The top page of Morioka Shoten currently tells us (my translation):
14 January (Mon) – 19 January (Sat)
Exhibition of photographs by Watabe Yūkichi, “Alaska Eskimo”
In this exhibition we’re showing original vintage prints from the series “Alaska Eskimo” (Asahi Sonorama Sensho 20, Asahi Sonorama, 1979) by Watabe Yūkichi, who became much talked about with “Criminal Investigation”.
A postcard elaborates slightly. The prints are from the Asahi Sonorama archives, and are for sale. The hours are 13:00 to 20:00.
Here‘s a map to the refreshingly solid building that houses this and other small galleries.
It’s a bookshop. If you go there, take a look at the book selection, which probably includes items you haven’t seen elsewhere. Don’t miss Mr Morioka’s own book Books on Japan 1931–1972 (日本の対外宣伝グラフ誌), a book that’s all in Japanese but is lavishly illustrated, about books and magazines for the export market.
I picked up my copy of Abe Jun’s Black and white note 2 (黒白ノート2) today, and yes it’s as good as it’s cracked up to be.
Though it thrilled the small, photobook-obsessed corner of the blogosphere, the book of Watabe Yūkichi’s series A Criminal Investigation whelmed me. It’s pretty, even elegant; but the printing doesn’t show detail (and doesn’t make up for this in any obvious way), the elastic band is going to age, and it costs a lot. It contains material for perhaps one quarter of some other, excellent book; but I give it three stars out of five.
Still, I do like the photos, and atsushisaito tipped me off to a show of the series at the TAP Gallery (map, map), running till 8 July. He was most (politely) persuasive, so Mrs microcord and I went out to see it.
As we got out of the train I heard my name called and there was a friend I hadn’t seen for over a decade, together with a handsome young man. After a short chat we emerged. Featureless at first glance, the neighbourhood quickly turned out to have a lot of fascinating corners. The weather was glorious. So I was already in a good mood as we walked in the door.
I forgot to count how many photos there were around the small room. Not too many. The small prints — I think what are quaintly called “8 by 10″ — are large enough. They’re darker than the reproductions in the book, more detailed, and (something I always like) sometimes from different frames. “Vintage prints” (not exhibited) cost peanuts by DLK Collection’s standards but major moolah by mine. But the prints exhibited were priced so reasonably that I peeled notes from my tight wad. Yes, I bought a print (of a frame that doesn’t appear in the book); here’s an atrocious reproduction.
Like many photo galleries, TAP has a shelf of books and so on of particular connection to its regular exhibitors. These shelves are usually of interest (notably signed yet slightly discounted copies of Dodo Shunji’s Ōsaka at Totem Pole). TAP doesn’t disappoint: it has issue number zero of a new photo magazine, Ima. This has a bit too much of an emphasis on names (Ryan McGinley etc) amply hyped elsewhere, but all the same there’s good stuff. At 1500 yen a pop the magazine won’t be cheap, but this is only 60% or so more than the cost of Asahi or Nippon, which don’t offer many good photos these days. (The current Asahi has Bangladesh by Kikai and a good series by Someya Manabu, but little else. A high percentage of the nudes show industrial-strength retouching, but there’s no hint of ironic intent.) It’s a brave or insane publisher that starts a magazine in Japan, where the more interesting new magazines (e.g. Kaze no tabibito) reliably shrivel and die; let’s hope that this Ima lasts long and without becoming just yet another shoppers’ guide.
Here’s TAP (counting down to a party):
Seeing Watabe’s good photos put me in the mood to take some crap photos. I took a very slightly roundabout route to the nearest station and encountered these sights on the way:
Reading material in the train on the way back home. TAP Gallery obligingly has not one but three postcards for the show.
Go to TAP Gallery for your free set of postcards, but buy a print (or three) while you’re there.
Thanks to all the praise the works of Watabe Yūkichi (such as Alaska Eskimo) have been getting, and my hot tips on where to get Alaska Eskimo cheaply, an auction I pointed to attracted so much interest that this copy of Alaska Eskimo attracted a total of zero (0) bids, ending up unsold at ¥1600.
In order that we lazy people don’t have to root around for all the best-of lists and make our own best of the best-ofs, Marc Feustel has considerately done this for us. And his job isn’t over: As stragglers reach the finishing tape of posting their own best-of lists, he’ll update his tallies (or so he promises).
