Okinawa soul

Books by Mao Ishikawa and Yasuo Higa (with a little bonus: Nantiti, sugar and coconut milk-coated macadamia nuts with package art by Shomei Tomatsu!) Since the earthquake of 11 March, Japan has slowly faded out of the international news, barring the occasional update on the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. However things remain critical in the northeast of the country and disrupted as far south as Tokyo as a result of the lingering problems at Fukushima and the associated disruptions to the power supply in the region. I had originally planned a 2-week trip to Japan, but in view of the disastrous events of last month and the very unclear portrayal of the situation in the international media, I decided to shorten my trip to 5 days. This is the first of a few posts from my recent visit, which will hopefully offer a slightly different view of Japan to the news coverage of recent weeks.

I started my trip by flying directly to Okinawa, approximately 1,000 miles to the south-west of Tokyo. From the moment you arrive it is clear that Okinawa is a far cry from Tokyo's urban super-futurism or the refined minimalism of Kyoto's temples. A chain of lush tropical islands, Okinawa's relationship with Japan is a historically complicated one, made even more so by the prolonged and powerful influence of the United States since World War II. Even today, American military bases occupy nearly 20% of land on the main island of Okinawa, while 85% of Okinawans oppose their presence.

Shomei Tomatsu. Hateruma Island, Okinawa, 1971

This combination of natural beauty and rich folklore with a pretty tense political context have made Okinawa a popular subject for Japanese photographers over the years. Shomei Tomatsu, Takuma Nakahira, Daido Moriyama, Araki... the list of mainlanders to have photographed there is long. Tomatsu, probably the best known photographer to have worked extensively in Okinawa, has made the island his home in recent years. More than any other mainlander's, his work goes beyond the surface of the island's beauty and mystery (I would highly recommend getting your hands on his 1972 book, Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa, although it is likely to set you back a pretty penny). And yet, even after shooting in Okinawa on and off for close to 40 years, Tomatsu is the first to point out that work by native Okinawans is not getting the recognition it deserves outside of the island.

I came to Okinawa to visit Mao Ishikawa (regular readers might recognize her name from a few previous posts), a proud native Okinawan and a pint-sized force of nature. Before making this trip, I had just spent one hour with her at Paris Photo last November, which was more than enough to convince me that I needed to see more of her work.

Spread from Ishikawa's book on Sachiko Nakada's Theater Company

To say that Mao's story is extraordinary is a bit of an understatement. In the early 70s, after a few months at photography school in Tokyo (where she had picked out Tomatsu as her professor after seeing his pictures) she dropped out and headed back to her home town. Fascinated by the American military presence in Okinawa, Mao decided to become a hostess in a bar for African American soldiers (the US military actually enforced segregation on the bars that sprung up around the military bases) and to photograph her life there. The bar became her home for over 2 years and she photographed everything there with total freedom and openness… the other girls, the soldiers, the drinking, the smoking, the sex. While still in her early 20s, at a time when photography was a totally male-dominated world, she was one of the few women to get her pictures noticed, even managing to find a publisher for a book, which ended up causing quite a stir. During this time, one of the customers of the bar, a soldier named Myron Carr, became Mao's closest friend and after he returned to Philadelphia they remained in touch. In the 1980s she went to visit Carr and his twin brother, Byron, in their neighborhood in Philly and spent 2 months shooting there (recently published as Life in Philly, which I reviewed on the blog last year). She has successfully beaten cancer twice and is a fierce and longstanding critic of the continued US military presence in Okinawa. For her series Fences, Okinawa she walked around the perimeter of the fences surrounding the US military bases in Okinawa for an entire year, a project that her knees have yet to recover from.


Spread from Mao Ishikawa's Minatomachi Eregii (A Port Town Elegy)

After almost 12 hours going through her archive (and barely scratching the surface), the thing that stood out most for me is that her images are always those of an insider, whether she is shooting a family theater company, a group of heavy-drinking dock workers, or life in one of Philadelphia's rougher areas. Documentary photographs can often be a collection of stolen moments, but it is clear that Mao's images involve a deep and genuine exchange. She isn't just observing the people that she photographs, she immerses herself in their world and makes it her own.

Mao's first solo exhibition in Europe, (from which I stole the title of this post) was organized last year in London by Naoko Uchima, a young Okinawan who recently relocated from London to her native island to promote its culture and photography. During the handful of hours I spent on the island Naoko also introduced me to the work of Yasuo Higa, an Okinawan photographer who passed away in 2000. Although I haven't yet had much time to properly explore his work, Higa's photographs focus on the disappearing rituals and folklore of Okinawa. His work is more lyrical than Ishikawa's and is imbued with a strong sense of spirituality. A Higa retrospective is on show at the Izu Photo Museum until 31 May 2011.

