Takemitsu score (a Japanese composer and writer on aesthetics and music theory — Ed.) where the composer is carefully balancing his intention to support a scene with the goal of creating a totally new dimension whenever the film’s open, sparse architecture allows it.

The great NY architect Richard Gluckman once told me that in his work he is always considering the importance of space in relation to the object: It is both the object that defines the space and the space that defines the object. According to him, a space isn’t finished until it is occupied by an intention. My advice is the same when I’m reviewing young photographer’s portfolios or speaking to my design assistants: Before photographing or designing space try to remove yourself from it and look at it from a distance or from the outside. Gather information about its purpose and its inherent qualities. This will bring it closer to the attributes I admire in great Japanese photographic works.

An image that I like very much is a diptych story by Shingo Wakagi that was shot for my magazine Famous Aspect. The series is titled Tokyo Modern. One image shows a still life of beautiful weathered flowers, the other a girl in a kimono sitting on a bed in an apartment. There is an air of intimacy and distance that I really like and it reflects some of the ambiguities expressed above. Looking at it you have no sense of time. It is a fashion image yet there is no fashion there. It is sad yet beautiful. Close but unreachable.

Marc Hohmann is the owner and Creative Director of Kon/struktur, a design and branding firm in New York. He has been involved with the branding of fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto’s identity in Japan, the development of Zero+Maria Cornejo’s label and store, and the store branding for Edité, a new New York version of Colette. Other clients include Evian, Telephónica, Amtrak Acela, Swatch, City of London, Swiss Re, Dell and Johnson & Johnson. Marc is also the chief editor of a style / art magazine called Famous Aspect. His work is very well received in Europe, the US and Japan and has been featured in magazines such as IDEA, Elle, Vogue, Soen, Composite, Spur, +81, Print, Nylon and more.

Photos: Shingo Wakagi for Famous Aspect, Text: Marc Hohmann © 2010 — All Rights Reserved

Moriyama’s Kabukicho lounge singer girlfriend love story — Nagisa Review

Daido Moriyama's Nagisa

Review by John Sypal for Japan Exposures

The thing about Daido Moriyama books is that as nice as they are, by now they certainly won’t surprise anyone. You know what you’re going to get the moment you see the cover. Ginza? Buenos Aries? Hawaii? You know exactly how the pictures are going to look. As a native Nebraskan I can tell you that if Moriyama were to spend a week shooting in the Cornhusker State the inevitable collection is going to look just like Moriyama does Nebraska. And it probably wouldn’t look all that different than his pictures of anywhere else he has photographed. Until the other day the only book by Moriyama that I had in my collection was the cheaper of his two Hokkaido books.

Daido Moriyama's Nagisa To me Moriyama had always been one of those photographers whose work was never all that interesting and it wasn’t until his Hokkaido show at Rathole gallery in early 2009 when it clicked. I found his exhibited work extremely moving, the gravity of which was revealed in a gallery setting with prints metaphorically layering upon one another to create a dizzying experience. I went five times to that show. In print (as opposed to prints) the books felt flat. Literally his pictures are layered on one another in book form but nearly all of his books were too constricting, too much about the book than the images to be of much personal interest.

So the other day at Sokyusha, the preeminent photo book publisher in Tokyo, I surprised myself by purchasing a copy of Moriyama’s recent book Nagisa. As I flipped through it, from behind the counter Ota-san, the shop owner, mentioned that this collection is simply of Moriyama’s current love interest, a kabukicho & kayokoku singer named Yoko Nagisa. While my photography book collection might be lean on Daido Moriyama, books featuring lovers or wives of Japanese photographers are well represented. Looking at it in the context of such a book it was doubly interesting.

Daido Moriyama's Nagisa Yoko. What else could her name be but Yoko?

On one hand Nagisa follows that grand tradition of Japanese photo books centering on a singer or musical act. On the other hand it follows the other even grander tradition of Japanese photo books in that it are collections of photos of a lover. Since both of those hands belong to Moriyama it is very much the book you might imagine when hearing “Daido Moriyama’s Kabukicho lounge singer girlfriend love story”. If you know much about any of the words in the previous sentence you probably have a good idea as to how this book looks.

