This is a broad arc, tracing the movement from “conscious” to “unconscious.”
This is a broad arc, tracing the movement from “conscious” to “unconscious.”
Certain Zen schools conceive of seated meditation as a practice intended for the obtaining of Buddhahood, others reject even this (apparently essential) finality: one must remain seated “just to remain seated.” Is not the haiku (like the countless graphic gestures which mark modern and social Japanese life) also written “just to write”?
And so, earlier this summer, I finally came to read “Empire of Signs,” Roland Barthes’ book on Japan. Barthes is probably not my ideal writer, but I appreciate his efforts to stress that he is creating his own version (“system,” as he would say) of Japan, in other words that he has no special knowledge of the country. The book is not trying to produce any “insight,” instead it’s a reading of Japan through Western cultural values. This seems like a useful perspective to adopt—I tried to articulate this myself two and a half years ago 2. I now have almost four years’ worth of experience living in Tokyo, and while I recognize that that has some value, I still don’t feel that I can claim any privileged knowledge of Japan. More than ever, I’m trying to explain Japanese photography in terms that could be understood by a Western audience; I don’t believe that Japanese photography is essentially any more difficult to understand than Swedish or South African photography.
Let’s return to Barthes on haiku. At times, as in his descriptions of food, he allows himself to be drawn into an almost exaggeratedly poetic style, but here, his analysis is more careful. Earlier, Barthes makes another observation: “the brevity of the haiku is not formal; the haiku is not a rich thought reduced to a brief form, but a brief thought which immediately finds its proper form.” It’s possible that this could provide a way in which to understand photographers like Rinko Kawauchi, who might be photographing “just to photograph.” What if this relatively recent way of photographing was actually the expression of an ancient Japanese technique, condensing centuries of culture into a singular moment of beauty?
This view has already been expressed on the internet 4, but it’s a huge leap to suggest that contemporary Japanese photographers are thinking about haiku. I’d go even further and say that only a Westerner 5 would mention haiku here. It’s a kind of pipe dream, perhaps fueled by exported Ito En bottles 6. Bringing up haiku as a way to interpret contemporary photos is like saying: “so, these photographs can only be explained through this very culturally specific medium which, by the way, also resists any logical explanation as part of its form.” Japanese photographers do often say that they don’t know why they take their pictures, but they don’t need to use this particular crutch.
Barthes was canny in finding a way to speak about even the most “Japanese” parts of Japanese culture without adopting a culturally essentialist perspective. Observers of Japanese photography would do a service to the photographers here by emulating this stance.
Her: Why is Rinko Kawauchi so popular here?
Me: Well, it seems like Japanese people are attracted to small moments of quiet beauty…
These are notes for a more detailed post, which outline how I’m thinking about Japanese photography at the moment.
1. Most Western photography audiences are primarily aware of Japanese photography through Provoke, and other groundbreaking photography publications (such as Kikuchi Kawada’s “Map”) of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
2. I’ve heard it said that Japanese photography is difficult to understand. I think this has to do with a broader idea of how Japan has perhaps, for Westerners, assumed the image of the most inaccessibly foreign place in the world.
3. Japanese photography audiences do not look at Provoke even 10% as much as Westerners. To put it plainly, Provoke is just not part of the conversation here.
4. Provoke came out of a political moment (1968, obvs) in which the student-led protest movement seemed capable of striking a blow against the government. This is important. (This movement was put down by the army at Sanrizuka, where students were trying to prevent the forcible construction of Narita airport on the land of farmers who had lived there for generations.)
5. Provoke had Takuma Nakahira producing both as a photographer and as a theorist. I’m only just now starting to try to dig in to his texts, so I won’t try to tell you exactly what they were about. He wrote quite a lot though, and was looking to critical theory of the time to inform his writing.
6. Over the last 10 years (15? 20? I can’t say for sure), Japan has developed a style of what I might call an unconscious photography. This really just means, shooting casually observed moments of everyday beauty. Araki is the patron saint of this type of photography, except that he’s taken it to a point where it’s gone way beyond anything aesthetic, and is doing a sort of cosmic dance with his own personality. (Can explain more later but I do mean this as a compliment.) Hiromix might represent the beginning of this kind of photography as a popular trend, and we shouldn’t forget that Araki bestowed his personal blessing upon her.
7. Forgetting Araki, the most perfectly crystallized example of this unconscious photography is Rinko Kawauchi, who, when at her best (Utatane and Illuminance), seems blessed with the ability to find staggering beauty in anything.
8. There is no political movement in present-day Japan. There is no meaningful context out of which photographs are being produced. There is no Nakahira-like photographer/theorist figure, not even close.
9. Kawauchi’s success abroad is a positive sign for younger Japanese photographers, because there is no need to grasp a particularly Japanese context in her work. This helps everyone: Kawauchi’s photos are providing hands-on training in how to view Japanese photography that’s not taken by men born before 1950.
