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About an exhibition of photobooks.

Performance and the japanese photobook

interview with Ivan Vartanian:

A reading room full of Japanese photobooks. No hierarchy, no display cabinet, just a room with benches, tables and BOOKS which are there to be TOUCHED a sign on the wall informs.
(Essay excerpted from here).

This summer, the Photographers’ Gallery became to me an habitual place of pilgrimage, a chance to see the masters’ work and discover hidden gems from a selection nothing short of brilliant: Daido Moriyama’s Records, Nobuyoshi Araki’s Theater of love, Osamu Kanemura’s Spider Strategy, the Asphalt magazines side by side with other amazing lesser-known works such as Yumiko Utsu’s Out of the ark, Nagahiro Kumagai’s Mortar, Ayao Nakamura’s self-published booklets, and Masafumi Sanai’s screw-bound Trouble in Mind, just to name a few of the hundreds of books on display.

The man behind the exhibition is Ivan Vartanian, publisher, author and book producer based in Tokyo with his polyhedric publishing/events/editions company Goliga. He paired part of his personal collection of photobooks with that of photographer Jason Evans to bring the exhibition to London.

With regard to the Contemporary Japanese Photobooks reading room, where did the concept come from?

It all started with my research for the book Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s.

In Japan, for many if not most photographers, the photobook is the final form for their work. An easy way of putting it is that photographers will start their projects with the intention of creating a photobook, or images will be made specifically for inclusion in a particular edit or sequence. So to show a large assembly of photography from Japan, it makes most sense to have an exhibition of photobooks, like a reading room.

The photobook culture in Japan started because there was no gallery or museum system; it was the only way to show photography to a wider audience. It is a very different concept from western standards, where what matters is the print on the wall and sometimes the photobook is still seen as a reproduction of prints.

Historically, for the Japanese, a print is no more useful than the sample you give to the printer for color separation. However, that is a generalization and certainly there are many photographers who make extensive use of the print as the final form for their work. Having said that, the book form is how a sequence of photos is intended to be seen. In a sense, every copy of a printed book is in itself an original.

When I first proposed this show, I had people telling me the whole idea was crazy: “an exhibition of books? No prints?”. Only books. No prints, no hierarchy, no display cabinets. Just a reading room where you can sit down, browse and explore things.
It was not easy to gain trust for the project, but from the start the show was very well attended: we had more than forty thousand attendees in less then two months.
I had produced this type of show previously in Le Bal in Paris but on a smaller scale.

Are you not scared to leave collectible books to be read and creased by thousands of people?

Not really. That’s what books are made for and frankly I was expecting to see them destroyed, so even from that point of view it has been a success. There were several books that I obtained specifically for the exhibition with the expectation that they would come back damaged. You want people to look at the books.

You organize photographic-related and bookmaking performances. Can you tell us more about this?

Back in New York I was into performance art and that’s where a lot of my ideas come from.
I like the idea of a book evolving from an event, the public interacting with the photographer and his world.
Every performance I organize is different in concept and very specifically about a photographer’s work.

Japanese photographers are very comfortable with modifying their work in different ways. A photographer can choose to re-purpose an image, manipulate or re-title it: nothing is final, the concept of the ephemeral is very important in their culture.

In Tokyo I worked with Ryan McGinley. I rented some animals from the zoo: a monkey, a parakeet, a sheep, a snake and a baby pig … the idea was to have people come to a studio to have their photographs taken by Ryan with the animals. Ryan’s first idea was to shoot nudes. I thought in a shy city like Tokyo nobody would show up for nude photos with animals. Nevertheless, eventually I set up one room for the few nudes I thought would come but in the end we had a hundred people queuing up to be shot nude. Tokyo has changed quite a bit!

It makes me think about Araki: you said that Tokyo is a shy city so where do all of his models come from?

I think it is because of how he depicts his models: desirable, fragile and powerful at the same time, and every woman in every city wants to feel desirable. When Araki gives talks, during the Q & A session there is always some girl who asks to become a model.

Getting back to the photobook, culturally speaking what makes the Japanese books different?

They don’t make strong statements. They are comfortable with being vague and ephemeral and usually not much information is given outside the photographs. It is like the photographer is saying “I don’t care if you don’t understand”.

They have almost no interest in conceptual art; it is not about intellectualizing. They are very resistant to theory and conceptualization; it is more about reality. So from a western point of view there is the risk of over-reading: things are less complicated than you may think.
Usually they relate to photobooks in terms of cool/not cool. It is all about the feeling something can give to you. It is not a mental thing.

