Focus on contemporary Japanese photography. Interview with Mariko Takeuchi, Part I

Last year’s Paris Photo fair with Japan as “Guest of Honour” was a huge success and on this occasion the Dutch photography magazine “foam” had contacted me to do an interview with Mariko Takeuchi, the Guest Curator of Paris Photo. The interview was published in foam magazine #17, winter 2008. I will publish the full interview in two parts. The images are a new addition for the blog [the interview was without images, except some very nice portraits of Mariko :-)].
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Part I (of II)

The 2008 edition of Paris Photo – one of the world’s most important fairs for still photography – took place in the Carrousel du Louvre in mid-November. This year Japan was Guest of Honour, an exceptional opportunity to present an overview of Japanese photography. Photography has been a major feature of Japanese culture since its introduction in 1848, attracting wide international attention in the 1990s and growing world interest ever since.

We asked Ferdinand Brueggemann, Director of Galerie Priska Pasquer in Cologne and passionate founder of the photo blog Japan-Photo.info to discuss the current state of Japanese photography with the Guest Curator of the show, Mariko Takeuchi.

Nobuyoshi Araki, Yoko, from 'Sentimental Journey', 1971 ©Nobuyoshi Araki

Ferdinand Brueggemann:
After decades of practically ignoring Japanese photography, why do you think the Western art world is suddenly developing a strong interest in learning about it?

Mariko Takeuchi:
I don’t think that it happens so sudden. It seems that the interest in Japanese photography in the Western countries grew in the 1990s especially, with a focus on individual artists like Nobuyoshi Araki, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Daido Moriyama. Then curators, collectors and researchers gradually became aware of the richness of Japanese photography and turned more attention to their background – this seems to coincide with the growing interest in the Japanese culture and subculture in general. The exhibition “History of Japanese Photography” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2003 was on a monumental event. And now we have the Paris Photo fair with Japan as guest of honor at the Paris Photo fair.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Boden Sea, Uttwil, 1993 ©Hiroshi Sugimoto

But the 1970s saw two major exhibitions on Japanese photography; in 1974 “New Japanese Photography” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, curated by John Szarkowski and Shoji Yamagishi, then “Japan: A Self-Portait” at the International Center of Photography in 1979. These two exhibitions, taken together, introduced virtually every leading Japanese photographer of that time. Nonetheless these seminal exhibitions did not have any impact on the Western photography scene.

I wouldn’t say that there was no impact. But it’s true to some extent. Perhaps these exhibitions were too early; both were ahead of their time for two reasons:

When we think about the success of Japanese photography in the West since the 1990s, we have to be aware of the cultural and historical context. In the 1970s very few people knew about Japanese culture. People were not ready and there were still very few galleries and museums seriously devoted to photography, and research and educations on photography were still in their infancy.

New Japanese Photography, MOMA, New York 1974

I would say that in a sense the Western photography culture had to become more mature to accept Japanese photography.

It’s also very interesting that the huge interest in Japanese photography now coincides with a radical change of photographic medium, mainly due to the development of digital technology since one of the characteristics of the modern and contemporary Japanese photography is, in my opinion, that it often questions the nature of photography itself.

Do you think that the Japanese photography has a different character to Western photography, especially compared to main trends in the US and in Europe over the last two or three decades?

Osamu Kanemura, Someday OK Prince Will Come, 1999  ©Osamu Kanemura

I do not think that Japanese photography in general has a defined characteristic or a certain style which distinguishes it from Western photography. Rather I would say that Japanese photography has an amazing diversity. Japanese photography is not easy to understand by examing style. This is partly because there is neither a strong art market nor there are schools who push a style or trend like in Western countries. For one thing, photography is, unlike other art forms, difficult to explain in terms of a particular style or other. Japanese photography has also had a close relationship with the development of domestic camera companies like Nikon or Canon. This has lead in general to a strong interest in the technology of the medium rather than producing art. These conditions encouraged Japanese photographers to develop the potentialities of photography in various ways.

Rinko Kawauchi, Utatane, 2001 ©Rinko Kawauchi
In the “New Japanese Photography” exhibition catalogue John Szarkowski gave a definition of Japanese photography of the end 1960s and early 1970s which is probably the most quoted definition to this day. He wrote that the “quality most central to recent Japanese photography is its concern for the description of immediate experience” [emphasis added] and that many pictures are not a comment on experience, but “an apparent surrogate for experience itself”.

I still see this quality of immediate experience today in the works of certain photographers like in the claustrophobic street scenes by Osamu Kanemura or the poetic color photographs by Rinko Kawauchi and Mikiko Hara.

Mikiko Hara, untitled (Primary Speaking), 1999 ©Mikiko Hara

“Immediate experience” remains a valid characterization and you are right that it applies to artists like Rinko Kawauchi and Mikiko Hara. But at the same time we have Naoya Hatakeyama whose work is an intellectual exploration while Yuki Onodera’s and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s works are more about imagination or imaginary. And we also have artists like Ken Kitano or Tomoko Sawada whose work is more about the manipulative reflection on identity.

