I was kindly invited to "suggest 10 postwar Japanese photobooks"
as a part of the on-line continuation of the fine event
10x10: Japanese Photobooks in NYC
and I tried to comply.
Nothing like the used ritual New-Year best-of stuff: here is just a selection of 10 personal all-time favorite photobooks.
Ikko NARAHARA. Spain / España : Idai Naru Gogo / Grand Tarde (1969)
Masao KAGEYAMA. Azumino 1977 (1978)
Kinsuke SHIMADA. Oka (1976)
Kishin SHINOYAMA. Kinbaku Taizen / Sadistic Play of Bondage (1971)
Bon FUJII. Kue Issho (1982)
Tatsuo KONDO. Kohoku (1977)
Hiroyuki YAMAMOTO. Sonzai no Toki: Toshi (1990)
Takeji IWAMIYA. Sado (1962)
Shunji OKURA. Musashino (1997)
Masaya NAKAMURA. Ema Nude in Africa (1971)
The Backstage Rambling around our 10x10's Selection
10 Postwar Japanese Photobooks
Postwar photobooks: that is the whole production of nearly 70 years of publication frenzy. Can one not feel overwhelmed when confronted to the difficulty of choosing ten books from tens and tens of thousands? Thank God we are only dealing with Japan. One could obviously narrow down the target by period (contemporary, 70s, etc.), theme (politics, intimacy, etc.), gender (don't forget GLBT, etc.) or ideally a mix of these (female travel photography in the 1960s, etc.), but it may simply point out that something needs to be done with the postwar time period.
When will that Postwar end?
Obvious jokes put aside, there may be two tracks to follow, one has to do with the PHOTOS, the other with the BOOKS.
From an artistic-psychological point of view, the postwar period may have ended when foremost artists — and photographers among them — ceased to refer or react to WW2 in their works, be it obviously or unconsciously. In more than one way and as an extreme example, the very popular trend in the 1950s-60s of photobooks that depicted secluded villages or countryside temples — very romanticized and nostalgic late-Meiji-Taisho-ish paradise symbolizations of a Japan as it should still have been — is a good example of reaction to WW2 (one refers to prewar because there is a postwar). WW2 was a generation's bane. Tomatsu may be the very archetype of the postwar photographer: he didn't photograph the war but the material and political aftermath (I don't say that's all he did, far from it), and continues to this day to edit the pictures he took of Nagasaki for instance. By way of comparison, what's left of war in Shinoyama or Hiromix?
Considering the photo BOOK, the postwar period probably ends with the disastrous generalization of the cheaper offset printing through the 1970s. The mediate postwar period, from the 1950s to the early 1970s, clearly seems to be, from a technical standpoint, the golden era of photogravure (heliogravure). Something clearly ends when those thick layers of deep black ink and the contrast they induce on the page, disappear. Something clearly ends, also because the container also determines the content: contrasted black monochrome aesthetics and photogravure printing are closely linked (Incidentally, this evolution is not specific to Japan, like some tend to believe.); progress in color separation and printing was significant enough to allow the widespread use of color by the end of the 1960s, and the making of much flashier works.
These two aspects of the question may in fact coincide. Postwar ends with the rise of a powerful consumer society machine, when Japan was at last rebuilt again (see the joys of industrialism with Domon's Chikuho series for instance) and in astronomic economic rise, more bent than ever on production and cost effectiveness. That is the big picture. Thus the offset, thus the lack of interest, thus the gradual forgetfulness, and the crafting of a new set of glamorous landmarks. Thus also the protests against it (1968-69 onwards: see the photography magazines and annuals of the time) and the reactions to it (it's the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns every single time again): around the late 60s into the 70s was defined a new artistic referent (with several facets), built against (both backed to and in opposition to) the 1945-1960s postwar period (the prewar and the war are out of the picture), the name of which may still need to be given — but that is an historian's or a critics' job. (To argue that it was a "Provokative" period only — apologies for the play-on-words — would be reductive at best.)
Regarding the selection of 10.
As an antiquarian bookdealer and a former collector (@LA, pray come and visit if you are in Paris), my preference in books goes to personal favorite content, in the most desirable container: attention to binding, paper, layout, typography and edition. For photobooks, the situation is slightly different. Because of the medium, because of its very short history (about 150 years) and because of the modern techniques of mass production, there is generally no "most desirable edition" for a photobook (i.e., among dozens of other editions of the same base work, scattered over several centuries). And so I tend to give preference to books with BOTH solid photowork and solid bookcrafting. If you are uneducated in the domain of antiquarian books but have seen and touched books like Midorikawa's first Setonaikai or Narahara's Spain, you should still know what I mean.
Also, this selection is not representative of photobooks after 1945 — obviously, since if it was the case one would have to present a selection of books depicting remote Japanese countryside and temples (Taisho nostalgia period) and underaged girls in bikinis or in lighter attire even (for that is the reality and bulk of photobook production in Japan today). Neither does this selection feature only outstanding series of photographs — which would rather be found in galleries or museums, wouldn't they? But it simply mentions remarkable osmoses between remarkable series of photos and remarkably crafted books — which is by no means a given. "Remarkable" here just means "that stand out" (above the production of the time). As a matter of fact (and as briefly said above), material quality of the books has generally significantly decreased over time (make them cheap and print more of them), and in this regard it would be quite unfair to compare Hosoe and Yokoo's Barakei with Kawauchi's (although much above average) Utatane for instance. As for content quality, well, there has always been and there will always be great works, as there will always be a majority of more than forgettable publications, to say the least...
About prospects. Massive online publication (worldwide generalization of digital cameras, editing softwares and online publication tools and habits) and easily accessible digital book-print-on-demand services, the growing number of private printings (retargeting of the market of quality printing devices to basically anyone) and artist's books (traditionally made), and a number of other factors, suggest a shift in photobook production sources and will certainly alter the situation in many regards.
Lots still remains to be said, but that's all for today (days are too short, can't even proof-read this, apologies in advance)! As a last note, one cannot but welcome the growing initiatives of Reading Rooms — mainly for the reason that a photobook is something you have to HOLD to see. The only problem is, unlike painting exhibitions where one touches with the eye, book manipulation basically makes exhibited books unfit for any ulterior purpose but recycling or trash, even if visitors are careful. Still, I wish I could fly to NYC! Here you go again:
10x10 Japanese Photobook Reading Room
Dates: September 28-30 2012, from 3 pm to 9 pm
Opening reception: Friday, September 28, from 7 pm to 9 pm
Location: ICP - Bard MFA Studio Space, 24-20 Jackson Avenue, 3rd Floor, LIC
As an appendix of some sort, follow a few remarkable photo books that came to mind at first and which I wish I could have included in the previous 10. These were withheld for one of three reasons at least : because lesser-known works were preferably chosen, because another book by the same photographer was already selected, or because they were already part of the Parr-Badger or Kaneko-Vartanian selections.
Last but not least!
10x10 Japanese Photobooks Online Contributors,
on phot(o)lia, one per day, starting 09/18!