Photography in Japan

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Rinko Kawauchi
Rinko KAWAUCHI, Untitled from the Series Utatane, 2001 © Rinko Kawauchi, courtesy Galerie Priska Pasquer, Cologne

While these artists took a very close up view of the world, other works started to appear starting in the year 2000 in which perspectives are “flattened,” and even the notions of “close” and “distant” are put into question because they are given equal importance. This is a reflection of one of the characteristics of our time, dominated as it is by digital technology which processes information with no regard for the hierarchy of the data. For example, Gentaro Ishizuka chose the Alaska pipeline as a theme. It is the second longest pipeline in the world. He does not dwell on the difficulties of such an undertaking or the gigantic size of the project. His images are so neutral, it is almost discouraging. This very contemporary approach is not unlike the work of Wolfgang Tillmans in his “Concorde series,” in which the photographer views all things without a trace of value judgment.

That said, without obviously subscribing to a specific contemporary “trend,” numerous photographers continue to pose a question that remains fundamental to their chosen mode of expression: What is “photographable?” and What isn’t? Keisuke Shirota pastes small photographs onto canvas and using acrylic paint, prolongs the image beyond its original frame, highlighting the interval between the visible and the invisible, the imaginary and the real. Akiko Ikeda uses pictures of people, extracting cut-out fragments. With a humorous twist not unlike back-lighting, she transforms the two dimensional photograph into a three-dimensional object. While these two artists probe the limits of the frame from the outside, others like Takashi Suzuki, Naruki Oshima, Nobuhiro Oshima and Mamoru Tsukada work from within to seek out the tiny chinks in the boundary between the visible and the invisible.

Others address this issue specifically in relation to memory, which the eye cannot see. Working with memories and historical events linked to Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, Nao Tsuda spins a delicate narrative made up of landscapes and stories. Tomoko Yoneda is the artist with the longest career among all those presented in the Statement section. She takes highly detailed photographs of landscapes at the scene of historic events or accidents. In this way she explores the limits of visual representation from both an ethical and aesthetic point of view. In our digital age, the image has become a product of “high speed consumption,” and these photographers are in immediate touch with world events as never before. The seriousness and consistency with which they continue their search and their aesthetic choices are such that the viewer feels the need to mark a pause and the desire to reflect.

Mika NINAGAWA, Liquid dreams, 2003, courtesy of Tomio Koyama, Tokyo

Japanese Publishers

It is impossible to over-estimate the role of publishing or the printed page in the evolution of Japanese photography. Even before the start of World War II, there were a large number of publications dedicated to photography in Japan. But it was the post-war period and the huge popularity of locally-made cameras that brought a profusion of specialized magazines, notably “Camera,” “Photo Art” and “Asahi Camera,” amongst others, giving even greater impetus to photographic activity. Most of these magazines not only published feature articles and technical advice to amateurs,they also provided information on Western photography and the work of foreign artists. Very soon, they became springboards for Japanese professionals. In the early days, photographic books were published in collaboration with these specialized magazines.

By the second half of the 1950s, though small in number, books became an independent means of expression. The 1960s and 1970s saw the birth of a series of masterpieces: Eikoh Hosoe’s “Barakei” (Ordeal by Roses) in 1963, Kikuji Kawada’s “Chizu” (The Map) in 1965 or Nobuyoshi Araki’s “Senchimentaru na tabi” (Sentimental Journey) in 1971.

In the 1980s, some of the publications that had played a predominant role in photography circles gradually ran out of steam. The magazine “Camera Mainichi” closed in 1985. Photographers increasingly turned to books as a way of disseminating their work. They were supported by very few editors such as Michitaka Ota of Sokyusha. He oversaw the publication of works by many photographers, some well-established, others yet unknown, including the legendary “Karasu” (Ravens) by Masahisa Fukase in 1986. Towards the end of the 1980s, the photographer Osamu Wataya was hired as artistic director of the fashion label “Hysteric Glamour.” In the first half of the 1990s, he oversaw the publication of the “Hysteric” series which brought Daido Moriyama back to the forefront of the photography scene. To this day, Wataya continues to bring out photography books that stand out for their inventive design.

Tomoko YONEDA, Tanizaki’s glasses, Viewing a letter to Matsuko, 1999, courtesy Shugo Arts, Tokyo

The five publishers presented in the Central Exhibition at Paris Photo began in the afore-mentioned context. They are today the most active partners for photographers in terms of helping them conceive and publish personal material. Far from being considered as mere copies of this or that piece of work or simply information channels, in their eyes, these books are a crucial vehicle for photography, bearing in mind of course that photography is, originally, a technique of reproduction. There are a large number of remarkable photographers in Japan today but still too few galleries willing to commercialize their work. This is why the activity of these publishers is crucial, not only in terms of supporting their work, but also for Japanese photography as a whole.

