February 2013
2013, Feb 23
About Wataru Yamamoto’s “Drawing a Line”

© Wataru Yamamoto

In Raymond Roussel’s 1914 novel “Locus Solus,” readers are introduced to a series of impossibly complex machines, all of which serve no discernible purpose; one, for example, is a road-paving machine which creates the mosaic of a soldier out of human teeth. These machines are the result of a playful technique that Roussel applied to his native French. In this game, a phrase like “demoiselle à prétendant” (“a girl with suitors”) becomes “demoiselle à rêitre en dents” (“paver with soldier, of teeth”). The task Roussel set himself was to cover the distance between these two phrases, and the result in this case was the tooth-placing device which (because of other plays on words) was powered by minute changes (predictable ten days ahead of time) in the direction and intensity of the breeze.

In short, Roussel was performing an experiment with language, and in the most basic sense, Wataru Yamamoto’s photography is also experimental: he sets up certain conditions for his photographs, and sees them through to the end of the work. Still, these experimental systems—one generating text, the other images—are idiosyncratic, not scientific. Roussel’s linguistic games developed out of an experience with a punning carnival worker, while Wataru holds a long-standing interest in nature, having grown up near an untouched forest.

“Drawing a Line” makes its experimental technique clear to the viewer, and it’s a strange time for such a work to appear. Many of Wataru’s Japanese contemporaries are more inclined to chase after fleeting moments of beauty, using a highly personal, intentionally vague style. This aesthetic has dominated Japanese photography in recent years, but it now seems to have exhausted itself, out of its depth in the Japan of 2012. The challenge for the next generation of Japanese photographers (Wataru’s generation) is not so much to found a new aesthetic program—as if this would be a step forward—but to find a way beyond aesthetically-driven photography altogether. Roussel is now commonly seen as an important precursor of significant literary developments, and we could take Wataru’s untimely appearance as a good omen.

Drawing a Line 1 is the second book published by MCV MCV. It includes text in English and Japanese. Available online through PH 2.

Design by In Residence (USA)
Edition of 500
48 pages
Black & white offset, printed in Singapore
Thread sewn binding
303 x 231mm

© Wataru Yamamoto


© Wataru Yamamoto


© Wataru Yamamoto


© Wataru Yamamoto


© Wataru Yamamoto


© Wataru Yamamoto


© Wataru Yamamoto


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Wataru Yamamoto

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2013, Feb 20
Mao Ishikawa at Art Azamino, Yokohama

© Mao Ishikawa

I’m not sure if I’m going to do capsule review “roundups” anymore, we’ll have to see. The main reason of publishing this kind of thing is to serve as a personal archive, so that I can look back later and see what I saw, as it were. I’ve taken plenty of notes on shows before but it’s more practical to have them in a digital form, where I can actually see them.

Mao Ishikawa’s show at Yokohama Civic Art Gallery Azamino 1 is excellent, free, and up until the 24th, if you’re around. The highlight of the exhibition is the collection of original prints from her earliest series, “Hot Days in Okinawa.” The story is that Ishikawa started working at a bar frequented by American servicemen precisely in order to photograph the customers. There’s not enough time here to talk about the complex relationship between America and Okinawa, but in any case there is a real honesty, or directness, about these early photographs. Ishikawa interacts directly with her subjects, you can tell she’s just taking snapshots of her friends, and although she also knows that they’ll be historically significant, she doesn’t worry about that too much. She’s a great photographer of sex. Along with the vintage prints there was also a video slideshow, set to funky songs from the 1970s, which I imagine would have been playing around the time that these photos were actually taken. This also helps to keep things light. I’m very happy that the above photo was on the gallery site because it was one of my favorites: it’s a standard “1970s pose” (a group of people all laying in a bed, smoking) but with American soldiers and Japanese hostesses.

The second floor of the gallery is showing an exhibit of 19th-century photographs from America, including a small negative exposed by Matthew Brady of Abraham Lincoln, Civil War photographs and a print by old Fox Talbot. It goes well with Ishikawa’s exhibit, as a view of “America.”


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Mao Ishikawa, Okinawa

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2013, Feb 14
Short note on Wataru Yamamoto

© Wataru Yamamoto

To create the series “Drawing a Line,” Wataru Yamamoto 1 hiked into one of the only virgin forests in Japan (located in the Kumano region), set up his camera in the woods, and took a number of self-portraits using an extremely long cable release.