Can you tell us something about the self-publishing world in Japan?

Self-publishing was common in the seventies, and still happens now. However, there are a lot of publishing houses for photobooks so it is often a choice for the photographer to come up with a self-published book, usually because the work is very personal or experimental. Sometimes they just don’t want to be bothered with the publishing world; even established artists self-publish. They sometimes publish private editions of photobooks not intended for commercial sale at all: they create books they can distribute among family and friends.

Alex Bocchetto; Ivan Vartanian

Photos from the PHOTOBOOK COLLECTION

The Story of Japanese photobooks, from 1912-1990

The celebrated Japanese photobook in the 20th century – from the death of the Meiji Emperor to its anti-establishment heyday
Original story by Alex Jackson here

Few countries have experienced as rapid a transformation as Japan during the 20th century. Once a closed country with extremely limited interaction with the outside world, it opened its borders to become a pioneer in many fields – including photobooks. Now a new compendium, The Japanese Photobook, 1912-1990, brings together some of the most important publications, a mammoth endeavour that took editor Manfred Heiting six years.

“It is in photobooks we saw the 20th century unfolding,” he says. “This is not a selection ‘best of’ or ‘the most valuable’ of photo books. It is intended to show the development of the Japanese photobooks and publishing, how it relates to the cultural development of the country, how it captured its most important historic events – and including all the book details – and differences in publishing.”

Together the photobooks depict how Japan adopted and adapted external influences into its daily life, but also the ongoing influence of Japanese culture. First used extensively by the military and brought into the public sphere with the photobook showing the funeral of the Meiji Emperor in 1912, Japanese photobooks have been a source of photographic inspiration around the world, particularly in the mid-20th century.

“Photography came late to Japan – and all ‘raw materials’ needed to be imported,” says Heiting. “When the few Japanese photographers and architects returned from studying at the Bauhaus, they brought those ideas home. These photographers adopted many ideas and started making some very interesting photobooks.”

As a key form of artistic expression in the region, Japanese photographers and publishers quickly used photobooks as a propaganda tool, and to document the changes in the country. When World War Two was over, the photobooks took on a different relevance as a means of social expression, depicting the mood and political situations in flux. An extended period of unrest provided fertile ground for young photographers to really experiment, while documenting what was going on in their country – particularly those involved with the Provoke magazine published on 1 November 1968, and 10 March and 10 August 1969.

“There was Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the American occupation, but also the uprising of students and farmers against the seizure of land for Narita Airport. It all unleashed the desire of the young generation to say that they had enough,” explains Heiting.

“The Provoke and protest publications are the most important Japanese contribution to photography and photobooks and photo magazines worldwide. The photobooks after the 1950s demonstrate a very unique Japanese identity to us.”

Unfortunately, Heiting sees the gradual demise of the artistic potential of the Japanese photobook starting with John Szarkowski’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1974. It was there that he told the show’s co-curator, Yamagishi Shoji, that “good photographs need to have a white border”. Ultimately, this led to a homogenisation: “That killed the uniqueness of Japanese photobooks. They all began to look like the ones in the West,” concludes Heiting.

Two thousand photobooks: PHOTOBOOK COLLECTION

The History of Japanese Photography

The History of Japanese Photography Published: 2003-03 Publisher: Yale Univ. Press ISBN: 0300099258 Price in Japan: ¥6,830 Qualities: Hard cover, color photos Size: A4 oversize, 512 pp. Language: English. Excerpted from Philbert Ono’s excellent website

Regretfully, I was unable to fly to Texas to see the huge The History of Japanese Photography exhibition held earlier this year (Mar. 2–Apr. 27, 2003) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. I can only find solace in thumbing through this big exhibition catalog that is also an unprecedented book on Japanese photographic history in English. It’s a shame that after Houston, the exhibition did not travel beyond the Cleveland Museum of Art (May 25-July 20).

This heavy book (2.8 kg or 6 lbs.) discusses Japanese photography from 1848 to 2000. It is profusely illustrated with 356 images (more than what was displayed at the exhibition). Most of the images are sepia-toned or B/W and few are actually in full color. The book is organized into several unnumbered chapters and it includes an excellent appendix section.

The book and exhibition were a six-year collaborative effort of curators, researchers, and scholars in Japan and the US supported by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Japan Foundation. The book and exhibition were headed by Anne Wilkes Tucker, a well-known photography curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She was joined by Dana Friis-Hansen (chief curator at the Austin Museum of Art), KANEKO Ryuichi (guest curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography), and TAKEBA Joe (curator at the Nagoya City Art Museum). IIZAWA Kotaro (photo historian and critic) and KINOSHITA Naoyuki (Univ. of Tokyo assistant professor) also contributed to the book.

