The photographic tinkerers

E and I recently won tickets to a concert by a Congolese band that I had never heard of, Staff Benda Bilili ('benda bilili' means beyond appearances). Apart from the incredible energy that these guys managed to generate despite 80% of the band being paraplegic and all of them living (or having lived) in the gardens of Kinshasa zoo, I was struck by one of the musicians, a teenage boy who somehow managed to extract some pretty amazing sounds out of an electrified tin can of his own conception. This got me thinking about the tinkerers in photography. It's no secret that photographers can be a little gear-obsessed (I think they even give musicians a run for the money in that department) and the explosion of digital and associated software has done nothing to temper that, but are also a few garden shed eccentrics out there who are doing it entirely for themselves.

The most recognized example of this that I could think of is Miroslav Tichý. He was 'discovered' a few years ago, living in isolation in his hometown of Kyjov in the Czech Republic in a house full of self-made photographic paraphernalia of all kinds which he used to surreptitiously photograph the women of his town. Thanks to his seemingly endless supply of completely unique vintage prints (helped by the fact that he had trampled on most of them for several years, before mounting them on cardboard frames which he then decorated himself... any photo dealer's wet dream) he has become extremely hot property and he is now represented by several galleries in Europe alone. While I haven't been swept away by his outsider art, I was fascinated to see the cameras and lenses that Tichý has made and how they had contributed to forging his undeniably unique aesthetic.

In a completely different genre, another photographer who has explored the possibilities of the self-made is Ryuji Miyamoto, who I have written about before on the blog. After many years shooting with a large format camera, Miyamoto developed a desire to be able to climb inside the camera after shooting his series Cardboard Houses on the cardboard structures built by the homeless in different cities. He ended up making a small wooden hut which he transformed into a camera obscura and which he lines with two sheets of light-sensitive photo paper. Miyamoto gets in, lies down and exposes the paper to light. The result is an upside-down image of the world captured in deep blue tones where his silhouette appears at the bottom of the image. Miyamoto's pinhole images and his recent photograms suggest that he isn't exactly enamored by the infinite reproducibility of photography in the digital age.

These are just a couple of examples that came to mind—I would be curious to hear if there are others. Perhaps none of this matters and just as buying the latest top of the line camera will not get you good photographs, building your own is no guarantee of a personal vision. But I like to think that in the process of building the tool with which you are going to photograph the world, there is a small chance of stumbling upon something that we may not have seen before.

Interview: Eikoh Hosoe's Butterfly Dream

The exhibition, Eikoh Hosoe: Theatre of Memory has just closed at the Japanese Cultural Institute in Cologne. I did an interview with Hosoe during the opening weekend and a video extract has been posted on

Update: Just a few minutes after posting this, I found out that Kazuo Ohno has just passed away at the age of 103. The New York Times has an obituary here.

Plastic, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways

Megumi Tomomitsu Megumi Tomomitsu is fond of the plastic bag. She has even compiled a pretty exhaustive list of reasons why. For someone (and somehow I think I am not alone here) who stores hundreds of the things for absolutely no discernable reason, this interests me. Thinking about it, I probably own more plastic bags than photobooks, than items of clothing, than pretty much anything actually. Thank you Megumi, you have convinced me that I should learn to love my plastic bags, or at least to set them free.

Review: Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and '70s

Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s Ivan Vartanian and Ryuichi Kaneko's Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and '70s belongs to a new breed of photobook: the book on books. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's two-volume history of the photobook is probably the best known of these, but there are other interesting examples. Jeff Ladd's Errata Editions is taking this one step further with the 'Books on Books' series which each focus on a single photobook in order to make rare and out-of-print books accessible to us mere mortals.

Volume I of Parr & Badger already contained a chapter on the post-war Japanese photobook with a selection of some of the major books to come out of Japan in the 60s and 70s. Japanese photobooks expands on this territory over 240 pages providing a much broader selection of photobooks, including some relatively unknown ones. Some may be surprised to see a 240-page book with such a narrow focus as this, but this period of photobook production in Japan was so rich that this could have been expanded to twelve volumes and still left a lot of room for discovery.

