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.

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!

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

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

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.