Book of the Week #3: Ikko Narahara, The Sky in My Hands

Ikko Narahara is a contemporary of Shomei Tomatsu, Eikoh Hosoe and Kikuji Kawada (with he who formed the short-lived but influential VIVO agency in Tokyo in 1960). He is probably the least well-known of the four in the West, although his book Europe: Where Time Has Stopped has become highly collectible. This is an exhibition catalogue from his recent retrospective at the Shimane Art Museum. The catalogue is as 'traditional' as they come, covering his entire career in great detail, with no less than 48 pages (!) of bio (including several pages of personal photos from throughout his life) and a pretty extensive (complete?) bibliography. Although the book isn't a particularly exciting object in itself, it is a wonderfully detailed resource and a great reminder of how incredibly diverse that work was.

Ikko Narahara, The Sky in My Hands (Soft cover, 308 pages, B&W and colour plates, Japanese text only).

Update: Book of the week is moving to eyecurious books etc. Look out for new picks there!

The art of the caption

Tomoko Yoneda, Beyond Memory and Uncertainty. American B-52 returning from a bombing raid in Iraq. Fairford, England, 2003.

Choosing words to go with photographs is a big issue for us photobloggers. Some of us avoid them, others use them with caution, and some, like me, can't seem to hold them back. Choosing the right balance between words and images is a very tricky thing and this tightrope walk often makes me think about the power of captions and titles in photography.

On his NY Times blog, the film-maker Errol Morris has been writing recently about the idea that photography can somehow translate some objective truth. In one post he focuses on the issue of the caption in relation to photojournalism, showing how a caption can lead to radically different, if not opposite, interpretations of the same image. Morris's example is a little too black-and-white for my liking, but it does provide an extreme example of just how easy it is to modify the way that an image is interpreted by the viewer through its caption.

In the world of fine art photography, the caption is less ubiquitous than in photojournalism. In the former the image isn't required to fulfil the function of conveying specific information. In fact I am most drawn to photography which tries to not have a specific message: images which raise questions or evoke possibilities rather than images which try to show the viewer something. I have written about this before in the context of Ken Domon and Kikuji Kawada or Shomei Tomatsu's radically different approaches to photographing the aftermath of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But even for the 'subjective documentary' of Kawada or Tomatsu their photographs still had some form of documentary function and their titles or captions were written to give the viewer factual information about the contents of the image.

In much fine art photography that documentary function doesn't exist or is consciously avoided. And yet the issue of choosing a title for the image remains, even if only to be able to archive or catalogue a series of images. In this context, I know that a lot of photographers struggle with the process of giving titles to individual images, precisely because they want them to remain as open to interpretation as possible. One photographer told me that he didn't want to give his work titles but that his gallery talked him into it for sales purposes. (On this note, I recommend checking out Olivier Laude's portfolios for a terrific subversion of the often ridiculous text that works inherit when they are released into the art market). And so images are reluctantly given titles or more often just join the brotherhood of the 'Untitled'.

However, for some photographers the caption is crucial to their work. Tomoko Yoneda is a Japanese photographer based in the UK who uses captions very effectively to transform her images. A large part of her work centres on major historical events and Yoneda uses captions to invest extremely banal scenes with great significance (see the picture above). In her work captions are able to invest a single photograph with a profound sense of the history of a place. Her work is the perfect illustration of how what you see is most definitely not what you get. For Duane Michals, one of the highlights of last year's Rencontres d'Arles festival, it sometimes feel like his photographs are there to illustrate his writing rather than the other way around. He uses writing and images together to construct narratives that somehow manage to be both hilarious and sincerely profound. By writing his captions on his prints by hand, he makes the text and the image inseparable.

Duane Michals

Another great illustration of the transformative power of a caption is the website Unhappy Hipsters. The site is a series of shots taken from interior design or architecture magazines with added captions describing the existential angst of the people that appear in these pictures. Beyond the fact that I find it frequently hilarious, the site shows how a caption can completely change the way that we read an image. In the context of a magazine like Dwell, the focus is squarely on the architecture and design; the people are mere accessories to dress the space. But with these captions, the roles are reversed: the image is no longer about some material consumption but about human emotion.

Hiroh Kikai. A polite young man who powders his hands, 2002.

But my favourite use of captions in recent times has to be in Hiroh Kikai's portraits. In an interview with Kikai he told me that he sees his captions and his images as "intrinsically linked". What makes them stand out to me is their ability to suggest a huge amount with a great economy of language. Sometimes just by describing a person's profession ("A bookbinder"), a detail in the picture ("A man with four watches") or even outside the frame ("A man using a wooden sword as a walking stick"), or indeed from a different moment than the frame itself ("A young man about to make a peace sign for the camera"), Kikai gives just enough information to set off questions in our minds which bring these people to life.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that all photographs need captions; actually in my view there's nothing worse than a throwaway title. But the caption is an art form and online, where images get cut and paste all the time without much attention paid to titles, captions or even the photographer's name, one that is too often overlooked.

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.

Some more fuel on the photo-book fire


The debate about the future of photo-books is not exactly new, but it's not dying down either. I'm not sure where this particular strand of the debate started, but in recent days Jörg posted a few provocative thoughts over at Conscientious, which are feeding into a "crowd-sourced" blog post that has been set up by Andy from Flak Photo and Miki from liveBooks. So here are my two cents...

