peaks from the 1920s–1940s, at JCII Photo Salon

Exhibition of Nakayama et al, JCII Photo SalonUntil 25 December, JCII Photo Salon has a stunning exhibition of work by four photographers: Nakayama Iwata (中山岩太, 1895–1949), Yasui Nakaji (安井仲治, 1903–42), and the brothers Fukuhara Shinzō (福原信三, 1883–1948) and Fukuhara Rosō (福原路草, 1892–1946).

For those poor souls who think that it wasn’t until Provoke that Japanese photography emerged from its Dark Age, the names won’t mean much. (Tip: There was no Dark Age. See The History of Japanese Photography.) But those who know better will recognize all four names and also plenty of their work. At first glance Fukuhara Shinzō’s earliest work may now seem little more than decorative, but in its day it was a refreshing change from the overtly painterly styles (with bromoil, etc) that prevailed. And he moved on from there, while his brother Rosō went still further. (Shinzō also found time to run Shiseidō, and indeed to do so very well.) Nakayama and Yasui each attempted a far wider range, and both succeeded: photograms, portraits, surrealistic montages, and (for Yasui) reportage too. And it’s all fine, in its way.

In the 1970s, the Pentax Spotmatic (with a little gold quality-assurance sticker from JCII) was selling well, and its maker Asahi Optical was able to buy fine prints (as well as cameras of historical value) for its Pentax Gallery. When this closed in 2009, JCII acquired much (or all?) of its content. And at the core of this exhibition are works that were previously at the Pentax Gallery, which was clearly run by people who knew what they were after and had the funding to get it.

But that’s not all. As well as vintage prints from Pentax, the exhibition also has more recent ones. And under glass cases near some of the prints are magazines of the time (not only camera/photography magazines, but also general magazines), showing how the photographs first appeared to the public — often very differently from the current prints.

The exhibition occupies both of JCII’s exhibition spaces, so in terms of quantity it’s comparable with a small exhibition in a museum. The explanations are in Japanese only, which is a pity — but at least the photographers’ names are also given in roman lettering. And unlike many bigger shows, there’s no filler. Entrance is free, and if you go during a weekday you may have a whole room to yourself. Highly recommended.

JCII Photo Salon is a very short walk from exit 4 of Hanzōmon station (Hanzōmon line), in very central Tokyo. (Here’s a map.) It’s normally open 10:00 to 17:00, Tuesday to Sunday; if a national holiday falls on a Monday, it’s open on this Monday but closed the following day.

Here’s the exhibition notice (in Japanese).

(The articles in [English-language] Wikipedia on Yasui Nakaji, Fukuhara Shinzō and Fukuhara Rosō are all terrible but each has some material that could be useful.)

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Watabe Yūkichi

five by Watabe Yūkichi

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

Watabe, 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 Criminal Investigation, by Watabe Yūkichi
A Criminal Investigation, by Watabe Yūkichi

Watabe Yukichi. A criminal investigation. Paris: Éditions Xavier Barral – Le Bal, 2011. ISBN 978-2-915173-82-6 (here at Worldcat).

You’ll find other reviews at or by 5B4, the National Media Museum, CroCnique, Le Monde, and Atsushisaito.

Postwar Japan

Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi 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):

Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi
Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi

From the series “A typhoon has landed” (Taifū ga kita), on Yoron-jima/Yorontō (1957):

Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi

From the series “Men of the mountains” (Yama no otoko-tachi), mining for sulphur on Meakan-dake (1959):

Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no nihon”, by Watabe Yūkichi

Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉). Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Sengo no Nihon” 渡部雄吉作品展「戦後の日本」. JCII Photo Salon Library 40. Tokyo: JCII Photo Salon, 1994.

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:

  1. Go to JCII and buy them. JCII is in central Tokyo.
  2. 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

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi Here’s the catalogue of the show I wrote up before. Again, it shows a variety of the capes of Japan, and the photographs were taken close to half a century ago.

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.

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Cape Shiretoko, on a peninsula jutting east from Hokkaidō and even colder than you might imagine:

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Cape Inubō (“howling dog cape”), in Chiba:

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Cape Seki, on Sado:

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Cape Seki, in Miyako, Iwate; and a little bio of Watabe:

Umi e no michi, by Watabe Yūkichi

Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉). Watabe Yūkichi sakuhin-ten “Umi e no michi” 渡部雄吉作品展「海への道」. JCII Photo Salon Library 244. Tokyo: JCII Photo Salon, 2011.

