Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Japan by Horace Bristol

Earlier this year when I received a copy of the 802 Photo Books from M+M Auer (5B4 January 18, 2008), one book that I purchased blindly was a copy of Horace Bristol's Japan. In M+M Auer, they illustrated the entry with a shot of the cover of the book and an interesting image of a Japanese woman diver dragging a fishing net aboard a small skiff. From the look of the cover, the elegance of the book was apparent with a design that included ivory clasps that hold the outer covers closed so I figured the $15.00 asking price wouldn't be too much of a loss if the photography didn't meet expectation. Truthfully after receiving the book, the photography for the most part doesn't (there are some really good photos that get swamped by the majority of weaker ones) but there are other interesting things about this book to mention.

First, the "book" is actually 13 booklets encased in a foldout cover. These loose booklets make up different photo essays on cultural aspects of Japan,
most of which deal with exportable materials and their making. Much of the content is given to shots of workers while producing silk, lacquered goods, rice, pearls, pottery and crafts. The other booklets feature children, architecture, the city of Tokyo, the Tokaido highway, geisha, and religion. Two booklets, one called Honeymoon and the other Hatsushima, stand out as the most interesting yet the most out of place.

Honeymoon as the title implies it is a short photo essay of a young Japanese couple with Bristol as the third wheel. He follows along, or more like, orchestrates the events as Goro Saisho and his wife Yuriko go about their post-wedding ritual of visiting hot springs in Atami. Bristol photographs them playing cards in their loose fitting "yukata" (the text informs us that it was raining outside so they were passing the time until the next bath), eating meals, Yuriko being fitted with a komono, relaxing on a rumpled bed, enjoying the scenery of Atami and finally, as a bookend to the first image of them in street clothes waiting for a train, returning to Tokyo with luggage in hand. Coming after the other booklets shot in small workplaces and with an air of the impersonal, this booklet stands apart due to its implications of intimacy and sex.

The other book contains an essay on the island of Hatsushima at the entrance to Tokyo Bay. Its inhabitants exist on fishing and the essay concentrates on the top-less female divers that fish and gather seaweed. In his introduction, Bristol apologizes for the inclusion of these two books, "...results in the inclusion of one or two rather trivial and unimportant sketches, included frankly to enliven the tone of the book as a whole. To put it bluntly, to sell the volume to the average reader. For this I must apologize to you, whom I know to be a reader of superior taste and refinement; I must admit though, that I too, take a sneaking second look at those stories."

Tongue in cheek as it may be, his whole introduction is actually a long apology for the entire book - which is always a curious way to introduce something you want to sell. Bristol starts, "This book is frankly experimental. There have been other picture books on Japan, including similar material, individually more appealing photographs and more literate text." He does go on to mention the division of the "book" as a whole into individual booklet stories as being the unique reason it should be read but he starts the next paragraph with, "Now that the book is printed, I realize a few of the many ways in which it could have been better presented...this has resulted in a feeling of lack of continuity in the whole volume." He then speaks of a volume II of the book should it ever be published and how that volume will "profit" from the mistakes of this edition. What an endorsement.

With a little research I also discovered this book was released in the early 1950s in an edition aimed at military personnel sent overseas with the cover title and seal US Fleet Activities. Apparently those two booklets that Bristol was so apologetic about found a new audience and second printing for I strongly doubt the other content would be of interest to men away from home.

For me this is interesting as an example of experimental bookmaking. If this was published as one traditional book it probably would have died a quick death without much notice. The design and package at least make it an interesting read while discovering the few fine photos that stand out amongst the weaker. In my opinion, (and probably Bristol's as well) this isn't worth the usual $40.00 asking price by dealers but if found for under $25.00 I'd pick it up. It was published by East-West in 1949, and from what I gather, this edition was self-published. Bristol names himself as the author, photographer, editor and publisher.

To end on a sad note, I have read that Bristol's wife committed suicide some years later and distraught over the loss, Bristol burned all of his photographic work that was in his home in Japan
-- much of which probably made up this set of books.

Book Available Here (Japan)