10. 3/11 is a very, very different story. Precious few photographers have grasped this.
[This was posted to LPV Magazine a few days ago, with a whole bunch of images to illustrate some of the books I’m talking about.]
At the 2010 edition of the Higashikawa Photo Festival, I met a photographer named Iino. We were both getting drunk at the annual barbeque, where everyone gets together and eats a bunch of free food. Iino was a fun guy, and as we talked he showed me a project he was working on, a series of portraits in which he was always shaking hands with his subject. The people in these photographs represented a real cross-section of Japan: there were nerds, punks, disabled people, salarymen, children and foreigners. Some people seemed a little surprised or uncomfortable to be photographed in this way, but the mood was light. With a laugh, he said he wasn’t going to stop until he’d taken a thousand of these portraits–a latter-day, unserious August Sander! He pulled out his cheap SLR, took my picture as we laughed together, and then we talked a little more before wandering on. I want to bring up Iino to introduce my thoughts about 2011 because it seems to me that his project represents a kind of photograph that we’re not seeing so much in Japan anymore. To put it simply, I’m wondering if Japanese photographers are losing interest in people.
The March 11 earthquake and its effects will necessarily loom over any attempt to think about Japan’s 2011. These effects are not going away anytime soon, even if it’s entirely too easy for Tokyoites to forget about what’s happening up North. For their part, photographers have made an effort to show people what’s happening in Tohoku, but I’m not sure that much of the work being produced so far is all that useful to anyone. I think it’s possible that my general disappointment with post-3/11 photographs so far could be linked to a broader turn away from representing people in Japanese photography.
I don’t want to go down the path of “the old days were so much better,” but if you look at photographers like Hiromi Tsuchida and Kazuo Kitai, their primary interest was other people–and I think this was not so much because of something “beautiful” or “interesting” in the people themselves, but because they could produce some kind of effect by showing these people to an audience. Tsuchida’s “Counting Grains of Sand” is an easy example of what I’m talking about. The book examines crowds in 1980s (“bubble”-era) Japan, building up from groups of just a few people to a fairly dramatic conclusion, in which hundreds of faces are packed into the frame. Outside of Hiroh Kikai, it’s hard to think of prominent and contemporary Japanese photographers who are equally interested in people; Kikai himself is probably more respected outside of Japan anyway.
A newer type of photography, represented by Rinko Kawauchi and Masafumi Sanai, favors abstract, object-based explorations. I like this work: I recently found a used copy of Sanai’s “Ikiteru” the other day, and I think it’s very good. But I don’t think this type of photography is well-suited to deal with something like a natural disaster which is affecting hundreds of thousands of people. I haven’t been moved by his recent work, but I really respect Daido Moriyama for saying in this video [skip to the 50 minute mark] that, from the beginning, he decided absolutely to not shoot any earthquake-related photographs, because it wouldn’t make any sense for him personally. What a sensible thing to say! Meanwhile the amateur shooters at ROLLS TOHOKU have been showing up most professionals, for the simple reason that they are able to show us people in a natural way.
Asahi Camera Magazine published a special magazine of post-3/11 photography, and it sums up the weak response. The photographs mostly show objects and houses, to varying degrees of poignancy. I can’t understand why these photographs are all that we’re seeing. I want to know what people are doing!
Hirokawa Taishi’s series of family portraits is the one exception here. His portraits of families living in evacuation centers are the most powerful photographs in this magazine. Perhaps it makes sense that a guy who had thought for years about the ‘craziness’ of nuclear reactors in Japan would come up with a good response.
I am still convinced that the most useful photographs to come out of this disaster will not even be taken for years, because the scale of the destruction is so big. I want to know how relocated families are integrating into their new communities, whether or not people are rebuilding their homes next to the coast, how long people will be living next to rubble. Is photography even the right way to find these things out?
A few months ago, I had a small job shooting some event photos. I got to the place, saw Iino on the other side of the crowd. He was shooting for a newspaper, but I caught up with him later and asked him how the project was going. He said something to the effect of, “after the earthquake, it’s not a good time to be taking those photos, is it?” I told him that, given everything that’s happened, it might actually be the perfect time, but it didn’t look like that was going to change his mind.
Here’s an interview with Rinko Kawauchi, titled “10 minutes with Rinko Kawauchi.” Unfortunately it’s notable for being extremely uninsightful. Here’s my favorite part:
Your photography is truly inspirational. What is your inspiration?
I get the inspiration, for example, while taking a nap, it is a form of meditation.
Do people have a common sense of beauty? What is yours?
It is a big, nice question. It is hard to define what is beautiful and it depends on people but I still think we share the same things.
Sometimes email interviews can work out, but this one was dead in the water before it even started. Cue discussion of “Japanese inscrutability.”