Here’s JCII’s page advertising the booklet.

Alaska Eskimo

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi 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):

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi
Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi
Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi
Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi

From part 2, “Coast Eskimo” (Point Barrow):

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi

From part 3, “Whaling feast” (Point Hope):

Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi
Alaska Eskimo, by Watabe Yūkichi

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?)

Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉, “Yukichi Watabe”). Arasuka esukimō (アラスカエスキモー) = Alaska Eskimo. Sonorama shashin sensho (ソノラマ写真選書) 20. Tokyo: Asahi Sonorama, 1979. (No ISBN, here at Worldcat; here at Open Library.)

atsushisaito presents more photos of the book here.

Morocco

Morocco, by Watabe YūkichiMorocco, 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:

Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi
Morocco, by Watabe Yūkichi

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.

Watabe Yūkichi (渡部雄吉, “Yukichi Watabe”). Morokko: Meikyū e no michi (モロッコ 迷宮への道) = Morocco. Tokyo: Creo (クレオ), 1994. ISBN 4-906371-49-3 (here at Worldcat).

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).


Abe Jun’s Manila

John Sypal has just posted an excellent (and excellently illustrated) review of Manila (マニラ) by Abe Jun (阿部淳). Abe’s 2009 book Citizens / Shimin (市民) wasn’t totally unexpected, as his 1989 book Creatures (or Creaturers) had appeared in the pre–Parr ’n’ Badger photobook-book Shashin o yomu: Besuto 338 kanzen gaido (写真を読む ベスト338完全ガイド, vol. 1, p.157). But Citizens was certainly one of the best photobooks of the decade (though of course insuffiently bland, pretty or blank to be modish). John wrote an early review of Citizens and one of Abe’s Kokubyaku nōto (黒白ノート).

I often disagree with John but not when he’s writing about Abe. And when we disagree he may well be right and anyway he’s worth reading. Plus he takes lots of good photos.


Watabe Yūkichi and the sea

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:

JCII building, Tokyo

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:

Watabe, Umi e no michi

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).


Araki scrap

In 1993 Setagaya Art Museum held an exhibition of work by Kuwabara Kineo and Araki Nobuyoshi titled ラブ・ユー・トーキョー (Love you Tokyo). The museum has been acquiring work by Araki since. It’s closed (for nine months, until the end of March), and a two-stage exhibition of post–Love you Araki acquisitions is running at what TAB calls the Miyamoto Saburo Memorial Museum.

The museum is actually Miyamoto Saburō kinen bijutsukan (宮本三郎記念美術館). I don’t know what its true English name is, if it even has one: the building itself only carries a Japanese name and the only words on its website that aren’t in Japanese seem to be “PDF” and “Acrobat Reader”. Anyway the museum is between Okusawa station (Meguro line), Den’enchōfu station (Meguro and Tōyoko lines), Kuhonbutsu (Ōimachi line), and Jiyūgaoka station (Ōimachi and Tōyoko lines). Here’s a stylized map (only in Japanese, of course) of how to get there, and for a detailed stylized map (north at the foot!) of how to get there from Jiyūgaoka station, try this PDF (again, only in Japanese, of course).

What you get:

  1. dozens of small prints of photographs of the sex business
  2. some photographs of flowers
  3. some paintings of flowers
  4. some pairs of nudes with townscapes and so forth
  5. three very large scrapbooks of photographs, each open and in a cabinet
  6. three video monitors, each showing the full content of a scrapbook

The flowers are forgettable. The nudes and the photographs that go with them (I think first published in Tokyo Nude, 1989) are interesting, though I could never see how the one photograph helped the other: the pairing seemed pointless. (Actually I feared that there was some banal “point”, such as the contrast between vitality [and sex] versus lifelessness.) They’re good-sized, handsome prints.

Looking in the best direction:

Araki show, October 2011

On the wall, “Tokyo Lucky Hole”. It’s Araki’s mid-’80s exploration of the sex business (first published as a book in 東京ラッキーホール = Tokyo Lucky Hole, 1990). Nothing here is particularly arresting, but they are amusing.

