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Nobuo ASADA, A place where the sea is, 1997, courtesy of the Third Gallery Aya, Osaka
essay by Mariko Takeuchi,
guest curator of "Spotlight on Japan" for Paris Photo 2008
Ihei KIMURA, Country Students, Akita, 1953 © Naoko Kimura, courtesy Zeit Foto Salon, Tokyo
With such diversity in their approach, Japanese photographers demonstrate that there is no such thing as the Truth, with a capital T. And all the while they continue to pose the fundamental question which is to know what photography is capable of reproducing and what eludes attempts at reproduction. For example, since the 1970s, Nobuyoshi Araki, one of Japan’s most eminent photographers, far from focussing on the antagonism between truth and fiction, has continuously tried to demonstrate, in every way possible, that photography is both truth and fiction. Similarly, Daido Moriyama, while subscribing to Warhol’s idea that a photograph is nothing more than a copy, also captures with delicate sensitivity the element of remembrance that inhabits photography. In the 1980s a number of photographers appeared, such as Naoya Hatakeyama, who saw their work as an attempt to analyze and understand the world. At the same time, the trend for “intimist” photography, such as that of Rinko Kawauchi who manages to capture beauty in daily life at its most ordinary, continues to endure in endless formal variations.
Tomatsu SHOMEI, Blood & Rose 2, Tokyo, 1969 © Tomatsu Shomei, courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery, London
One of the characteristics of Japanese photography is the role, increasingly important as time goes by, of printed matter. Whether generalist (magazines) or specialized (photography books), publications have been a vital vehicle for photographers and their work. In fact, no other country in the world boasts such a wealth of publications. This phenomenon is partly explained by the absence, to this day, of a network of galleries or a well-established market for photography. But it can also be attributed to the very particular history of reproduction processes in our country and the culture surrounding it. Specifically, the source can be traced back to the Edo era (1603 - 1867) with the development of unrivalled wood-block techniques, the beauty of the ukiyo-e prints and their immense popularity among the Japanese public.
In recent years, the work of a growing number of individual Japanese photographers has become known in the United States and Europe. But opportunities of presenting a panoramic vision of the history of Japanese photography in Europe are extremely rare. In this respect, the exhibition “New Japanese Photography,” held in New York in 1974 was a real precursor. It was the turn of the 21st Century that brought a more holistic approach to photography, and in this context the major retrospective entitled “The History of Japanese Photography” in 2003 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was a significant milestone. Ever since, there have been an increasing number of exhibitions and publications in the West. The 2008 edition of Paris Photo with Japan as country of honour therefore comes as the fruit of a long process of maturing.
Shoji UEDA, Self Portrait with Gorilla Mask, 1975-1982,
courtesy Howard Greenberg, New York
“Japanism” which subjugated Europe during the second half of the 19th Century was not a matter of passing fashion. Its influence is not only evident in Western art, in particular the impressionist school, but also in terms of lifestyle. The trend was set with the presence of a Japanese pavilion at the 1867 universal exhibition. Here we are in Paris, 141 years later, to present a comprehensive overview of Japanese photography on a scale unprecedented in France. It is my dearest wish that today more than ever, at a time of transition owing to the advent of digital technology, this event will not simply be perceived as “exotic.” It is my hope that it will be a stimulant to help us rediscover all the possibilities offered by the photographic medium and that it will serve as a boost to its creative energy.
The 1930s marked the beginning of a clear evolution towards modern photography. The change was brought about by a symbolic event: the creation, in 1932, of “Kôga” a publication whose title is made up of two ideograms meaning “light” (Ko) and “drawing” (ga). Abandoning the term “shashin” (and the implied search for truth in the photographic act) the main figures behind the publication, notably Yasuzô Nojima, Iwata Nakayama and in particular Ihei Kimura, proclaimed their will to embrace modernity through their work on light. Kimura, a master of the Leica, and often referred to as Japan’s Cartier-Bresson, played an unstinting role during the post-war period as the leader in the country’s photography circles. But even before the war, amateur photographers such as Nakaji Yasui or Osamu Shiihara had appeared, not only in Tokyo but also around Osaka, and were tremendously active in exploring the avant-garde.
Eikoh HOSOE, Ordeal by Roses #5, 1961-1970, courtesy Howard Greenberg, New York
With the desolation and chaos that followed Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, photoreportage, witness to the population’s desperate situation, dominated the scene for a number of years. But nevertheless, there were concurrent and completely independent efforts to seek out new forms of photographic expression. In this regard, the creation in 1959 in Tokyo by Shomei Tomatsu, Eikoh Hosoe, Ikko Narahara and Kikuji Kawada of the agency “VIVO” marked the birth of a new generation of photographers whose intent was to go beyond mere experimentation to establish a real practice. With a sharp, critical eye on reality, clear concepts, a real sense of composition and framing, coupled with heavy emphasis on the symbolic, this group exerted a tremendous influence on the generation that followed.