Much of the interest in Japanese photobooks has been focused on the magazine Provoke and publications relating to it. This is the case with Parr & Badger's selection and essay which focuses heavily on Provoke. The refreshing thing about Japanese photobooks is that it doesn't just present the best-known and respected books of the period and instead includes a selection  ranging from the unavoidable Chizu (The Map) by Kikuji Kawada to a collection of anonymous student photography.

Spread from Issei Suda's "Fushi Kaden"

The book contains essays by Kaneko and Vartanian. Kaneko's essay recounts his personal journey with the photobook, a unique one since few people were buying photobooks when he did (to the point where he once ordered a book only to have the publisher turn up at his door to deliver it himself because he thought it would be cheaper than sending it in the mail). Vartanian focuses on drawing out the major characteristics and functions of photobooks and their production. I think this is one of the key strengths of Japanese photobooks and one which I would have liked to see developed even further. This kind of editorial exercise often ends up becoming focused on ranking or selecting the best books, in keeping with our ever-increasing love for the list (something I have somewhat hypocritically complained about before). This book successfully avoids the pitfalls of writing a 'best of' list, choosing instead to present a rounded picture of the many facets of Japanese photobook production of this period and to show how they relate to each other in order to provide the reader with a context for understanding what defines these books and what makes them great.

Japanese photobooks admittedly has an unfair advantage over its competition: it is drawn from the collection of Ryuichi Kaneko, which includes some 20,000 publications making Martin Parr's Japanese photobook collection look like a first-grade stamp collector's in comparison. This headstart isn't wasted and Japanese photobooks certainly uncovers its fair share of undiscovered gems. The forty or so books are presented with an extended essay and a healthy number of 'interior' shots (there is a nice preview of the book available on Vartanian's website) which successfully give a feel for each book's individual characteristics. For the geeks (and amongst photobook collectors that percentage is alarmingly high) there is also a wealth of technical information on the production process for each book (photobook porn if you will): who designed it, how it was printed and who by, where it was bound and, as a bonus, the original retail price just to make you wince when you find out how much these are worth today.

If you can't afford a photobook collection (or even if you can) this is one you really shouldn't miss.

Spread from Shomei Tomatsu's "Japan"

Ryuichi Kaneko and Ivan Vartanian, Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and '70s, (New York: Aperture, Hardcover with bellyband, 23 x 31cm, 240 pages, ca. 400 four-color and duotone images, 2009).

Rating: Highly recommended

Frauke Eigen, Shoku

Kuchi, Japan, 2008 Frauke Eigen is currently showing her series Shoku at London's Atlas Gallery. The series is "inspired by recent visits to Japan" and this comes through in both the subject matter and the approach. These black-and-white images are taken right up close to their subject bringing texture and form to the fore. These are arguably distinguishing features of Japanese photography. In general, Western art presents a framed scene where the totality of the subject is displayed, whereas in Japanese art the subject of a piece may be a small detail (please forgive this gross generalisation). This focus on texture and detail has led to some of the great series of Japanese photography, Kikuji Kawada's Chizu (The Map) and Shomei Tomatsu's Nagasaki 11:02, which I posted about on the anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombings.

On first viewing I really liked Shoku. The images, although very different, fit together well to form a coherent series. I particularly like the 'portraits', if they can be called that. The way these are tightly cropped, leaving out the eyes, draw the eye to things that we often don't see, the roundness of a cheek or the slope of an upper lip. The lines of a face or a naked breast combine well with the geometry of a window pane or paving stone (some of these images reminded me of Yasuhiro Ishimoto's New-Bauhaus-influenced early work). But despite all of this, there is a certain orientalist, exoticist quality to the work that makes me a little uneasy. I have seen a couple of interesting posts recently on this issue that I recommend reading. Maybe it is the shots of the fabric of a kimono or of cherry blossoms in bloom, but sometimes the Japaneseness of these images is laid on a little too thick for me. The gallery's spiel doesn't help, but that is to be expected, "a gentle rhythm leads the viewer from one print to the next, always balanced, always serene, an aesthetic of simplicity akin to Zen." I think this bothered me because many of the images manage to take inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic while taking it into what feels like a new direction.

Apparently the prints are on super-matt paper which is laminated with a rice starch. I would like to see the prints themselves as  with subtle work like this, the print is often a crucial part of the work.