signing off

Lots of copies of “They”I recently got a copy of Zhang Xiao’s book They. It’s compact, excellent and reasonably priced: highly recommended. And it’s signed. Apparently there are 499 other copies, also signed.

Some people seem to thrill to signed books. But when I contemplate this pile of signed (or about-to-be-signed) copies, my own very mild interest is quickly eclipsed by sympathy for Zhang. He’s a young man, I’d guess full of energy. Energy surely better expended on taking more photos, editing them, enjoying life with Mrs Zhang (actual or potential), or whatever.

Still, the prospect of signing five hundred isn’t enough to inspire thoughts of suicide; the task can be surmounted — perhaps in thirty-minute bouts, twice a day (just as I once learned to touchtype). And the book is published in China, a technologically advanced nation; which gives me hope that his signing chore might have been, shall we say, assisted.

AutopenBack to Japan (via Berlin). A book that deservedly won praise last year was Suda Issei’s The work of a lifetime — of which we read that there are 535 copies, all of them signed.

Though I didn’t buy one, I did buy a copy of Suda’s newer book Fushikaden — of which we read that there are 500 copies, all of them signed.

I didn’t buy Suda’s even newer 1975 Miuramisaki, charming though its six (6) pages are. We read that there are 350 copies, all of them signed.

signed by Suda IsseiNo, instead I bought a copy of Suda’s Kado no tabakoya made no tabi (more pages, lower price). I’d guess that there are between five hundred and a thousand copies of this; mine’s signed, and perhaps all of them are. Certainly BLD is selling signed copies of it, of Suda’s book Rubber, and of his Minyou sanga (my copy of which is signed), each for the list price. So it’s probable that hundreds of copies of these three books are signed, too.

Suda Issei had to write out his name three times just for me. If I ever meet him, I must apologize.

And in the space of just a year or so, he’s written out his name well over a thousand times. Perhaps close to two thousand times.

Suda is in his seventies. He could be attending to his juku, fishing, walking the dog, or whatever. Or of course taking photos. Assuredly he has better things to do than write out his own name, and again, and again, and again. . . .

GhostwriterWhile China and Japan have much in common (e.g. Borgian patterns of political appointments), Japan seems less enterprising. I do hope that its publishers/photographers too are employing labour-saving technology, but the variation among “my” examples of Suda’s signature suggests otherwise.

What is it about signed books, anyway? I have books that were signed especially for me by perhaps ten photographer friends and (face-to-face or email) acquaintances. And there’ve been some other bonuses too, like my copy of Stand BY, signed by three of its photographers. I didn’t ask for such signatures, and they were and are welcome. But this idea of signing (or autopenning) every copy of a book seems stupid. Photographers, if your publisher suggests this, just say no. Shouldn’t your photobook sell on its content and presentation? If you also want to appeal to the nitwit market, fine: cash in on it and cut down on the tedium: add the combination of a signature, a more interesting cover (ideas) and a small inkjet giclée print for an additional édition de luxe, priced accordingly.

Meanwhile, I look inside my copy of Suda’s Ningen no kioku, and am happy to see no signature.

There’s an an entire website devoted to autopenned astronaut signatures. (I haven’t yet found one on autopenned cosmonaut or photographer signatures.) Further reading: “Great moments in autopen history” (Gawker), “Ten facts about the ‘autopen’” (Politico), another perspective on signatures and “collectibility”, Steidlheads managing to go nuts even over unsigned books.

The italic print. Three of the four photos above are copyright Jiazazhi Press, the Autopen Company, and Automated Signature Technology respectively. The other one depicts works of calligraphy that are, in one way or another (I’m no expert on this stuff), the intellectual property of Suda Issei.


Buy more of it, or

I long dismissed Daikanyama as just yet another area for elaborate courtship rituals, where young chaps take young gals to buy frocks and have lavish meals. But I kept hearing good things about the branch there of Tsutaya (book/fun shop) and therefore yesterday, as a compromise between (A) doing useful work and (B) going to faraway Morioka (for the Watabe show), I went to take a look and if possible do my duty as an obedient consumer and help the nation’s moribund economy.

The Daikanyama branch of Tsutaya has a lot of photobooks. There are new ones, and there are used ones. The used ones are uniformly labelled “vintage”, even when they’re as recent as 2008. The “vintage” books are in reach or out of reach. Those in reach are amusingly expensive. Those out of reach are hilariously expensive.

