Dear Japanese / The Restoration Will

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On the design-production spectrum of photobooks, there exist two very distinct poles that are (pardon the pun) worlds apart. At one pole, you have American photobooks, in which typically adornments of any sorts are viewed as little more than heresy. This is possibly because of the still vast influence the work of Walker Evans has for American photography, an influence that prevents many photobooks from going beyond what has been deemed acceptable according to an orthodoxy that in the second decade of the 21st Century reeks of moth balls. Photobooks here are seen as little more than containers of photography, and nothing is allowed to possibly get in the pictures’ way. The idea that the whole could amount to a lot more is restricted to amorphous concepts, with the viewer’s overall experience with the book being mostly discounted. In other words, these books telegraph a strong and, if you think about it, condescending message to its viewers: you people better be in awe of these pictures, and don’t you dare to ask for more.

At the opposite end exist what happens to books when Japanese and Belgian/Dutch book makers get together. At their best, these books make for that truly immersive experience that American photobook makers are unable to deliver. At their worst, though, it’s like the circus is rolling into town, and you don’t know what animals you’re supposed to look at first, given there are so many clowns distracting you with their horns. Here, the overall experience comes first. But this runs the tremendous risks of drowning out the pictures or, as is often the case, of resulting in a flashy book that one would only want to look at because of the bells and whistles, which actually serve to hide the weakness of the photographic material at hand.

It’s probably clear from the preceding and from the many book reviews I have written over the past years that if I had the choice between two books I didn’t know, one from each of these poles, I’d happily pick the Japanese/Belgian/Dutch one. But this doesn’t mean that I think there isn’t merit to the American model: for the appropriate material, it works very well. I have a fair amount of such books in my library, and I appreciate what they do and how they do it. To make matters interesting, in between those poles there exist a variety of other fairly well defined locations that, however, I won’t get into here.

Instead, I want to focus on two recent books from that Japanese/Belgian/Dutch pole that, I think, deserve to be seen widely, because they each showcase what this particular model of photobook making can achieve. In addition, in both cases the work was produced by an emerging female Japanese photographer. With Western audiences (and many curators!) still mostly thinking of the same (literally) old grouchy Japanese guys and — given this is Listmas — with so many “best of” lists dominated by male white photographers, I find this important for reasons that I might not have to explain.

If you are a little bit confused why I grouped together Japanese and Belgian/Dutch photobook making, these two books — and many recent other ones — show that connection. They were both produced in workshops at Tokyo’s Reminders Photography Stronghold, which is co-run by Yumi Goto. The Belgian “visual storyteller” in question is Jan Rosseel. Each book was first hand produced in a small number before it was submitted to different dummy competitions. Each book won a competition that resulted in a mass trade edition being produced. In the case of one of the books, Dear Japanese, I was the juror in Cortona, Italy (at the publisher’s request, I also wrote an essay for the book afterwards). While I don’t think the books’ shared history matters, those thinking about the business of photobook making — or photographers interested in making their own — might want to take note. Just to be perfectly clear, I don’t intend these comments as either an endorsement or a criticism of this particular procedure.

Miyuki Okuyama‘s Dear Japanese: Children of war centers on a complex, yet not very widely known aspect of World War 2. In this case the larger background is the Dutch colonial occupation of Indonesia, which was invaded by Japan in 1942. A large number of Japanese soldiers fathered children with Indonesian women. Both the Japanese and the Dutch occupation eventually ended (in 1945 and 1949, respectively). As a consequence these children, many of which now had Dutch stepfathers, left their homeland along with their families, to move to the Netherlands. While there are a few more details, these basic details might already hint at the complexity of the story and the struggles these children had to go through in their lives. It is that larger story that the book tells using mostly pictures.