Firstly, there is the question of technology. This debate should be placed into the larger context of the debate on the future of books, period. This has been stirring up the publishing world for some time now and there are enough questions in that sphere to fill a book (pun intended), let alone this post, so I won't delve too deeply here (for some interesting insights check out this Monocle podcast that was done following this year's Frankfurt book fair). From what I have gathered, the general sense is that the e-book revolution is primarily going to affect non-illustrated books. Firstly there is the question of size: looking at a photobook, or most illustrated books for that matter, requires a certain scale. I can't imagine many people stuffing a photo-book sized Kindle in their pocket before they walk out the door. In addition there is a stronger affective and emotional relationship with illustrated books than with paperbacks: people relate to the book as object and not just simply to its content.

Spread from Purpose No. 9, At Work

Another interesting indicator of the resilience of the book form is the amount of websites that try to replicate a printed publication format online. One example, Purpose, a pretty good online photo-mag based in France, is made to resemble a print magazine as much as possible, down to an optional fold in the center of the the online mag to give it more of a print feel. I think that once the possibilities of the web are explored further on their own terms and less in terms of what we are used to in print, there will be a greater recognition of how web and print do different things well and therefore of how complementary they can be.

The second aspect of this technological issue is the advent of relatively low-cost digital printing combined with the emergence of web 2.0 and print-on-demand sites such as Blurb that make it possible for pretty much anyone to print their own photobook (just as digital cameras made it possible for pretty much anyone to call themselves a photographer). In an already very niche market where print runs tend to sit between 1,000 to 2,000 copies for most photo-books, does it make sense to have specialised photobook publishers like Aperture, Hatje Cantz or Nazraeli or should people just do-it-themselves and then distribute thanks to the joys of the internet?

RJ Shaughnessy, Your Golden Opportunity Is Comeing Very Soon

Although RJ Shaughnessy's Your Golden Opportunity Is Comeing Very Soon was a great example of DIYism, I think that photo-book publishers are essential and will not be going anywhere. Firstly, a quick survey of the posts about Blurb and co demonstrates that they have some way to go to convince professionals in terms of quality. There is nowhere near enough control afforded to you through these sites to be able to get the same result as you do with a printing house where much more fine-tuning is possible. They provide a great affordable and decent quality alternative to lugging a portfolio around with you or to test a book project concept, but for most fine art photographers, this isn't enough. Perhaps their most important function is to provide amateur photographers or pro-sumers (whatever the hell they are) with a terrific, inexpensive way of experiencing other aspects of photographic practice, such as sequencing, editing, graphic design and production, which is welcome in an age where millions of images are being produced every second.

This brings me on to Jörg's recent post, which laments the lack of adventurousness and experimentation in photo-book publishing and questions why we don't see more 'curated' books i.e. "books where someone does in book form what you usually see in a gallery or museum." Unfortunately in my (admittedly limited) experience of publishing, consistently squeezed profit margins and schedules means that editors are increasingly being replaced by or transformed into managers who only have time for a very cursory glance at the content of the books themselves. But if anything, the print-on-demand sites are likely to make things worse by leading to books with off-the-shelf design templates and which are produced in a limited number of standard formats. Worst of all, 99% of the time, there is no editor involved in the process.

There is an ongoing debate in the literary world surrounding how much of a debt Raymond Carver owes to his editor, Gordon Lish, for his signature sparse, economical, yet powerfully evocative style. Editors with this much creative influence are hard to find today, but they are no less important than in the past. Editors of photo-books are just as crucially important, particularly when it comes to reducing a series down to its essence and trimming off all excess fat. In such a small niche as fine art photography, they also have a huge general influence on the photographic landscape. To take my default example of Japan, Japanese photography would look very different if Shoji Yamagishi had not been around.

To go back to Jörg's point, it is true that most photo-books are monographs or exhibition catalogues, but this is only logical given that the sales of photo-books are so closely tied to exhibitions: there just would not be enough copies sold without them. In addition I think that these three forms (monograph, exhibition catalogue or collection catalogue) still offer a huge scope for experimentation. If anything, I think that the photo-book world may even be more experimental than the museum world at the moment. To illustrate my point here are a few examples that spring to mind.

Yutaka Takanashi, No One (Toluca Editions)

Toluca Editions (that Mrs Deane posted about recently) have been around for a while on the Parisian photo scene, producing extremely high-end portfolios of work which are a collaboration between the artist, a writer and a designer. You could argue that these aren't strictly speaking books, but they are a great illustration of how far you can stretch the form. In a similar vein, but with a far more classic traditionalist feel, as part of my work with Studio Equis I have been collaborating with a Kyoto-based printing company, Benrido, that has combined nineteenth century colotype printing techniques with digital technology to produce a series of portfolios with truly exquisite results. Nazraeli are publishing a book next year in which Naoya Hatakeyama has collaborated with a French novelist, Sylvie Germain, who wrote a short story inspired from his series of underground images entitled Ciel Tombé. The book doesn't even exist yet, but this is an example of another way in which the photo-book form is being expanded beyond a group of images accompanied by descriptive text. Artists' books are another hugely rich field: on my last trip to Japan, Kikuji Kawada showed me a copy of the retrospective book he had produced (in an edition of 1) entirely with his own hands made up from several hundred digital prints painstakingly sequenced and hand bound into a mammoth encyclopaedic tome. To indulge in a bit of shameless self-promotion, I was able to get a study of postwar Japanese photography published by Flammarion in English and French at a time (2004) when virtually nothing had been published outside Japan on this period. I will stop there as this post is already far too long, but these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. You may need to go towards the fringes to find it, but experimentation in photo-books is alive and well.

The recent books on books (Parr and Badger, Errata Editions' Books on Books series and the recent Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and '70s) provide evidence that the importance of photo-books within photography is increasingly being recognised. The future looks pretty exciting from where I'm sitting.