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DISTINCTIVELY JAPANESE II
Photo Historian, Critic & Writer
My task is to write an introductory text to contextualize some 20 Japanese photographic works selected for the forthcoming Photographs auction. This is more challenging than it might seem at first -- the works gathered here not only come from different periods but also exhibit considerable diversity in terms of technique and style. The selection includes, for example, a snapshot of young men in Akita, an agricultural region in Japan, by Kimura Ihee from 1952 (lot 49), and Sawada Tomoko's multiple self-portraits, executed in 2006 (lot 59). Discussing such wide-ranging photographic projects within a single framework is not at all a straightforward proposition.
Further, the fact that I am myself Japanese and have been researching and publishing mainly on the history of Japanese photography multiplies the complexity of the task. Most people would agree that when you write about something, it is easier to be objective and precise if you can observe the topic from a certain distance instead of being very close to it. I am even tempted to think that perhaps a European or an American photo historian might be able to make more reliable judgments about the works in question.
Yet after spending some time scrutinizing this group of at first seemingly unrelated images, I began to feel that, nonetheless, a number of common elements united them. In the following paragraphs, I will explore the nature of these invisible threads that link the works.
What one immediately notices are the extremely meticulous and highly sophisticated techniques that the photographs display. Undoubtedly, a key element of the allure of photographic works is the object quality of the prints. Japanese artists and artisans share a tradition of creating a wide range of objects within the fields of painting, sculpture and architecture, as well as ordinary household goods, displaying their professional skills through a characteristic and painstaking attention to detail. Such ingenious 'hand techniques' are also marvellously at work in photography -- a medium introduced from the West in the second half of the 19th century. Looking at the works of Kitano Ken (lot 61), Matsue Taiji (lot 56) or Onodera Yuki (lot 53) can make one feel as though one is confronted with a fine-woven tapestry or a perfectly crafted ceramic vase.
Another common element is that in many cases Japanese photographers aspire to express not external reality in itself but their own image of the world, transformed metaphorically according to each artist's unique vision and technique. Let me use as an example JumonjiI Bishin's Kubinashi [Headless], a series of photographs taken in 1971 (lot 50). This series was shown in the New Japanese Photography exhibition held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1974. Born in 1947, Jumonji was the youngest among the 15 participating artists (fig.1).
It goes without saying that the head or the face is the central element in portraiture and its absence is usually unthinkable. Jumonji dared to shoot people 'headless' and thus transformed views of the ordinary world into something quite eerie. We as viewers might try to work out what kinds of people are represented from the way they dress or how they pose. But the real answer always eludes us. Our imagination, at once intensely stimulated and disturbed, is ultimately left suspended in midair, embracing anxiety.
A similar approach to a metaphoric world -- evocative of solving a riddle -- is felt in Narahara Ikko's Engraved Arrow of 1972 (lot 52) and Hatakeyama Naoya's Underground images of 1999 (lots 64-67). Without a doubt, these photographs show aspects of the external world delicately fixed through the application of sophisticated techniques, but at the same time they appear like a collection of enigmas. For a long time Japanese photographers have been fascinated by the process of transforming views of the real world into magical images as though they were alchemists. This selection of works by Japanese photographers reveals the intricate, delicate and kaleidoscopic variations in their metaphoric transformations of our world.
N.B. In this introduction and section (lots 49-67), Japanese names are given in the standard Japanese order, surname first, except when they appear in Western order in publications and citations.