There’s a lot of talk about narrative in the world of photobook making these days, to the point of it almost having become a bit of a fad. I view narrative mostly as an added device at a photographer’s disposal. Where appropriate and when used well, it’s a great tool to make a book. In this particular case, one might imagine a more documentary-photography style approach would yield the best results, using ample amounts of text (plus captions). It’s true, such an approach would maybe be able to communicate the facts better. At the same time, it would take away from what Dear Japanese is concerned with, the experiences of these children (who are now grown ups) in their adopted homeland. Some things can be said more clearly by using less (or no) words, not more.

Okuyama tells this story through a combination of her own photographs — landscapes and portraits — and archival materials. What makes the book so strong for me is that the archival materials aren’t made to do the whole lifting. Instead, they serve to add many of the aspects that the photographer can’t access: you can’t go back in time to 1949, say, to take a picture of a ship leaving for the Netherlands. In Okuyama’s melancholic pictures, the full quiet drama of people who look and feel lost in a somewhat unforgiving and altogether not very inviting landscape unfolds. The story thus centers on the here and now of a lived experience against a larger background, which makes this book so successful.

After all, there are so many people today who have to live through the same experiences today (migrants and/or refugees) and so many others who might be directly or indirectly responsible for their suffering, whether it’s heartless government bureaucrats, people who vote for the likes of Trump or Wilders, or the vast masses who are largely indifferent to the suffering in their midst. So while Dear Japanese deals with a very specific aspect of history and its consequences for a relatively small number of people, its background of forced migration makes it a book that deserves to be seen widely.

Mayumi Suzuki‘s The Restoration Will comes from a more personal space. Suzuki lost her parents when the 2011 tsunami hit the small town they were living in. Their bodies were never found. The book tells the story of that loss and of what was left behind. In the broadest sense, Suzuki uses the same devices as Okuyama. But the archival materials are very different, given that often, they show the photographer herself as a small child. And many of these photographs clearly betray of having been washed over by the sea.

In addition, there are many somewhat blurry b/w photographs in the book, presented full bleed. These pictures were made with a lens found in the remains of her father’s photography studio. What a casual glance might dismiss as a toy-camera aesthetic thus has a much deeper — and profoundly — touching meaning, a photographer using her father’s lens, one of the few things physically left behind to record a world that now seems filled with sorrow.

Following an older tradition of Japanese photobooks, there are many gatefolds in the book, used to great effect. Maybe the most poignant one comes right after the center of the book, requiring the viewer to unfold pages twice (to the left and right), revealing two ghostly images against an abstract black-blue image of the sky (or sea perhaps). All of the various choices employed in the book, such as tipped-in photographs, could have been overused, but they weren’t. As a consequence, the book remains touching and moving even after repeated viewings.

Dear Japanese and The Restoration Will demonstrate what can be done with the form of the photobook if design and production are employed to contribute to the overall experience. Both books establish the voices of two emerging female Japanese photographers that, I hope, we will see a lot more of over the course of the coming years.

Both highly recommended.

Dear Japanese: Children of war; photographs by Miyuki Okuyama; essay by Jörg Colberg; (no page count); Cortona on the Move; 2017

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.9

The Restoration Will; photographs by Mayumi Suzuki; 104 pages plus gatefolds plus 16-page insert; Ceiba; 2017

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 4.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.3

Update (19 December 2017): At the request of Yumi Goto, I changed Rosseel’s role from designer to “visual storyteller.” As is obvious, this adds even more reasons to discuss this particular way of book making, which I might do in a future article.

The Japanese Photobook 1912-1990

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Manfred Heiting’s The Japanese Photobook 1912-1990 is the latest of what now is a relatively large number of books about photobooks. From its earliest and groundbreaking beginnings in the form of The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century and, of course, The Photobook: A History, Vol. 1, studies of photobooks have spawned their own little industry. So far, these studies have mostly focused on producing histories or taxonomies: these are selected books produced in this period of time in this particular region of the world. The possibility for a different approach exists, as I attempted to outline here. That aside, the utility of these histories is immense. At least in principle photobooks provide a widely accessible and affordable way to get exposed to photographs.

