Photobooks 2011: a view from Japan

As 2011 came to an end, I (somewhat foolishly) decided to compile the many 'best photobooks of 2011' lists that were popping up all over the internet to see whether there were any books that were consistently getting all the plaudits. The result is the previous post, a meta-list drawn compiling a total of 52 lists and 313 books. The final tally was reassuringly inconclusive: I'm not a big believer in the idea of absolutist Top 10s and the huge diversity of books that were selected is proof that there are great photobooks being made all over the place. However, it was also a reminder of just how many photobooks are being published and how few of them any one person is likely to see in a given year. I was particularly struck by the almost total absence of books published in Japan from these 52 lists (6 books out of 313!), particularly as two of the books with the most 'votes' were by Japanese photographers (Rinko Kawauchi's Illuminance and Yukichi Watabe's A Criminal Investigation). I thought it would be interesting to get a view from Japan, so I joined forces with Dan Abbe of Street Level Japan to ask some Japanese residents to pick out a few books that they enjoyed which were published in Japan in 2011. The contributors are: Dan Abbe, Nao Amino, Atsushi Fujiwara, Peter Evans, Ken Iseki, Ryosuke Iwamoto, Tomoe Murakami, John Sypal and Ivan Vartanian.

Dan Abbe, (blogger and publisher)

Kazuyoshi Usui, “Showa88” (Zen Foto Gallery)

"Maybe my favorite book of the year. Bright colors, geisha and yakuza draw you in, but Usui is very conscious about playing with Japanese culture and history. I will definitely introduce this work in more detail in 2012."

Kazuo Kitai, “Spanish Night” (Tosei-Sha)

"Color photos of Spain in the 1970s that Kitai dug up from his basement. Simple and excellent. I posted a few photos here and they were later picked up by a blogger in Spain who wrote some very nice things about them."

Haruna Sato, “First of the Month” (Self-published)

"A criminally cheap self-publication which creates an artificial structure for 'daily snap photography' – it's a book of photos only taken on the first of each month."

Hiroshi Takizawa, “A Rock of the Moon” (Self-published)

"Color photographs from a psychology graduate turned photographer. You could actually buy this zine using the link above."

Taishi Hirokawa, “Still Crazy” (Korinsha, 1994)

"I'm cheating. This book was actually published in 1994, but it's the most I spent on a book this year, and with good reason."


Nao Amino (Editor. Worked at Little More and FOIL, freelance editor and exhibition planner from 2011)

Rinko Kawauchi, “Illuminance” (FOIL)

Katsumi Omori, “Everything happens for the first time” (Match and Company)

Shigekazu Onuma, “SHIGEKAZUONUMA” (limArt)

Anders Edstrom, "Two Houses" (part of a special book published by X-Knowledge)

Emiko Nagahiro, “Reverb” (Self-published)


Atsushi Fujiwara, (photographer and founder of ASPHALT Magazine)

Eiji Sakurai, “Hokkaido 1971-1976” (Sokyu-sha)

Mao Ishikawa, “Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me” (Miraisha)

Takao Niikura, “Scorching Port Town” (Seikyusha)

Hara Yoshiichi, “Walk while ye have the light” (Sokyu-sha)

Hiroh Kikai, “Tokyo Portrait” (Crevis)


Ken Iseki, (website editor and blogger)

Masayuki Yoshinaga, "Sento"* (Tokyo Kirara-sha)

"Masayuki Yoshinaga, who has been shooting groups of minority and outsiders in Japan, made this series of work in 1993 when he was still a photographer's assistant. Building good relationships with the subjects made it possible to photograph these relaxed naked men from such a close distance."

*Sento is an old style public bath (not a natural hot spring) that can be found almost anywhere in Japan.

Masafumi Sanai, "Pylon" (Taisyo)

"After publishing tons of photobooks with various publishers since his debut in the late 1990s, he launched his own publishing label 'Taisyo' in 2008. Sanai is a very typical Japanese photographer in a way: strolling around neighborhoods and shooting photos without any concept, but no other photographer's work has as much strength as his photography. This is the tenth book of his own from the label."

Takashi Homma, "mushrooms from the forest 2011" (Blind gallery)

"As many other photographers did, Takashi Homma also left for the Tohoku area to document the aftermath. But he didn't photograph any debris or people like others did, instead he chose to shoot the forest and mushrooms in Fukushima which also suffered from radioactive contamination."

Kotori Kawashima, Mirai-Chan (Nanaroku-sha)

"Because this photobook reached people who don't buy photobooks or who are not even interested in photography at all. Simply amazing."

Masterpieces of Japanese Pictorial Photography (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography)

"The exhibition "Masterpieces of Japanese Pictorial Photography" at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography reminded us that there was also an significant movement, which is hardly recognized, before the era of Araki and Moriyama. This is the catalog from the exhibition."


