On the Materiality of the Japanese Photobook

Clubs and Courts #23, From the series Clubs & Courts, 1988-90. Photograph: Miyako Ishiuchi © Miyako Ishiuchi, Courtesy of The Third Gallery Aya

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“Being surprised is important for human beings.” — Kohei Sugiura

In this era of neoliberal capitalism, with its creeping belief that everything is reducible to its exchange value and therefore that nothing is sacred (which is just another way of saying that things have no intrinsic worth), there is something profoundly refreshing about the Japanese photobook. Some of the best examples of the form—for instance, those produced by the publisher Yugensha—appeared during the 1960s and 1970s. Beautiful, unorthodox, and often enigmatic, these photobooks arose from an aesthetic that embraced the materiality of photography as a medium and the tradition of the book as an art object. When we consider anecdotes about Yughensha’s founder Kazuhiko Motomura hand-delivering copies of Robert Frank’s The Lines of My Hand to people who had ordered the book—not exactly a winning “business model”—it’s hard not to see such personal, loving, and time-intensive care as a stand against the soul-corroding spirit of commodification that was emerging in Japan at that time—and which has only grown worse.

The Map by Kikuji Kawada

That these books are collections of photographs might seem ironic given that for most of its existence, the medium was so closely associated with what Walter Benjamin called the “age of mechanical reproduction.” But the golden era of the Japanese photobook coincides with the rise of a photographic aesthetic—particularly among the Provoke photographers—that rejects the medium’s referential function, its relentless “usefulness.” So the marriage of these two media makes perfect sense, as these books are less about their function as a vehicle or container than about their beauty in and of themselves. The photograph (along with other modes of mechanical reproduction) may have the power, as Benjamin says, “to pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura” of authenticity. But the Japanese photobook, so lovingly envisioned and exquisitely crafted, in essence creates its own aura, its own authenticity. As Simon Baker has suggested, there’s something unique about the photobooks of this period, which “really could not have been produced in any other context.” That context includes a “history of the love of paper, of a particular kind of craftsmanship, particular kinds of skill at printing,” which converged to result in something “really special and very much more sophisticated than what was happening elsewhere.”

The Map by Kikuji Kawada

Take, for example, The Map, Kikuji Kawada’s meditation on the chaos and aftermath of World War II. Issued originally in 1965 (on the 20th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing), The Map was the labor of five years’ collaboration between Kawada and Yugensha designer Kohei Sugiura. It remains one of the most revered of Japanese photobooks because handling it, reading it, and simply touching it is such a disturbing and unforgettable experience. As is the case with some of the other famous Japanese photobooks from this time (for example, Yutaka Takanashi’s Toward the City), if you are to understand The Map—and by understand, I mean to know it in a more essential way than simply on the cognitive level—you cannot remain passive. Though you can purchase it, it exceeds its status as a commercial product. One does not “consume” The Map. You cannot casually flip through this book, as every other page requires the parting of its gatefolds, which open out like wings, then fold back in to meet in the gutter. The photographs are printed in full bleed on all surfaces. Extended, the folds double the horizontal aspect to reveal another “inner” layer of imagery. One handles The Map with reverent silence—at least that’s how I’ve experienced it. In short, the book requires something of you, from you. Not the least of these requirements is your time.

There’s a signed copy of the 2005 reprint of The Map, along with hundreds of other rare and hard-to-find photobooks, at Kotaro Iizawa’s Megutama café in the Shibuya section of Tokyo. I visited this café with Tsuyoshi and Tetsu in May of 2016. With its floor-to-ceiling shelves, the place evokes the hushed atmosphere of a library. While you’re waiting for lunch, you can find almost any of the classic photobooks in a glass-door cabinet and take it back to your table to browse while you eat. Because Iizawa preferred that we not remove the book from the premises, Tsuyoshi, Tetsu, and I filmed a leafing-through of The Map there, using the natural morning light on the café’s back patio. Though we arrived early enough so as to be as undisruptive as possible to the workings of the restaurant, we soon became fully engrossed in the project as the café slowly filled with customers curious to know what we were doing. As the morning wore on and the sun climbed higher, the angles of incident changing, we had to move the set-up a few times to avoid the harsh direct light.

Club & Courts Yokosuka Yokohama by Miyako Ishiuchi

While a digital video recording makes possible a simulation of the experience of reading The Map, there is, of course, no substitute for handling this photobook in person. That is the point, after all. There’s no way to reproduce it, to “digitize” it. Reading it is not about acquiring information in the contemporary sense of that word. The book necessitates what might be called an embodied presence. One must feel the paper—its relative stiffness and pliancy, its finish—hear it whisper under one’s fingers. What’s more, one participates in the life of the book, as this copy—like others—is in the process of falling apart at the binding. The video recording does, however, offer unexpected and incidental sensory “data”: if you listen closely to the audio track, you can hear the ambient sounds of birds and distant traffic and the daily ritual of café staff prepping the restaurant for lunch. Such pleasant ambiance seems to clear a space for, and stand in stark contradiction to, the book’s devastating power, the mute horrors to which it testifies.

Resistance by Kazuo Kitai

The very title of The Map is instructive in and of itself. In a profound way the two forms, the map and the photograph, are related. Existing in 2-D, maps aim to orient you within the world’s three dimensions. And while they are, when they’re accurate, relentlessly referential, they can also be beautiful objects in their own right, worthy of admiration and eminently collectible long after their lack of “accuracy” eclipses any referential utility. As has been noted before, Japanese photography from the 1960s and 70s struggled to cast off the burden of such utilitarian referentiality, the need to be constantly “of” this or that. And many, though not all, of the photographs in The Map succeed in escaping this imperative. In any case, all are beautiful and terrifying. Aided by the book’s design, they seem to grope toward the outlines of a language that simultaneously orients and disorients, in that the more we feel we understand the literal “subject” of The Map, the more its real subject, with all of its implications, eludes articulation.

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