Established in 1984, Toseisha is the oldest of the five publishing houses. From the beginning, it has consistently published the work of Japanese photographers, both professional and amateur. Its President, Kunihiro Takahashi,who is also chief editor is so dedicated to his work that he personally follows, as far as humanly possible, every single step of the process, from the survey of the contact sheets to mixing the inks himself for the printing. For example, it took him ten years to perfect the refined and expanded edition of the almost mythical work by Hiromi Tsuchida, “Zokushin, Gods of the Earth”, originally published in 1976.

The catalogues of Little More, a publishing house established in 1989, offer a wide variety of books on all aspects of culture. Following the publication in the mid 1990s of work by Takashi Homma and Yurie Nagashima, this publisher started to bring out more books of work by photographers of the young generation. One of these artists,Kayo Ume was able to publish her book “Umeme” which won the Ihei Kimura Prize in 2006 and became an incredible success with over 100,000 copies sold. In her own style and design, Ume captures moments of what is apparently normal daily life, creating images rather like sidelong glances that are at times witty or slightly perfidious. Given its success, her work in many ways embodies the most “popular” aspect of Japan’s photographic culture. Ume’s case is far from unique. Many photographers have earned respect from amateurs and won public acclaim not through exhibiting original prints but through the publication of books.

Kayo UME
Kayo UME, Ume-me, courtesy little more, Tokyo

The first volume of Masafumi Sanai’s work “Ikite iru” (Alive) had a decisive impact on the course of Japanese photographic expression in the past ten years. It was published in 1997, by Seigensha, which was barely two years old at the time and was concerned with the visual arts as a whole. Hideki Yasuda, the director, experienced a real shock when he saw Sanai’s work and the incredible rigour that belies its apparent roughness. After discovering this artist, he went on to publish other photographers, including Jin Ohashi, in particular “Me no mae no Tsuzuki” a particularly strong piece of work in which the artist shows, in an almost carnal manner, the discontinuity between the traumatic event of his father’s failed suicide attempt and the banality of every day life.

The most powerful publisher in the field of photographic books in Japan today is Akaaka Art Publishing. It was founded in 2006 by Kimi Himeno who came from Seigensha where she worked as editor of photography from the beginning. As a consequence of her meeting both Sanai and Ohashi, Himeno realised the immense power of their work as it explores the depths of life and death. She oversaw the publication of a large number of books on the work of mostly young generation photographers. In 2007, the Ihei Kimura Prize was awarded jointly to Leiko Shiga for “Canary,” and Atsushi Okada for “I am,” both published by Akaaka. This publishing house now commands enormous respect for its influence which is at least equal to, if not greater, than that of the photography galleries.

Along with a small group of specialized critics, until the 1980s, the most important players on the Japanese photography scene were the editors of the photography magazines. In the 1990s, they were overtaken by the museum curators. With the 21st Century came the turn of art directors who are passionate about photography, such as Hideki Nakajima or Jun’ichi Tsunoda.With their capacity to spot new talent and unencumbered by institutional burdens, they have been able to rally round them the young generation of photographers.

One figure stands out among this group of discoverers of new talent: Satoshi Machiguchi who was behind the “Ikite iru” project and has since conceived and designed a whole series of art and photography books. In order to be able to work freely and make some of his dreams come true, he set up a light-weight structure in 2005 called “M Label.” The works he has published under this new label can be seen in all their diversity in “Book shop M.” Every one of these books has been very carefully thought out, down to the minutest detail, and is evidence of the close relationship between individual photographers and his or her artistic director. Machiguchi’s flexibility allows him to conduct his activities without becoming caught up in existing publishing circuits. The dynamism of the five publishers presented here and the books themselves that are the product of their efforts offer an understanding of the substance of contemporary Japanese photography and its ongoing evolution.

Tomoko SAWADA, Decoration, 2007, courtesy MEM Gallery, Osaka

The Project Room at Paris Photo 2008

Since the early 1990s a growing number of Japanese photographers have started to make films, a trend that can be partly explained by the fact that traditional distinctions between different modes of artistic expression have become increasingly meaningless. This phenomenon clearly rests to a large extent on the development of digital technology, which has greatly facilitated the manipulation of images. That being said, if we go back to the etymology of the word, a photographer is someone who “writes with light.” It naturally follows that he or she can also create “moving images.”

We have put together the programme of the Project Room in such a way as to offer the spectator an insight into the vision and approach emanating from the photographic work of each of the artists, developed here in greater depth or in a more experimental manner. The oldest piece being shown is “Shinjuku, 1973, 25 pm”, the only film ever made by Daido Moriyama. It was shot a year after the publication of his legendary book “Sashin yo sayonara” (Bye bye Photography, 1972). What is there to say about this work, shot in 8mm and commissioned by the municipality of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, apart from the total lack of focus and the fact that from beginning to end, it reads like an aimless roaming through the streets at night, like the wandering of a stray dog? There are no points of reference, neither in space nor time, no boundaries between the figurative and the abstract. The film was turned down by the authorities and languished on the shelf for 30 years. Nevertheless, it stands as a reflection of Daido Moriyama’s radical approach: flying in the face of all the rules, he deconstructs existing images, in the same way as he did in his photographic work. Moriyama never shot another film after “Shinjuku, 1973, 25 pm.”

