The exhibition Contemporary Japanese Photobooks is currently on display at the newly re-designed Photographers’ Gallery in London. Curated by the photographer Jason Evans and the co-author of the landmark study Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s Ivan Vartanian, the exhibition presents a diverse range of photobooks published over the last decade. For those interested in the subject matter, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to view some rare material, some of which would be even difficult to find in the most specialized bookshops in the backstreets of Tokyo.
Perhaps unusual for an exhibition displaying rare and valuable books, the viewer is actively encouraged to physically engage with the books. The books are openly displayed along the side of the walls, while seats and tables in the middle of the single room space invite the viewer to study the material at their own pace. Giving a small indication of how precious some of the books are, visitors are requested to wear white gloves presented at the entrance at the gallery. The exhibition thus underlines the fact that photobooks are not only a bound collection of photographs to be looked at, but rather, the photobook itself is a physical and tactile object that must be appreciated in its own right.
The importance of appreciating the photobook as a physical object is underlined in the exhibition by displaying a very diverse selection of books that were produced with very different and often-experimental methods: the paper edges of one book were covered by a reflective silver varnish while the pages of another book were kept together by industrial sized bolts. There is a sense in this exhibition that in some cases the photobook – as Gesamtkunstwerk – is edging towards the very boundary of the book as a commonly recognizable object.
By focusing on photobooks from Japan however, the exhibition of course also comments on a cultural specificity. While in the West the exhibition might be the preferred method of presenting photographs, in Japan, the photobook is the most common platform for disseminating photography. As pointed out in Vartanian’s illuminating study, the historical origins of the photobook as an emerging cultural industry can be traced back to the 1960s, and perhaps more specifically, to the emergence of a radical new type of photography ideologically aligned with the New Left Movement. Photobooks often allowed photographers to bypass the more traditional publishing outlets under heavy control of government policy. These radical origins of the photobook in Japan are equally visible in the exhibition: pushing the physical limits of the photobook is historically located in the belief that the medium of photography can push against ideological and political restrictions.
There is also an economic reason why the photobook flourishes, more than the photography exhibition, in Japan since emerging photographers are often locked out from the gallery system. This gallery system can be roughly broken down into five parts: public galleries, private galleries, department store galleries, camera manufacturers’ galleries and rental galleries where photographers can exhibit their work in exchange for a fee. For the vast majority of emerging photographers, the latter is the most viable option as the former are usually restricted to more established names. Faced with the increasing cost of exhibiting their work in often-tiny rental galleries, photographers instead invest in their work by publishing it as a book and thus reaching a wider audience.
The elevated value of a publication over an exhibition can also be seen in the way photography awards are structured in Japan. A nomination for the UK’s most prestigious photography award, the Deutsche Börse Prize (also on display at The Photographers’ Gallery at the moment), hinges on an exhibition. In Japan, a nomination for the most prestigious photography award, the Kimura Ihee Prize, follows the publication of a book. In short, as a consequence of specific political, economical and institutional developments, the photobook has flourished into a booming cultural industry in Japan. This exhibition is a timely, however, also selective case in point.
If you are interested in the emergence of ‘provocative’ photography in Japan in the late 1960s, please download my essay below:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.