dinsdag 3 oktober 2017

Masahisa Fukase's Ravens: the best photobook of the past 25 years? Collecting the Japanese Photobook 1912 - 1990 Photography

The Photobook Review
Collecting the Japanese Photobook
Ryuichi Kaneko interviewed by Ivan Vartanian

Ryuichi Kaneko is a leading historian of Japanese photobooks, and over the course of four decades he has amassed a formidable collection of twenty thousand volumes, including magazines and catalogues. In his role as curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, from its nascency up until this year, he oversaw the development of the institution’s public collection. As a scholar, Kaneko has been an important figure in supporting and extending scholarship surrounding Japanese photography and photobooks. Ivan Vartanian, who guest edited the latest issue of The PhotoBook Review, spoke to him about how he became one of the first and most enduring champions of the Japanese photobook, the evolution of the form, and what makes a book irresistible. This article also appeared in Issue 6 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app.

Ivan Vartanian: You began collecting books at a time when no one else had interest in Japanese photobooks. How and why did you start?

Ryuichi Kaneko: It started in high school and university, when I was taking photographs and realized I possessed absolutely no talent for it. But I loved photography. My father was an amateur photographer, and after the war he worked as an editor at a fashion magazine, which influenced me too, with all the exposure to material it provided. Since I couldn’t make images, I thought intensely about what I could do that would connect me with the world of photography, and started to just consume and absorb whatever materials I could get my hands on. Photobooks were a vehicle for that.

The first Japanese photobook I ever purchased was Otoko to onna [Man and Woman, 1961] by Eikoh Hosoe. And the first book I purchased by a foreign photographer, in 1967 or ’68, was William Klein’s New York [1956]. Around that time, 1967 or ’68, I started to become acquainted with a lot of photographers, and by 1974 or ’75 I started to buy books actively.
Kazuhiko Motomura is a publisher and editor who made Robert Frank’s The Lines of My Hand [1972] with Yugensha. When I ordered a copy of the book, Motomura delivered it by hand to my door. And from there started a long friendship and a sort of mentorship. He introduced me to a slew of photographers, bookstores, and bookstore owners, particularly in the Kanda area of Tokyo. After that, Kanda became my library, where books and magazines could be bought. My passion became my mission.

And it was just about this time that independent galleries were operating in Tokyo. To the photographers in these places— which were hangouts as much as they were noncommercial exhibition spaces—I became known as the guy who had all these photobooks from Japan and the West. It was an opportunity, or excuse, if you like, to talk to photographers and be connected to the medium that I loved so much. For example, at Photo Gallery Prism, I met photographers Hitoshi Tsukiji, Kineo Kuwabara, and Hiroshi Yamazaki. At Image Shop Camp, I met Keizo Kitajima. These photographers were of the same generation as me. That was an important point because they had an antiestablishment way of thinking.

IV: So what was the experience of buying photobooks at that time?

RK: It wasn’t simple. There weren’t a lot of photobooks by Japanese photographers. And of those that were in existence, only a handful were worth buying, like Shomei Tomatsu’s Taiyo no empitsu [The pencil of the sun, 1975] or Kikuji Kawada’s Sacré Atavism [1971]. But there were several gems from the West: Lee Friedlander’s Photographs [1978], Garry Winogrand, Nathan Lyons, and Bruce Davidson, as well as Aperture’s Paul Strand and Walker Evans retrospectives. There was also Dorothy Norman’s book on Stieglitz, An American Seer [1973], which I went around and showed to everyone, and it changed our impression of Stieglitz. It was this process that led me to become interested in the history of photography, too.

IV: After the mid-1970s, with the proliferation of photobooks, were you able to keep up?

RK: I bought pretty much ninety percent of everything that was published then. I don’t think you can imagine this: I would go to Kanda twice a week, and then Waseda, to visit used bookstores. And of course Shinjuku’s Kinokuniya bookstore. Unlike now, when there is a surplus of books, at that time there weren’t many Japanese photobooks to buy. How could I use the ¥10,000 I had in my hand? There were days when I couldn’t find a single book to buy and would go home feeling dejected.

