Contemporary Japanese Photographic Books (display at The Photographer’s Gallery)

view of Ramillies Street and The Photographers Gallery

Contemporary Japanese Photography Books

My rather vague impression of Japanese photography is of the gritty realism of the snapshot mode, of a subversive approach rather than a traditional one which in Japan has produced much  in the way of fine art, Zen temples being an obvious example. An exponent of this photographic approach can be seen in the writing of Ken Domon who exerted considerable influence over post-war photography in Japan. He advocated the “absolutely unstaged snapshot” which he considered has “a fundamental historical and societal value.” This was accepted as a genre as is landscape, portraiture or still life; a realist approach that challenged the more conservative one. Of course, the upstaged snapshot also embraces these other genres. During the 1950s Domon proposed such views in which there is “a direct connection between the camera and the subject”.

Before the war, the Japanese had made contact with the Bauhaus and Ihei Kimura was known for “snapshot spontaneity.” However, modernist associations were to be dropped and as Shomei Tomatsu put it, “I release the shutter in Tokyo or in the provinces for my benefit only, not for someone or something else.”

Another photographer, Nobuyoshi Araki, writes in his text “Photographic Discourse as Strip Show” that to the photographer, “… you must plainly lay yourself bare. That is your duty to the subject. But even without that intention, the person who takes the photograph is exposed.”

The photo book in Japan has been very important in the development of photography because, until more recently, there have not been other outlets for serious photography. Personally, I find the photo book a stimulating form of expression and an inviting means of outputting my work. Photographs while gaining support from words can so easily be swamped by them.

The Wolfson Gallery during the Japanese photobook exhibition

At the Wolfson Gallery, on the second floor of The Photographer’s Gallery in London, there is an exhibition of contemporary Japanese photo books with perhaps as many as 100 placed around the room for one to peruse; one is asked to put on a pair of white gloves to do so, these being supplied by the gallery.

The first book I pick up is called “Dance” and is by Seiji Shibuya.

There is a book about Mount Fuji by Ishikawa; it is in bright colour with a considerable amount of Japanese text. Visually, the view of the place is highly subjective and includes photographs of wood cuts of the mountain. Another, larger format book by Ishikawa is called The Void; there is a verbal statement “One forest is all forests!” which refers to the interconnectedness of all things, the photographer having studied with a local shaman. The photographs are from the northern island of New Zealand being mostly of forest and often the presence of water. At the end of the book, there are a couple of pages of text written by Ito, a Japanese professor of art, who attempts to explain what the book is about, writing “the apparatus of visual perception – the photograph – does not fully capture the presence … must limit itself to directing people’s attention towards the power’s source.” 

looking at photographic books – white gloves supplied

Another book is called “Children of the Rainbow” and is by Juriji Takasago; this is a series of nature photographs in colour. Most feature animals but there are some good landscapes. 

Taigan by Dodo Arati is a visual account of off-beat travels through Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The photographs are in colour and have titles; one can find out more about what is happening in the images from information given at the back of the book.

Another photographer is Murakoshi Toshiya;

Here the photographer is using small prints about 6 by 8 ins in black and white with no words. The title of the book “Until and unless” is not easy to deifier but there is a quality of stillness within the photographs.

The exhibition of photographic books presents about 100 to be viewed, too many to be looked at in detail. Most are highly imaginative if not abstract often with the sense of meaning they might convey being implied by titles only. It is not easy to generalise about these books as a whole although they are true photo books in the sense that most are primarily concerned with the visual effect of the photographs and use few if any words. Text is subordinate of as much importance as the framing of the images perhaps less. Often these books can absorb one for quite sometime as one contemplates their meaning in an attempt to understand what they are actually saying; returning to look at the same book after sometime might produce further insights.


About Photography

Comments are continually being made in an attempt to define what photography is; medium specificity can be meaningful for working photographers. Here are some quotes from David Campany (University of Westminster, London) …

“Photography appeals because it escapes narrative and wrongfoots the easy explanations it can seduce us into making. Like the visitor with fresh eyes, the camera takes in everything. It sees without hierarchy or intention, with no knowledge of the before or after. In fact, it sees more than any human can, recording surfaces and objects with unimaginable realism. Its voracity and its veracity are inseparable. In the final print the smallest things may become insistent signs, calling inexplicable attention to themselves across time.

This capacity for unpredictable significance is what troubles photography’s artistic ambitions. All photos, indeed all films, end up documents, no matter what the makers’ intentions. And the value of that documentation cannot be known in advance. Who is to say which detail from which image may prick our personal memory, or cause us to re-evaluate our shared history?”

from David Campany on the influential photographers who captured London in Tate Etc 25