Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: Japanese Photo Books of the 1960's and '70's

Though I was thoroughly disappointed in Photo LA this year (it was bad enough that one blogger came up with a drinking game) the coolest thing that came out of it was accidentally stumbling across a book that exploded my understanding of one of the most seminal influences on my art: Japanese photo books from the '60s and '70s. Specifically, Daido Moriyama's work such as "Memories of a Dog" and Eikoh Hosoe's "Ba Ra Kei" with their dense, experimental layouts and long-form personal explorations of their subject seemed to speak directly too my sensibilities that had been nurtured on Bitches Brew era Miles Davis, underground comics and Sonic Youth records.  Moody, anxious, intense, stylish, gritty, messy, fragmented, always too close or too far away...

While I loved those two books, I only had hints that other books — that a whole lineage and dialog with photography primarily as books — existed in Japan during this period. I mean, I had seen bits of the Fukase classic "Ravens" project and a couple of Araki images. Also, I knew that the gallery scene was pretty small during that period and that the Tokyo photo magazines were important and vital then. But oh my, the wealth of knowledge that Japanese Photo Books of the 1960s and '70s brings to light!

A selection of the most important books from the personal collection of Ryuchi Kaneko, a Buhhdist priest and the most permeant of photo book collectors in Japan, each book is introduced by Mr. Kaneko in a page long essay which attempts to explain it's place in the Japanese photo dialog as well as anecdotes about it's production and intention (he was intimately part of the art world that was producing these books). Also each book has a good selection of pages printed in small versions so that you can get a good overview of the content, style and layout.

This book is an amazing book for two main reasons. First off, this world of interacting published elements was very insular, esoteric and intimate. As the opening essays note, many of these works would be impenetrable for anyone not familiar with the other photographers of the era and the context of the work. Indeed, copies most of these books would fetch thousands of dollars each on the rare occasion one would come to market so that it is effectively impossible for any artist or art fan to know much about any of these books. So this book is at the very least a phenomenal document, creating a vast web of differing approaches to one of the most vibrant upheavals in the world photographic art form.

Collectively though, this work showcases such a diverse collection of work, made in such close proximity with each other, that it can only be inspirational for any photographer contemplating or working on a book project. From cheap, tiny, newsprint collections that are the precedent for Fruits, to minimalist monolithic books with inlaid metal discs on the cover, to intimate documents of sex and daily life, from vast colored landscapes to tiny photos printed in close conjunction with poems, this book show an incredibly sophisticated series of possibilities and starting points for thinking about how photo books, as objects — as works of art themselves — can be crafted and how they can function to be more than just a simple collection of photos.

This is probably one of the best photography books I could recommend to seasoned veterans and novices alike! And who knows, this beautifully printed book could become collectable itself some day!

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