Ryosuke Iwamoto (photographer)

Naoya Hatakeyama, “Natural Stories” (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography)

"For me, the best thing wasn’t a book but an exhibit—Naoya Hatakeyama’s show 'Natural Stories' at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. It’s not really 'today’s Japanese style,' but I thought it was great on the whole, so I’ll pick the catalog that he made for the show."


Microcord (blogger)

Nobuyoshi Araki, "Rakuen" (Rat Hole Gallery)

Shinya Arimoto, "Ariphoto Selection vol. 2" (Totem Pole Photo Gallery)

Hiroh Kikai, "Anatolia" (Crevis)


Tomoe Murakami (photographer and lecturer)

Naoya Hatakeyama, "Terrils" (Taka Ishii Gallery)


John Sypal (photographer and blogger)

"2011 saw the publication of several more photobooks by Nobuyoshi Araki. In addition to being featured in at least one magazine each month, the man puts out more solo photobooks in a year than most established Western photographers put out in a career. Here are three of my favorites and one non-Araki publication."

Araki, "Theater of Love", (Taka Ishii/Zen Foto)

"A small visual treat published by Taka Ishii & Zen Foto galleries which is a collection of recently rediscovered pictures taken by Araki in the mid 1960s, several years before his Sentimental Journey debut in 1970. The book, published in an edition of 1000 copies, matches the 5x7 size of the actual rough little prints while the content allows one to see the the very foundations of Araki's future major themes coming to light. A must-have for those interested in learning more about the early stages of this artist."

Araki, "Shakyo-rojin Nikki" (WIDES)

"With a title that roughly translates into "The Diary of an Old Man Photo Maniac", Araki again employs his date-imprint function to great effect chronicling the three months to the day after the Tohoku Earthquake on March 11th. Where his inclusion of color paints to black and white photographs resulted in brilliant and moving imagery, his alteration of the images in this book was subtractive in his scratching of the negatives with the edge of a coin. Each image bears a scar or fault line through it with results that fluctuate between sadness, horror, and at other times comedy. His tenacious treatment of the actual physical essence of film-based photography comes across as a rebellious challenge to the dry dull digital era he has been lamenting in recent interviews."

Araki, "Shamanatsu 2011" (Rathole)

"The third and most beautiful of three Araki books published by Rathole Gallery in 2011, Shamanatsu continues on with the artist's personal destructive alteration of physical photographs. The book is divided into two parts, the first being pictures taken with his Leica over the past 5 years from various commercial assignments and personal experiences. Each print has been unsettlingly and completely torn in half only to be mended back together with cellophane tape across the front the prints. The publisher did a marvelous job recreating the shimmer of the tape on each page. The second half of the book is a series of images Araki took over the unusually hot 2011 summer with a new Fuji 6x7 camera purchased earlier in the year. In a recent interview in the mens' fashion and culture magazine, HUGE, Araki states clearly that Shamanatsu is not any sort of Art with deep meaning, but simply the photographic manifestation of his own physiology. He also added that after his new camera broke this series came to its sudden end."

Meisa Fujishiro, "Mou, Uchi ni Kaerou 2" (Let's go home 2), (Rockin' On)

"Photographer Meisa Fujishiro's sequel to his wildly popular book "Let's go home". While his first book, now in it's 9th printing, simply dealt with married life with his wife (a professional model) and dogs, the sequel introduces his son from birth and five years after that. For a skilled photographer who mainly shoots celebrities and bikini models, Fujishiro's pictures of his home life are never bogged down by excessive slick camerawork or sentimentality. Their delightful frankness is a simple kind of beauty."


Ivan Vartanian (author, editor, publisher and book producer)

"With the risk of sounding contrarian, compiling a list of books as a year in review is tricky business because most often such lists are mistaken for "best of" and do a great disservice to publications whose stand-alone value is problematic. If there is one thing I've learned from working with Japanese photography and Japanese photobooks it is the need for trepidation in looking at things in isolation, which is the inherent project of such review lists. So much of Japanese photography has to do with the relationship and context of images within a given sequence, as well as the circumstance of publication and why a book was made. In a similar regard, the books I've selected aren't necessarily "best of" books. Rather, they were selected for what they say in relationship to the photobook oeuvre of each individual photographer."

Yurie Nagashima, "SWISS+" (Akaaka Art Publishing)

"From her earliest and strongest photography projects, Nagashima has used Family, her family in particular, as the source material for her photography. As a book production, SWISS+ interleaves pages of photography with prose printed on tracing paper. The photographer has recently turned her attention to writing both non-fiction and fiction. This book most poetically gives us a framework for how she finds a sort of concordance between the two mediums, sometimes independent, sometimes dependent on one another."