IV: Were there any other people buying photobooks at that time?

RK: No! There was no one else.

IV: So how did this culture of collecting books grow in Japan?

RK: It’s thanks to me and Kotaro Iizawa. He, too, was studying Japanese photo history, and when we eventually met we realized we were both doing pretty much the same thing at the same time. Iizawa often said that we needed to change the culture from the enjoyment of taking photographs to the enjoyment of looking at photographs. That was in the first half of the 1980s, just before I started working at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. But the culture of actually enjoying reading Japanese photobooks didn’t evolve until after the 1990s. The 1980s were about foreign photobooks, but I was a cheerleader for Japanese photobooks.

IV: Were there any dramatic shifts in the form of Japanese photobooks between the 1960s and the ’80s?

RK: No, except for the dramatic improvements in printing technique. It was something that became apparent later. There was gravure printing in the beginning, after the war, and then after the 1970s it was all offset printing. But there still wasn’t this sense that a photobook was a function of its printing. That would be entirely the influence of the American photobook, which was recognized in Japan in the 1980s.

IV: Japanese photobooks have special value as the vehicles by which a lot of Japanese photography has been seen by the West. Do you think some distortion has resulted from this, by not seeing the prints themselves and only seeing the work in the form of photobooks?

RK: In Japan the photobook has had special significance for photographers from the 1930s onward; from the 1950s to the 1970s, there was a widely accepted understanding that there were certain modes of expression that could only be achieved in the form of a photobook. The print was forgotten to a certain degree. And when it came to academic matters of collecting, which is what I did as a curator for the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the first selection of images was often based on what was in photobooks. Quite frankly, many Japanese photographers are quite unconcerned with how work is shown in a gallery setting because the photobook is already out in the world and circulating among people.

It is precisely because of this imbalance that Japanese photobooks have their unique sensibility and can achieve new levels of expression. A great example of this would be the 1963 version of Eikoh Hosoe’s Barakei, which was printed in gravure. You could cut those pages out of the book and frame them. One shot of Yukio Mishima staring into the camera at close range has not only become a symbol of that body of work, it has become iconic. So when the prints from that series are sold, that image gets prominence over the other images, and the book’s context and complexity get lost.

IV: So how about contemporary photobooks? Are you actively collecting those too?

RK: [laughs] To be totally frank, it’s no different from the situation I was facing back in the 1970s. It’s very difficult to find a book I feel I must own. There are a lot of books out there now, which is like a dream come true, but sadly only a few make it into my collection. There are few books that communicate an innate need to exist, or to even be a photobook to begin with. Then there are the books that you just take one look at and know, “I must own this.” That’s what I’m looking for when I visit bookstores.

Translation from Japanese by Ivan Vartanian.

Ivan Vartanian is a Tokyo-based independent curator and author as well as the founder of the imprint Goliga.

Ryuichi Kaneko is a critic, historian, and collector of photobooks. He has authored or contributed to numerous publications, including Independent Photographers in Japan 1976–83 (Tokyo Shoseki, 1989),The History of Japanese Photography (Yale University Press and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2003), Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s (Aperture, 2009), and Japan’s Modern Divide (J. Paul Getty Museum)

Manfred Heiting is an inveterate and encyclopedic collector of the photobook. He began his career as a designer before gaining experience and acclaim as a curator, editor, scholar, and connoisseur of the genre. In 2013, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, added his library of books to their extensive set of four thousand prints from his collection, acquired in 2002 and 2004. This addition will include more than twenty-five thousand titles from around the world, including Germany, the Soviet Union, France, the United States, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and roughly two thousand volumes from Japan. As a committed outsider seeking insight via the Japanese photobook, Heiting’s interest in the form operates complementarily to historian Ryuichi Kaneko’s inside track [as discussed in App Issue 9]. In addition to the forthcoming volume Soviet Photo Books 1912–1941 (Steidl, 2015), Heiting is also at work on the book The Japanese Photo Book: 1912–1980. The following conversation with Lesley A. Martin, creative director of Aperture Foundation and publisher of The PhotoBook Review, appeared in The PhotoBook Review 008.

