Book Review: “Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s”

“If you want to know about Japanese photography, you must study photobooks.”

In Features Main Article 3 by Reiko Tomii 2010-03-13 print

Amazon Japan: 日本写真集史 1956-1986 (大型本)/ Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s.A decade ago, when I researched 1960s Japanese photography in for an exhibition, a leading photo historian in Tokyo gave me this piece of advice; “If you want to know about Japanese photography, you must study photobooks.” He was Kaneko Ryūichi, known for his vast collection of photobooks, which have become the basis of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s, a new publication coauthored by Kaneko and Ivan Vartanian and issued by Aperture.

“Photobook” is a relatively new critical term in Western photography. If the 1999 exhibition “Fotografia Publica/Photography in Print, 1919-1939” in Madrid denoted a new museological attention to the form, The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, edited by Andrew Roth (2001), signaled a broader interest. Three years later, The Photobook: A History, coauthored by Margin Parr and Gerry Badger (2004-06), gave the term wider acceptance.

Unlike Parr and Badger, who published what arguably amounts to the greatest post–World War II photobook, addresses Japan’s contributions in a chapter, Kaneko and Vartanian set out in a more nuanced direction. Japanese Photobooks offers a selection of forty odd examples, with detailed annotative text that represents a broad spectrum from the veritable ‘land of photobooks’ that is Japan, a place where the term for the medium, shashinshū, has existed since 1900.

During the period this book covers (1954-1986), print journalism was the main site of presentation for photographers, but the photobook was another important vehicle—more suited for experimentation and individual expression because it creates an intimate and self-contained realm, as opposed to the public space orchestrated by magazines and newspapers. Exhibition opportunities for photography were limited during this period; a handful of galleries sponsored by camera manufacturers exhibited work but “photo galleries” as we know today were virtually non-existent. In fact, the concept of “original prints” did not catch on in Japan until well into the 1980s.

Kaneko and Vartanian narrate this trajectory of postwar Japanese photography from its place in print journalism to the rise of exhibition display. Notably, this shift unfolded in tandem with a conceptual shift from the prints as shashin genkō—meaning “photographic prints prepared as ‘production art’ for publication”—to the original prints as display objects and marketable commodity. Case in point is the revered Kimura Ihei, a hardcore practitioner of prints as shashin genkō, Kimura believed that the true form of photography should be realized only when reproduced in a book or a magazine. However, this attitude makes it “difficult to establish a standard set of terms for printing style or tones” because there are no “master” prints, only reproductions of reproductions. To convey this, Kaneko and Vartanian included his black-and-white book The Eye of Kimura Ihei (1970), which they consider, thanks to superlative printing technology at the time, to be tantamount to his “original prints,” against which subsequent publications may be compared.

Japanese Photobooks includes must-haves such as Kawada Kikuji’s Map (1965), a landmark publication characterized by his challenging images and an elaborate design, and Araki Nobuyoshi’s Sentimental Journey (1971), a controversial volume in which Araki made his private life public. Still, what makes the compendium special is Kaneko’s discerning eye and his intriguing selection of books by lesser known amateurs, including Impressive Landscape (1970) self-published by Sugino Yasushi, a member of Osaka Bijutsu Club, and What Is 10/21? (1969), which documented a violent antiwar demonstration and was published anonymously to conceal the photographers’ identities for fear of political persecution. Books by famous amateurs, such as poet Tanigawa Shuntarō, who inventively combined his poetry and photography, and the artist Yoshioka Yasuhiro, known for his scandalously extreme enlargements of female genitalia, were also represented. If Kaneko’s choice of Underground Generation edited by Kanesaka Kenji (1968) further reveals the significance of photobooks in the antiestablishment movement, that of Shinjuku Thievery Story, ’66-’73 (1973) by Watanabe Katsumi points to the hidden realm of urban underworld.

The tradition of shashinshū is still evident in Japan today, as younger photographers frequently debut by publishing photobooks rather than having exhibitions. The medium’s portability makes it an even more powerful asset in today’s highly fluid world than was ever imaginable during the 1960s and 70s. However, it is integral to remember where it all started.

Reiko Tomii

Reiko Tomii. Born in Osaka, Reiko (or Dr. Tomii, if you want to be formal, but never Ms. Tomii) is an ex-Texan who used to buy her Sunday Times at the original Whole Foods market. Her love of art brought her to New York and the rest is history. » See other writings


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