The book is handsome. It’s thick, visually dense, and features exquisite printing. Laid out flat it pulls the viewer in. Plus she is gorgeous. But for as hefty as the book is and for as distantly beautiful as Ms. Nagisa is there isn’t much development of her or her relationship with the photographer throughout all 200+ pages. She makes a good picture, hell, Moriyama makes a great picture and that’s what this comes down to. It’s two people good at what they do – one skilled with a camera, the other one looking great with eyeshadow in vintage outfits, moody bars, back streets of Shinuku, singing at Moriyama exhibitions, on desolate beaches, in the last train car, or among cherry trees in bloom. Sometimes it is several of these things at once.

Daido Moriyama's NagisaBut for every moody monochromatic sunset or languid look off into the distance one might feel that what’s not captured is true personal development. We don’t know any more about Yoko Nagisa by the last few pages than we could gather from the first ones. Moriyama’s Yoko is certainly not Araki’s Yoko. That said, maybe we don’t need to expect intense character development or a Deep Story when looking at collections like this. A beautiful book can be just that. In this way this collaboration between these two performers has resulted in something well worth a look.

You can see more images from the book, as well as an interview with Moriyama and Nagisa, in this video (Japanese only).

Nagisa is available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.

No Half Measures

Many enthusiasts or amateurs in Japan are known not to skimp in their approach to their chosen activity. Equipment, training, facilities and dedication should be on the highest level. This is why you see so many high end cameras in the hands of average-looking 50 or 60 year olds. Not to mention the ubiquity of second hand stores for photography, golf or other equipment.

The other day we went for a casual family bowling. The center was full of people having a good time, and all lanes in use. When we had finished our game, a quiet but somehow unusual looking older gentleman took over our lane. He was dressed in light, sportive clothing and pulled a small bag on coasters behind him. It contained his personal bowling balls.

He then punched some code into the console and his name and data came up automatically. He proceeded with some warmup and stretching excercises. It certainly stood out between all the other people, shouting and laughing, enjoying the game with a beer.

I was getting more and more curious about him. Our man sat down and carefully bandaged his hand, then proceeded to layer three or four different types of glove on the hand. It was a real ceremony, even amusing to the point of making fun of him. Naturally I was dying to see him perform, expecting some spectacle.

So he went ahead and… well, it was by no means spectacular, but there was something noticeably different in the way he did it. Our man eventually cleared all ten pins, and just a short while after that the same occurred on the neighbouring lane of beer drinkers. Why all the fuss?

Only later I saw some striking parallels to those of us engaged in photography. Here are several observations, which I encourage you to add to in case you wish:

Like bowling, photography can be enjoyed greatly by anyone, even without giving it much practice and thought. You may strike luck, easily and frequently enough to make it an engaging and rewarding experience.

A serious practitioner will stand out as strange or amusing while performing with much more rigour what others do casually.

Outsiders don’t see the need to put that much thought and resources towards the activity, when you can achieve results with standard equipment or average technique. You might be seen as wasting your money, or just complicating your life with something trivial.

When observed informally side-by-side, the serious practitioner’s results do not seem to stand out as obviously better or more successful, much less justifying the “fuss” and investment. However, most certainly over longer periods the rigourous performer will exceed the casual player’s results, and should consistently do so under a greater variety of circumstances.

The serious performer will in some way or another be aware of “best practice” or the work of others that came before him. He will therefore train and practice according to a common school of thought and will therefore connect to like-minded individuals, even though he may never meet them face to face.

It is primarily a mind game. Displaying your routines in public may embarrass you initially but if you do not develop the self-confidence so it won’t matter to you, you will never reach your full potential.

At the right time, investing in equipment or technique, even if they are beyond your current level of performance is (amongst other things, there are various caveats) a symbolic commitment to the level of performance you are striving for. You are in a way materially affirming your level of ambition. You know that after investing into the best, that what remains holding you back is within yourself.

Once you have mastered a basic level of skill, you will feel increasingly confident to let go mentally and become truly creative. Like in the martial arts, once you have reached the highest attainable level of technique, you will find yourself at the starting point of leveraging what you bring to the game as a person and the mind training begins. That path will not have an end.

I feel rather grateful for my encounter with the lone bowler.

Prepare to show

Jobo 2850 print drum on Uniroller with some help of Duplo blocks

A year has passed again and it is time for me to prepare for the annual JRP chapter exhibition, starting Tuesday next week. Last year I showed four landcape images, taken on 8×10. This time it is all 35mm, eight photographs taken this summer during my summer holiday in Europe. Actually I am rather surprised that after feeling to struggle with pictures from back home so much that I had anything presentable at all. Still, with some emotional distance and good efforts editing down the selected images seemed to improve the more I looked at them. Now I am quite pleased and the images appear to have taken on a life of their own.

