I have had the pleasure of standing in front of a friend's bookcase of some 600+ photobooks - all from Japan - and not knowing where to start. It was a great experience but one in which I was in frustrating need of a guide. Finally, the long awaited survey of the most experimental period of photobooks from Japan is out - Ivan Vartanian and Ryuichi Kaneko's Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70s, just released by Aperture.
Up through the mid-50s Japanese photography seems to have followed aspects of the traditional picture arts with subject matter that was describing the lyricism of urban and pastoral life. The book which starts off this volume is Hiroshi Hamaya's Snow Land from 1956 which contains photographs made in small villages in Japan's Niigata Prefecture. This extended essay concerns itself with a New Year festival during which the villagers pray for a bountiful crops. The approach can reflect influence of straight documentary photographers world-wide and the sense of war and the rapid change Japan was experiencing is kept at a distance. Oddly, it has the feel at times of being an essay made through Western eyes with its philosophically acceptable and psychologically safe stance. Its purity at odds with reality.
The explosion of radical description, perhaps fueled by William Klein's Life is Good & Good for You in New York - a book most often cited as an influence to many photographers everywhere - brought younger generations of photographers willing to tackle the harsher realities of country, describing them with immediate, instinctive flair which embraced flaw in process as a new metaphor. Following Ken Domon's series of Hiroshima survivors in 1958, Shomei Tomatsu's Nagasaki 11.02 drew from traditional documentary traditions and pushed the descriptive values to abstraction and an uncomfortable psychological environ. Neither of these books are featured here but have been cited at length elsewhere - an omission which I will address later.
Current fanatics of Japanese books will cite the Provoke collective of Yutaka Takanashi, Daido Moriyama, Koji Taki, and Takuma Nakahira as the high point of driving photographic descriptions to the limits - its name was Provoke after all. These stream of consciousness and ambiguous statements of emotion and reaction were an attempt at "grasping with our own eyes those fragments of reality that cannot possibly be captured with existing language, actively putting forth materials against language and against thought." During this period the now most famous (or at the time infamous) books appeared with Bye Bye Photography, For a language to Come and Takanashi's Towards the City.
It would be a mistake and inaccurate to homogenize all of the provocative Japanese works into one mold of blur, contrast and grain and this volume does its best to present a wider understanding of period and attitudes relating to approach and that is its strength. This is not a comprehensive cataloging of every book from this period or even the most important - like I mentioned, Tomatsu and Domon's masterworks are not represented here (perhaps for the sake of escaping redundancies since they have been covered elsewhere). It does however limit its scope to only 41 books and I do wish, even at the risk of being redundant, that the authors extended their survey to either a larger choice or along a more extended timeline. It does after all actually include a couple books from the mid-50s and a couple from the 1980s.
One difficulty of assembling such a survey is the inclusion of women artists. Perhaps not the fault of the authors but of the period of productivity, there is only one book by a woman represented - Miyako Ishiuchio's Apartment from 1978. Granted I do not have a deep enough knowledge of books made from women at the time and books worthy of note to cite specific examples but my desire for a study of books along a wider timeline would have seen the inclusion of female voices. This is one aspect of male to female ratio that has plagued photography in general but here I feel a gap which would be interesting to explore.
Ivan Vartanian, who has immersed himself physically and as a scholar into Japanese culture, proves to be a fine guide for us less informed as he provides a lengthy introduction covering the period and individual essays for each book. This collection comes from the library of Ryuchi Kaneko and the extensive illustrations and attention to longer examination of individual books (each is given 4-6 pages) is an important contribution into books which most of us will never experience first-hand. Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70s is nicely printed with a design sensitive to its function.
In an interview which is included in this volume, Daido Moriyama - perhaps the most prolific of book-makers aside from Nobuyoshi Araki - mentions his desire to create objects which preserve a feeling or impulse. This volume displays some of the best (yet still unfamiliar), playful and imaginative books which have driven photography outside the literal boundaries of country and stale traditions and into new and uncharted territory that still, forty years later, has the ability to shock and surprise even the initiated.