Among the Japanese photographers who have truly embraced film-making,Yasumasa Morimura stands out as a pioneer. His first work in this field was “Cometman” (1991), in which he himself features with a shaven head wandering around haphazardly in the streets of Kyoto and admiring a painting by Marcel Duchamp, to whom he dedicated this video. He pays tribute to another artist, the founder of the Factory, in “Me holding a Gun: for Andy Warhol.” Morimura is known for presenting himself in the guise of chosen figures in great masterpieces of the history of art. He pursues this methodology here, albeit in a more theatrical manner.

Tomoko Sawada takes a similar approach: although she deals with more intimate issues than Morimura, she too transforms herself and is known for her highly colourful renderings of hundreds if not thousands of different characters. In “Mask” she plays on the confusion between the mask and her own face, taking the viewer clearly into the very essence of her body of work.

Lieko Shiga
Lieko SHIGA, Wedding Veil, 2006, courtesy AKAAKA Art Publishing Tokyo

Another star of the young generation of Japanese photographers that came to the fore at the turn of the 21st Century, Rinko Kawauchi, started out by studying film at university. “Semear” is her first film since she rose to prominence as a photographer. The video was commissioned by the Sao Paulo Museum of Modern Art and is shot in locations throughout Brazil, but in particular in areas inhabited by communities of Japanese origin. The subtle combination of colour, sound and light confers to this work the fragile quality of a soap bubble containing the whole world.

Meanwhile, in “They’re still stuck on your wall – Gifu version” Akiko Ikeda uses an apparently very simple device – diminutive earthenware aeroplanes stuck on the windows of a train – to create a humorous sensation of a “little journey” and explore the imagination as it occurs in everyday life.

By its very nature, photography as a medium is not limited to being a way of producing prints from negative film on photographic paper. Far from it. It can take a wide variety of forms: it can be printed on a page or projected onto a screen. A number of photographers have capitalized on some of the characteristics of their chosen medium and have produced films that are not “moving images”, but are made up of a combination of still images. Lieko Shiga is one of Japan’s most acclaimed young artists of today. Using notably images she did not include in her book “Canary,” (Winner of the Ihei Kimura Prize in 2007) she has created an extremely powerful slide-show which plays on an intense alternation between dark and light. Meanwhile, Taisuke Koyama uses a digital camera to produce city scenes of tremendous graphic precision. He has put them together in “Boundary X”, a slide-show made up of thousands of images projected at the head-spinning rate of one image per tenth of a second. Above and beyond the visual pleasure they procure, both works have the capacity to provide the spectator with a very intense overall sensory experience.

Other photographers reject the very principle of editing and take the risk of tackling another issue: continuity versus discontinuity of the images. Osamu Kanemura uses a video camera to take snapshots in the chaos of the city or along suburban streets. Rather like a contact sheet, in “Earth Bop Bound,” he strings fragments of them together randomly in an infinite loop. This video is indicative of this artist’s particular approach which looks for the “cracks” by which he can reveal the discrepancies between the world, the image and man.

Finally, in “Tokyo Bay Ban-Ban”, Ryudai Takano who is known to seek out of the erotic that is at work in daily life at its most humdrum, working from fixed angles that appear to have been chosen indiscriminately, shoots a seemingly endless journey through Tokyo’s streets and buildings at night. The spectator eventually realises that the din emanating from the dark recesses is in fact the sound of fireworks going off in the distance. Whether we like it or not, these explosions are reminders of the canons of war that are being fired in some part of the world. In that sense, the work of Kanemura and Takano are silent warnings to us all in our tendency to consider the images simply as a novel, easy spectacle.

Mariko Takeuchi

Text and photos courtesy of Paris Photo 2008.
Translated from the French by Philippa Neave.

Mariko Takeuchi, photography critic and independent curator: Born in 1972, Tokyo, Mariko Takeuchi has curated exhibitions including “Charles FrZ¹ger: Rikishi” (Art Gallery of Yokohama Museum; A.R.T. Tokyo, 2005). She has written numerous texts for catalogues and photography books including “Ryudai Takano: 1936-1996” (Sokyu-sha, 2006) and “Ryuichiro Suzuki: Odyssey” (Heibonsha, 2007). She is a regular contributor and photography critic for various magazines such as Asahi Camera and Studio Voice. She is also in charge of the Japanese photography section and writing for “The Oxford Companion to the Photograph” (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005). She is a part-time lecturer of Waseda University, and a guest researcher of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

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