Why is Wataru worth paying attention to? Why do I think these somewhat silly images are seriously important for contemporary Japanese photography?

The answers to these burning questions—and more!—in the near future. Don’t unsubscribe from this old blog just yet…


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Wataru Yamamoto

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2013, Feb 12
Capsule reviews (recent)

Installation view © Kobun Hayakawa

Kobun Hayakawa, “Mask Road” at Place M

In 2011, Leo Rubinfein put up a show at MOMAT, “Wounded Cities,” which had the ambitious goal of showing, through photographs, how a certain kind of fear can be literally found written on the faces of today’s city dwellers, all over the world. Rubinfein’s text made it clear that he was fully aware of how difficult this claim would be to make through photographs, and I wish that Hayakawa had taken a similar position, given that he’s trying to do a similar thing, with similar results—snapshots of people on the street, lost in thought. Hayakawa’s almost bizarre claim, though, is that this phenomenon of “mask-wearing” is particular to Tokyo. This is a flimsy proposition at best, as Rubinfein’s show alone shows. There are a few well-seen images in this series, but I’m just not convinced.

Misato Kuroda showing "Sawako" © Takumi Suidu

Misato Kuroda, “Sawako” at Jimbocho Garou

This is not the right place to trace out a history of erotic photographers in Japan, but Misato Kuroda is going to head up the list pretty soon. Sakiko Nomura comes to mind, but her images are dark and brooding, while Kuroda’s are just plain naughty. Some of her other works have been more personal, but Sawako (which has long sold out in photobook form, and is now available for 20,000 yen on Amazon) is a series showing a supple Japanese girl posing nude in a variety of locations. Kuroda has written about her early looking at porn mags, and how this experience led her to take these photos.

Issei Suda, "Fushikaden"

Issei Suda, “Fushikaden” at BLD Gallery

The book outshines the exhibit here, but only because it’s so excellent. In this work are some of Suda’s most famous shots that have been used in other books (Only Photography, Tosei-sha etc), in their “original” context. The show itself breaks up this flow, and for some reason or another didn’t do much to hold my attention. Perhaps it’s just edited in a strange way. The best part was a series of snake photos, which were hung up in the bookstore, outside of the main gallery. Still, a couple of stunners, including flashed flowers and dead goat. It’s an old lark that Japanese photography is more about books than prints (it is, but probably not in some incomprehensible way) and this was certainly true here.

© Naonori Oshima

Naonori Oshima “O/N Complex System” at Photographer’s Gallery

A good title. Digital overload kind of thing—laser prints which enhance the “digitalness.” Lots of stuff that most people would throw out, not very much that’s beautiful. This is a good thing. Portraits of people framed in the middle distance don’t really work, they’re way too normal and don’t fit the flow of the show. Kind of Kasubaba-ish, at times. Created artist book in ed. of 10, ¥25,000 – pretty smart. Prints edition of 7 for ¥12,000 – also good. Says he’s not trying to have meaning in one image, I can agree with that. Kind of Kitajima influence (uncommon places style) at times. He’s the youngest member of pg, worth tracking.

Wataru Yamamoto, “Wataru Album” at Chateau 2F

This was part of a group show, with some other photographers, but I can’t even bring myself to write anything about the other people. Wataru has been going to the same photo studio in his hometown since he was a child, and he displayed those albums in this exhibit. It’s fun to see his evolution from a table-tennis playing elementary school kid to a “bad boy” junior high schooler, to a nature-loving college student. The last album shows him posing together with the photographer, who’s still going strong after all these years. Wataru is giving me some real hope about photography in Japan; he is full of ideas and knows how to execute them without trying to do too much.