I have spent the last three days wet printing them to 14×17″ size, something I have not done in many many years, could be over ten years. The first day I just spent figuring things out and wasted a lot of time and paper. I don’t have space for a set of large trays so I used my Jobo print drums. This caused some problems (heavy streaking and rapid developer exhaustion) but on day two I found that the remedy was a 3-4 minute presoaking in water. The paper is Fuji Bromide Rembrant V fiber paper in double weight. After that the processing was flawless and I needed to make the eight prints in half the time, which was a challenge, but now they’re done and just need another wash and then put into the frames.

You streak me as very odd
You streak me as very odd

Like last year, a senior JRP photographer will visit the exhibition and offer individual feedback on the work of everyone. This year it will be by Yasuo Otsuji. I was very nervous last year about this, but this time I am a little more confident about it, so I am looking forward to the day (and the obligatory Japanese style party afterwards with many speeches). I just need to think about how to better explain the images as the people who I talked about them so far did not fully understand.

I cannot overstate how satisfying it is again to work on a set of images from capture to seeing them on paper. This is something that seems to have been lost with the advent of digital and the web. You put your images on Flickr, and that’s it. For me this is a waste and will not contribute to your self-improvement as a photographer. Producing work is all about making serious commitments, and printing something even with a lot of effort really makes you think about your images. Seeing the work prints in the evening makes you think about your images. Putting them into the frames makes you think about your images, and so does hanging them on the wall. Sitting in front of the computer doesn’t seem to do this for me. First because I would rarely spend long enough time at my desk to get in the right frame of mind, and then I’d always think that it’s just an image on the screen — and the bar hangs low for these.

This is not criticism of ‘digital’, don’t get me wrong, but the web and digital publishing will, in my opinion, encourage laziness and casual attention to things and as humans we are susceptible to such temptations and it will get harder and harder to push yourself to the finish line. It is like trying to get yourself home cooking when cheap and instant fast foods or ready meals are available at all times. I have always maintained that digital does not add anything substantially new to image making, like a PC does not to the act of writing. The key is the increased means of distribution, and this is as much a blessing as it is a curse. The web has a lot of true value, but also an overwhelming power to just offer endless diversion, which we need to be conscious about. For every resource out there, there are 99 unproductive ways to spend your finite time dedicated to photography.

There are no shortcuts and not the photographer who has the best equipment or knows his darkroom or Lightroom the best will succeed, but the one with the self-discipline and vision taking a thought process from beginning to completion, going all the way over the many bumps and detours on the way. This even works when it is not your best potential output you are dedicating yourself to, as long as you are working on something you set as your goal. Commitment — to yourself, to your work and to the discipline of photography.

Provoke: Interview with SFMOMA’s Lisa Sutcliffe

Provoke magazine cover
Provoke magazine cover
Over the last decade the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has established itself as one of the best American museums to see Japanese photography. Senior curator of photography Sandra Philips curated the first North American retrospectives for Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama. Continuing this focus, assistant curator Lisa Sutcliffe has two new exhibits at the museum, “The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography” and Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea.” “Provoke” offers a concise introduction to the generation of photographers that Tomatsu and Moriyama were a part of, while “Photography Now” shows how Japanese photography has become even more diverse in the last decade. Both exhibits run through December 20th.

Provoke is the magazine most often associated with the generation of photographers working in the 1960s and 1970s – even those that did not actually publish in the magazine. It is an example of a small, short-lived, but legendary publications, whose influence is still felt. Early editions had print runs of just 1,000. In 2001 Steidl published “Japanese Box“, featuring reprints of the magazine, but with a price of $2,000. More recently, a flickr tribute group named after the magazine has collected 4,000 images in the Provoke-style. The images are by photographers from around the world, many of whom have never seen the original publication.

Flickr provoke group
Flickr provoke group

When Americans picture Japan during its economic boom of the 1960s, it usually involves the optimistic marketing images from Datsun, Olympus and Sony. In stark contrast, these photographs with their are-bure-bokeh style refute the vision of a unified land made up of smoothly-functioning corporations and their employees. We see Tomatsu’s photographs of the Shinjuku riots, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s voyeuristic expeditions in Tokyo’s public parks and Hosoe’s well-known photograph of Yukio Mishima wrapped in a garden hose.