One of Morooka's books of photographs of Ginza -- NOT on showIn the glass case, one of the scrapbooks: “Ginza”, from 1967. The other two are “Satchin to Mābo” (1963) and “Onna” (1965). Each of these scrapbooks seems to collect contrasty prints exhibited earlier in some small show. The “Satchin and Mābo” photographs, of two young boys, are well known: they’ve appeared in books (starting with Satchin, 1994), which are worth looking out for: the museum sells the latest, modestly priced book of these. “Onna” doesn’t really take off. The most interesting to me was Ginza, in which serious or glum people walk around Ginza. Their clothing tends to be either for work or somewhat dowdy, and the girls are on the doughy side — it’s quite a contrast from, say, Morooka Kōji’s portrayal of Ginza. (銀座残像 = Remembrance of Ginza is a collection of these photographs by Morooka.) I’m no expert in Araki’s published output but I haven’t noticed these early photographs of Ginza in any book; surely they merit a book, and some arty publisher could milk the nutball collector trade with a stratospherically priced “limited edition” of a facsimile of the original, which could reasonably be termed an elephant folio.

All in all it’s an odd exhibition. I easily got my ¥200-worth, but the best part was standing in front of a monitor watching a video. I’d rather see each video on a computer, with my cursor ready over a pause button.

The content changes on 14 January, after which I’ll go along again.

I’ve no idea how much all of these acquisitions cost Setagaya-ku, but it’s not obviously an unreasonable use of taxpayers’ money. Setagaya’s museum possesses a lot of good stuff. It has a great quantity by Morooka, for a start. Much of Morooka (師岡宏次)’s published work may be humdrum, but if carefully selected and well reproduced it merits a look: none of his books is satisfying and by contrast the best collection I know of is the twenty or so pages he gets within the excellent 1993 exhibition catalogue モダン東京狂詩曲 = Rhapsody of Modern Tokyo. He’d merit a small show in the refurbished museum. The museum also possesses a number of paintings by Anthony Green, whose work doesn’t seem to have been collected in a major book since the bilingual (Japanese/English) catalogue that accompanied an exhibition that toured Japan (including the Setagaya museum) in 1987–88. Time for an updated retrospective of Anthony Green, Setagaya!


Cities, people, scale: Rubinfien, Nguan, Caracci

Shibuya, Wounded Cities, Homo Urbanus Europeanus
Leo Rubinfien was a name I’d noticed from time to time, but I only knew him as a writer about Tōmatsu Shōmei. Having skimread this review by Dan Abbe, I decided to see Rubinfien’s Wounded Cities (傷ついた街), showing until 23 October at MOMAT (the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo).

The ticket is very modestly priced: even with no concession, just ¥420. It’s primarily for several rooms’ worth of works selected from the museum’s permanent collection: mostly paintings, but also woodcuts and yes even photographs. There were some good things here, notably work by painters whose names I lazily omitted to note down. I rushed through most of it because time was limited, but did look in one room of photographs of Tōhoku by Moriyama Daidō, Suda Issei, and Kitai Kazuo. Suda’s, from the excellent series Fūshi kaden (風姿花伝, collected in two books of this title), were the most rewarding. But on to Rubinfien.

Hanging from the ceiling in one room are thirty-five huge prints: 152×183 cm. All but three are monochrome. (Curiously, the three colour prints are far from the most compelling, and in contrast to the others their colour makes them look prettier. I’d have printed them all in monochrome.) They’re largely of individuals, photographed from 2002 to 2008 in this or that city around the world, looking at the camera, worried, pensive or just rather blank, though some are of more than one person, and there’s variety in that the face in the forefront may be clearly less important than another that occupies less space in the frame.

As you’d hope in a national museum (but certainly can’t expect), the photographs are very good. But they’re also very big indeed. The sheer size seems to announce: We are major works of art. And ten or so among them just don’t seem to reach that level. Also puzzling was the short preface, which speculated that the people depicted in the photographs expressed the effect of either the attack in New York in September 2001 or others similar to it. (True, the wording was tentative.) Well, possibly . . . but I put aside that possibility, as well as any other theme, and concentrated on the photographs themselves.