For now, his list starts:
I’ve never seen Redheaded Peckerwood, so no comment on that. As for Watabe’s A Criminal Investigation, it’s a lovely package for the book-fondler, but its content hardly competes with what’s in at least two other books by Watabe that now cost far less.
Still, if all this excitement results in book publication of excellent work by Watabe that hasn’t yet appeared in any book, then so much the better. More so if the publisher concentrates on what’s important and prices the result accordingly.
Perhaps best of all, a big, fat (vulgar Taschen-style) anthology of photo features run by the Japanese photo magazines — Camera, Asahi, Sankei, Mainichi, Nippon, and more — back before their enfeebled survivors nervously shied away from Japanese “street” material: features that were often by photographers whose work would never become well known but that (for me) outclass much of what’s celebrated these days. (Example by Iwaoka Gorō.) Copyright nightmares would probably rule out such a book, and it might be a commercial disaster even if it somehow did emerge (no brand names for the bewildered masses to latch on to; and insufficiently introverted or pretty); but I can dream. . . .
When the book A Criminal Investigation, by Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉, 1924–1993), came out, I knew that if it was as good as Watabe’s Morocco (seemingly unknown outside Japan), it would be good indeed — but it cost more than I was in any rush to pay. Eventually I got hold of a copy.
A Criminal Investigation
Here you have A Criminal Investigation, a 2011 book whose elegance has entranced a number of reviewers.
Let’s not dwell on the elegance. After a couple of photographs to set the scene, short texts in French and English (but oddly, not Japanese) explain that the discovery of certain body extremities raised the question of whom they’d been attached to and led to the discovery of the disfigured and burned remainder, identified as “Sato Takashi” (i.e. Satō Takashi). Though the body had been found in Ibaraki, Satō had come from Tokyo — yes, Tōkyō, but I’m not claiming total consistency here — and so the Tokyo Metropolitan Police were called in.
One particular policeman was involved, it would seem: the photographs follow him. We’re not told his name. Actually we’re not told anything else until about halfway through the book, when we’re told that the police were looking for, and had an arrest warrant for, a man (Nishida) who’d stayed at the same “hotel” (I’d guess flophouse) as the deceased.
Toward the end of the book we’re told that this was a dead end and that the investigators were stuck. There are a few more photographs. After these, we learn what was discovered a few months later within a much larger investigation. The perp was “Onishi Katsumi” (Ōnishi Katsumi 大西克己), who’d murdered three others too. (For more on Ōnishi’s unusually lurid story, see this or this — both in Japanese, but perhaps translations by Google etc will be comprehensible.)
Luckily we’re not shown any part of the deceased. What we are shown is the puzzled detective and his younger sidekick looking around, talking to people, and looking baffled. Necktie, overcoat, cap — Japan looked better before polyester and brand names (even if, with all those cigarettes, it smelled worse). But although the content is handsome (like the packaging, of course), it’s pretty uneventful after the alluring blurb on the back cover.
A very grotty copy of the booklet made for an earlier exhibition at JCII Photo Salon of Watabe’s work. (Mine was tucked into the tired copy I bought of Watabe’s Morocco.) Various series are sampled here: both “A criminal investigation” and the capes of Japan, but also life on canal boats, Hokkaidō, and more.
First, a couple of spreads from “A criminal investigation” (1957):
From the series “A typhoon has landed” (Taifū ga kita), on Yoron-jima/Yorontō (1957):
From the series “Men of the mountains” (Yama no otoko-tachi), mining for sulphur on Meakan-dake (1959):
Here’s JCII’s page advertising the booklet. Even though it’s almost twenty years old, it’s still in print.
Indeed, if this page is to be believed, among all the booklets JCII has published since 1991, only one is out of print. As for the the remaining titles (more than two hundred of them), most (all?) are uncontaminated by roman script (aside from “JCII Photo Salon”) and are therefore sure to improve your Japanese, to bemuse you, and to impress your friends. Putting aside membership of the friends of the “Salon”, there are two obvious purchasing options:
- Go to JCII and buy them. JCII is in central Tokyo.
- Phone JCII and ask. JCII speaks Japanese and has a Japanese bank account.
(And I’ll try to come up with less obvious options if there’s any interest.)
To the sea
Below: Like all of these JCII booklets, it starts with a preface by Moriyama Mayumi, the head of the “Salon” and an amateur photographer (though better known to the general public as a government minister). On the right is a preface by Watabe’s second son.
