In this article from Photoworks Issue 13, Ivan Vartanian discusses his Aperture publication Japanese Photo Books of the 1960s and 70s
In as much as a book publication is generally meant to be for all times, there is always the question of why now? Why publish Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s now? What has it got to say about the current state of affairs in contemporary Japanese photography and photography in general?
Magazines, in contrast, are of the times and have an overriding mandate to pursue timeliness as a virtue. To a great extent books work in the other direction, pursuing timelessness—and this publication is no different certainly. That having been said, why now is still a worthy question and does also cast some light on the fifty photobooks that we’ve selected to feature in our publication.
In today’s climate of contemporary Japanese photography, I can discern a distinct shift away from the photobook as a mode of expression. Up until the 1990s,there was no gallery system to speak of in Japan that would have provided photographers a forum for showing, selling, and developing their work in the form of original prints and editions.
Gallery spaces were predominately commercial enterprises officiated by camera and film manufacturers, such as Nikon, Pentax, or Fuji, which gave little leverage for producing work that was experimental. This created a circumstance in which young photographers were compelled to create their own exhibition spaces, of which there were a number in early 1970s in Tokyo. For example,Tokyo Photo Express by Keizo Kitajima is a series of twelve issues of sixteen pages each. Each of these issues was released monthly and coincided with an exhibition that changed in format. (He experimented with pinning photographs floor-to-ceiling and using the gallery walls as type of camera obscura.) The immediacy of the photographs and their dissemination was the theme of this work.But, more to the point, the original print in Japan even now has a tenuous existence,which was all the more the case in the postwar era.
The exhibition of prints on a wall,valuing the craftsmanship and the physicality of a print were at odds with what was the more prevalent function and form of photography at that time—information and media. The print was no more valuable than being the material that was passed to theprinting plant. Since a photograph was visual information that was communicating something to a reader through mass reproduction, what merit was there in valuing the artifact (the print), which was an inherently dead object? Japanese photography in the postwar era was defined in relation to reproduction in books and magazines. Photographers of note would have columns in photography magazines like Camera Mainichi or AsahiCamera (both of these periodicals were owned by newspaper companies), featuring work that would eventually be compiled as a book work. The stewards of these magazines—legendary editors like Shoji Yamagishi—were active participants in the execution and selection of the work.
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These magazines, realizing that the printed page was itself the matter of expression, would at times change the printing method for a certain section or change the paper stock to suit the photography. Daido Moriyama often had his work reproduced as magazine columns and he certainly was acutely aware of the media nature of image and of his own photography in particular. After a 1972 trip to New York, Moriyama returned to Tokyo to mount his own version of an exhibition, which was more of a print shop. People who showed up to the gallery did not find prints mounted on the wall. Rather, they saw the photographer at a photocopy machine Xeroxing his magazines up until the late 1970s. Every inch of the printed page was covered in ink—either textual or visual. The photograph was composed—or recomposed—on the printed page as one element in a layout. This is still true of all Japanese magazines certainly and most books now, though there is an apparent white-cube approach to photobooks in Japan.(Alas, the black ships of westernization have arrived to shores of Japanese photobooks as well.) The flood of ink on the page dovetailed with the content of the work too. Full-bleedpages, images jutted up against one another, for instance, communicated a restless, active state of mind that was also exuberant, as in the pages of Kawada Kikuchi’s The Map. Photographers were once preoccupied with establishing the terms of the self—the conflict of identity and society, location, personal history, the veracity of direct experience versus the mediated experience, etc. Kikuchi’s book underscores the fragmentary nature of the photograph, abandoning the functions of recording and documenting in an absolute sense to creates documents that account for the photographer’s personal experience.
Getting back to the information/media nature of Japanese photography, a strong trend we see now in contemporary work is the simultaneous expansion of the conceptual— which is largely a western influence—and photographs that are deconstructed and experiential. When I say “experiential,” I am referring to the experience of the viewer and how the photographer manipulates it in the realm of the exhibit space through prints and installation. The deconstruction happens, for instance, with the reduction/division of the composition into foreground, horizon line,and background, as in the work of Rika Noguchi, Naoya Hatakeyama, HiroshiSugimoto, and Asako Narahashi.
