Light Prowler: Yusuke Yamatani

Bringing Back the Classics

IMA, Vol. 21, Autumn 2017

I contributed two essays to the autumn 2017 issue of IMA: the first about Yusuke Yamatani's new project Into the Light and the second considering the recent trend for reissues of classic photobooks. 

Best known for Rama Lama Ding Dong, a documentation of his honeymoon—one of Japanese photography’s classic themes—Yusuke Yamatani’s latest project marks a radical departure from his previous work. Shot at night using infrared film, Into the Light is an unsettling exploration of Tokyo’s suburban neighbourhoods, where one anonymous concrete building follows another.

Yamatani is known for his photographs of far more exuberant environments than these. A former drummer for the punk band Neighbors, his photographic career began in his early 20s thanks to an ex-girlfriend that got him interested in the medium. Having first worked with digital, Yamatani moved towards film. Above all, he became drawn to the street, where he would create his first major body of work, Tsugi no yoru e, focusing on underground skating and punk rock subcultures through images charged with the youthful energy and abandon of Yamatani’s freewheeling lifestyle at the time.

While Tsugi no yoru e and Rama Lama Ding Dong both have a classic black-and-white documentary snapshot aesthetic, Yamatani is no stranger to more experimental approaches. For the series Ground, he made life-size photographs of Tokyo nightclub floors, which he then printed and placed back into the clubs, allowing them to be trampled underfoot and stained by sweat and spilt drinks. The resulting prints are layered and textured abstractions that have absorbed the energy spent during these underground nights.

For Into the Light, Yamatani has taken a different experimental turn. Having become a father in 2016, he became interested in the other families living in his Tokyo neighbourhood. During a series of walks from midnight until dawn, he photographed the impersonal facades of the buildings using infrared film in an attempt to communicate in some way with the people behind those walls and to catch a glimpse of what life and warmth their might be within.

Infrared film has experienced a miniature renaissance in recent years. Although Kodak discontinued its Aerochrome film in 2009, the retro-photography company Lomography later released LomoChrome Purple, a film designed to replicate Aerochrome’s distinctive pink and purple hues.

At the centre of this mini-infrared craze is the work of Irish photographer Richard Mosse. In his series Infra and The Enclave, Mosse used Aerochrome to transform the lush vegetation of the Democratic Republic of Congo into deep magentas, creating hallucinatory, lurid images that demanded viewers’ attention.


Although it follows in the wake of this mini-infrared trend, Into the Light is far more subdued than the saturated psychedelics of Mosse’s photographs. Yamatani chose infrared film not for its visual impact, “but to express the desire to look into other peoples’ homes.” In his images, the cold concrete facades are rendered in a ghostly white, the only traces of colour emerging from what little vegetation there is in the city, or from the heat leaking out from the buildings’ windows or weatherboard cladding. Throughout the series, the images appear veiled, as if coated with a thin gauze which creates a further sense of distance with the world they depict.

This sense of obstruction is further accentuated in the excellent book recently published by T&M Projects. The book unfolds like a meandering night-time walk, a desperate search for signs of life where there are precious few. The streets are mostly deserted, but in the handful of encounters Yamatani made with other people during his nightwalks, caught by his flash they become ghostly apparitions, heightening the series’ overall sense of emptiness and loneliness.

From the first page, it is clear that the title is more than a little ironic, as darkness dominates every aspect of the object, from the metallic black paper stock to the deep red stitching used in the binding which echoes the magenta hues of Yamatani’s photographs. All of this contributes to creating a dense, impenetrable world; a chromatically skewed alternative reality. A series of seven gatefolds puncture the darkness, opening out to reveal more formal nightscapes framed with a white margin, like moments of clarity amidst the dark metallic haze of the rest of the book.

In an interview with the critic Kotaro Iizawa, Yamatani explained, “I’m not the type of artist who seeks to capture the flow of time. My work should be about the here and now.” In his past work, this focus on the present moment led Yamatani to find ways of drawing the viewer into his world and making it accessible to them. Into the Light breaks with this approach: instead of an invitation into the familiar, Yamatani lays bare his confusion and disorientation in a new world which is he struggling to understand. As he admits, “I have to face up to what I really am.”

by Marc Feustel

When it comes to photobooks, the “classics” have one rather unusual characteristic: most of the time, very few people have actually seen them. In most other cultural arenas, from music to literature, while a first pressing of a vinyl record or a first edition copy of a classic novel may be rare (and eye-wateringly expensive), the work that they contain will have circulated widely in some other form, enabling it to establish and maintain its “classic” status. Not so for photobooks.

Since Andrew Roth’s seminal The Book of 101 Books (2001), the photography world has been busy establishing a pantheon of its greatest publications, with Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s three-volume The Photobook: A History now a widely-accepted reference as to whether a photobook is, if not a classic, at least highly collectible.

While there may now be some consensus as to what books are worthy of “classic” status, many of these books still remain remarkably confidential. Small print runs (from a few hundred to a few thousand copies), high prices and, until relatively recently, the total absence of a market, means that photobooks have often only ended up in the hands of a few die-hard enthusiasts. Unlike text publications, even when first edition photobooks do sell out, they are often not reprinted due to high production costs and a very limited market. Cheap paperback versions are also out of the question as so much of what makes a good photobook lies in its production (paper, printing quality, cover, size, binding, etc.)