The “Provoke Era” exhibit is not large, with less than 100 photographs all from the SFMOMA’s collection, yet it manages to select a handful of works from each photographer. There are many well-known works, but also photographs only found in out-of-print books. The exhibit traces changes in style from the mid-1940’s, through the late 1970s and even the 1990s, using the 1995 Kobe earthquake to mark the end of the post-war era and the exhibit.

One of the many things this exhibit does well is give a sense of the art of the photo book, something that is still a challenge for museum exhibits. “The Provoke Era” acknowledges the importance of books with with wall text and vitrines that display books (and magazines) in every gallery. Many of the prints on the wall have a work print quality, which they often were, with the book or magazine displayed in the vitrine being the end goal. There are exceptions, the most notable is “La Nuit” (1968), a series of photogravures by Provoke’s founding editor Takuma Nakahira. At this size and resolution, the are-bure-bokeh feels like it is being used precisely, with a specific intention.

Japan Exposures asked curator Lisa Sutcliffe a few questions about the exhibits.

Interview and review by Wayne Bremser for Japan Exposures

Japan Exposures: Many photographs in this exhibit respond to the detonation of nuclear bombs over civilian populations in Japan. Shomei Tomatsu carefully document the immediate aftermath, the burned objects and scarred human flesh. What influence did this event have in the work of the photographers that never directly confronted the subject?

Lisa Suttcliffe: The bomb was the single-most influential event on postwar Japanese society. Many of these photographers were children during the war and grew up in the tumultuous postwar atmosphere. Japanese national identity was deeply affected by the bomb and the defeat in the war. Some photographers made work that referenced the bomb symbolically – for example, Kikuji Kawada made photographs of veterans and relics of the war that created a memorial. These visual fragments represent the multiple layers of memory and history. The work of later photographers from Provoke, such as Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, reflects the incendiary political atmosphere. Their dark urban scenes are punctuated by bright flashes of light that indirectly reference the immediacy and violence of the bomb.

ukase, Masahisa, Kanazawa, from the series The Solitude of Ravens, 1977
Masahisa Fukase, Kanazawa, from the series The Solitude of Ravens, 1977

JE: Moriyama, Araki, (and thanks in part to the SFMOMA exhibit) Tomatsu are now well-known in the US. Is there a photographer in the exhibit that you think deserves greater recognition?

LS: All of them! The whole generation of postwar photographers made interesting and revolutionary work that is enhanced by seeing them together. If I had to pick one it would be Masahisa Fukase, whose varied body of work is deeply haunting, melancholic, and beautiful. His best known work comes from Karasu (Ravens), published in 1986. In this series he travels throughout Japan making photographs that reveal his dark psychological mood after he was estranged from his wife. Our exhibition also offers a good chance to see rare photogravures made by Takuma Nakahira from his series “La nuit.” The richly dark prints are a dramatic, and unsettling examination of urban street culture. (And they are really stunning to see together at this size).

Japan had no culture of fine print photography in the 1960s and 1970s.

JE: While these photographers have different subject matter and styles, frequent book publishing was common in the group. You’ve included many books from the period, displayed in vitrines. Aperture’s recently released volume, Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70s is a good companion to the exhibit. Why was the photo book a primary medium for so many Japanese photographers? How do you think creating collections of work rapidly, publishing and then moving to the next book, shaped the work of these artists?

LS: You’re absolutely right. The Aperture volume is a fantastic reference for these revolutionary and prolific books. I love how it shows multiple page spreads from the selected books. As a country that popularized the woodblock print the print medium of books and magazines was a natural outlet. They’re really more like art objects than books. Japan had no culture of fine print photography in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead they published their work in books and magazines. The book as object was a vital aspect of this culture and the photographers had this in mind as they produced and sequenced their work. Moriyama and Nakahira sought to emphasize the format of the book and that certainly would have affected their artistic choices.  Each picture is part of a whole series and they function together. There is less insistence on the single famous image.

In addition, Moriyama and others embraced Warhol’s philosophy of the consumer culture driven nature of photography. The concept of the photograph as a “copy” was an important part of their philosophy.  Both Moriyama and Araki made books on Xerox machines. The fine art print was not the preferred end product for them. I had to show the books and it was a shame I couldn’t show more than one page from each. This is one of the most important aspects to the exhibition that I hope people understand.