Now that I duckduckgo the shop, I see that it:

  • serves as the anchor for the upscale Daikanyama T-Site shopping complex
  • has a luxuriously appointed lounge-bar area on the second floor
  • has individually curated specialty departments

I’m a sucker for luxuriously curated upscale anchors, and so I looked at the new books too. Odd: it felt as if I’d landed on Planet Photo-Eye, or anyway Planet The Top Half of This Page. There were plenty of the books that US bloggers fawn over but I’d not seen before. Some of these were good, too: a small book by Alec Soth elaborated on the best (B/W) ingredients of his yellow anthology From Here to There, and the label on the sample copy was marked with a reasonable ¥1750, too. Eh, what, ¥4750 on the shrink-wrapped copies? Perhaps not then.

Oh noes, now I see that Photo-Eye says that this book is unavailable and has it at $127; so I missed a chance to get something rare and collectible!

If I missed a bargain or three in this luxuriously curated upscale photobook shopping complex, I blame the powerfully repetitive piano noodling going on most of the time. (The short breaks were for powerfully repetitive other-instrument noodling.) This must be Usen’s recommended easy listening for the book-shopping hipster. (Kinokuniya’s muzak seems more suited to hospice waiting rooms.)

What with this aural slime, I wasn’t in a receptive mood for hip photobooks, and escaped to the next building. This was gloriously muzak-free. Even the lack of photobooks was refreshing at first, but when that sensation dissipated I looked upward and saw a promising cover. And yes, it was a photobook worth looking at.

Iijima Kōei (飯島幸永)’s Kanryū: Tsugaru no onna / Echigo, sekka ujō (寒流 津軽のおんな/越後・雪下有情). The main title means “cold [sea] current” and it’s a collection of older, B/W photos of snowbound Tsugaru and Niigata, particularly of girls and women there. (Many of the adult males would have departed for seasonal work elsewhere.) The editing could be a little tighter (and there are no captions or other text in any language other than Japanese), but it’s impressive. Iijima’s website needs updating (it doesn’t mention this book, published late last year), but it does have a set of images that would appear in the book. (Here’s its publisher’s page about the book; ISBN 978-4-7791-1810-4; CiNii.)

Ueno eki no makuai, the 1983 editionUeno eki no makuai, the 2012 editionTsutaya’s copies of Kanryū seemed slightly bowed so I didn’t buy. But the book reminded me of another I’d wanted to see: the late 2012 reissue/reworking of Motohashi Seiichi (本橋成一)’s 1983 book Ueno eki no makuai (上野駅の幕間). The title means “Intermission at Ueno station”, and it’s full of, yes, B/W photos of Ueno station. Rail fans will revel in such things as the labelling with metal plates of departure platforms, but even the rail-unenchanted will see how different this is from present-day Tokyo stations, what with giant baskets, alcohol- and tobacco-fuelled picnics on the floor and so forth. Motohashi seems to have been hugely energetic for this ample book, photographing everything from uniformed ceremony to one worker taking a leak from a platform down to the track. It’s from a time when quantity meant more than formula or repetition. I haven’t compared it with the original but the printing is at least as good and a copy of this costs a lot less than does a copy of the older book. (Here’s its publisher’s page about the book; ISBN 978-4-582-27795-1; CiNii.)

Zhang Xiao, TheySo I bought Ueno eki no makuai, and enjoyed it on the way home. But I felt a little sad. I’d got most enjoyment out of a couple of books of photos taken before most of Tsutaya’s customers were even born. Did nothing appeal among what was new (and perhaps unimaginable thirty years ago)?

The doorbell rang and help arrived from China: my copy of Zhang Xiao (张晓)’s They (他们). Zhang, from the northeast of China, was living in Chongqing in the southwest, when he took the (uncaptioned, unexplained) photographs here. Apparently they’re all taken with a Holga, and with no trickery. It would have to be an extraordinarily well behaved Holga, and certain phenomena seem preternatural even by urbanizing Chinese standards. So I’m not sure what’s going on here. But there’s a contrast: while I don’t know what’s going on in a lot of the photos in books on display in Tsutaya, I generally couldn’t care less; here, the misty, oneiric scenes are odd indeed, and whether they’re real or fake they fascinate.

There’s a lot from this series available on the web: here and here, as well as Zhang’s site. See for yourself. And reading material here and here. The book is published by Jia Za Zhi Press in Beijing and very handsomely done it is too. The publisher writes about it here and here; you can order it by email from them (as I did) or from Bigcartel (here), and it’s said to be available from some retailers.

I’d not heard of the book, the series or the photographer till a couple of weeks ago. (I must have missed this at Eyecurious.) Though Zhang’s CV lists a lot of exhibitions and awards, it doesn’t mention any book. They isn’t his first; there’s also Coastline, published by Actes Sud in 2011. I wonder if there have been more.