November Photo Madness in Paris

Hiromi Tsuchida

November has always been THE big photographic month in Paris, but this year is looking like it will be a record breaker. Here's a list of some of the big events happening in Paris this month. I don't know how I'm going to make my way to all of these, let alone blog about all of them, but hopefully I'll manage something.

  • Mois de la Photo. The month of photography kicks off today with 50 exhibitions around the city (including a contribution by yours truly, an Eikoh Hosoe exhibition at the Photo4 gallery on the left bank). This year is the Month's 30th anniversary and the theme is the MEP collection (yawn), but there are some good exhibitions to look out for in there.
  • Mois de la Photo Off. These days it seems you can't have a festival without their being a side event and with twice as many exhibitions as the Mois de la Photo itself the 'Off' will be giving the main event a run for its money.
  • Fotofest Paris. The good people behind Lens Culture are organising the first edition of this portfolio review event, in collaboration with the renowned Houston Fotofest (yours truly will be be making an appearance here too as a portfolio reviewer).
  • Paris Photo (18-21 Nov.): One of the best attended photo art-fairs in the world, this has become a passage obligé for most of the photoworld. Expect too many people, lots of moody black and white images (this year's spotlight is on the Central European photo scene), no natural light, too much looking over shoulders, too many parties with too many cigarettes, WAY too many photographs... and yet you wouldn't want to miss it.
  • Offprint Paris (18-21 Nov.): In parallel to Paris Photo, this will be the first edition of Paris's very own photobook fair, which is an interesting reflection of the current growing excitement around photobooks. While we're on the topic of photobooks there's an interesting exhibition opening next week at La Monnaie de Paris on the photobook svengali, Gerhard Steidl, which looks like it'll be worth a look.

If you love photography and you weren't planning to be in Paris this November... what were you thinking?

Review: Photoquai 2009

Hiromi Tsuchida, Counting Grains of Sand, Tokyo, 1981 The Quai Branly Museum has just launched the second edition of Photoquai, its photography biennale of "world images". The mission of the biennale, to "highlight and make known, artists whose work is previously unexhibited or little known in Europe, and to foster exchanges and the exchanging of views on the world," sounded pretty good to me (as far as these mission things go) as this is basically what I am trying to do in photography. The fine art photography world can be very Western-centric and there is a huge amount of great work out there that does not make it onto the European or American photography circuit.

For the second edition of Photoquai, fifty photographers have been invited to show a handful of works each. The photographers are chosen by several guest curators who each select a few photographers from the region that they represent. I met with Tadashi Ono, a photographer and the guest curator responsible for Japan, Korea and South-East Asia, over the summer and got a sneak preview of his choices: I know Masato Seto and Hiromi Tsuchida's terrific work well, but all of his other selections were new to me and uniformly interesting. His selection focuses on documentary work in the loosest possible sense; most of these artists deal with the transformation of society, personal identity or of the landscape. After a couple of afternoons spent listening to his stories of research travels throughout Asia and previewing the work on his laptop, I had high hopes for Photoquai.

The biennale is not in the museum itself but on the banks of the Seine directly opposite. It's set up as a photographic walk through a series of modules on which the work is exhibited. As this all takes place outdoors, the photographs are printed on weatherproof material and of course this means that allowances have to be made for the quality of the printing. They made a decent effort with the scénographie (although I spent half of my time trying to figure out whose photos were whose) and the lighting, and the location cannot be beat. However, having finally taken the time to go through all the work on show, I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed.

Gohar Dashti, Life and war today, 2008

There is a danger with a festival that is set up to show "non-Western photography" that the work will be chosen to match a Western exoticised ideal, or that it will end up being a collection of photo-journalist reportages on poverty and deprivation in the third world. In theory Photoquai's system of inviting guest curators to help source work from all of these regions should avoid this, but I felt that it fell short of the mark. I found a majority of the work here to be forgettable and a few of these photographers presented here should be tried for Photoshop crimes against photography.

I don't want to be overly negative as thankfully I also made some interesting discoveries. The Iranian Gohar Dashti's photographs of a young couple living a seemingly ordinary life (sleeping, eating, getting married) on a battlefield surrounded by tanks and soldiers, have a surrealist and poetic quality reminiscent of the films of the Palestinian director, Elia Suleiman. Chuha Chung from Korea's images of life in a Korean town adjacent to a nuclear power plant raise the question of how life goes on in the shadow of such a powerful and ominous symbol. Pablo Hare from Peru's Monuments series, is a study of the monuments, from the grand to the ridiculous, and how these affect and interact with the public spaces around them.

However, Photoquai really feels like a missed opportunity. It is not easy to get a new photography festival off the ground in these troubled times, but it is always a shame when you see an event fall far short of its commendably ambitious aims.

Pablo Hare, Monuments

Photoquai, Quai Branly Museum, Paris, 22 September - 29 November 2009

Update Further reading: Pete Brook has put together a good round-up of online opinion on Photoquai.