Lesley A. Martin: How and when did you first become interested in the Japanese photobook as a particular area of collecting?

Manfred Heiting: I started collecting Japanese photography in 1972 after a visit to Tokyo to meet with Goro Kuramochi, a curator and editor who later became a friend. He introduced me to a few photographers: Ikko Narahara, Eikoh Hosoe (who helped me a lot), Teiko Shiotani, Shoji Ueda, and others. I knew at that time that vintage prints were not part of the Japanese narrative, and during that visit I only bought a few contemporary prints from those photographers I met. I also acquired some books as part of my reference library, useful to understanding the work of the photographers; they were not seen as “collectible” at that time. It was only at the beginning of the 1990s that my interest in [photographers’] books became more focused. I see 1912 as a decisive starting point for my collection of Japanese books, based on a photobook by Kazuma Ogawa that documents the Meiji emperor’s funeral that year (which traditionally took place at night), Photographic Album of the Imperial Funeral Ceremonies. Floodlights had not been invented yet—just the magnesium flash for close range. The Japanese government purchased all the magnesium they could get and placed it alongside the road so that the long, nighttime procession could be photographed. The images are quite impressive, and I think that is a fitting beginning.

For now, however, I’ve stopped looking at books produced after the 1980s. I call most Japanese photobooks produced after that period “Eastern art for Western taste.” Before the 1980s (and in particular before the 1970s), publishing photobooks was an elaborate and expensive undertaking, and there was only a small market for them. In other words: before a publisher would take the risk, a book had to offer a very good value proposition, featuring the most acclaimed work from well-known photographers, and be well-designed and technically well-executed to ensure that the book would be a commercial success.

In the 1980s, more museums began to show photography, and more publishers saw the photobook as a new and attractive market. More buyers gave the publishers confidence to invest in photobooks, and English became the accepted language of choice for many of those publications. And when the museums rediscovered photography, the most common type of photobook became the catalogue, designed to replicate the individual print on the gallery or museum wall. You saw less diversity of printing and materials, less design, less individualistic layouts—just more and more color surrounded by more and more white paper. In my opinion, these are less “book” than just “printed, colorful paper.” This was the situation in the U.S. and Europe in the 1980s, which soon arrived in Japan and took away the most admired—and different—concepts of the Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s, with their unique design and photographic languages, and their high-quality printing. Photographers and publishers both had their eyes on the international market and adapted to our tastes in order to sell them to us. There are exceptions of course—but I shy away from most of the contemporary Japanese books.

Kazuma Ogawa, Photographic Album of the Imperial Funeral Ceremonies, Top: standard edition; bottom: palace edition. Privately published, 1912

The Meiji emperor died on July 30th 1912, aged 60, having presided over the Meiji Period since the age of four, living through a time of unprecedented change for Japan. The present official publication of the funeral ceremonies represent the first photographic record of an Imperial funeral in Japan. They are important historical documents both historically as well as photographically. Recording the night-time funeral procession presented considerable challenges in terms of timing and illumination. Ogawa Kazuma (1860-1929), who had learned his trade in the US, was a man with enormous experience as a photographer and publisher, and was thus ideally suited to cover the event. He (and other photographers at the event) used a flash system developed by the Sapporo photographer Shiina Sukemasa (1868-1933) in order to illuminate the procession. One copy in OCLC. (Titus Boeder, 4/2007)

LAM: What were your criteria for buying books when you started to collect in this area? Has that criteria changed over time?

MH: The criteria has not changed much—I am always interested in “complete-as-published” volumes—but the understanding and knowledge of what that means regarding Japanese photobooks has increased, and with the network of trusted local advisors, I now know more of what I am still missing.

LAM: Beyond its completeness and condition, what is it you look for when you buy a book, especially a Japanese photobook?
Are you interested in the design, in the quality of the pictures? Perhaps the real question: do you need to fall in love with a book in order to buy it?