Ken Kitano, "Our Face Portrait: Piling Portraits of 40 Businessmen in Tokyo" (1999-2002) ©Ken Kitano

The photographers you mentioned have very diverse different concepts and topics, can you identify any major trends in the current Japanese photography?

I do not think that pointing out major trends would make much sense here because it seems too easy for me. I would like to say that there are many photographers in Japan whose works shift some borders or boundaries at a social or mental level in various ways. Ryudai Takano, for example, deals with the ambiguity of sexuality and Ken Kitano reflects the relationship between ‘me’ and ‘us’ by overlapping portrais of members of a specific group. In the context of photography being a tool for to reflect our society and our life, Asako Narahashi’s series “half awake and half asleep in the water” is in some ways symbolic. Her work, made by floating in the sea with a camera, gives the impression that we are looking at our world from the outside, shaking the reality and stability we take for granted in everyday life.

Ryudai Takano, Long hair nesting on a pink cloth”,2002 ©Ryudai Takano

We have named several women artists already like Rinko Kawauchi, Tomoko Sawada and Asako Narahashi. But if you look back in the history of Japanese Photography there have been almost no female photographers until the mid-1990s. Only a few earlier women artist come to my mind like Miyako Ishiuchi and Michiko Kon. This seems to have changed completely; today I have the impression that Japanese women photographers are overtaking their male colleagues in numbers and in the levels of their success.

Asako Narahashi, Mekari, 2004, from the series 'half awake and half asleep in the water' ©Asako Narahashi

When we talk about women photographers, we should be aware of the socio-economic context of Japanese society. From around the late 1980s the consciousness of women’s social rights grew much stronger than ever, especially with the revision of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law of 1985 which encouraged many women to search for new roles in society besides being housewifes and working only in low-paid jobs. The young generation of women grew up with the new ideas about their roles in society. And we should also think about the technical background. The development of easier-to-use cameras was a huge step which made it much easier for non-professional photographers to produce better images. Being freed from necessity of concentrating on the technical side of photography has appealed very much to young women in since the 1990s. And there is also an institutional reason: museums, galleries and photography award exhibitions like Hitotsuboten or New Cosmos of Photography became very popular among young people. All of this together led to a boom in female photography.

Miyako Ishiuchi, Yokosuka Story, 1976-77 ©Miyako Ishiuchi

Could you explain how the institutions and awards gave a boost to women photography?

Before the museums and galleries emerged in the 1980s and 1990s the main tools for the promotion of photography were the traditional Japanese photo magazines like Asahi Camera or Camera Mainichi which were key to the Japanese photography scene for decades. These magazines were macho places, I would say. Compared to them, the new institutions and awards are more open to female photographers.

Michiko Kon, Cuttlefish and sneaker, 1989 ©Michiko Kon

Part II of the interview

7 thoughts on “Focus on contemporary Japanese photography. Interview with Mariko Takeuchi, Part I

  1. The interview is interesting in places, but Takeuchi seems to be recycling some myths.

    First, and in the context of the West: “In the 1970s very few people knew about Japanese culture.”

    Percentagewise, true (and aside from a very few aspects of commercial culture, probably still true). But it’s a very odd thing to say. Try polling worldcat.org for English translations published in the 1970s of works by Japanese novelists. Its very rough count gives 28 by Kawabata alone, and before discounting that as the result of his fluke Nobel, note that for example there was a little “Berkley Medallion” paperback of “Thousand Cranes” as early as 1965, half a decade before the Nobel. That’s a “mass market” imprint; it must have sold to people outside graduate schools. I’d say that a significant minority in the West had been devouring books about Japan — and particularly its arts — for a century.

    Secondly: “if you look back in the history of Japanese Photography there have been almost no female photographers until the mid-1990s. Only a few earlier women artist come to my mind like Miyako Ishiuchi and Michiko Kon.”

    I can hardly blame her for the latter half if it really was off the top of her head, but the first half is utterly wrong. Women have been taking photographs professionally since at least as early as 1864 (Shima Ryū). It might be right to regard women active before 1945 as lucky flukes. However, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography production “Nihon Shashinka Jiten” doesn’t list Hiromix and the like, but it does list (and show that the gallery possesses works by) such photographers as Imai Hisae, Orihara Kei, Sasamoto Tsuneko, Shiomi Mieko, and Yoshida Ruiko, all of whom were active well before the 1990s (but none of whom happens to be trendy right now).

  2. Hi Peter, you made very valid points, but I think they need to be discussed more deeply.

    1.) In regard to the perception of Japanese culture in the West until the 1970s/80s.

