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 :-)].
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.