Yasuo Higa. Kudaka Island, Fubo Utaki, Fubawaku, 1975

Spending 24 hours in Okinawa was never going to give me more than a glimpse into the life of this island, but a glimpse was more than enough to convince me that I need to go back.

Notes on 2010

Some self- or independently published photobooks from 2010 As the year draws to an end and more top-10 lists (and non-lists) than you can wave a stick at make their annual appearance, I thought I would take a broader look back at the past year in photography. This time last year I focused on the chronic over-use of the word curating, a trend which shows no signs of abating. As for 2010, the major development in the world of photography has to be the exponential rise of the self-published and independent photobook.

This year has seen the launch of Alec Soth's Little Brown Mushroom (LBM actually launched in December 2009, Soth once again proving that he is ahead of the curve), the online listings database The Independent Photobook, the Indie Photobook Library, the Off Print photobook festival in Paris, a big online discussion on the future of photobooks and (perhaps another sign of Soth's prescience) the growth of countless independent publishers like so many little brown mushrooms. This frenzy of activity wasn't only limited to the periphery either: the (deserving) winner of this year's book prize at the Rencontres d'Arles was an independent publisher from Berlin, Only Photography, for Yutaka Takanashi: Photography 1965-74. If there were any doubts remaining as to the importance of this trend in 2010, while writing this paragraph I received an email from yet another freshly-launched website devoted to the self- and independently-published photobook. I think this explosion in 'indie' publishing is a great thing, particularly given what was being said about the future of photobook publishing a couple of years ago. However, although we have learned that publishing it yourself can make you happy, it can also make you very confused, even overwhelmed. It is truly amazing how many photobooks are being made now, far too many for one poor blogger to even begin to get his head around and (surely?) far too many to sell to a very limited pool of buyers. The problem is that only a very small percentage of them are any good. By good I don't mean "containing good photography" but rather good as a stand-alone artwork where the design and production matches, or even enhances the content rather than a brochure for a series of photographs. Not every series of photographs deserves (or is suited) to becoming a book. Hopefully the publishing effervescence of 2010 will give way to a 'more quality less quantity' scenario in 2011.

Another phenomenon that has accompanied this rise in self- or indie publishing is the rise in luxury, super exclusive, VIP, signed, numbered and sealed-with-a-kiss editions. Despite the rise in the number of photobooks being published, only an infinitesimal number of these make any money and publishers are still searching for the winning formula. Rather than the 'limited' print runs of the past (700 to 1,000) it seems that a number of publishers are moving towards deluxe extra-limited editions (100 to 500). To mention just a few examples Germany's Only Photography and White Press are both producing books which will generally set you back at least 80 euros ($100), and in the US Nazraeli Press has completed ten years of its One Picture Book series where (for $150) you get a small original print thrown in with the eight or nine plates in the book itself. One final publishing trend worth noting is the growing number of re-editions of classic photobooks. In addition to Errata Editions' full series of books on books, this year we were treated to a range of re-editions from Takuma Nakahira's A Language To Come to John Gossage's The Pond. Given how much the originals are sell for at auction these days, I'm grateful to be able to get my hands on some classics without having to sell all the other books I own in the process.

Press opening of the Larry Clark's Kiss the Past Hello exhibition

And what of photography itself in 2010? Looking beyond the book, this year feels far less exciting. As with the rest of the art world, photography galleries are still gently and nervously probing the market with little space given to new or 'difficult' work, while museums are staying well away from anything risky with big-name blockbuster retrospectives, shows assembled from their own collections (which is not necessarily a bad thing), or shows lasting from 4-5 months instead of 2 or 3. Just as with books we're also seeing the reedition of landmark exhibitions, with the New Topographics show touring the US this year. In terms of museum shows a special mention has to go to two examples of ludicrous censorship: the recent removal of a video by the artist David Wojnarowicz from the exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington after the Catholic League and members of Congress complained that the piece was sacrilegious due to a sequence showing ants crawling on a crucifix, and the Paris Museum of Modern Art's Larry Clark exhibition which got itself an X-rating from the government and therefore a shed-load of media attention.

On a positive note, a more interesting trend has been the use of Google Street View by several artists as a new photographic tool. Michael Wolf (see the grid below), Doug Rickard and Jon Rafman have produced exhibitionsbooks and tumblrs of images taken from Google Street View's online tool. This is clearly not everyone's cup of tea and, particularly in street photography circles, there tends to be a "that is not photography" response to this kind of work. Whether you like it or not, it raises a number of interesting and important questions about the way the practice of photography and the hypocritical rules governing it are evolving .