Asako Narahashi, “in the plural” at Zeit Foto Salon

Known for her “half asleep” series, of course, and there are many of these photos here, including two more of the hit combination of Mt. Fuji + a sweet wave. It may be cliched at this point, but I have to admit it still looks great, and at least the prints at this show weren’t a mess like the ones I saw in 2010. When she looks away from the ocean, there are some great results: a photograph of a field of archery targets nestled in a distant field (seen from above) is an excellent, effortless way to meditate on photographing. A sequence of 2 photos going up a lift, looking back at a snow-covered town, also works well, or at least shows something of Narahashi’s vision, which can be somewhat radical in the way she frames and edits–when she’s out of the water, her images are not actually very beautiful at all, and I think (to her credit) that’s intentional. It’s as if with the water images, she stumbled on a way to make things beautiful, but the aesthetic power of those images is distracting you from what she’s actually trying to do with her work. I might be wrong, and I’m still not exactly sure what she *is* trying to do. There was a little book of notes for sale, but I didn’t buy it because I wasn’t trying to practice reading Japanese then (I am now). Next time.

Scheltens & Abbenes, “I put this here” at LimArt

If you include the activities of its sister shop, POST, LimArt is establishing itself as the best place in Tokyo to view contemporary European photography. A+S’s work is certainly very conceptual, and it was a little bit difficult to grasp, but still, it’s a change of pace from what’s normally exhibited here. The person at the desk said people responded to the show by saying it’s “interesting because it has a different approach”; I’m hoping people will have learned something from it, rather than taking a glance, saying, “huh,” and moving on. Let’s wait five years and see.

Chihiro Ichinose, “Kitsilano” at Nikon Ginza

Kind of like Kawauchi—somewhat magical photos of a trip to Holland—but with a more experimental darkroom style: bands of color (or splotches, sometimes covering the entire image) streaking across the paper. It’s a surprising way of presenting such otherwise tame material, though Ichinose’s statement works against this good work: she reflects explicitly on her own technique, but without offering any more insight than, “I was thinking about photos and, I dunno, I thought I’d try something weird.” Better to leave that unsaid! It seems like she’s close to hitting on something, but also like (as said in her statement) she’s just beginning to question the nature of photographs. I’m curious to see what answers she finds.

Arita Taiji, “First Born” at 916 Gallery

An extremely formal show, to the level of Ueda Shoji, which is not a good thing. Everything is set up. A couple of nice images but no impact–maybe I need to have kids? Prints, by Ueda Y, are nice, but still. Maybe the work was better at the time? It feels boring now. The large frames for otherwise small prints seemed like a half-hearted attempt to try to fill this massive space, but it was a mismatch—it felt like miles between one print and the next, which doesn’t work for these photos. Just not sure why it should be presented now.

Syabi “Young photographers” jam

Masumi Kura: Loose way of ordering street snaps, maybe good in 20-30 years.

Keiko Sasaoka: Careful landscapes, really pretty, too pretty maybe. I wonder of Fishing (like Narahashi’s archery) could be thought of as an image of photographing. Not sure if Sasaoka has thought of this though.

Chiro Otsuka: Very conceptual, but so inward-looking. Re-tracing her own memories of childhood, going back to places she visited as a child and re-photographing herself there, then digitally re-inserting herself into the image. The work did not not offer much more than the possibility to say “oh cool” and move on.

Tomoko Kikuchi: Photographs of the trans scene in China. Extremely powerful subject matter, which she did well to capture. No innovations photographically, but the work is still important as a historical document; it makes sense to us today in the way that Kura’s photographs do not, even though they are technically better.

Lewis Baltz/Toshio Shibata at Shadai Gallery

Shibata’s stuff is old (late 80s/early 90s), just shows him doing his thing. This was my first time to see Lewis Baltz prints in real life, they’re really good. I haven’t seen Marten Lange prints but I hope they look like this. Very bright whites and just a few blacks coming through. Desert detritus, around Reno. It’s good. Old world photography, really classical, photo as window.


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Arita Taiji, Asako Narahashi, Chihiro Ichinose, Issei Suda, Kobun Hayakawa, Misato Kuroda, Naonori Oshima, Wataru Yamamoto

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2013, Feb 11
Notes on Kitai Kazuo’s “Somehow Familiar Places”

"Old Lady Faces the Water Cannon," 1970 © Kazuo Kitai

“Old Lady Faces the Water Cannon.” In the background of this photo, you can see another photographer shooting this picture. Kitai is a photographer who chooses a side. He, too, is facing the water cannon.

Taking photos from wide angles makes it clear that his photos are not some kind of humanistic, “let’s celebrate people!” kind of project. (Mura-e) He’s giving everything in context. Photo of woman in her room, you can see stuff on the walls etc, not just about her face or something.