Hosoe, Eikoh, Man and Woman #6, 1960
Eikoh Hosoe, Man and Woman #6, 1960

JE: You’ve included many photographs of women by this group of male photographers, such as Hosoe’s “Man + Woman 6” and the four photographs from Moriyama’s “Hotel, Shiyuba.” How is the era’s view of women reflected in their photographs?  How has the view and role of women in photography changed between the Provoke era and work seen in “Photography Now”?

LS: I’m so glad you picked up on this. There are actually no female photographers in the entire Provoke exhibition. (There were a few female artists at this time, but they are not in the show). The attitude toward women reflects a “macho” point of view – women are portrayed as sexual objects, objects of desire, and are often seen engaging in the act of sexual intercourse with the photographer. It was a boys club – male artists, publishers, etc. Obviously, it is much different now. There are so many female photographers working in Japan and many of them are represented in Photography Now. The attitude toward women has changed as well, as it has throughout the world. I wanted to highlight this shifting attitude because it is reflected in the work.

Taishi Hirokawa - Shikoku Electric Power Co, Ikata 1991
Taishi Hirokawa - Shikoku Electric Power Co, Ikata 1991

JE: In the first gallery of Japanese photographs in “Photography Now” you offer some interesting comparisons. Younger photographers have a different photographic approach, while the Provoke photographers have changed their styles. A wonderful comparison is between Miyako Ishiuchi’s photos of her mother’s burn scars (not from the nuclear bomb) with Tomatsu’s. What are the major changes you are trying to illustrate with the selection in the Japanese gallery of the “Photography Now” exhibit?

LS: There is a very stark contrast between the postwar work and the contemporary gallery. The major change is that there are many varied aesthetic styles (color!), voices and themes. Many of the photographers working during the Provoke Era were united by a grainy, blurry, black and white graphic style and an urge to create a new visual language that challenged photographic conventions. The more recent work reveals artists working in diverse methods including color, black and white, and large format, and dealing with various issues such as the changing urban landscape, cultural identity and appropriation and poetic domestic daily details. There are also quite a few women, who nearly dominate the show. The work is driven toward a more personal vision. Rinko Kawauchi makes pictures of very poetic domestic moments. Miyako Ishiuchi carefully examines her mother, contrasting the texture of her scarred skin with the lacy undergarments which still hold her shape after her mother’s death. It is a no longer the desire to create a national memorial, but a personal one.

Wayne BremserWayne Bremser is a web designer and photographer based in San Francisco.

Interview with Ivan Vartanian

Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70sIvan Vartanian is an author, editor, and book producer who has been based in Tokyo since 1997. Later this month, two publications will get added to a growing list of books he has been involved with: Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s and Yasuzo Nojima: Modern Photography. Ivan has also written, co-authored, and edited numerous illustrated books on art, photography, and design, including Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers and Style Deficit Disorder: Harajuku Street Style – Tokyo. His company is Goliga Books. I recently sat down with Ivan in Harajuku to talk about his latest books and ask him about his other publications over the last few years.

Interview by Tyler Ensrude for Japan Exposures.

Japan Exposures: So where are you from originally? Where did your interest in photography come from and are you a photographer yourself?

Ivan Vartanian: Well, I grew up in Queens, New York. I have no formal education in photography, actually. I have a B.A. in biochemistry from New York University. But after I graduated I got a job interning at the Aperture Foundation (New York) and was eventually kept on as an assistant editor in 1997. Then after a year or so, a Japanese publisher, Korinsha Press (Kyoto), co-published Michiko Kon: Still Lifes with Aperture and I was basically the Aperture side liaison for that project. Through that I got to know Korinsha and they eventually offered me a job to come to Tokyo. And, no, I am not a photographer and I only just recently purchased my first camera – a point-and-shoot pocket camera.

JE: This job offer sparked your interest in Japanese photography, I’m guessing?

IV: The main reason why Aperture did that co-publication together was because I was interested in Japanese photography. I worked here in Tokyo as a book editor at their international desk until about 1999. Since I was the only foreigner at Korinsha, I was responsible for all their foreign clients, publications, and distribution. This included selling co-editions to other international publishers. That put me in this bizarre position of creating book projects and then also trying to place them with foreign publishers. I went from being an editor to also serving as the salesperson for my own projects.