Cape Shiretoko, on a peninsula jutting east from Hokkaidō and even colder than you might imagine:
Cape Inubō (“howling dog cape”), in Chiba:
Cape Seki, on Sado:
Cape Seki, in Miyako, Iwate; and a little bio of Watabe:
Here’s JCII’s page advertising the booklet.
Entire books by Watabe are devoted to each of Venice, Suzhou, Egypt, Andalusia, France and more. Some will be of little interest to photobook fans; they were instead simply intended for people who, back before Wikimedia Commons, Flickr and the rest, wanted to see photographs of and read about this or that place. (Nagano Shigeichi and Ueda Shōji are among the many fine photographers who did similar work.)
By contrast, Alaska Eskimo was published within “Sonorama Shashin Sensho” (ソノラマ写真選書), one of the very earliest (1977–80) of Japanese series of books produced for people interested in photography itself and not only the scenes, people or objects that the photography showed. Each of the 27 volumes is worth a look. Perhaps half a dozen among them now cost a lot as the particular photographer (Moriyama, etc) has developed a cult, but the remainder can be picked up for less than their original price (adjusting for inflation) if you avoid a handful of shops that cater to rich dimwits. Each has both an afterword and a potted bio in English. Reminders that the series is a generation old: (i) the printing quality; (ii) every photographer is male; (iii) every plate (I think) in every volume is in black and white.
The photographs in this book were taken in 1962, when Watabe, working for the publisher Heibonsha, accompanied a research group from Meiji University led by the ethnologist Oka Masao (岡正雄). (For a quick background to such expeditions of around this time, see the very readable abstract to this paper.) Some of the photographs would appear in the first issue of Heibonsha’s magazine Taiyō.
Below, please excuse my thumb.
From part 1, “Inland Eskimo” (Anaktuvuk Pass):
From part 2, “Coast Eskimo” (Point Barrow):
From part 3, “Whaling feast” (Point Hope):
Almost at the end of the book is a double-page spread of four photographs of people silhouetted against the sky (thanks to a trampoline). It’s an extraordinary close. (I’m sure I’ve seen something similar in a much later book, but I can’t think which. Ideas?)
atsushisaito presents more photos of the book here.
Morocco, with a Japanese subtitle meaning “the road(s) to (the) labyrinth(s)”.
The unopened book looks like those in a series from Iwanami Shoten, each by a middle-aged or older photographer who very competently presents the architectural or other treasures of this or that part of the world. In other words, worthy uses of a library budget but somewhat unexciting.
Open the book, though, and you have a happy surprise. Yes, there are picturesque buildings. But there are street scenes, street portraits (both environmental and tightly framed), architectural details, the Atlas, the desert: the lot. It’s hardly surprising when we read that Watabe visited Morocco seven times. He worked as hard as any photographer commissioned to make a tourist trophy, but with far more stimulating results.
There are 92 plates and depending on your particular taste you might think of cutting this or that group of five or so among these. And for all I know the book may exoticize the Morocco of twenty years ago. (I wouldn’t know: I haven’t been there since a long time before that.) The printing could be slightly warmer, or of course in tritone. (And I wish my copy weren’t so speckled with mildew: I worry that it could infect its neighbours.) But it’s good:
The Japanese branch (“.co.jp”) of a certain US book monopolist currently (2 Dec ’11) offers six used copies of this book, each for around 15% the price of a new copy of A Criminal Investigation. The book didn’t win any design award, so far as I know, and it certainly wouldn’t do so now; but it’s worth your money.
Here’s a page about an exhibition by Canon of its holdings of photographs by Watabe of Morocco.
Copyright of the images shown above of course belongs to the estate of Watabe Yūkichi or the respective publisher, not to me.
January 2012 PS: There’s perceptive comment and also fresh information in Marc Feustel’s “Books of the Year: Yukichi Watabe’s A Criminal Investigation” (20 December 2011).
Some months ago there was a flurry of interest in French- and English-language websites over the photographer Watabe Yūkichi 渡部雄吉 (1924–1993), or anyway in the 2011 book of his work A Criminal Investigation. He was described as obscure, which surprised me until I realized how little there was on him in English on the web. So I started to put together a little piece about two of his other books. While doing this I looked for some recent material on him in Japanese — and two days ago discovered that there was an exhibition of his work going on here in Tokyo. And so of course I went along the next day.