Takuma Nakahira, "Documentary" (Akio Nagasawa Publishing)

"This book was largely overlooked and under-appreciated after its publication. Documentary compiles this master photographer's recent color work. The photography's awkward vertical format and how it reveals the position of the photographer relative to his subject matter seem to be at odds with the book's lofty title. But when we consider this publication in light of Nakahira's early and other experimental work, the project of his color work is slightly more understandable—resisting the dogma and trappings of contemporary photography. The publication of Documentary was almost simultaneous with the publication of a facsimile edition of his legendary For a Language to Come (Osiris, 2010)."

Daido Moriyama, "Sunflower" (MMM Label [Match and Company])

"The lush black and tonal range of this publication are an example of how beautiful basic offset printing can be. The same is true of the craftsmanship exhibited in the book's layout and edit. In its simplicity, it shines."

Takashi Homma, M2 (Gallery 360)

"M is an ongoing series of about fast food restaurants around the world. M refers to the identifying logo mark of the McDonald’s chain of restaurants. Such establishments have been a continual object in Homma Takashi’s photography since his Tokyo Suburbia series, which addressed the Americanization of Japanese culture. The screen printing of the photobook’s cover has a plain visual kinship with the discernible dot pattern on the cups and packaging produced by the fast-food chain. Does eating too much fast food also effect vision? Among the 500 copies of the edition, there are multiple cover variations."

Koji Onaka, "Long Time No See" (Média Immédiat [France])

"This is a bit of a cheat. This book was not published by a Japanese publisher but, as a body of work, it may be one of Onaka's best photobooks so far, especially when considered relative to his previous publications. This is an example of the photographer stepping outside of his familiar territory and producing a body of work that is free of his usual rigor. The full weight of his previous work still lingers in the air of this tiny book. It is a treat to see the cone-shaped birthday hat worn by his otherwise hapless mother, dutifully giving her son (Koji) a birthday party. The photographer scanned monochromatic photographs from his family albums and added color to each image in Photoshop. Onaka’s father was a photographer so there was a wealth of snapshots to choose from."

A Japanese season starts in Paris

Opening night at Japanese Photobooks Now Last night was the opening of Japanese Photobooks Now, the first in a summer series of events on Japanese photography and film at Le Bal, which, as regular readers will know, should be right up my street. I've written about Le Bal before on eyecurious and since their first show Anonymes last autumn they have maintained a consistently interesting and diverse programme. For the next couple of weeks, the upstairs space has been taken over by Ivan Vartanian, a Tokyo-based New Yorker and the author of Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s and Setting Sun amongst others. For Japanese Photobooks Now Vartanian has put together a selection of around 80 photobooks which provide an overview of contemporary Japanese photobook publishing. Opportunities to pick up Japanese photobooks outside of Japan are pretty limited and so this is a rare chance not only to see some of the best current books but also to get a broader overview of the contemporary Japanese photo scene and the current trends in photobook publishing. The show is up until 8 May, but if you hurry Vartanian is in Paris until the end of the week and you just might be able to convince him to give you a private tour. With a Kitajima/Takanashi/Watabe exhibition, a month of Japanese film, two books and several events to come (full programme on Le Bal's website), this promises to be a good summer.


Ivan Vartanian



Photographic help for Japan

Suzanne Revy, Weed, 2008. This print is on sale as part of the Wall Space Gallery fundraiser for Japan. Since the quake and tsunami hit Japan on Friday 11 March, a number of photo initiatives have sprung up to support the relief efforts that are being made after this terrible disaster. Here is a list of the ones that I have come across so far. If there are any other initiatives out there, please add them in the comments or send them on to me by email and I will add them to the post.

The Wall Space gallery in Seattle is coordinating an online print sale fundraiser including work by Joni Sternbach, Hiroshi Watanabe, Emily Shur, Gabriela Herman and many others.

Yasuteru Kasano is donating the proceeds of all sales of his photobooks until April 2011 to the relief efforts. Check out the books here.

Baptiste Lignel, Ice Cream. Tsunami.

Baptiste Lignel is selling this ice cream shot in an edition of 50 with all proceeds going to support Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Japan.

The Flickr Charity Print Auction group has just opened a thread for the current crisis in Japan.

Update: a blog has been launched for the Life Support Japan initiative and it seems photographers have been contributing massively. Check out the blog for updates.

Update: Tokyo's Zen Foto Gallery is organizing an auction at the gallery on the weekend of 25-27 March in aid of Tohoku relief charities. Also in Tokyo, Taka Ishii Gallery have postponed their next exhibition as a result of the earthquake. Instead the gallery will be holding an exhibition entitled NOART, consisting only of a donation box in the empty gallery space.

