Saturday, 8 September 2012

Japanese Photobooks Exhibition, London

In addition to the Deutsche Bourse Prize exhibition, The Photographers' Gallery was also showing two hundred contemporary Japanese photobooks.  This was of particular interest given the session we had on photobooks at the recent OCA Residential Weekend for photography students in Leeds, led by OCA tutor Jesse Alexander (see blog entry – when I’ve completed it!!).  In that session we focused on the design, presentation, self-explanation and narrative of a selection of four very different books, so it was an interesting experience to conduct a similar exercise here.

It seems that photobooks are a more common mechanism of showing work in Japan rather than using galleries, websites etc. than would be found in the US or Europe.  According to the excellent Visual Culture blog  There is also an economic reason why the photobook flourishes, more than the photography exhibition, in Japan since emerging photographers are often locked out from the gallery system. This gallery system can be roughly broken down into five parts: public galleries, private galleries, department store galleries, camera manufacturers’ galleries and rental galleries where photographers can exhibit their work in exchange for a fee. For the vast majority of emerging photographers, the latter is the most viable option as the former are usually restricted to more established names. Faced with the increasing cost of exhibiting their work in often-tiny rental galleries, photographers instead invest in their work by publishing it as a book and thus reaching a wider audience”

I did actually manage to look at all of the books on display, although only focusing any real time on those that made an immediate impression.  It was an interesting experience as it is often said that you make your mind up about a picture, video or person etc. within the first ten seconds or so (also backed up by Peter Rudge from  duckrabbit at the OCA Photography students weekend in Leeds recently).  Some of the works had instant appeal and I filtered these down to just four for more detailed reflection.

First up is On the Circle by Hitoshi Fugo.  This was a black and white offering of close ups and scenes from everyday objects and Japanese life, often featuring curves of one sort or another.  The appeal for me was in the way light was handled within the black and white images and in the extremes of contrast that were used to emphasise the design elements of simple objects.  The images held instant appeal and invited the viewer to turn the book around to try and identify the subject in many cases.  The layout was unaltered throughout the book with every photograph being the same size and with identical placement within the page – very different to some of the books which took a different approach on every page turn!

Naoki Ishikawa’s The Void was very different.  The book starts with some bleak and misty landscapes and eventually progresses through to tropical jungle images and close ups of various outdoor features.  It was a strange book in many ways as every time I found an image that had real appeal it was followed by several that offered nothing other than an unremarkable photograph of a tree or a fern.  It was this dichotomy that kept me going through the book but my final opinion was not of a book that I would plan to go back to.  I have since looked on the website, and again left with the same thoughts that this could almost have been done by two different people.

The The Spider's Strategy by Osamu Kanemura was my favourite book from the exhibition.  A remarkable collection of urban images portraying the complexity and confusion of overhead wires, phone lines, steelworks, roadways and other architectural confusion resulting from a large population living in a small space etc. that are prevalent in Japan.  There was so much to see in these images, not only the ‘spider’s strategy’, but also the way in which the people in the photographs were interacting with their environment.  Street scenes are an area that I am planning to investigate by way of a personal project over the next few months, so this was a book I spent some time with as there were just so many ideas to consider for the future.  It is also well represented by availability of images on line, certainly not true of many of the book artists, and is therefore a more tractable proposition for further study.
The last book I’ll talk about is A Bird by Naoya Hatakeyama.  This is a remarkable work from an artist who has developed a specialisation in using remote technology to photograph the very close progression of the explosion blast from limestone quarrying.  The unique aspect of A Bird: Blast#130 is that it is his only work that shares the images of the blast with anything else – in this case, a bird that happened to be passing at the time.  The initial image in the sequence just shows the scene in the quarry and the bird can be seen passing in the background.  By image three we can see the puffs of dust emerging from the ground as the underground explosive charge has detonated and the sequence then develops as the ground erupts as the explosion progresses and hurls rocks and debris into the air.  Remarkably, the bird remains visible in gaps between the explosive discharge even though the surrounding scenery of the sea and mountains has disappeared.  It is a captivating sequence that compels the viewer to look further into the details of each unique and unrepeatable image as man’s influence on the environment and nature cross one another paths again.  Whilst researching these images I came across an excellent essay written by Mark Bolland of the UCCA in Farnham, Surrey which explores the meaning of the photographs in far greater detail than I have done

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