In the run-up to the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan was undergoing
a period of tremendous economic growth, which provided fertile ground
for the flourishing of Japanese photographers in the fields of photo-journalism
and advertising. However, in the second half of the 1960s our country,
along with many others, was gripped by the turmoil of opposition to the
prevailing politics, economics and culture which took the form of student
activism and violent protest against the Japanese-American Security Treaty.
In 1968, the emblematic year of struggle, the first issue of “PROVOKE”,
the publication whose evocative sub-title was “Incendiary Documentation
for New Thinking,” sent shock waves through Japanese photographic
circles. Members including Takuma Nakahira and Koji Taki, along with Daido
Moriyama, who joined the publication for its second issue, embarked on
a process of radical deconstruction of the rules and aesthetics of classical
photography, whose styles were often called “Are, Bure, Boke,”
(Rough, Blurred, Out of Focus).
Daido MORIYAMA, Poster (Nakano),1990-2003, courtesy Yoshi Gallery, New York
The first gallery specializing in the sale of photographic prints, “Zeit Foto Salon,” opened in 1978. But this was far from being a sufficient impetus to mobilize the domestic market, and to this day, the number of photographers under contract with galleries that are in a position to commercialize their work is singularly limited: most still exhibit with independent galleries or in spaces rented at their own expense. This remains one of the peculiar features of the Japanese photography scene.
Nevertheless, the “economic bubble” of the 1980s provided a favourable environment for Japanese photography, which underwent a period of deep transformation. In particular, a number of technological innovations (notably the AF lens and compact cameras) meant that photography became popular with the Japanese public as never before. Then in the 1990s, the young generation developed a real passion for photography, and in particular photography of a very personal nature. Around the year 1990 saw the opening of several photography museums throughout the country as well as the establishment of a system aimed at measuring the artistic and historic value of the medium. This is how, in spite of a frail market, Japanese photography has developed a physiognomy of its own, and has become institutionalized, while at the same time imposing itself as a mass phenomenon.
During this period, a number of photographers came to the fore with series
that stand at the crossroads between art and photography, resting on very
precise concepts. They can be roughly divided into two groups: one uses
photography as a preferred means of approaching the world from an intellectual
stand-point; the other works with this medium to access the imaginary
and transcend time and space.
Taiji MATSUE, Chi 0254, 2002 © Taiji Matsue, courtesy Taro Nasu, Tokyo
It is difficult to assign a single stylistic label to the work of all these photographers. However,above and beyond their visual and intellectual contributions, most have the capacity to shake and put into question our convictions and prejudices on a wide variety of issues. At a time when the notions of “limits” and “values” are the subject of never-ending debate in our world, it is not surprising that these works command a great deal of interest. This is no doubt what gives particular substance to Japan’s invitation as country of honour at Paris Photo this year.
The “Statement” section for Paris Photo 2008
Asako NARAHASHI, Momochi from the Series Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water, 2003, courtesy Rose Gallery, Santa Monica
It is in this context, and over the past decade that young photographers
emerged whose work is presented by not only the galleries in the Statement
section, but also by others throughout the fair. Far from being confined
to the criteria of what constitutes “great art,” these works
explore all the possibilities offered by the photographic medium, which
is seen as one among many other vehicles of creative expression.
This vision of the world, which looks as though it is seen through spectacles for the short-sighted, is particularly acute in the images of Rinko Kawauchi. Infused with soft subtle light, they seem heartwarming at first glance. But they also exude an underlying sense of threat. She and Mika Ninagawa both strive to capture what is universal in people and things with a very close observation of the finest details of the immediate environment. Meanwhile, Nobuo Asada goes into the ocean to take his photographs with the intention of positioning himself as the live example of the inevitable interaction between the “photographer subject” and the “photographed object.”
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.
Mika NINAGAWA, Liquid dreams, 2003, courtesy of Tomio Koyama, Tokyo
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, 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
Tomoko SAWADA, Decoration, 2007, courtesy MEM Gallery, Osaka
The Project Room at Paris Photo 2008
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.
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.
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.
— Mariko Takeuchi
Mariko Takeuchi, photography critic and independent curator: Born in 1972, Tokyo, Mariko Takeuchi has curated exhibitions including “Charles FrZąger: 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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