MH: Of course, all of the above. As I have explained before: I am talking about the printed B-O-O-K (I have collected original photographic prints before and have closed that chapter). Therefore, I am interested in a “book” with all its unique parts and attributes: for its particular photographic language and authorship, its design, layout, size, printing, and binding quality—and that’s for each period and country. If I like a photographer’s work or think that the subject and style warrants “preserving,” I look for every book from a photographer, from every period and most subjects—provided that the book and all its attributes are of a high quality. I think this is a different way of falling in love with a book, but also an admiration for the complete result intended by the makers.

LAM: Are there any particular themes or motifs that you have found of interest or that especially define the Japanese photobook?

MH: Yes. Without being dogmatic, I categorize twentieth-century
Japanese photobooks in four distinct periods.

The pictorial period: This includes publications from amateur photo clubs (which have played an important role in Japan). Also, pictorialism extended longer in Japan than in Europe and the U.S., lasting until the beginning of the 1930s.

The avant-garde: Including the surrealist advertising and Bauhaus-influenced photobooks and advertising of the 1930s (these are not easy to find).

Propaganda: Many books and magazines were published by the imperial government, the military, and the occupying authorities in Manchuria and elsewhere. These materials are quite substantial and more “impressive” than European fascist-propaganda photobooks—but fall a bit short of the creativity seen in Soviet propaganda photobooks.

The 1960s and 1970s: This is the best-known and most widely admired period of Japanese photography and photobook making. During this period, books were it! And the quality of the photography, aesthetics, and production (mostly in sheet-fed gravure) are unmatched in other parts of our photobook culture.

LAM: The canon of the photobook has begun to solidify in the past ten years. Are there any Japanese photobooks that you feel have been left out of the surveys or best-of listings?

MH: Best-of listings are very bad for collectors who want to do more than just invest in the top/best/rarest of books. The market aspect has certainly helped to focus on a particular period or culture and has brought a lot to light, but other than “the top ten”—or, in particular, prewar photobooks—we are still mostly in the dark, or the books are unrecorded. The Japanese protest photobook is certainly on everyone’s radar, but that does not mean that we know much of what we are after. Robert Hughes, the most celebrated art critic of the later twentieth century, famously stated, “What strip mining is to nature the art market has become to culture”—this fits perfectly into our field as well.

LAM: How would you define the relationship between connoisseurship and scholarship in your role as a collector?

MH: In my particular situation, my quest and my goal cannot be separated: I seek to combine both connoisseurship and scholarship. I basically collect the twentieth-century photobook (more precisely the “printed photobook,” from about 1886 until 2000). Because of the two world wars, the twentieth century is a difficult period for the photobook—so much was produced and so much is lost forever, including most of the subject matter, and history needs to be preserved. I see the photobook in the twentieth century as one of the most important mediums in our culture and of that part of history, and recording it as a very important task for scholars, libraries, universities, museums, and collectors alike.

I also think that only a private collector is more “privileged” and can do both—if he or she is prepared to spend the time and money to accomplish both of these tasks. At the outset, one has to decide for whom and where the results will be made, deposited, and placed to keep it all together. In my case, I decided that some time ago. No one can take things with them.

Sean O'Hagan
Brooding and shatteringly lonely, the Japanese photographer's series on ravens has been hailed as masterpiece of mourning 

Bleakly atmospheric ... Koen-dori, Shibuya (1982) by Masahisha Fukase. Photograph courtesy of the artist

Monday 24 May 2010 13.14 BST First published on Monday 24 May 2010 13.14 BST
The British Journal of Photography recently asked a panel of experts, including photographer Chis Killip and the writer Gerry Badger, to select their best photobook of the past 25 years. Surpisingly, perhaps, Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency, from 1986, came a close second to a much less well-known book, Masahisa Fukase's Karasu (Ravens), which was published the same year.

While Goldin's book is now widely regarded as a pioneering classic of the raw, confessional style of photographic memoir, Fukase's work is described by the BJP as "an obscure masterpiece". A Japanese first edition, originally published by Sokyu-sha, currently fetches around £2,000 on the collectors' market, up to twice that if signed by the author.