I think photographers here are still reacting—almost hysterically—to the ideas that had a grip on postwar Japanese photography. Let’s take Snow Land as an illustration of what was prevalent then. Hiroshi Hamaya’s work in Snow Land documents—with a decided anthropological bent—the winter time rituals of a village some hours north of Tokyo. In the time immediately following the war, there was a great deal of disillusionment and confusion about what it meant to be Japanese. In turning to the folk traditions of a certain village, the Hamaya was attempting to see what was the essence of what it meant to be Japanese. Hence the photographs have a narrative sequence and are accompanied by explanatory notes of what is happening in the images. Risaku Suzuki is a modern-day counterpart of such photography. His book Piles of Time presents a similar specificity in locale and event to meditate on the ethnic spirituality of Suzuki’s subjects. In comparison to this, so much of the “what” (“what” is being photographed) has been eviscerated from contemporary photography that the image itself is barely there. This was particularly true of work seen in the first several years of this decade.
The color palette generally tended toward saturation but still managed to have paleness as a distinguishing characteristic. The strong blacks, high-contrast, and grounded composition of postmodern photography gave way to near-total dislocation of the camera and disorientation—as colors were alternatively wan (as in the work of Masafumi Sanai) or excessively vibrant (Mika Ninagawa).Photographers in the early 2000s seemed driven to grasp, in some self-aware way, the predominance of surfaces. Takashi Homma’s work for a time was focused on the materials of new buildings in Tokyo: water-like glass,buttery metal, or smooth concrete. When compared to Tokyo 1936 by Kineo Kuwabara,we can see how radically different our experience of Tokyo has changed. The nostalgia that bathes the images of Kuwabarahas been replaced by distance and anonymity.
The last book that I want to pick out here is What is 10/21? These images were made by students who were staging political demonstrations in the streets of Tokyo. The book is not ascribed to anyone nor are any of the photographs attributed to any photographer. Similarly, there are no recognizable faces in the images. This is because the people who published this material did not want to provide the police with what would effectively be evidence for prosecution. In this instance, the photobook is a tool of political activism. Students took the photographs and also provided the pecuniary means of getting the materials printed and bound. The photography itself suffers from limitations of technique and materials—the images are over-exposed, the students used the wrong speed film for nighttime shooting,or the camera is shakey or even out of focus.But its the amateurish quality of photography that allows for the strength of the images.
What is 10/21? is an example of self-published book, which was somewhat common during the 1960s and 1970s. Producing a photobook was for most photographers a culmination of the photographic process. In contrast to this, the photographer’s project now has shifted toward something more along the lines of the photographer working on selling himself as a photographer. Nonetheless, contemporary photography here still operates in a manner that requires looking at images in a sequence or an assembly of some sort. It is difficult, or even unfair, to isolate images from one another.
The photobook as a form of photography worthy of discussion is something comparatively new. The publications coming from Japan present some extraordinary specimens that are captivating, bizarre, and exquisite in production. There is a clear need in the market for more information on the subject, otherwise the books would continue to be appraised for their very inscrutability. Western collectors in particular need some guide for handling the books and appreciating them in context. Otherwise, the terms by which books get appraised is the language of collectors: mint condition, market price,limited number of extant copies, and provenance, for example. While this certainly has its place, it breeds a sort of top-ten-list mentality. Such a ranking and fetishizing of the photobook goes against how these books were conceived of originally. Namely, there was a heightened sense of egalitarianism to the photobook. In its very nature as a media, it was providing the same information or experience to a broad number of individuals or to a community of readers. This is in part what makes examination of Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s so exciting. Through subverting the means of how photography was shown, presented, published, interpreted, these photographers demonstrated an unbridled potential in the printed image/page.
Published in Photoworks Issue 13, 2009. Guest Edited by Jason Evans
Commissioned by Photoworks