I used “in principle” for a reason. A side effect of photobooks being included in the canon as defined by Andrew Roth, Martin Parr, et al. is that their prices have shot way up. These high prices make many books unaffordable for large segments of photoland — all those people who don’t have vast amounts of money available. We live and operate in a market economy, and that’s simply the way it works. Occasionally, books are being re-issued. But this doesn’t necessarily put a stop to the whole problem, especially when reissues sell out themselves, and the reissues’ prices shoot up. Ideally, all photobooks would be as easily available as, say, William Eggleston’s Guide or Walker Evans’ American Photographs. But the economics of publishing clearly stand in the way of that.

Whatever you want to make of the preceding paragraph — I’m sure there are lots of different opinions, for me one of the keys to any of the books about photobooks is not just the quality of the text, it’s also to what extent the books in question are being presented. I have been using the Parr/Badger books as textbooks of sorts for a photobook-history class I’m teaching every summer. The books are good, and their writing (in particular the introductory sections) are very good. But the books really only can serve as starting points, given that there are so few actual reproductions of the books. As far as I am concerned, Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s has provided the gold standard of how photobooks can be presented. There are ample reproductions, and there are just so many details (ironically, that book is now also out of print).

Back to The Japanese Photobook 1912-1990, it is with these considerations in mind that I approached this book. And quite the book it is, with its almost 600 pages, weighing over 7 pounds. If you just look at those numbers, that might look a tad excessive. But it’s really not — not just because of the number of books featured, but also because there are many spreads from each of the books on view. Especially given that the bulk of these books appears to be more or less impossible to come by (unless you have access to the Japanese book market), this really is what you want. Trust me, I checked for quite a few of the books, and I couldn’t find a single copy of any of them online. I’m usually quite good at finding stuff, even when it ends up being way out of my price range.

The second thing I appreciate quite a bit about the book is its focus. Obviously, Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s covers that particular time period well. Add to that the Japanese books in Parr/Badger, and there is ample material available about the second half of the 20th Century. The Japanese Photobook 1912-1990 places a lot of focus on the first half, with a large variety of absolutely mind blowing material presented. I spent a lot of time attempting to track down various of the books presented in the chapter “The ‘First’ Avant-Garde” (sadly without any success), simply because of the modernist connection of the books.

The book not only offers vastly expanded to access to the world of Japanese photobooks in general, it also talks about many important historical aspects, such as the connection to Nazi Germany or Japan’s occupation of Manchuria. Photobooks follow the logic of the times they’re made in, both of their own medium but also adhering to larger cultural and societal trends. Seen that way, The Japanese Photobook 1912-1990 can almost double as a book on the history of photography made in Japan in the 20th Century.

Absolutely essential.

Update: Apparently, Fotografía pública. Photography in Print 1919 – 1939 predates the Roth and Parr/Badger books.

Photobook Reviews W49/2017

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In 2008, the photographers forming the Sputnik Photos collective began traveling across the former Soviet Union, to document what was left after that country’s break up. Now, not quite ten years later, what originally were separate pieces turned into the Lost Territories Archive (LTA). From this vast archive, containing thousands of photographs, exhibitions and publications have been produced, the latest one being Fruit Garden. In each of these cases, the individual members of the collective gave up authorship over their own pictures, to have them exist in a different, larger context — a bold and ambitious endeavour that is not very common at all in the world of photography.

Fruit Garden is a challenging book, because it takes one of the craziest ideas behind the Soviet Union at face value, namely that everything can be made to work in a very specific way if you just believe in it and you see it through. Compared with some other scientists working in the Soviet Union, Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin might not have been the zaniest, but still, his ideas were met with more or less universal rejection in the rest of the world. And Michurin ultimately comes to stand for the country’s leaders themselves, who, after all, were engaged in one of the largest experiments ever done, namely to build a new society (that really was just a murderous dictatorship on a very large scale, whose consequences are still with the world today — just ask the people in eastern Ukraine living under de facto Russian control).

