eyecurious books etc.

eyecurious_logo_books I've decided to launch an eyecurious offshoot over on tumblr: eyecurious books etc. I have started this little side-project because of the photo-books that are overtaking my small Paris apartment. For a number of reasons, including compulsive buying, getting sent review copies and amazingly generous photographers, I get my hands on a fair number of photobooks. I would love to review them all on eyecurious, but I just don’t have enough words in me for that and so I have decided to start this blog to feature some of the weird and wonderful photobooks that are finding their way into my life.

The plan is to focus on pictures of the books themselves and maybe to set up the odd book swap. The reviews and other photo-related writing will stay right here on eyecurious.

Tokyo highlights

eyecurious has made a slow start to blogging in 2010. However, this was due to a great, albeit far too short trip to Tokyo. I was in Japan preparing two exhibitions that will open in Stockholm, Sweden and in Cologne, Germany in March of this year (more on these in the coming weeks) and laying the groundwork for a third, but as usual Tokyo afforded its fair share of surprises.

Exhibition-wise the first week of January is not the best in Tokyo or elsewhere for that matter, but I did manage to stumble across some good things. I only saw one museum show, the Tokyo Metropolitan's joint Ihee Kimura and Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition (on until 7 February 2010). This isn't exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it does provide an interesting new perspective on these two masters of the Leica and illustrates just how different their styles were. Kimura's photographs will probably be less familiar to non-Japanese readers, but given my focus on Japanese photography they are as familiar to me as HCB's. Kimura was a furious snapper and often photographed his subjects from many different angles, however his pictures retain a much looser, natural quality than Cartier-Bresson's. After walking through three rooms of Kimura, the Frenchman's compositional rigour and prowess is both impressive and a little bit overwhelming. So many of HCB's images are works of complete virtuosity, but after several rooms worth of such masterpieces I am left craving more open and less controlled pictures. The best part of this show is the final room in which the two photographers' annotated contact prints are displayed side by side. These provide a fascinating insight into the genesis of some now legendary images, revealing before and after outtakes and proving that while HCB may not resort to any cropping he didn't always get the image he was looking for in a single exposure.

Daido Moriyama prints at NADiff Gallery

Aside from this blockbuster show I managed to take in a minuscule Daido Moriyama show at NADiff Gallery (the first time I have seen any of Moriyama's colour work), Hajime Sawatari's very hot but a little vacuous Kinky at BLD Gallery, the final days of an exhibition by promising young Chinese photographer Muge at the recently opened Zen Foto, and an exhibition of new work by the ubiquitous Araki which had several images with absolutely no signs of bondage in them!

The highlight in terms of exhibitions turned out not to be a photography show. The French Embassy has relocated to a new building in Tokyo and they have given over Joseph Belmont's 1957 building over to a group of over 70 Japanese and French artists from all kinds of different disciplines (sculpture, video, graffiti, calligraphy, design, photography, etc.) for a 'carte blanche' exhibition of work inspired by the building itself and integrating its contents into the works. The results are predictably hit and miss but they are always interesting and the experience is exhilarating. The proof of No Man's Land success for me was the audience: this was the busiest exhibition I saw in Tokyo and the visitors came in all ages, shapes and sizes, including a group of a dozen octogenarian grandmothers who were thoroughly enjoying themselves.  This is the kind of open, interactive art initiative that we need more of. The show is on until 31 January 2010, so if you're in Tokyo do not miss it.

No Man's Land at the former French Embassy

Throw in a meeting with master book designers (and brothers) Satoshi and Hikari Machiguchi of Match and Company, a visit to one of the only remaining analog photo-labs hidden away in a tiny basement where a handful of master printers appear to be making most of the best fine art prints coming out of the Tokyo photo world, a few hours in the unmissable Sokyu-sha bookstore, and a highly entertaining few hours at Gallery Tosei with Dan of Street Level Japan and Kurt of Japan Exposures and you have the recipe for another terrific week in Tokyo. Tosei is first and foremost a publishing house, but they opened a small gallery in their offices about five years ago, the first I've been to where you have to take your shoes off to come in. Tosei's head honcho, Takahashi-san, is a force of nature and his riffs on the state of photography and some of its practitioners are both fascinating and completely hilarious.