Some just didn’t work. The first two (both Tokyo, and specifically Shibuya station, in 2002) seemed humdrum — they’d have their place among a hundred more modestly sized prints, but not here. At least one (Jakarta, 2004) was hard to parse: behind one out-of-focus head occupying almost half of the frame (which itself didn’t worry me) was what I deduced was a forehead: after all, it came under hair, where a forehead should be; and yes, if I concentrated it was indeed a forehead — though not a particularly interesting one. And I had other criticisms besides.

This left perhaps twenty-five photographs that were excellent. A look in a search engine will reveal them and bring praise for them; no need to repeat this here. The enormity of the prints did make me stop and admire the fine resolution — the precise threads in people’s jackets, etc etc — something I usually find myself doing when photographs are less than absorbing. Still, I soon snapped out of that. The twenty-five (or so) photographs that impressed me were easily good enough for me to want a copy of the catalogue. That this generously sized and excellently printed book cost just ¥1600 was a pleasant bonus.

Sitting in the train, I wondered why the prints had been so huge. Does enormity increase the prices that museums and plutocrats will pay? If so, good for the photographers, the great majority of whom struggle to make a living from any work that I’d want to see. (Not that MOMAT has paid: these prints are on loan from Rubinfien.) Or is enormity meant to impress the viewer? If so, it backfired for me. (For that matter, among the exhibited prints that had recently fascinated me the most were perversely small ones by Algirdas Šeškus.)

Regent St, 2003 (© Leo Rubinfien)Once home, I opened the book (catalogue), and it all made sense. Though big enough, this is not a huge book. Some photographs that hadn’t worked when hung from the ceiling make perfect sense on the page: for example, the Jakarta photograph mentioned above clicks immediately. Photographs that I’d thought were weak became stronger again. And there’s an essay by Rubinfien that’s excellent in itself and that also works with the photographs. (I haven’t yet seen the original book, from Steidl, of Wounded Cities; but it sounds similar, though more lavish and with more content.)

So a guarded recommendation for the exhibition — about the hours etc of which, see MOMAT’s notices in English and in Japanese — and a warm recommendation for the book:

Leo Rubinfien (レオ・ルビンファイン). Wounded Cities (傷ついた街). Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 2011. No ISBN (and not in Worldcat, but in Nacsis Webcat).

This is not distributed in the normal retail channels within Japan (let alone anywhere else); in Japan, try the bookshop of MOMAT or failing that the bookshop of another large art museum. Or of course get the earlier book by Steidl.

Shibuya, 2002 (© Leo Rubinfien)

In an illustrated talk titled “Paths through the Global City”, Rubinfien is wary of subjects and more so of presuming to “document” them; we learn that “Wounded Cities” was part of this larger “Global City” project. I look forward to a book on that, a few years from now.

Shibuya 2008–2010 (© Nguan), detailI’d read praise of Rubinfien’s work from somebody who’d mentioned in a different context that he hadn’t been impressed by Nguan’s book Shibuya. That may have primed me before I walked into the room with the giant prints. And perhaps their enormity brought to mind the enormity of Shibuya (28×41 cm). But no, the photographs themselves have a certain resemblance.

To go back a bit. . . .

I hadn’t heard of Nguan when I first saw a pile of copies of his book Shibuya at Sōkyūsha (Sokyusha, Sokyu-sha, 蒼穹舎). There’s a lot of worthwhile stuff in that shop, but the praise it gets (example, example) obscures the fact that most piles lying on its central table are either of books you’ve already seen (if you frequent such bookshops), or of yet more unexciting examples of this or that genre. For the latter, even the cover designs are generic. The cover of Shibuya stood out, for its size and colour (which trumped the uninterestingness of that particular photograph). So I picked it up, looked through it, was impressed, and bought it.

Shibuya (© Nguan)

Yes, Shibuya is big (which is obscured by the way I show its pages here). The subject matter is very simple: people outdoors in Shibuya. They’re mostly young people, and they’re mostly walking or waiting for the lights to change in the most obvious areas of Shibuya, notably the famed “scramble crossing“. That may make it seem to fall within a pretty vacant genre, but luckily it’s very different.

Shibuya (© Nguan)

Shibuya (© Nguan)

It’s “street”, but unlike much “street” photography, which uses a short focal length for a greater depth of field and a reduced risk that what’s of interest will simply be out of focus, Nguan uses a shallow focus for relative emphasis.