Michael Wolf, FY (forthcoming 2011)

Another technology-related trend has to be the massive growth of online social networking in the photo community. Of course this is a phenomenon that is by no means limited to photography, but it is astounding how quickly Facebook has gone from an interactive high-school yearbook to a major marketing tool (alongside its younger cousin Twitter). Some have even used it as a tool through which to publish a series of photographs steadily over time. I'm not sure how this is going to affect photography (if at all) and others have thought about this harder than I have, but it will be interesting to see where this goes in 2011.

Finally, I get the feeling that there is a bit of a reemergence of street photography going on. With in-public's 10 (review here) and Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren's Street Photography Now. This may be because we're all photographers now and the most obvious place to start is the street, or perhaps because people are growing tired of the cold, detached formalism that has dominated recent contemporary photography, or maybe even the fact that the abuse of anti-terrorism and privacy laws is making it more and more difficult to photograph in many of our cities and that street photographer's tend to like a challenge.

To wrap up this look back at 2010 (despite last year's rant) seeing as we all love lists (because we don't want to die), here are a few highlights from the past year in no particular order:

Paris November photo madness round-up

Maurizio Anzeri (The Photographers' Gallery, London)

As the eyecurious faithful (and anyone who has been in Paris recently) will have noted, this has been a particularly action-packed month for photography in Paris. As I noted in a previous post, there was a bunch of different events going on at once and, as November draws to a close, I thought I would pull together a few brief impressions from the past month of photo-gluttony.

Paris Photo, the photo art fair, remains the major event on the Paris photo calendar. As with any art fair, it is not an experience for the faint-hearted or the sensitive-eyed. The fair squeezes several thousand photographs into a pretty restricted space underneath the Louvre, far more than 2 eyes and 1 brain can hope to absorb over a long weekend. Having started the week with three days of portfolio reviews at the first edition of FotoFest Paris (on which more later) it felt like a week of serious visual overindulgence.

Robert Voit (Robert Morat gallery)

A quick scan of the round-ups of the fair around the web will reveal that there is no consensus whatsoever on the highlights of the year and that is in part because it is virtually impossible to see everything. My overall impression is that this was not a particularly adventurous year in terms of new work and the focus appeared to be on bringing big name vintage work. Hamburg's Robert Morat gallery bucked that trend with a great selection of work by Robert Voit, Peter Bialobrzeski and Jessica Backhaus. There are always a couple of artists that pop up on several booths and this year Michael Wolf's Tokyo subway and Street View images and Massimo Vitali's bleached-out beaches were the two that I kept running into. As always 'curated' booths were few and far between, which is understandable given the commercial nature of the fair. However there were a couple of exceptions: for his first Paris Photo, Paris's François Sage presented (and sold all of) 20 pieces from Naoya Hatakeyama's Maquettes/Light series combined with vintage night work from Kertész, Brassaï and others; while Serge Plantureux's booth was "transformed into a detective agency" built around an extraordinary collage of every building on a 1930s St Petersburg street which spanned the full length of his booth. And a favourite discovery from last year, Maurizio Anzeri, reappeared again with some more great pieces.

Serge Plantureux's booth at Paris Photo

I suppose the natural measure of the success is sales and on this, once again, I heard wildly different assessments (Paris Photo gives it upbeat round-up here). However, for me the measure of the success of the event is its ability to bring together photographers, curators, dealers, publishers, bloggers and 40,000 other people from around the world in a single place, which, fortunately for me, happens to be where I live. On this count it feels to me that the fair continues to get more and more international each year and the best possible place to get photo projects in motion. My personal highlights included meeting the extraordinary photographer Mao Ishikawa from Okinawa and a champagne-fuelled meeting with Joakim Stromhölm (Christer Stromhölm's son) in the early hours of the morning.

(From L-to-R): Taisuke Koyama with Sawako Fukai and Shigeo Goto of G/P Gallery and artbeat publishers at Off Print

One particularly interesting development this year was the first (and hopefully not the last) edition of Off Print, a fair run in parallel to Paris Photo devoted entirely to independent photography publishing, an area that is currently seeing an explosion of activity. I was curious to see whether Off Print would be able to coexist alongside Paris Photo and pleasantly surprised to see that it more than held its own. I managed to swing by three times, always to a packed house where business seemed to be brisk. Interestingly while there was some overlap with the Paris Photo crowd, Off Print was clearly attracting a different demographic as well, a younger crowd that is perhaps more interested in the book as an object rather than just in photography itself. If evidence were needed that photobooks are alive and well, this was it.

After several failed attempts I finally managed to swing by Photo Off on Sunday afternoon to finish the week. Photo Off is essentially a more casual Paris Photo, with lower priced work by "young and emerging" photographers. From my couple of hours there I couldn't tell how successful the fair was, but it did seem a little bit strange to me that Photo Off and Off Print didn't combine forces, as I think three simultaneous event is probably a little too much to get through for collectors and as a result I expect that Photo Off didn't get the audience that it should have.