Review: Andrew Phelps, Not Niigata


As soon as I heard the name of Andrew Phelps's latest book I was intrigued. Niigata is not the most obvious prefecture in Japan for a foreign photographer to choose as a photographic subject (Tokyo's magnetic pull certainly doesn't seem to be weakening). I was all the more interested as Niigata is an area of some importance in Japanese photographic history. One of the most important series of the postwar years, Yukiguni (Snow Land), was shot in Niigata by Hiroshi Hamaya. Hamaya was deeply interested in Japanese folklore and he chose Niigata as a photographic destination because of the many folk traditions and rituals that remained intact and revealed a 'traditional' Japanese way of life during a deeply troubled period where American occupation filled the vacuum left by years of militarism.

Phelps's Not Niigata is part of the European Eyes on Japan project that has been running every year since 1999 and which invites photographers who are working in Europe to "record for posterity images of the various prefectures of Japan on the theme of contemporary Japanese people and how they live their lives." This always seemed like an interesting photographic exercise to me, but after seeing some of the results in previous years it became clear how difficult it is. The participating photographers often only have a couple of weeks to photograph a specific region, which isn't a lot of time to try and get your bearings and come to terms with how things work in a country that is pretty radically different to Europe. One of the great strengths of Not Niigata is the fact that this difficulty is acknowledged from the outset. In his short introduction, Phelps writes:

"My way of working is a bit like making a poodle or a swan out of a shrub. Small bits of the mess are snipped away until some sort of form starts to take shape. (...) In the end if all goes well, I end up with something that may slightly resemble a poodle or a swan. But it's definitely neither a poodle or a swan and it's definitely not Niigata."

In some ways this project feels more like it is about the experience of going to a very foreign place for a very short time and trying to document ("for posterity") contemporary life, than it is about Niigata specifically. Phelps is very aware of this delicate position, as is obvious from the title of the book and even in the cover image, where a scene from Niigata is reflected with slight distortions on a pond or canal. This probably isn't the right comparison to make, but it reminded me in some ways of the film Lost in Translation, which isn't really about contemporary Japan, but about the feeling of being lost in a totally alien environment. I found that Phelps made subtle references to his position as a foreign photographer in some of these images, such as in this image of four children peering up at the strange gaijin who is taking their picture.


Phelps also successfully avoids reproducing exotic visual clichés of Japan or the Far East. In one image, he has photographed a tree that could have been silhouetted against the sky to produce an image that conforms to our vision of 'oriental' beauty. Instead Phelps has photographed the whole tree in a straightforward way and in the bottom right of the image he has left in a lamp post with two red spot lights on it.

He doesn't run away from the 'traditional' either: urban scenes that could well have been taken in Tokyo sit alongside images of two women dressed for a rice harvest festival or of an old woman sitting on a tatami mat in a traditional Japanese house. The overall picture that emerges from the picture is nuanced: we are shown old people, presumably in those rural areas that have been almost entirely abandoned by the young generation, and the young who hang out in modern cities that look like they could be anywhere in Japan. Natural beauty rubs up against modern anonymity and a certain sense of dilapidation. This Niigata does not feel like it has a bright future, but more like a place in limbo.

There are some great, understated, but astute images in this book. I found some of the portraits and the images of the more 'traditional' aspects of life in Niigata to be slightly less interesting. Overall I was left with a slight feeling of dissatisfaction, as I think Not Niigata would have been more successful if Phelps had developed more on this sense of displacement and alienation. But then I suppose that wouldn't be sticking to the script of the European Eyes on Japan project. Phelps feels like a very intelligent and thoughtful photographer and I look forward to seeing what his next project will be.


Not Niigata (Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 36 colour plates, hardcover, limited edition of 888 copies, 2009).

Rating: Recommended

Naoshima: Paradise on Earth?