(For you techies: Nguan says here that he uses a Fuji GW690III, which has a 90mm lens for roughly the coverage of a 40mm lens used for full-frame 135 — but of course with the depth of field of a 90mm lens. For a 6×9 camera, it’s quick to use, but nothing is automated and focussing a lens that size takes time.)

True, in some of the photographs the key figure is attending to their mobile phone or game console. These tend to be of limited interest. (This isn’t to say that the subject is doomed; see George Kelly’s work.) And curiously, Nguan has used the weakest image for the front cover. Let’s agree that a dozen or so of the images could be cut — we’d then still be left with over a hundred.

The other problem (for me) is the color. Sometimes reds are gaudy, and bright reds even seem to have been daubed on with a pen. Surely something has gone amiss in the proofing or printing process. And yet there’s the same gaudiness both in Jeff Mermelstein’s Twirl/Run (from Powerhouse, which should know what it’s doing) and also in some of Nguan’s own jpegs on the web. So maybe it’s deliberate. Either way, it takes a bit of getting used to. But I do get used to it, and the book succeeds. Its details:

Nguan. Shibuya. [Singapore]: [Nguan], 2010. ISBN 978-981-08-6577-1 (Worldcat).

You can buy the book directly from Nguan; and if the price seems high remember that it includes airmail, which can’t be cheap. Nguan lists stockists in Singapore, France, Germany, Japan and the US. I paid just under ¥4000 at Sōkyūsha: very reasonable.

Many of the images in the book are here in Nguan’s site, which also has these images, which are in the same series but not in the book. Photographs of the book here, video of it here.

Rubinfien’s “Global City” also brought to mind the Homo Urbanus Europeanus project of Jean-Marc Caracci.

Lisbon (© Jean-Marc Caracci)

The theme of Homo Urbanus Europeanus is one of “lonely characters isolated [in] their natural habitat”, in which loneliness is not necessarily negative. (Would “solitude” have been better?) Caracci presents photographs of Belgrade, Berlin, Bratislava, Brussels, Bucharest, Budapest, Helsinki, Istanbul, Lisbon, Ljubjana, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Prague, Rejkjavik, Riga, Rome, Sofia, Stockholm, Tallinn, Tirana, Vienna, Vilnius, Warsaw and Zagreb. There are seventy plates; each of these cities gets between one and five. Most show an isolated figure, but some show small numbers isolated from each other, and there are variations such as isolated couples. The backgrounds are not obviously identifiable (certainly not in a postcardy way), but some are identifiable anyway: for example, I know precisely where in Helsinki the first photograph was taken. Many of the backgrounds could have been in any number of the other cities. Many of the lone figures walk purposefully, but there is variety.

So we have “25 european capitals, if one considers Istanbul as the european capital of Turkey”. Since that time Caracci also went to Athens, Copenhagen and London, as his site for the project shows; Caracci lists as missing: Amsterdam, Baku, Bern, Chisinau, Dublin, Kiev, Luxembourg, Minsk, Moscow, Nicosia, Podgorica, Pristina, Sarajevo, Skopje, Tbilisi, Torshavn, Vaduz, Valetta, and Yerevan. More recently he’s stated (here) that he’s been to 31, so he must have reduced the “missing” list by three. Istanbul strikes me as problematic, as the stated reason for its inclusion implies that Ankara isn’t European, which is hard to square with the inclusion of Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku. Still, this is not a geopolitical polemic but a photography project, so let’s allow it some oddities; and anyway I wouldn’t want the particularly good photograph from Istanbul removed.

Rome (© Jean-Marc Caracci)

Brussels (© Jean-Marc Caracci)

As a search quickly shows, Caracci has had quite a few exhibitions of this project around Europe. (Good material about the project can be found here and here.) At one point a Polish gallery brought out this catalogue, as a survey of the project so far. It has to be said that the page size is small, that the printing quality is that of a mass-market magazine, and also that some of the images are humdrum. But far more often than not there’s something striking about the photograph.

Jean-Marc Caracci. Homo Urbanus Europeanus. Szczecin: Wydawnictwo Marpol, 2009. ISBN 978-83-929908-0-2 (Worldcat).

Both the editor’s note and photographer’s preface are in Polish, French and English. The price is modest, and you can get a copy directly from Caracci. Buy one for yourself and one for a eurofriend.

Copyright of the images shown above of course belongs to the respective photographer or publisher, not to me.