Wad of prints by Blake Andrews, Price: $9 incl. P & P & gum

On the day after the close of Paris Photo as I was trying to make some sense of everything I had seen over the course of week (and to avoid looking at a single photograph) I received a package from the US. I had completely forgotten that a couple of weeks ago I decided to rescue a group of work prints by the photographer and blogger Blake Andrews that he was threatening to abandon. I thought this was a fitting end to a week where the commercial aspect of photography can feel a little overwhelming. Not only did I get a few dozen prints for my $9, but if you look closely at the image above you'll notice that I even got a stick of gum thrown in for good measure. I doubt that any collectors got that kind of special bonus thrown in with their purchases at Paris Photo.

Review: Mao Ishikawa, Life in Philly

Mao Ishikawa, Life in Philly There is a famous saying in Japan, "The nail that sticks out is hammered down." If there is any truth to that over-used trope, Mao Ishikawa cannot have had an easy life. Born in 1953 in Okinawa, she was one of the very few female photographers of her generation who attempted to make a career in a totally male-dominated world. As Okinawa became the most important location for US military bases in Japan, Ishikawa would have grown up surrounded by US soldiers. It is through her relationship with them that her series, Life in Philly, came about.

In his essay on Ishikawa, Shomei Tomatsu writes that she "lives on the polar opposite of the illusion of objectivity." I think what Tomatsu is getting at is the personal commitment that is evident in Ishikawa's photographs. Her images aren't seeking to document some detached, objective truth about the world around her, instead they are Ishikawa's way of committing herself to the world that she has decided to photograph. This commitment led to Ishikawa becoming one of the Kin-Town women (the women that "befriend" soldiers at the US military base in Kin-Town, Okinawa) that she had decided to photograph.

Her involvement in this world eventually led Ishikawa to leave her six-year old daughter with her parents to visit Myron Carr, a US soldier that she met in Okinawa in 1975, in his hometown of Philadelphia. The book brings together a group of 132 of the pictures that Ishikawa took when staying with Carr in Philadelphia over 2 months in 1986. These pictures show the black neighbourhood where Ishikawa spent her time in Philly: corners, stoops, alleys, strip-clubs and the inside of her friends' homes. Many of Ishikawa's subjects are clearly aware of the camera; these aren't images snatched surreptitiously, they create a sense of involvement in the world that they portray.


The most extraordinary thing about these pictures is just how natural they feel. Everything seems to suggest that these are the photographs of an insider, someone who knows these neighbourhoods, and it is hard to believe that they were taken by a Japanese woman who, I presume, had never been to America before. The people that she photographed in the streets of Philly don't appear guarded, indeed they often play up to the camera and on occasion, seem to have totally forgot about the photographer's presence. Ishikawa clearly managed to attain a level of intimacy with her subjects that is difficult to reach. Only the odd image reminds us of Ishikawa's origins with an image that is reminiscent of Tomatsu or Moriyama.

The central section of the book focuses on sex, between Myron Carr's twin brother Byron and his girlfriend. These images are perhaps the most surprisingly natural of all. There is nothing glamourized, romanticized or exaggerated here: this is sex at it's most raw, funny and honest, a brief moment of pleasure that ends up with the couple zoning out in front of the TV drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette.


This large-format book presents the pictures in full-bleed that is typical of Japanese 'street photography' and which really contributes to their impact and to drawing you into the pictures. There are a few 'mosaic' spreads (like the one above) in the book mixing vertical and horizontal images, which I'm not sure about: they feel a bit like an attempt to squeeze too many pictures in. I'm also not a big fan of the fonts and the text layout, but the printing and photo-layout don't disappoint and, as this is the first time that this truly unique series has been published, this is one that is definitely worth tracking down.


Mao Ishikawa, Life in Philly, Tokyo: Gallery Out of Place, 64 pages, 25.5 x 36 cm, edition of 1,000, duotone B/W offset, staple-bound. You can order copies here.

Rating: Recommended

Mao Ishikawa

lip_067 At the Arles photo festival over the summer, I was introduced to Mao Ishikawa's work by Mark Pearson. Mao Ishikawa grew up on the islands of Okinawa, which meant a childhood where the US military was a major and unavoidable presence. Speaking about her relationship with the American military, she has said, “I have two hearts in one body,” describing her love for American soldiers and hatred of the American government. This love for the GIs led to Mao following them back to the United States in the 1980s. She ended up in Philadelphia living with soldier friends where she photographed their often difficult lives back at home. The images are raw and sometimes graphic, but there is a real tenderness and playfulness that comes through thanks to Ishikawa's close relationship to her subjects. This is a groundbreaking group of work from one of the first female Japanese photographers to break into the male-dominated world of photography.

Further reading: Biography (in Japanese)