The exhibition is Umi e no michi (海への道) — which means “(the) road(s) to (the) sea(s)” — and it’s showing at the JCII Photo Salon until 27 November. Here’s the JCII building:
The JCII is a camera quality association. Worthy though it is, neither it nor its building is remotely fashionable. Fine with me. Anyway, it’s a minute’s walk from exit no. 4 of Hanzōmon station on the Hanzōmon line — which puts it in very central Tokyo, right next to the curiously opulent British embassy.
The gallery is not so big, not so small. Exhibitions here often maximize quantity as well as quality. Again, fine with me. If I ever want elegant expanses of blank wall between photographs I can see them in DLK Collection; more often I want to see photographs. This exhibition doesn’t disappoint:
Most of the “Umi e no michi” exhibition consists of the series “Umi e no michi”, which first appeared in Asahi Camera month by month from January until July of 1963. Both on the walls and in the printed catalogue (¥800), the photographs are considerately identified by month and place — but, not quite so considerately, only in Japanese. So here you go; the locations (most with a link to the relevant article, whether good or bad, in Wikipedia):
- January: Cape Shiretoko (Shiretoko-misaki, 知床岬)
- February: Cape Sada (Sada-misaki, 佐田岬)
- March: Cape Tappi (Tappi-saki or Tappi-zaki, 竜飛崎; at the far north of the Tsugaru Peninsula)
- April: Cape Inubō (Inubō-saki, 犬吠埼)
- May: Cape Tsunegami (Tsunegami-misaki, 常神岬; here at Itouchmap)
- June: Cape Seki (Seki-zaki, 関岬; or Sado Seki-zaki, 佐渡関岬; here at Google Map)
- July: Cape Todo (Todo-ga-saki, written in a dizzying variety of ways including 魹ガ岬 and とどヶ崎; within Miyako)
In short, Watabe made a journey to a stunning collection of some of Japan’s most remote and wildest places, and no doubt got drenched in sea-water and froze and felt sick — it’s sometimes clear that he’s on a small boat — as he observed fishermen and fisherwives and other fisherpeople at work, without goretex or velcro or many of other conveniences we take for granted. There no doubt was some tourism in Sado (even now not quite, as Wikipedia bizarrely puts it, “a city located on Sado Island”) — Kondō Tomio showed tourism well before Watabe reached Cape Seki — but there’s no sign of it here. Just people battling the elements as they deal with fish.
A description — grizzled faces, backs bent under the weight of baskets, etc — might make it all sound terribly earnest and passé, a throwback to the times of Domon Ken perhaps crossed with the 小説のふるさと of Hayashi Tadahiko. But so? Hayashi’s work is virtually free of the sentimentality that his title suggests, and this kind of Domon is fine with me (whereas I’ll forgo his photos of Buddhist statuary). If Watabe’s work had rather more grain, contrast or burning in, people would compare it that by his coeval Kojima Ichirō and it might get the “Hysteric” treatment.
Decades later, Ishikawa Naoki would make a comparable effort with Archipelago with a very different result; it’s OK, I suppose, but to me somehow tepid. Watabe can do people as well as places, and his work is far more exciting.
And as a bonus, the gallery adds works from other series by Watabe. Among these is the “Criminal Investigation” series. At the right in my photo above are three prints from the “Yama no otoko-tachi” series, of miners in Hokkaidō.
Miscellaneous notes for anyone who sees the show and might be . . . “Japanese-challenged”: Yes, that’s a selection of Watabe’s books in the perspex case. It’s far from an exhaustive collection: it strangely omits his big and award-winning book Kagura (which at least is mentioned in his potted bio) and of course the new Parisian production A Criminal Investigation (which isn’t mentioned anywhere). If two of his cameras, also displayed there, look improbably pristine, this is because they’re not his but instead examples of Leica (with 25mm Canon lens and finder) and Pentax from JCII’s large collection, a generous selection of which is on display in the basement of the same or next building (different entrance, and admission costs ¥300).
Here’s the exhibition notice (with a stylized map at the foot). And here’s a page about the exhibition catalogue (and here’s a description of it in English). So far it’s all in Japanese, but here’s a stylized map in English. And this is Google’s map for it.
Remember, this exhibition closes soon: 27 November. While it’s still showing, it closes every day at the old-fashioned and inconveniently early time of 5 p.m. But it’s free (and far more rewarding than several exhibitions elsewhere that cost me money).