The seed for this huge project was planted in 1995 when the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography invited Ms. Tucker to be a juror for The 1st Tokyo International Photo-Bienniale, an international photo contest. Seeing the works of Japanese photographers exhibited at the museum and other galleries piqued her interest in Japanese photography, but she was sorry that the works were pretty much unknown in the West.

It’s appalling that even renown photography curators like her knew little about Japanese photography even as recent as 1995 when Japanese photography was already well developed and full of vitality (especially among the younger set).

I remember in 1997 during a panel discussion at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography’s 2nd Tokyo International Photo-Bienniale, Sandra S. Phillips, the invited photography curator from the San Francisco Museum of Art, was asked what she thought about Japanese photographers. She admitted that she didn’t know enough to make a comment.

It’s typical, and I can tell you there are many other photography curators around the world who still have a blind spot for Japanese photography. I don’t think they are purposely ignoring Japan. They just never thought about looking into Japan or they subconsciously avoid the unknown. (If Japanese photography has such a hard time gaining international recognition, think about other Asian countries like Korea, China, Thailand, and the Philippines. It’s even worse for them.)

Anyway, Ms. Tucker did something about her blind spot and got the ball rolling. In 1996, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Japan Foundation formed a collaborative team of curators and other staff. The curators traveled widely in Japan, the US, and Europe visiting over 60 museums and archives. They worked with numerous galleries and libraries and interviewed countless photographers.

The acknowledgements page has a very long list of people and institutions in Japan, the US, and Europe who provided assistance. It tells you how big this project was.

And the result? It’s like a dream come true. We simply have never seen such a large-scale book (and exhibition) in English about Japanese photography before.

Although a lot of information on US and European photography make their way into Japan (via the many Japanese writers and critics), very little info on Japanese photography ever goes out of Japan for the overseas market. This book may help lessen Japan’s information trade imbalance in photographic art and history.

However, don’t let this book’s sheer size, attractive design, and authoritative air fool you into thinking that it tells you everything about Japanese photography history. Japanese photography is simply too big and broad to be encapsulated in any single book (or Web site). As I shall point out below, the book has major omissions with regard to Japanese photographers and key developments in Japanese photography.

The chapters and plates

The book’s main text is divided into seven chapters, each one written by one of the curators or contributors. The hardcore chapters on Japanese photography history are all written by Japanese authors and translated into English. The text was generally intended to chronicle how Japanese photography developed over the years within the context of Japan’s historical and cultural developments and how photography in turn affected Japanese society.

Ms. Tucker writes only the book’s Introduction, which I will call the first chapter. (There are no chapter numbers.) This chapter tells me that she has learned much about Japanese photography since that fateful trip to Tokyo in 1995. She has effectively eliminated her blind spot on Japan and hopefully this book will do the same for other curators.

She summarizes about how Japanese photography has been introduced to the West through books and exhibitions. She also mentions a few books on Japanese photography history that have been published. However, she fails to mention Terry Bennett’s important | Japan: Caught in Time and | Early Japanese Images (even though they are listed in the bibliography). Both books, published in the mid-1990s, were the most comprehensive English introduction to early Japanese photography ever published at the time.

She then gives a general overview of Japanese photography history while often making comparisons with Western photographers.

The next chapter, The Early Years of Japanese Photography, written by KINOSHITA Naoyuki, covers the first 50 years of photography in Japan from 1848 when the country’s first daguerreotype camera was imported from Holland. (Some Japanese books on Japanese photography history start the chronology from 1646 when the camera obscura was first imported.)

“Japanese photography” is defined in this chapter as photographs taken in Japan, not necessarily only by the Japanese since the first images were captured by foreigners who came to Japan after the country opened up to the West in 1859. These early foreigners taught photography to the first generation of Japanese who in turn taught the craft to the second generation of Japanese by which time most foreign photographers left Japan as the natives took over the profession by the turn of the century.

The subjects photographed also evolved–from samurai portraits and stereotypical customs and manners to landscapes and news photos. Among the major historical periods of Japanese photography, this early period has attracted the most publishing attention. (This chapter is also the book’s largest with 86 pages.) It was during a period of great change and upheaval as Japan transformed from a closed, feudal society to a modern, international state.

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