Hiroshima, 6 August 1945

Today is the 64th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The magnitude of this event for the Japanese wartime generation is almost unfathomable. For several decades the atomic bombings cast a huge shadow through the work of many Japanese artists. It feels slightly ludicrous to suggest that something good could come from an event causing such total annihilation, but it did undoubtedly lead to some of the most extraordinary photography of the twentieth century. I wanted to draw attention to a few of these on this anniversary. Ken Domon, Hiroshima

The Americans photographed Hiroshima extensively to document the physical impact of the atomic bomb for their military archives (the Boston Globe's  website is running some of these images), but it took some time before a photographer would take on the task of shooting a series of images dealing with the human impact of the bombing. Although he was a tiny man, Ken Domon had an extraordinary strength of character and he became the most influential photographer of the immediate postwar years. Domon advocated the "absolutely unstaged snapshot" and championed the 'objective', social realist photography that became so popular in Japan in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With his direct, unflinching approach, he was the first to undertake a major project on Hiroshima. The series was published in a 1958 book, Hiroshima (Tokyo: Kenko-sha), which deals with the physical destruction of the city, but focuses mainly on the lives of the hibakusha (the atomic bomb survivors).

Arguably this 'objective', head-on documentation was the only possible approach at the time. On a personal note, I find that the directness of Domon's approach can be counterproductive. Some of his images of skin-graft operations or of keloid scars are so graphic that the only response is to turn away and therefore, although their initial impact is extremely powerful, they fade quickly. They leave you with no option but to stare the horror right in the face, making it difficult to absorb or to digest their implications.

Kikuji Kawada, Atomic Dome, Ceiling, Stain of Blood

On a trip to photograph Hiroshima's Genbaku Dome (The Hiroshima Peace Memorial), Domon was accompanied by a young photographer, Kikuji Kawada. When Kawada saw how the bombings had caused a horrific fusion of human flesh and blood with the walls and ceiling of the dome, he decided that he needed to come back to shoot it for himself. Combined with photographs of artefacts from the war (a photograph of a young kamikaze, a trampled Japanese flag, discarded coke bottles), these images were published in Chizu (The Map, Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppan-sha, 6 August 1965), arguably the most important photo-book of the period (Parr & Badger singled it out in The Photobook: A History volume 1, London: Phaidon, 2004).

Kikui Kawada, Chizu (The Map)

Kawada's images are radically different from Domon's earlier documentation; many of them are dark and dense to the point of illegibility. For me this is precisely what makes their strength: they draw you in, forcing you to try and make sense of these black, tableaux of texture. The images are not designed to stand alone, instead together they form a map of the scars that the A-bomb left on the Japanese collective memory. In the following year, Shomei Tomatsu published 11:02 Nagasaki, a similarly personal and harrowing look at the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, three days after Hiroshima. In Tomatsu's words, "what I saw in Nagasaki was not merely the scars of war, it was a place where the post-war period had never ended (...) We must resist the natural erosion that memory is subject to. We must build a dam against the flow of time."

Eikoh Hosoe, Deadly Ashes

These series dealt directly with the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the impact of the A-bombs rippled through practically all of the photography of the time, from Eikoh Hosoe's collaborations with Tatsumi Hijikata in Man and Woman and Kamaitachi, to the are, bure, boke (rough, blurred and out-of-focus) aesthetic of Provoke in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For the generation of photographers that came of age in the postwar years, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have not faded in importance. However, we are living in an increasingly post-nuclear age, and these events don't have the same resonance for younger generations. In order to build this "dam against the flow of time" many of these photographers have continued to return to this subject. Eikoh Hosoe recently published Deadly Ashes: Pompeii, Auschwitz, Trinity Site, Hiroshima, (Tokyo: Mado-sha, 2007), linking volcanic eruption, genocide, and the atomic bombing to the birthplace of the A-bomb: an alienating vision, which is almost a demand for such massive annihilation to cease.

Hiromi Tsuchida, Lunch Box. Reiko Watanabe (15 at the time) was doing fire prevention work under the Student Mobilization Order, at a place 500 meters from the hypocenter. Her lunch box was found by school authorities under a fallen mud wall. Its contents of boiled peas and rice, a rare feast at the time, were completely carbonized. Her body was not found.

Hiromi Tsuchida has returned to the bombing of Hiroshima more than any other photographer. For close to forty years, he has explored the changing significance of 6 August 1945 through several different series, three of which are available online. In 1979 Tsuchida photographed those elements of the city that survived the bombing (trees, buildings, bridges), returning to photograph them again some 15 years later, resulting in the book Hiroshima Monument II (Tokyo: Tosei-sha, 1995). Alongside these cityscapes he took portraits of a group of hibakusha that had written a series of poems about the A-bomb as schoolchildren in 1951. His later series, Hiroshima Collection (Tokyo: Tosei-sha, 1995) is perhaps his most successful. This is a record of articles from the collection at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum accompanied by texts including descriptions of the objects and their owners. Tsuchida's cool, neutral images don't attempt to create a sense of drama but present these objects as naturally as possible. The space and calm that he manages to create with these photographs, and the texts which humanise these objects by linking them to their (mostly young) owners, allow these images to sink deeply into your mind.

Miyako Ishiuchi, Hiroshima

Recently Miyako Ishiuchi undertook a similar project, photographing 66 articles of clothing and personal items belonging to people who were killed on the morning of 6 August 1945. These photographs were published last year in the book Hiroshima (Tokyo: Shuei-sha, 2008). Describing the experience of photographing these items, Ishiuchi says "I found myself overwhelmed by the bright colors and textures of these high-quality clothes. Countless threads of time drift in the light, intersect and create fountains of memory." She was born after the war (1947) and it is interesting—and reassuring—to see that the events of August 1945 continue to resonate so powerfully over 60 years later.