Update: Emily Shur and Joseph Holmes both have prints for sale on 20x200 for which all of the proceeds from sales will benefit Japan Society's Earthquake Relief Fund.

Update: Canada's Mammoth Collection is donating 100% of profits on any print sales until Friday 25 March.

Update: the photographer Taisuke Koyama, who has been featured on eyecurious before, has put together a PDF book of new work entitled Sandwich Textures. The book is on sale until 4 April and Koyama will be donating all proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross. Find out more about the book here.


Review: Leo Rubinfien, A Map of the East

A Map of the East - cover

I should say this up front: this is not so much a review as a eulogy. It has been a long time since a photobook has had such an strong impact on me (to the point where I found myself poring over it at 3am during a bout of insomnia). I am not going to pretend to be impartial here: as a westerner who is interested/obsessed with Japan and East Asia, this was always likely to resonate with me. Instead, I'm just going to try and put into words the reasons why I think it is so great. To paraphrase the brilliant Kingsley Amis, "Why did I like women's breasts [this book] so much? I was clear on why I liked them [it], thanks, but why did I like them [it] so much?"

I first came across Leo Rubinfien through the text he wrote for Shomei Tomatsu's catalogue, Skin of the Nation (another photobook deserving of a eulogy of its own), but, embarrassingly, I didn't realise at the time that he was an accomplished photographer in his own right. It wasn't until last year that I came across Rubinfien again, when Naoya Hatakeyama introduced me to this book. Unfortunately, this was after a few beers and although I was intrigued at the time, the drinks got the better of my memory... until the book resurfaced a couple of weeks ago at the excellent Comptoir de l'Image bookstore. You can see an image of this tiny store here, which will give you a bit of an idea of why I consider it to be nothing short of miraculous that I found this book buried in one of the floor-to-waist piles of books that line this tiny store... like stumbling upon a needle in a haystack.

The book opens with an image from a busy street in Tokyo, where Rubinfien spent his early childhood. The bemused, vaguely unimpressed salaryman staring into the camera is the perfect introduction: his look of incomprehension says "What are you looking at? Why are you taking this picture?" This image conveys both our fascination with 'Asia' as well as a sense that Asia is gently shaking it's head at the strange behaviour of the overly curious foreigner.

A Map of the East - 1

The book bounces all around East Asia – Japan, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, with a couple of glimpses of South Asia along the way – in no discernible order. Importantly the captions situating the images are all located at the end of the book: by doing this Rubinfien avoids us thinking about the specific location of each image in order to bring the abstract notion of 'Asia' into being.

How can you possibly define something as massive and diverse as Asia? You will rarely hear a European refer to themselves as such (or maybe only in certain corners of Brussels) and I'm always slightly amused when I hear someone say "I'm going to Europe." It seems like a total non-sense: how can you go to a place that vast with so many fragmented and opposing identities and cultures? And yet I'm sure that to an American or an Australian, the idea of Europe is more coherent and evokes certain notions which aren't necessarily reductive stereotypes like baguettes and shrugs, pasta and wild gesticulation or beer and extreme organization.

A Map of the East - 2

The real success of this book for me is that Rubinfien manages to bring this concept of Asia to life with a few handfuls of images (one hundred and seven to be precise). Yes, this is most probably an Asia that Asians themselves wouldn't identify with, but this is not an idealisation of the pure exoticism of the East either. This isn't a book of geishas, buddhist monks or minimalist 'zen' landscapes. This is the Asia of smells and sounds, of tangled wires, hotel lobbies and heavy skies. Rubinfien knows that he is an "alien", a foreigner, and it is through those eyes that he draws out his map. It is a book of an incredibly astute and observant outsider's experience of Asia... of the feeling that it evokes. He accepts that he cannot capture Asia's essence and so he chooses to capture perfectly the experience of searching for it.

Both Rubinfien's introduction and Donald Richie's afterword are brilliant... I probably would have been better off just quoting them at length here. In his review, Jeff Ladd described the printing as 'chalky', but I actually like the muted effect that it has on the images, and I agree with him about the intelligence with which the images have been edited. The only thing I don't love about this book (I had to find something) is it's cover, which seems a little too obvious given the subtlety of the images on the inside. Mercifully, although it is almost twenty years old, this book doesn't cost $200, but more like $20 (for the hardback version, the paperback is probably even cheaper). If you have any interest in Asia and in photography, you should own this.

A Map of the East - 3

Leo Rubinfien, A Map of the East. David R Godine, (Hardcover, 132 pages, 107 colour plates, 1992).

Rating: (Extra-)Highly Recommended