Kitai’s movement is really notable. Protests -> Sanrizuka -> Villages, may look obvious now but wasn’t at that time. This development is intructive, as if it’s a way for him to leave clues behind for future viewers of his work. Each step/move required a certain commitment, i.e. live in Sanrizuka, spend time traveling in countryside etc…

Details of objects in barricades. That’s nice, hard to explain why those photos work, but you know that you’re inside the place.

Barricade objects (background):

chair (graffiti, foot)

wall (graffiti, some kind of cord)

helmets (characters on it, writing in back)


umbrella (graffiti)


toilet paper

briefcase (lots of graf)

washstand (soap, cigarette butt, razor, toothbrushes)

drying clothes


Fukushima photo echoes with Sanrizuka—trucks across landscape—maybe a more positive meaning of construction with F.

<quick notes added now>

This was an excellent show, a fully realized career retrospective. Kitai’s image of the mimeograph deserves to have pages written about it.


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Kazuo Kitai

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2013, Feb 08
Notes on Lieko Shiga’s “Rasen Kaigan”

Rasen Kaigan

Brilliant installation, which destroys any illusion that you are “inside” a photograph, or looking “through” it, as a window. “Rasen Kaigan” does not have a starting point, but when you walk into the space, you are immediately aware that you are looking at three-dimensional objects.

Shiga made some excellent land art along the way here. This could have stood on its own as a separate work.

Complicated thoughts, text, layout.

#8s – Rock photos.

You can’t see any images when you walk in; you are greeted by the backs of the photos.

Gaze of #1 bounces off #2, then is reflected (scattered?) in sea of #8s.

Hard/impossible to look *directly* at #1 because it is physically blocked by #2.

#9s – “monsters” – pitch black “photos” which actually function like mirrors. Andrew is disappointed in the printing quality, says they’re not really black.

#6 seems like they represent photos taken before 3/11. Not always easy to tell what’s before or after though. This is to its credit.

*Really* ambitious text.

<coffee break out on the street>

Strange effect where foreground looks like it’s shot from above, but background is straight on.

Why a spiral? Beach photo, etc.

Husband leading wife through purple pond.

<notes added later>

Nothing particularly “Japanese” about these photographs–not even any representation of Japanese characters, and no writing at all.

When you enter the exhibit, you are greeted by the backs of photographs. From the start, you are aware that you are looking at three dimensional objects, not magical “windows.”

After this show, it’s difficult to look at photos hung on the wall in the “normal” way.

What will the book look like?

The show is not perfect: the “map” and accompanying texts are sometimes better left ignored—perhaps, especially, at first. Shiga’s ideas are convoluted, or labyrinthine, which is after all fitting given the title of the show. The spiral is the central motif of the installation, and the images themselves.

Andrew notes that Shiga was not satisfied with Canary; she pushed herself when she could have made 10 more books in that vein and solidified a place for herself. What drove her to push on?

She has taken on the role of an organizer. She is working directly with her subjects, and they all know what she is doing—no stealth here, no snapshots. But it’s not performance-based, either. Remember Nietzsche: artist makes art out of life. Her work has an organizing function in that she is bringing people together. Author as producer, Tretiakov etc.

She could have made a series just of her land art photographs and called that a series. The same goes for some of the other threads running through this work.

Very rare to feel that one is experiencing a work of genius, which demands hours (if not days) of attention.

In musical terms, prog-photo, a triple album of photography, flawed but brilliant.

<notes I’m adding now>

This show is not perfect, but that’s not really a productive way to evaluate it. By aiming this high, Shiga has raised the bar for what a photography exhibit can be. I have continued to use the prog-rock image in describing this exhibit to other people, as a way to illustrate not just the ambition but intensity of her project.

Minoru Shimizu has written a harsh review (in Japanese) of the show 1 in which he calls it “B-grade horror”; I’m working my way through this text.


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Lieko Shiga

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2013, Feb 07
Winners of the 2012 Ihee Kimura Photography Award

I had been under the impression that Japan’s biggest award in photography, the Ihee Kimura Photography Award, was specifically for photography books. It turns out that’s not true, and that you can actually win it for an exhibition, or activity of some other sort. Two photographers won the 2012 award: Tomoko Kikuchi (for her exhibition “I and I”) and Dodo Arata (for his photobook “Opposite Shore”).


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