Kensuke Koike is an incredible force, and when you meet him it’s easy to envision the artist hovered over his selection of archival images, splicing and dicing them to precision to create new forms and interpretations. Before he makes the first cut in his mind-bending pieces, he sits in front of each photograph, pondering them as reverse puzzles: how can predictable lines and visuals unravel, only to be mosaicked back together into something cohesively surreal? In his ongoing projects Single Image Processing and Today’s Curiosity, Koike demonstrates a creative ability that can only be untapped through a predisposition for mathematics and proportion. What’s more: he only has one chance to create each final piece. The original images he uses are one-of-a-kind objects collected from vintage flea markets and auctions.
It comes as no surprise that this creative way of working caught the attention of artist and collector Thomas Sauvin, the mastermind behind Beijing Silvermine, a comprehensive archive of thousands of negatives salvaged from a recycling plant on the edge of Beijing. Sauvin has been collecting for over a decade, and has slowly pieced together an eclectic range of interesting ephemera in addition to the negatives. His archive now includes countless photographic objects, including albums, prints, negatives and other strange pieces he finds in flea markets and online auctions.
With Sauvin based between Paris and Beijing and Koike based in Italy, it took some time before their paths finally crossed. “I knew about Kensuke’s work for a few years before we were introduced by a mutual Italian friend,” explains Sauvin. “Shortly after, Kensuke decided to come to Paris, and we spent four or five days together in my studio. I knew he liked working with black and white photos, and I have about sixty thousand 6x6 black and white negatives in my archive. Everything is digitized, and I thought he’d be interested in them, so he sat in front of my computer for two days looking at tens of thousands of files. At the very end, he turned to me and said, ‘I’m not interested in any of these.’ That’s when I thought to myself, ‘Oh, I really like this guy.’”
The new friends migrated away from the screen of digitized images and turned their attention to something else in the studio. Walking over to Sauvin’s shelf of photographic curiosities, full of vernacular albums and single edition experiments, they soon came across an exercise book that was made by a photography student in Shanghai in 1983. It contained contact prints, their original negatives, and comments written by the photography teacher explaining what was good or bad about each photo.
Reflecting on this chance encounter, Sauvin explains, “It’s interesting because I purchased this album for about 18 euros, and when I picked it up I remember wondering whether I should actually buy it or not. It’s not particularly spectacular, but I thought I might be able to do something with it at some point down the line. It’s one of those objects where you don’t feel like it’s a real historical treasure that you want to preserve and put in a museum – it’s something else. There was something about it that hinted at an invitation to become something new.”
As soon as Koike laid eyes on the album, he was enthralled. Because of the nature of the book – a series of repetitive exercises – it was the perfect playground for Koike’s mischevious and precise interventions. The static aesthetic of the images would signify them as a cohesive series and collaboration, and the strange portraits gave Koike plenty to work with in his transformations. Because the original negatives were included in the workbook, encased in tissue pockets on each page just behind their contact prints, they were able to have new prints made of each image, which were then sent to Koike’s studio in Italy. He began working immediately upon their arrival, and the project No More, No Less was officially born.
The resulting images are grounded in Koike’s signature style, but the sharpness of the gelatin silver prints cues a more geometric approach to each piece. The new images appear as optical illusions and fragmented expressions, revealing the genius behind Koike’s gift of preconception. The title of the series says it all: nothing is added or removed from each work – just flipped and repositioned in strange and inventive ways. While we are struck by the bizarre alterations in front of us, it’s incredible to think that the artist could envision these final products before making his first incision. “I had some other ideas at first,” Koike explains. “But as soon as the prints were in front of me, I knew what direction I had to take.”
Since the collaboration resulted in such interesting output, it was difficult to accept the idea that No More, No Less should end with Koike’s completion of the final piece. “Since I began working on my archive, I found it necessary to share it with other people, especially with those who approach it differently that I do,” explains Sauvin. “It’s far more interesting to collaborate with someone who comes at the work from a different angle, and who allows me to see the photos that I deal with on a daily basis in a new way.”
After exhibiting the work, the duo brainstormed about what their next steps should be. A publication seemed like a logical move, but they started asking themselves how they could push the boundaries of a standard photobook. “We received many offers from publishers,” explains Koike. “But in the end we decided it wasn’t right to make it into some sort of open contest – we wanted to make something more closed and collaborative.”