No, I am not a photographer and I only just recently purchased my first camera – a point-and-shoot pocket camera.”

JE: Wow, that’s a pretty intense position to take on right away in foreign country.

IV: Yeah, I was totally clueless and terrified the entire time. It took about ten months for the ringing in my ears to stop. On top of which, my Japanese was pretty bad when I first started. Just when I was getting settled, Korinsha went bankrupt in 1999 and I was left in the position of having created book projects for which I had sold publications rights to foreign publishers. After the bankruptcy, the clients to whom I had sold rights suggested I package the books for them myself. That meant completing the production of the book—printing, binding, and delivery—and paying everyone myself. So that’s how I started this whole book packaging, entrepreneurial thing.

My involvement in photography, of course, started with Aperture and at Korinsha they were both publishing a lot of fine art, including Japanese photographers. So that gave me some entrée into that world.

JE: What were some of your major publications after leaving Korinsha?

IV: With Japanese photography, the first book that I made on my own was Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers (Aperture, 2005). I anthologized and translated writings by Japanese photographers. I made that book because, while at Korinsha, the photographers we were working with would submit lengthy texts as accompanying elements to their photography. Plus, Heibonsha—just at that time—was publishing the multi-volume compendium of writings by Nobuyoshi Araki. I noticed there were numerous text-only books by Japanese photographers out in the market. It was really remarkable to me that they were writing so much because at Aperture even to get a list of captions from a photographer was like pulling teeth. Nobody seemed to want to write anything, or to commit to putting any words on paper, I should say. Eugene Richards was a huge exception.

I became very curious as to what these photographers were writing about so profusely. I soon came to realize that what these photographers were writing was quite integral to their photography as a whole; it was part of the project and the process of photography. Words and images were quite closely linked in Japanese photography. This was also in part due to how these photographs were being reproduced; magazines, newspapers, books, to be specific. On the printed page, a photograph could be buried in a sea of words. We see this from a lot of post war photographers such as Ihei Kimura or Ken Domon.

JE: Kind of like a photojournalist in a way…

IV: Yeah, so these photographers, by our standards, were, yes, basically reporters, covering a story. They were producing their own shoots and providing a story. That is, the information that is provided by the photographs. This was also true with some French photographers a bit earlier, but it was quite prevalent in Japan. The writing varied from reportage to historical/personal history. Or it was a meditation about the work itself. More often than not, photographers up until the last generation were quite adept at writing and wrote extensively.

So that’s the main reason I wanted to make Setting Sun, I wanted to make more sense out of these texts. After translation, it became apparent that viewing Japanese photography as isolated images was tantamount to stripping bare the project and looking only at one aspect of the photography. This is particularly true of photobooks. In creating Setting Sun, I was trying to provide western readers a means to have some sense that the image functions in a larger body.

Photos (c) 2009 Nobuyoshi Araki
Ivan Vartanian. Photos (c) 2009 Nobuyoshi Araki

JE: Setting Sun has a photograph by Araki on the front cover. What of his writings were included in the book?

IV: The book does include some of Araki’s essays, talking about how he photographs, why he photographs, what he photographs, the effects of the death of his mother, his father. Apart from essays such as this, the nature of the other texts included are quiet varied. One short text is a meditation on a text by the poet Basho. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s text discusses time. Daido Moriyama’s text is the story on how he produced one of his early series about hitchhiking. The photograph in Japan doesn’t exist in a vacuum, isolated from other elements. Context, as provided by texts or the medium by which the image is distributed, is integral.

JE: I noticed on your site that you have done more than just photography books. Some design-related books, and other forms of art. Tell me a little bit about that.

IV: I’m very interested in other genres apart from photography. Especially books on architecture and even books on science, but these are subjects and projects that take a little longer for me to develop since those fields aren’t my specialty, but I hope to make more books in these areas in the future. I’ve always been interested in all visual arts…performing arts too. So the advantage I’ve had by working for myself with book packaging is that I’ve been able to do any book that I want. If I decide to do a photography book, I’ll find a publisher who has a strong sales presence in photography. Or if I want to do a design book, I’ll find a publisher with an established design reputation.

