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).
I bought Jarret Schecter’s book Russia off Track because I was ordering a pile of other stuff anyway, the subject interested me, the book was from Trolley (which had never disappointed), and it was going very cheap.
This book starts rockily. The preface by Schecter tells us: Although purported to be one-dimensional, a rich photograph laden with past stillness and future motion, is multi-layered by time, space and meaningful consequence.
One-dimensional? (And that’s just for starters.)
Schecter goes on to say that the land between Moscow and Vladivostok, besides being dominated by forests and fields, is littered with poor villages, dilapidated industrial plants, and a smattering of non-descript cities and so on. He draws parallels between the heartlands of Russia and the US, the latter being the subject of an earlier book of his (which I haven’t seen), America off Track.
Well, yes. And of course both the US and Russia are off the rails and run by robber barons. And I’m all for photography that shows this, if it’s good.
Let’s put aside the preface and see what we have here.
On each recto is one photograph, facing it is its caption. There are no page numbers and no section breaks.
The first photograph, “Dusk on the Siberian plains”, is indeed of a nondescript landscape. Fine, it puts me in the mood.
Next, “Lake and village in Siberia” and then “Village in the Far East region of Russia”. The former shows camera shake, but not enough for any interesting effect. Both have pleasing blues and greens.
An “old factory” and then an “industrial complex”. The former is a study in beiges, but there’s enough of a spherical blue object in the foreground to interfere yet not really enough of it to do more than interfere. Though the “complex” is dirty, its windows are still in place. (Trackside Russia isn’t as bad as trackside Britain!)
An “apartment building” (very slightly blurred). Now, this building is rather jolly. I’d change the framing somehow, or wait till the two cars in the front had gone — but of course one’s options are limited when in a train.
A blurry scene at a train station near Omsk. Oh come on — this was one for the delete button.
Next, a good one of five people waiting on the platform of Petrovsk-Zabaykalsky station:
Now a bit of a disappointment: a differently angled photograph of the same platform, emphasizing a huge and splendid mural. But the mural doesn’t help what’s in the foreground or vice versa. If we want a photograph of the mural (yes please, as none is easily googlable), then let’s have an uncluttered photograph of the mural. Except of course this isn’t possible, for a photographer stuck in the train (even though the ticket allows breaks in the journey).
And then a major problem starts for me, with the caption “Anonymous apartment buildings in the Ural region”:
“Anonymous” is surely metaphorical: these are cookie-cutter buildings, the Soviet prole equivalent of Levittowns. Hang on: there are attractive little red stripes near the roof, and a sunrise design for the window grilles in the foreground. And look closely and you see that the inhabitants don’t merely differ by satellite dish; they’ve done different things with their balconies. But no, Schecter says the buildings are “anonymous”.
And such gloomy descriptions continue. Just a few pages later, we get: “Nameless apartment towers in Central Russia”, “Car speeding away from a lonely Siberian village”, “Deserted street in a Siberian village”, and “Desolate town in Eastern Siberia”. Schecter seems to be trying to tell me what impression I should get. But he fails, partly because I’m not happy to be told what impression to get, and partly because I’ve no reason to think he knows any more than I do.
What does residential “anonymity” tell us? Turn to Bill Owens’ 1973 book Suburbia:
Caption to the photograph on the right (p.9 of the “new & improved” 1999 edition): I find a sense of freedom in the suburbs…. You assume the mask of suburbia for outward appearances and yet no one knows what you really do.
Some food for serious thought there.
Let’s ignore the captions, and accept that what goes on in buildings within view of the Trans-Siberian Railway is something that we can only guess at.
The route is very long. (An excellent map is provided at the front.) Stamina permitting, there’s a lot of time during which one can point a camera through the window, and Schecter indeed shows stamina and at times the results are striking.
(For more examples, see Trolley’s page about the book — which may take some time to load.)
The book contains roughly a hundred photographs. There’s a good, small, differently-captioned, thirty-photograph book in it. Or Schecter might combine the thirty with other views of Russia. (For suggestions, see further below.)
Laurent Chardon’s Tangente (shown above upside down) is a lot smaller.
The French word tangente has pretty much the same range of meanings as the English tangent; but the English translation (supplied as a separate sheet) of the preface glosses it as on a limb.
The quote-dropping preface (Debord, Merleau-Ponty) — reproduced here — tells us that . . . Chardon shows how the link between the temporal and the spatial operates as a continuum, a “non-interruption” of the world etc etc; it’s somniferous stuff, but it does say that he went by train from Moscow to his point de contact [?] and destination of Ulan Bator. And it points out that he used a toy camera (as is pretty obvious, though I suppose Photoshop has a “Holga” setting).
The book has 23 photographs, without captions or further explanation. A little sample of what may or may not be Ulan Bator:
Towards the end of the book, Chardon is on the train:
So maybe this is not Chardon’s journey to and stay in Ulan Bator, but instead his stay there and journey back. Or maybe the photographs are presented in reverse chronological order. Or again perhaps the order is arbitrary. (But there definitely are yurts on display, so no this isn’t just something wittily cooked up in Transylvania or wherever.) Being more conventional than I usually like to admit, I would like to know which photos were taken in Ulan Bator, which from the train within Mongolia, and which within Russia.
Even with no explanation, these are splendidly dark and gloomy photographs. We’re very far from tourist-bureau Mongolia. But Chardon doesn’t tell us this, and so much the better for this blackly delightful little book.
Let’s return from Mongolia to Russia. The unsigned afterword to Russia off Track concludes: . . . Russia’s future trajectory is perhaps best contemplated peering out of the window on the world’s longest train ride.
I really wonder. And as for Russia’s present, one could photograph life directly visible in and from the train, or one could just get off the train and look around.
And away from the track? Writing about Owens’ Suburbia, Cynthia Morrill asks: In 2000, would a California visual anthropologist be welcomed as Owens was, or would she be escorted out of the gated community by a private security force?
Bieke Depoorter went ahead and tried the Russian equivalent — indeed, something much more daring. The story is written up in various places (e.g. here). The excellent results are here and here. They’re already in a book. And yes, she’s done it in the US too (see this), and another book is said to be in the works.
Just photographing the view from the Trans-Siberian Railway isn’t easy. I’m enjoying the view via a set of videos presented by Russian Railways and Google.ru: here in English (though with the book readings still in Russian) and here in Russian. Here are the photographs by Anton Lange (Антон Ланге) that accompany this; because it is after all a PR exercise, they’re rather postcardy, but they’re worthwhile all the same. It’s just part of a bigger project to photograph the whole of Russia from/with the railway; the project’s multilingual site is here, and Lange is interviewed about it here.
Copyright of the images shown above of course belongs to the respective photographer or publisher, not to me.