Chichu Art Museum, Architect: Tadao Ando, Photographer: Mitsumasa Fujitsuka

For this post, I am allowing myself to stray from our beloved photographic shores, but I assure you that it will be worth it. Last Friday I attended a conference at the Palais de Tokyo given for the opening of the exhibition on the Benesse Art Site Naoshima project. This was a pretty star-studded affair: super-architects Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, Hiroshi Sambuichi, Patrick Bouchain (I was half-expecting Tadao Ando to appear from a hole in the stage), with a guest appearance by Christian Boltanski.

Benesse Art Site Naoshima is a fantastically crazy project that was begun by Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the CEO of a publishing company, in 1989 as part of a promise to develop the island of Naoshima. The project is now run by his son, Soichiro Fukutake, who shares his father's eccentric vision of how to conduct business. Benesse (derived from the latin to live better) is Fukutake's modest attempt to "create a new independent country inside of Japan" which could be considered to be "heaven on Earth". This is a man who clearly spends very little time thinking inside of boxes.

Benesse House, Architect: Tadao Ando, Photo: Tadasu Yamamoto

The project began with a series of architectural commissions by Tadao Ando on the island of Naoshima, including Benesse House and the Chichu Art Museum, and has now been extended to the neighbouring islands of Teshima, Megijima, Inujima, Ogijima and Shodoshima, and to other architects. Fukutake might sound like a megalomaniac who can't get enough expensive toys to play with, but seeing these projects outlined it is clear that Benesse is much more than that. At the center of the project is a desire to rethink the relationship between art and architecture and to experiment with new possibilities in this field. Fukutake also believes that "culture is superior to the economy" and that the latter should therefore serve the former (6% of his business's capital goes to the Benesse Foundation). There is a genuine attempt to involve the inhabitants in the developments of these projects and to give them the right to veto anything they don't like. The project is helping to redevelop the area, to give the aging population of the region more and better opportunities to earn a living and is even succeeding in attracting the younger generation from Tokyo to settle there. Christian Boltanski, who is preparing a museum of heartbeats as his contribution to the project, described Benesse as a utopic project, "in the important and rare sense of the term."

The only dampener on what was truly an inspirational few hours, was that the exhibition includes a number of Naoya Hatakeyama's fantastic prints, notably of the Chichu Art Museum, and nobody bothered to tell us (or him!) about it.

I would recommend going to the exhibition (although I have never really been blown away by architectural scale models), but, if you can, skip that step and just book your tickets to Naoshima right away. Next summer the first edition of the Setouchi Art Festival will be held on Naoshima and the neighbouring islands... sounds like a pretty good opportunity to me.

Go'o Shrine, Hiroshi Sugimoto: Appropriate Proportion, Photo: Hiroshi Sugimoto

The Places We Live

© Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

A friend of mine at the UN sent me a link to The Places We Live, a photo project by the Norwegian photographer, Jonas Bendiksen, in collaboration with the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. Bendiksen's series documents life in a series of four slums around the world: Caracas, Venezuela; Nairobi, Kenya; Mumbai, India; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

In addition to the obligatory sweeping views of corrugated iron rooves, in each location Bendiksen photographed four families in their homes to give a human perspective to the project. I think these portraits are the strongest part of the series, giving a straightforward sense of what daily domestic existence is like in these slums while avoiding any sense of pity and condescension. Bendiksen doesn't create a sense of divide between the viewer and the people in these photographs.

The exhibition is currently touring in multi-media form, consisting entirely of HD projections and sound installations. The site that was created for the exhibition is very well put together and does a great job of combining informative texts on ths issues related to the growth of urban slums with interesting images. It also gives a series of links to further reading and organisations that are involved on the issues dealt with here. I found that all of this gives the project an added informational and advocacy dimension that doesn't weaken its emotional resonance... this is no Al Gore Powerpoint presentation. The way the site is built would also enable the project to be expanded and it would be interesting to see Bendiksen (or other photographers for that matter) add additional material to it in the future or to see other projects developed using a similar approach (this could be an interesting idea for the Aftermath Project maybe?).