    You say that there was a strong interest, but the evidence you give just concentrates on Japanese literature translated into English. Therefore question remains: how was the interest of the West in Japanese contemporary visual arts. IMHO one crucial evidence could be how Western artists perceived Japanese art. I don’t know the answer yet, but yesterday I have ordered the highly praised exhibition catalogue The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989. I assume that most of the Western artists were primarily interested in pre-modern Japanese art… Anyway, I will come back to this point after having received the book.

    2.) Quote from the interview: “But if you look back in the history of Japanese Photography there have been almost no female photographers until the mid-1990s. Only a few earlier women artist come to my mind like Miyako Ishiuchi and Michiko Kon.”

    This was not Mariko’s answer, but *my* observation.

    As far as I know until the mid 1990s at Japanese photography colleges and at photography departments at the universities only 10% of the students were women. And I presume, that if you do a statistical count of male/female photographers of the 20th century until the mid 1990s that you won’t find more than 10% female photographers in the Japanese history of photography. Furthermore those 10% female photographers are usually being excluded from the publications on Japanese photo history (just have a look at the publications on Japanese photography published by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography). One reason for this could be of course, that all these histories were written by men who just ignored female photographers. Another reason could be that those core groups of photographers (like the Naniwa Shashin Club, Nippon Kôbô or Vivo) did not accept women. But I think the main reason is, that there haven’t been as many women photographers in Japan like in Germany or the USA. For example if you compare the German photography scene of the Weimar Republic with the Japanese photographic avant-garde of the 1920s: In Germany there were dozens of (avant-garde) women photographers, many of the professionals. Albeit during my intense research in archives in Kanto and Kansai on Modern Japanese photography (1998/1999, in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kawasaki, Kamakura, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Ashia) I did not come across one single women photographer.

    I guess in the end your answer supports my observation.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful reply, Ferdinand.

    I gave the example of literature because all the necessary bits of that riposte happened already to be ready in my head. I’ve a hunch that other non-postcardy aspects (e.g. architecture) have been known as well, but I’m a lazy fellow and don’t want to chase this up.

    You’re right: a history of mid-twentieth-century photography in Germany and more particularly the US would be unimaginable without discussing its women. Certainly Japan has been profoundly sexist, and whether for that or for other reasons women photographers in the Pre-Hiromix Era were hugely less conspicuous than men. Still, a lot existed and did good work, but go unmentioned. Worse, a number are still very much alive and active and able to google for their names and understand the (non-) results in Japanese or English, and I sometimes wonder what they think as they see themselves written out of history.

    I’m particularly surprised by your non-discovery of a single woman in photographic archives in 1998/99 as this would have been when “Nihon shashinka jiten” (published 2000) would have been compiled. That book is a dictionary of those photographers who (with a very few, clearly marked exceptions) were at that time represented in the permanent collection of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (“Syabi”). The current building had opened in 1995 with two or three exhibitions, one of which (“Tokyo/City of Photographs”) included Ushioda Tokuko among its eleven photographers.

    The historically minded “Syabi” publication predating your tour of Japan that came quickest to hand was the strangely titled three-volume “Japanese Photography Form In/Out”. It seems only to have Tokiwa Toyoko and Kon Michiko: very disappointing. Similarly, the Konica Plaza’s two-volume “Shashinka wa nani o mita ka” seems only to have Tokiwa and Ishiuchi. From the seventies, the Camera Mainichi 20th anniversary “Shashinka 100-nin kao to sakuhin” only has Kiyomiya Yumiko and Imai Hisae (and thus is 98% male, unless I sleepily omitted to notice somebody). Yes, yes, all very depressing (and way under 10%). Still, Nikon’s two-volume “History of Modern Photos” (2001) has Ishiuchi, Kon, Ushioda, Yoshida Ruiko, Ooishi Yoshino, Kodama Fusako, Orihara Kei, Matsumoto Michiko, as well as a pile of women born later (and also some earlier ones with sex-ambiguous names).

    Asahi Camera, Nippon Camera and Camera Mainichi may have been sexist, but they certainly published features by Japanese women photographers. (By women living abroad, too: Camera Mainichi was an early publisher of the work of under-celebrated Markéta Luskačová.)

    Perhaps these (now) older women would be more celebrated now if they’d put out more girlish and prettier work. I’m in a minority: given the choice between two exhibitions of “Japanese Women Photographers”, “1. Before Hiromix” and “2. Hiromix and after”, I wouldn’t hesitate to plump for part 1.

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  6. Dear Ferdinand,

    I was pleased to see mention of Sasamoto Tsuneko. She is a dear friend of mine who will turn 96 on Sept. 1. She is still shooting photographs and lecturing. For the record she began taking photographs in the early 40s. My husband, photographer Yasuo Konishi, and I have organized a show of her Showa work. It’s on from Sept. 28 – Oct. 5 at Gallery Cosmos in Meguro.

    Best,

    Kate

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