Naoya Hatakeyama: a book and an exhibition

Installation view, Natural Stories

My most recent trip to Japan in October happily coincided with Naoya Hatakeyama's first retrospective at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of his work – and there is quite a lot of it – so I was curious to see how this exhibition, entitled Natural Stories, would be put together. The exhibition has now closed in Tokyo but opens at the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam today until the end of February 2012. To coincide with Natural Stories, Hatakeyama also released his latest book, Ciel Tombé, which I included on my best books of 2011 list, so I thought I would discuss them together here.

I will admit to being a little surprised at the selection of work in Natural Stories. Although there are ten different bodies of work in the exhibition, none of Hatakeyama's work on Tokyo (Underground, River, Maquettes/Light...) was included. However, in the curator's text on the exhibition she is quick to explain that this was a conscious decision given that Hatakeyama already had several solo exhibitions in Japan including a 2007 show at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura & Hayama which took the city as its theme. With that in mind the exhibition's focus on the natural landscape makes sense.

Lime Hills, 1990

The title Natural Stories is an intriguing one. I think it works best in french (Histoires naturelles), which I believe is the language in which the title was originally given. In french 'histoire' can mean both history or a story. The title evokes Natural History, stories about nature, and perhaps even a history of nature itself. The essay by the French writer Philippe Forest in the exhibition catalogue explores these notions in detail so I won't dwell on them any further, but the title evokes the very different considerations that inform Hatakeyama's photographic approach to the landscape. His landscapes are never 'just' landscapes: they are always the reflection or the echo of something else. For instance, although it depicts the limestone mines, the series Lime Hills deals with the transformation of the natural landscape to feed the insatiable growth of the city of Tokyo.

Ciel Tombé (Super Labo, 2011)

Although it is almost never directly present in this exhibition, the city is never very far away. In the series Ciel Tombé Hatakeyama explored the Parisian catacombs and their underground 'fallen skies' (ciel tombé). This series is the subject of Hatakeyama's latest book, Ciel Tombé (Super Labo, 2011). For this book Hatakeyama has deviated from the standard photobook formula and asked the French author Sylvie Germain to contribute a short story based on his photographs . I won't go into detail about this book as this post is already overly long, but I will say this: I first saw the work from Ciel Tombé a few years ago at a gallery in Tokyo. Several months later I had the opportunity to read Sylvie Germain's deliciously strange and unsettling text. I had not seen any of the images since that first viewing, but as I read through the story the images appeared in my mind as if I had only just seen them. For the moment the book only exists in a deluxe edition of 200 which includes a print, a book of Hatakeyama's photographs and another book containing Sylvie Germain's text in French, English and Japanese, but there is word of a second edition in the making.

Ciel Tombé (Super Labo, 2011)

Returning to Natural Stories, for me the final two rooms of the exhibition were the highlight. The first of these rooms (pictured at the top of this post) contained Hatakeyama's most recent work on his hometown of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, one of the many towns destroyed in the tsunami of 11 March 2011. Although very little time has passed, Hatakeyama decided to include a series of photographs in the exhibition that he took in the wake of the disaster. Many images have been produced of the aftermath of the tsunami, but most of these fail to connect beyond conveying the scale of the physical destruction. What stands out about Hatakeyama's images is how matter of fact they feel. He has photographed these landscapes with the same unflinching precision, intelligence and quietness tinged with nostalgia as any other landscape. His photographs strike me as the most natural possible response to the disaster, but they must have been incredibly difficult to make given the deeply personal and tragic nature of the subject. These images are presented on three adjacent walls in the space, while on the fourth a slideshow of images taken between 2008-2010 in his native region is presented in the guise of a framed photograph.

The final room contains the companion series Blast and A Bird. Both series have been exhibited and published in the past, but for this exhibition Hatakeyama also chose to present Blast as a stop-motion video projected on a huge wall in the space. These photographs have a potent mix of beauty and brutal force which is heightened even further when animated in this way. It is an overwhelming end to the exhibition and one which resonates long after you leave the space.

Installation view, Natural Stories

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.

Welcoming in 2010

Shintaro Sato, Tokyo Twilight Zone I've decided to start 2010 in the best way possible: with a quick photo-based trip to Tokyo (4-11 January). This might mean that eyecurious gets the year off to a bit of a slow start but I'm guaranteed to come back with tons of things to blog about. For those of you who haven't made it to Tokyo before, here are a few images of the city to give you a little taste (after the jump).

Osamu Kanemura, Tokyo Swing, 1995

Koji Onaka, Tokyo Candy Box

Hiroh Kikai, Tokyo Labyrinth

Naoya Hatakeyama, River Series #4, 1993

Some things I bought this year

I've seen quite a few end of year lists popping up over the last week. There are the best books of 2009 lists, the more eclectic lists of "stuff I liked this year", the lists of books acquired in 2009 and many more. I think you need to be a breakfast-lunch-and-dinner kind of consumer of photo-books to post a best books of 2009 list and having just discovered a great many fantastic-looking ones through the future of photo-books discussion, I am not going to stick my neck out on that one.  Instead in order to jump onto the list-mania bandwagon, I am going to go with a list of a few of the photo items that I bought in 2009 (these weren't necessarily made in 2009). Looking back over the year, I think this is an interesting way of seeing trends in the things that you gravitate to and also seeing how much money you wasted on things that you spend no time with at all.

Some photographic things that I bought in 2009

(Note: I am in a fortunate position where a number of books that come into my possession I don't actually have to pay for, so there are a number of terrific books that I discovered this year that won't make it on to this list)

Anders Petersen & J.H. Engström, From Back Home (Bokförlaget Max Ström, 2009)

This won the Author Book Award at Arles 2009. I posted a review a while back.

Akihide Tamura, Afternoon (M Light label No.1, 2009)

Spread from bookshop M catalogue, Akihide Tamura's 'Afternoon'

Although I just got this and have already posted about it, I get the feeling this is one that I will keep coming back to.

Ryuji Miyamoto, Cardboard Houses (signed, Bearlin, 2003)

Ryuji Miyamoto, Cardboard Houses

Beierle + Keijser's "Becher box": Jogurtbecher

I have already spent the best part of an evening with E deciding what images we are going to use in our Jogurtbecher grid. And I actually hate yoghurt.

Michio Yamauchi, Stadt (Sokyu-sha, 1992)

Naoya Hatakeyama, A Bird (Taka Ishii, 2006)

Naoya Hatakeyama, A Bird

OK I cheated, I didn't actually buy this, but this is probably the book that I have gone back to most frequently this year so it had to be included. Check out Jeff Ladd's review here to get an idea why.

Ikko Narahara, Pocket Tokyo (Creo, 1997)

Ikko Narahara, Pocket Tokyo

Eikoh Hosoe, A Butterfly Dream (signed, Seigensha, 2006)

Eikoh Hosoe, The Butterfly Dream

The extragavance of the year. This book was produced as a companion to the first edition of Kamaitachi. Hosoe presented it to Kazuo Ohno for his 100th birthday, shortly before his death. (As Michael rightly pointed out, Ohno is still around!)

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.