Koike and Sauvin decided to make not one, but multiple publications. “We wanted an Italian publisher because Kensuke is based in Italy, a French one because I am based in France, and a Chinese publisher because the original material comes from China,” Sauvin explains. In mid-February 2018, they reached out to Italian publisher Skinnerboox, French publisher the(M) éditions, and Chinese publisher Jiazazhi Press, sending them files of Koike’s completed prints, as well as scans of the original album. Providing them with no information besides these visuals, the duo gave all three publishers free reign to do whatever they wanted with the material. There were only two rules: 400 copies had to be ready for the beginning of November, and the publishers could not contact Sauvin or Koike about their concept or design. All three publishers confirmed their participation within six hours, without any requests for negotiation.
Nine months later, on November 7, 2018, Sauvin and Koike arrived at Polycopies during this year’s Paris Photo for the grand unveiling of the three books. To their excitement, all three publishers had created phenomenal objects, each one incredibly distinct from the next. The grand reveal was a testament to the importance of collaboration, and to the potential of trust and confidence in joining creative forces. It was also poetic validation for Sauvin’s own ongoing emphasis on collaboration, and for why it’s crucial to give creators the space to explore different perspectives and angles with existing work.
While each approach was different, Skinnerboox was the only publisher to incorporate the presence of the original negatives into the work. “We created images of the negatives by inverting the pictures, so you get the real effect of what they look like. We printed them on black paper with silver ink, which is also a nod to Thomas’s work with Beijing Silvermine,” explains Skinnerboox’s Milo Montelli.
In addition to these details, they pursued an ambitious print layout. “Our designer, Federico Carpani, had the idea to print the entire book on a single sheet, to underline the concept behind the work. It ended up being incredibly difficult, because you have to put all the materials on a single piece of paper, all scaled 70 by 100 cm. The printing got crazy because it was difficult to cut and fold all the pages properly.” The result is an incredibly multifaceted foldout that shows all the different components of Koike’s process. “In some images, you see the back of the artwork, and we also incorporated booklets inside, bound to the sheet. One is a reproduction of the original album, and the other is the silver negatives.”
The book is incredibly interactive, and the publishers stuck with a monochrome design to let the images shine through. “We didn’t want to do too much intervention with the graphics because it’s already a graphic work – we wanted to highlight the importance of the concept itself, so we kept the complexities within the book format, leaving the design clean.”
As a departure from this minimal presentation, Marie Sepchat of the(M) éditions focused on the intricacies of the original album for her viewers’ first impression. The removable dust jacket is mosaicked with Sauvin’s scans of the workbook, and when readers open the publication, surrogates of Koike’s prints are inlaid into a sturdy card base. It appears as two books within a book, and readers can flip through the images on either side to view their fronts and backs. “We wanted to reference the original album, and creating this dust jacket allowed us to do so while also hiding the object, so that when readers open it, they are surprised to discover this precious thing inside.”
In order to replicate Koike’s blade indentations, as well as his taping on the backs of each piece, they glossed over each image to give viewers a feel for the materiality of the original works. “We really wanted the book to have texture, but it’s difficult to add all the parts of Kensuke’s work without cutting the prints themselves,” Sepchat explains. “We didn’t want to cut the pages of the book, so we had to find a way to see the texture without cutting. The designer, Les Graphiquants, had this idea to put gloss on the images – except for where the cuts would be – so that when you look at the book, you can feel where those initial slices are.”
The third and final publisher, Jiazazhi Press, created an entirely different object, paying homage to the Chinese photo studios that were popular during the time of the original album’s creation. They made prints of each of Koike’s images, and placed them inside tissue sleeves, so that each print can be completely removed by the reader. “This work is about the history of Chinese photos, and we are very familiar with that time period,” explains Jiazazhi’s Yuan Di. “We wanted to replicate the feeling of that time period – to bring it back into a modern context.”
When you first open Jiazazhi’s book, the shadows of the subjects are barely visible through each tissue sleeve. Light designs tracing the geometrics of Koike’s alterations appear atop the tissue, so that the reader can use a process of elimination to correctly place each image back inside its intended sleeve after removing all the prints to look at them as individual photographs. Jiazazhi’s is the most vibrant of the three books in terms of color, and the hue was chosen as an homage to the faded red lettering on the original album.
With these three distinct publications, the possibilities for No More, No Less have expanded into a wider network of potential, and Sauvin and Koike hope that it will not only prompt the perpetuation of their own project, but act as a model for individuals in the photography world to trust the process of coming together to collaborate more often. “Of course Kensuke was the original master of the first transformation, “ Sauvin reflects. “But when it comes to these books, they all have the ability to transport you into the world of No More, No Less.” When asked what he hopes his audience will take away from these works, Kensuke pauses and says, “I hope people understand that they don’t need an incredible image to make good work. They just need to look at something nearby a bit differently, and transform it into something special.”