Caught Between Two Worlds: Japanese Photobooks from the Mid-1990s to the Present – Russet Lederman

From the mid-1990s onward, a new generation of Japanese photographers, which included many women, fluidly began mixing and matching traditional and modern subjects. Probing both the national sense of uncertainty that resulted from the collapse of the 1980s Japanese bubble economy and the changing role of women, the photography from this period can best be described as caught between two worlds: old and new, slow and fast, secure and insecure. An unstable calm combined with an over-the-top cute (kawaii) aesthetic, reflective of many contemporary Japanese advertising and marketing campaigns, permeate the images of established and emerging photographers of the late 1990s and 2000s. Several outstanding photobooks representative of both the artificial calm and the blurred social space between old and new Japanese traditions can be found in the ICP Library.
The long exposure seascapes in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Time Exposed (1995) have the Zen feel of a traditional image, while simultaneously approaching its subject matter with a post-modern conceptualism. Rinko Kawauchi’s Hanabi (2001) and Uatane (2001) highlight vulnerability as they unpretentiously explore a hyper-sensitized and highly conceptual way to re-see the ordinary. Vulnerability also pervades the work of Asako Narahashi’s Half Awake and Half Asleep (2007), which precariously suspends the viewer on the horizon line between the calm of the ocean surface and the dangers that lurk below. In contrast, Osamu Kanemura’s Spider’s Strategy (2001) eschews the sparseness of Sugimoto, Kawauchi, and Narahashi to focus on the visually chaotic density of urban Japan. His layered images of tangled power lines and stacked commercial signs speak to a visual claustrophobia that is a consequence of Japan’s rapid postwar economic growth.

The kawaii shojo (cute girlie) culture, another result of a transformed Japanese identity at the nexus of intense commercialization and individualization, is in full force in Mika Ninagawa’s Pink Rose Suite (2001). With full-throttle “girlie” images made in a purposefully non-professional visual style, Ninagawa is emblematic of the late ‘90s girl-photographers championed by Nobuyoshi Araki. Also relying on the shojo aesthetic, but with a stronger social agenda, Miwa Yanagi’s monograph Miwa Yanagi (2007) is significant for its direct questioning of many prevailing sexist practices in Japanese society.

Another recent photobook project that mixes the traditional with the modern is the exquisite limited edition Eikoh Hosoe’s Photographic Theater: Ukiyo-e Projections (2004). By photographing projections of traditional ukiyo-e prints on the bodies of Butoh dancers, and then printing the resulting images on washi paper, Hosoe masterfully bridges the old and new in both a tribute and a commentary on the mix and match aesthetic of 21st century Japan.

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Hiroshi Sugimoto. Time Exposed (1995)
TR647 .S84 1995

Rinko Kawauchi. Hanabi (2001)
TR610 . K39 2001

Rinko Kawauchi. Uatane (2001)
TR140 .K39 2001

Asako Narahashi. Half Awake and Half Asleep (2007)
TR670 . N37 2007

Osamu Kanemura. Spider’s Strategy (2001)
TR655 .K35 2001

Mika Ninagawa. Pink Rose Suite (2001)
TR647 .N55 2001

Miwa Yanagi. Miwa Yanagi (2007)
TR647 .Y25 2007

Eikoh Hosoe. Eikoh Hosoe’s Photographic Theater: Ukiyo-e Projections (2004)
TR654 .H67 2004

About Russet Lederman

Russet Lederman is a media artist, writer and photobook collector who lives in New York City. She teaches art writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York and writes on photobooks for print and online journals, including Foam, The Eyes, IMA, Aperture and the International Center of Photography’s library blog. She is a co-founder of the 10x10 Photobooks project, lectures internationally on photobooks, and has received awards and grants from Prix Ars Electronica and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
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