My copy is, as far as I can ascertain, a third edition, which was issued in a print run of 1,000 copies by the charmingly titled Rathole Gallery in 2008. Here, the English title is The Solitude of Ravens. In her afterword, Akira Hasegawa writes: "The depth of solitude in Masahisa Fukase's photographs makes me shudder". One can see what she means. It is a darkly fascinating and obsessive work that lodges in the mind.

Fukase's images are grainy, dark and impressionistic. Often, he magnifies his negatives or overexposes them, aiming all the time for mood over technical refinement. He photographs flocks from a distance, and single birds that appear like black silhouettes against grey, wintry skies. They are captured in flight, blurred and ominous, and at rest, perching on telegraph wires, trees, fences and chimneys. Fusake photographs them alive and dead, and maps their shadows in harsh sunlight and their tracks in the snow.

Although the visual narrative is punctuated by other mysterious images – a nude, fleshy masseuse, a malevolent-looking cat, windswept girls peering over a boat rail, a homeless man drinking in what looks like a municipal rubbish tip – it is the ravens that obsess Fukase. His vision is so stark, so relentlessly monochrome, that you cannot help but wonder what kind of hold they had on his imagination. In The Photobook: A History, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger suggest one possible reading: "One climatic image of silhouetted birds in formation, wings outstretched against a grainy sky, metamorphoses into a wire news service image of overheard warplanes – a significant and traumatic image for postwar Japan."

Ultimately, though, it seems that Fukase's 10-year pursuit of the ravens was a way of trying to make sense of an altogether more personal emotional trauma. One of the most illuminating reflections on the book I have come across is by the photographer Stacy Oborn, on her always-stimulating website, the Space In Between. In an essay entitled The Art of Losing Love, Oborn notes: "Fukase's best-known work was made while reeling from loss of love." She points out that Fukase began his pursuit of the ravens just after Yoko, his wife of 13 years, left him. "While on a train returning to his hometown of Hokkaido, perhaps feeling unlucky and ominous," she writes, "Fukase got off at stops and began to photograph something which in his culture and in others represents inauspicious feeling: ravens. He became obsessed with them, with their darkness and loneliness." The Solitude of Ravens, then, is a book of mourning. (Yoko, tellingly, was Fukase's main subject before he turned his camera on the ravens.)

Fukase was born in 1934 and belonged to a generation of Japanese photographers who came to prominence in the long psychological shadow cast by their country's defeat in the war. In the late 1950s, he worked in advertising to fund his artistic projects, which included two celebrated series of darkly graphic pictures, Oil Refinery Skies (1960) and Kill the Pigs (1961), the latter a brutal depiction of a slaughterhouse. In the mid-70s, he set up a photography school called the Workshop alongside Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama, both of whom have since become internationally celebrated.

Fukase, according to Yoko, was an intense and obsessive character despite the joyousness of the images he made of her. She described their life together as moments of "suffocating dullness interspersed by violent and near suicidal flashes of excitement." After they split up, he suffered from bouts of depression and heavy drinking. "I work and photograph while hoping to stop everything," he once said. "In that sense, my work may be some kind of revenge drama about living now."

In Japanese mythology, ravens are disruptive presences and harbingers of dark and dangerous times – another reason, perhaps, why the photographer was drawn to them during his darkest hour. In 1992, five years after the book was published, Fukase fell down a flight of stairs in a bar. He has been in a coma ever since. His former wife, now remarried, visits him in hospital twice a month. "With a camera in front of his eye, he could see; not without," she told an interviewer. "He remains part of my identity; that's why I still visit him."

None of this should impinge on a critical reading of Fukase's work, which is powerful and affecting even if you come upon it, as I did, without knowing anything of the biographical background that underpins it. Nevertheless, it is now hard for me to separate his life and his photographs. "In Ravens, Fukase's work can be deemed to have reached its utmost height and to have fallen to its greatest depth," writes Hasegawa in her poetic, unflinching afterword.

For all that, there is a dark, brooding beauty in these images that is singular and affecting. In The Solitude of Ravens, Fukase found a subject that reflected his darkening vision, and he pursued it with obsessive relentlessness. It remains his most powerful work, and a kind of epitaph for a life that has been even sadder and darker than the photographs suggest.

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