I really like to focus on art on paper when it comes to writing books, so for design, almost anything goes. But for photography, I’ve mainly only been interested in Japanese photography. And there is no better source for books on photography than here in Japan. This really became most apparent to me after making Setting Sun. The photobook, itself, has such a big place in Japanese photography….

JE: We’ll talk more about that in a moment. But first, I’m really interested in your book on Yasuzo Nojima. Tell me a little bit more about that before we jump into Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s… So is the Nojima book currently out now?

IV: Nojima reached the publisher warehouses last week, and it was previously only available for sale in at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, since they had an exhibition of his photographs in their permanent collection.

JE: Does Nojima have any published books of his own? I don’t think I’m aware of any.

IV: Nojima did not have a monograph that he edited on his own. There is one publication that came out posthumously that was made by a circle of friends and colleagues. It was more of a remembrance. There was one exhibition catalogue that came out about ten years ago from the museum in Kyoto after they received the trove of his vintage prints. Even though Nojima never made his own photobook he did publish a periodical called Koga. It was a magazine devoted to new modern photography. He was the publisher and benefactor of this project but it was only a short-term enterprise. Other than that, that’s it, in terms of book publication. So essentially, this book that I made is his first monograph. What’s more, it’s the first time the tones of the original prints have been faithfully reproduced. Nojima used a variety of printing techniques, each of which had its own tone.

I try to avoid bookstores actually. As someone who makes books I can’t walk into a bookstore and not get overwhelmed by all the great ideas I wish I had made myself. ”

JE: Is this the main reason you chose to make a book of Nojima’s photography?

IV: Yes — and I love the work. It’s really beautiful. He’s almost totally unknown. I thought I could bring something to the conversation of contemporary photography by showcasing this particular body of pre-war work. He was an amateur photographer, a lot of photographers from that area were amateur photographers. This was also interesting to me. So I wanted to do the Nojima project for this reason, instead of doing a book on a body of work by an established photographer who had made a career of it.

Nojima was a wealthy man and did photography simply as a hobby. Once in a while he had an exhibition, but nothing really that would define him as a photographer. So what that means is that his work is kind of all over the place. But he was photographing for quite a while, so over time, his printing techniques changed, his cameras changed, the models changed…even though there are only 250 artifacts remaining of his work, it’s quite spread out. So I basically wanted to try to bring it together in this book.

JE: Most of his work is located in Kyoto?

IV: Almost all of his vintage prints are in Kyoto, there is a trove of archival material at the Shoto Bijutsukan in Tokyo which is where there will be a show opening from late-September. There’s a print here, a print there, but, yes, it’s mostly concentrated in Kyoto.

JE: So tell me a little bit about Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s. You listed some of the photographers included in the book on your site. Did you work directly with any of these photographers? Are there any direct contributions or is it all biographical studies into the specific books that you chose?

IV: I did talk directly with several of the photographers. I worked a lot with Eikoh Hosoe, Miyako Ishiuchi, Daido Moriyama. The book has a long interview with Moriyama, actually.

The best help I got was through my co-author, Ryuichi Kaneko, who is a senior curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Photography here in Ebisu. He is the authority on Japanese photobooks. This is mainly because he’s been collecting this material for 40 years, he personally knows all the photographers and also works with them directly as a curator. He’s always attending their exhibition openings. He also often receives photobooks directly from the photographers. On top of this, he holds the credentials of a scholar in the field. So, what I couldn’t get through the interviews and meeting with the photographers directly, I relied on him for decades of personal involvement and expertise on the material.

There were times that I’d be sitting with him and discussing some of the books, and I thought I was being so insightful, really getting at something essential and then Kaneko-sensei would say something like “You’re way over-thinking it.” He’s been an amazing influence on me.

JE: [Looking through a proof copy of the book] And are these books in any particular order?

IV: Yes, they are pretty much in chronological order. We typically chose one book (from a certain photographer), but sometimes two. The reason why I decided to focus on one book is because it’s not a catalogue. I wanted to make a book that was showing readers how to read a Japanese photobook. And that’s one of the major differences between this book, and what Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s book did, which was hugely important in establishing the photobook as a viable genre and is an excellent source for some otherwise inaccessible rare books. Here and there you see some serious interests about Japanese photobooks happening, like in that book (The Photobook: A History, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), and it’s growing. But rather than show 200, 300, or 400 books, I really wanted to slow it down and through looking and various types of photobooks—the series-driven book, the memoir, the document, the meditation on form, the nudie book, etc. I wanted to give the readers a guideline for how to work with the object itself, what elements to look for and how to synthesize a comprehensive reading of the photobook. It’s more fun when you can appreciate all the details.