As a consequence of the underlying idea, the book presents a set of chapters titled experiments. How and what these experiments might be isn’t entirely clear. There is some sort of logic to them, and ultimately they’re all equally disturbing as violence or its consequences are never that far away. This makes for a challenging and engrossing book, a book that resists easy reads, asking its viewers to re-visit it. I’m hoping that we’ll see more books along the lines of Fruit Garden — not just from Sputnik, but also from other photographers. Especially these days, giving up one’s authorship and then creating new ideas out of existing material is a promising approach to a medium that to such a large extent is dominated not by what a photograph shows or where/when it was taken, but how it is used.

Fruit Garden; photographs by members of Sputnik Photos; texts by Maciej Pisuk and Stefan Lorenzutti; 62 pages; Sputnik Photos; 2017

(not rated)

Without at least some sort of founding or underlying myth, a country is likely to have a hard time. As the many problems demonstrate that countries such as Belgium encounter, it’s very difficult to create a cohesive country if there isn’t something else other than sheer administrative convenience (the same could be said for the European Union, which somehow has become completely disassociated from the ideals that formed its original basis).

For example, in 2005, Semir Osmanagić discovered the so-called Bosnian pyramids, a cluster of hills in Bosnia and Herzegovina that, he claimed, were “the largest human-made ancient pyramids on Earth.” They’re not. It’s complete baloney. But still, for the country itself, struggling from a severe lack of self confidence, there now was something truly amazing and Bosnian to be celebrated. It’s easy to make fun of the idea. And go ahead, if you’re from a country that doesn’t rely on some very obviously nonsensical myth for its own existence.

Thomas Nolf‘s Peculiar Artifacts in Bosnia & Herzegovina focuses on the supposed pyramids, using all the many different devices available for photographers today, effortlessly blending the fictional with the real. What is fiction anyway? If deep down you know something isn’t true, but you believe in it because you want to believe — isn’t that the condition of today’s world? Seen that way, the book is not just a very engaging example of what can be done with text and pictures, it can also help us get a glimpse of the often fraught relationship between facts, fiction, and beliefs.

In today’s parlance, the existence of the Bosnian pyramids is fake news. But given we have somehow lost our ability to have those who believe in fake news engage with those who don’t (note that someone’s facts are always someone else’s fake news), maybe Peculiar Artifacts in Bosnia & Herzegovina can give us some pointers how to engage with it in ways that will help us all — not just those of whatever side we happen to find ourselves on.

Peculiar Artifacts in Bosnia & Herzegovina; photographs by Thomas Nolf; texts by various authors; 176 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2017

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.6

I can’t look at the cover of Harvey Benge‘s The Lament and not think of the role such animal carcases have played in paintings by Francis Bacon (this is an example). I’m certain that even if I did not have those images in my head, I would absolutely not buy the artist’s claim that the book “is an investigation into the nature of things and is a celebration of the democracy of images”. Leaving aside the fact that those words are a bit vague, the book really is also really not. You don’t put a photograph of an essentially crucified animal on the cover of your book if your concern is the democracy of images.

“The pictures look at the unusual and the perverse.” — that’s more like it. The book does paint a picture of a fairly grim and gruesome world where even the possible escape provided by sex (not even to mention love) is fraught with uncertainty and likely disappointment. That’s rough, but too few photobooks these days offer something truly rough or maybe I should say psychologically rough. The pictures in the book, a few examples and the cover image excluded, aren’t necessarily rough at all — it’s how they’re combined and make to work together that does the job.

As someone whose photographs I see as mostly singular observations, with this and his previous book (reviewed here) Benge has revealed himself as an artist who is very adept at assembling those photographs into larger narratives (however amorphous they might be). It’s the kind of visual literacy concerning one’s own photographs that many of us (me obviously included) would be lucky to have. I hope there will be many more of books like The Lament. As much as I enjoy the artist’s zines, I think it is here, in these expanded, more ambitious books where it’s really at.

The Lament; photographs by Harvey Benge; 96 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2017

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7