Even keen photobook enthusiasts many only have seen classic titles through reproductions in publications like Parr & Badger’s or enclosed in a glass case in a museum exhibition. However, as photobook publishing has entered a golden age (or is it a short-lived boom?) in recent years, a number of publishers have decided to reissue classic publications.

There are many different reasons for—and approaches to—recent releases of a number of classic books, but accessibility is a central concern. Even in an age where photography has become an overwhelmingly digital pursuit, the book is still recognized as the form in which photographs can not only easily circulate, but also do so in a coherent, lasting way—qualities which exhibitions, limited edition prints, or images posted online do not possess. By rereleasing classic photobooks that have become increasingly hard to buy or even just to see, publishers are ensuring that important work does not become invisible.

The London-based publisher Mack is one of the most high profile examples of this recent trend. Having established itself as one of the leading independent publishing houses to have emerged in recent years with a number of books by contemporary artists, it is noticeable that new editions of classic books are now a significant part of the Mack catalogue. One of their most talked about recent releases is Ravens by Masahisa Fukase, a facsimile of the original edition of the book first published by Sokyu-sha in 1986. Recognized by a panel of experts in 2010 as the best photobook of the past 25 years, Ravens had already been republished twice, first in 1991 and then in 2004, but all editions remain very hard to find. As Michael Mack revealed in an interview in this issue, this recent edition of Ravens was driven by what he calls a “democratic approach” to the photography book market. With a print run of 15,000 copies and a (relatively) affordable retail price, Mack’s new edition is designed to ensure that Ravens remains available for years to come and doesn’t once again become a hidden masterpiece that few will have seen.

Like Ravens, many of the recent reprints of photobooks are facsimiles, reproductions of the first edition in its original form—selection and sequence of images, format, design—although often augmented by a contemporary text placing it in historical context. With that said, the evolution of printing techniques and paper stocks means that the most fundamental aspect of these books, the photographic plates, will inevitably be different (and hopefully better). This facsimile approach is common, particularly in the case where the artist is no longer alive, as is the case with Ravens, Poste Restante by Christer Strömholm, or Love on the Left Bank by Ed Van der Elsken, to name a few.

However, many recent rereleases revisit the original book, adding images or changing aspects of its design and structure. In many cases, these publications are made by artists who want to make improvements to an early book. That was the case for Chris Killip’s In Flagrante Two and for another recent Mack rerelease, Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home. In Flagrante Two not only adds two images to the original sequence, but also makes use of a larger, oversized format and places each image on its own double spread with a blank facing page. The result is fundamentally different and reflects a more mature reading of the work made by an artist with several decades of experience behind him (in an interview on the Steidl website, Killip reveals that these changes were driven, at least in part, by criticism of the original).

Some recent publications go even further, exploring the mechanics of the original book so as to bring the reader into the bookmaking process. In addition to their facsimile of Van der Elsken’s original book, the French publisher The Eyes Publishing recently released Looking for Love on the Left Bank, a book that compiles a huge range of documents—contact sheets, letters, press clippings, personal photographs, annotated manuscripts, book dummies—in order “to understand how a photographer makes, invents and even lives the idea and intent of his book.”

Just as with vintage photographic prints, some may say that the original edition of a book is the most important as it is truer to the artist’s original intention, but in the case of a book, which brings together and sequences an entire body of work, the passing of time can often be beneficial. Many books we now recognize as classics were made in less than ideal conditions, with limited financing, imperfect printing, or a reticent publisher having impeded the artist from realizing their vision.

While it is undeniably important, accessibility is not always the primary aim of a rerelease. In 2015, Akio Nagasawa published what is perhaps the most sought after photobook of the postwar years, Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu. In this case, replicating Kohei Sugiura’s complex design involving gatefolds on every spread and attempting to emulate the results of the original gravure printing using contemporary offset machines, raised the production costs of the book considerably, contributing to a retail price that is over 50,000 ¥.

Most of the books I have discussed were originally published several decades ago. But increasingly new editions are being made only a handful of years after a first edition is released. Mack is about to release a new edition of Alec Soth’s first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which was first published in 2004. Perhaps the most visible example is Cristina de Middel’s self-published The Afronauts, which became the symbol of the so-called self-publishing revolution. Originally published in 2012 in an edition of 1000, in 2016 de Middel self-published a second edition of the book (1,500 copies) with a different colored cover. This example bucks the trend, particularly for self-published or books released by small publishers: more often than not, even if the book sells out, the economics of the book market mean that it stands little chance of being reprinted.

The photography world has struggled for many years with its niche status and the question of how it can expand its audience. Whether or not that is possible, necessary, or even desirable, it is essential that classic photobooks remain in circulation for new audiences to discover. In the absence of libraries that make these books readily accessible to all of us, rereleases of classic photobooks are vital to our historical understanding of the medium and for the photographic book to keep moving forward.

by Marc Feustel