Japanese photography is the photobook. Communicating that simple idea, to even a Japanese audience, is the main homework of this project. You’d be amazed how revolutionary that idea is to people in the West.”

JE: Martin Parr is a major collector of photobooks. Are you as well? I would assume you have a few nice Japanese photobooks?

IV: Yes, Parr certainly is a collector. But, no, I’m not one. I try to avoid bookstores actually. As someone who makes books I can’t walk into a bookstore and not get overwhelmed by all the great ideas I wish I had made myself.

JE: So, from the eyes of a novice in the Japanese photobook world, how should we look at a Japanese photobook? Is there something we should be looking for? What should we be thinking about while reading your book?

IV: Well, after you’ve read through the text that I’ve written, it shows what aspects you should be paying attention to, what you should be considering while looking at a Japanese photobook. There is a lot of wishy-washy writing about Japanese photography, but there is so much to be said and so much to be understood.

So, apart from helping the reader learn how to understand Japanese photography books, I want them to know how essential it is to Japanese photography. It’s very different from western photography, which has this idea that photographs must exist as a print. Japanese photography, in its ultimate form, is the photobook. Communicating that simple idea, to even a Japanese audience, is the main homework of this project. And you’d be amazed how revolutionary that idea is to people who are well versed in photography in the West.

Another way of saying it is that… [points to the book proof ] … this is a facsimile, this book is a facsimile of that work. So the books included in this book are not facsimiles, these are originals. That one subtle shift in the way we look at the book is so important.

It’s like an edition in and of itself; the book becomes an original print. No one image is more important than the other and in the photographer’s eyes, the prints themselves, which are going to make the book, are useless. They have no value other than the reproduction at the printing plant. So the photographs as a collection don’t exist beyond the book. This can be true of non-Japanese photobooks as well but it’s taken to an extreme with Japanese photobooks.

JE: So you’re saying, as far as Japanese photography goes, we need to put more emphasis on the book and stop worrying so much about the prints? How about modern day exhibitions of old photographers? Being that galleries and museums have gotten better, has that changed anything?

IV: Even if you have an exhibition of the work, the photographer takes the prints and warps them or blows them up or crop them; they’ll change the contrast; they’ll mount them/not mount them, so that the work that is shown on the wall almost bares no resemblance to the work as it appears in the book. And, also, photographers go through such a process with the design and the printing that the printed (book) image is very different from the photographic print. It still doesn’t convey the feeling from the book.

JE: Yes, with your mention of “the process” that goes into design, I can’t help but imagine the books of Kiyoshi Suzuki. Would you say that after John Szarkowski opened the doors to the rest of the world with his exhibition in New York in the mid 70s of Japanese photographers, that this changed a westerner’s view about Japanese photographers and the photobook as well?

IV: Yes, Szarkowski did that exhibition with Camera Mainichi’s Shoji Yamagishi. He was a massively influential editor. But he did have reservations about showing Japanese photography out of context, like as a single image, because when you isolate an image from its larger collective, it loses meaning to a great extent. Every photo is like an artifact. They all support each other. It’s almost unfair to ask a Japanese photographer from that era to isolate one print. Whereas in the west, generally speaking, there is a predominance of the single image.

JE: Right, like a Robert Capa or a Dorothea Lange style photographer, who had linked projects, but were photographers who were typically known for a random handful of amazing stuff…

IV: Yes, it’s basically a “decisive moment” type photographer.

JE: Well, this book looks really great. Is there an official date this comes out? I noticed it’s been pushed back a few times.

IV: It took us years to complete this book. But I am happy to say the book arrives in New York on September 18th, so sometime around the end of September. [As of this writing, it looks like the book has been delayed again until November. — Ed.] There are three different editions—English, Japanese and French. The French edition will be published in October and the Japanese edition in October as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to it.

You can read an early review of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s at 5B4. At Vartanian’s Goliga Books site you can read what others are saying (scroll down), see what Daido Moriyama thinks of the book (in Japanese), and see a short video preview of the book.

Tyler EnsrudeTyler Ensrude is a contributing photographer and writer from the U.S. currently residing in Tokyo.

His work can be seen at and