BOOK REVIEW Unwrapping Japanese Photography BY JAKE MILLER The History of Japanese Photography by Anne Wilkes Tucker, Dana FriisHansen, Kaneko Ryilichi and Takeba Joe, with essays by Iizawa Kota,’6 and Kinoshita Naoyuki Yale University Press, in association with The Museum of Fine Arts Houston 432 pages, $65. Critics sometimes like to talk about unwrapping or unpacking a text or a work of art, peeling back layers of meaning and symbolism. The assumption is that the most interesting things are hidden inside. Sometimes the surface of the art, and even the packaging itself, is worth considering. That’s one of the many subtle points that the authors, critics, and curators who collaborated on The History of Japanese Photography are making. The book is the catalog for a show that opened this spring at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, before moving to Cleveland. It includes more than 400 photographs bound together with essays by western and Japanese scholars, critics and curators, maps, timelines, biographies, and lists of important movements and publications. Among them are photographs of the marvelous frames, boxes, and scrolls that early Japanese photographers used to protect everything from ceremonial portraits of the Emperor to rogues gallery mug shots of convicts. The boxes are decorated with delicately carved inlays and calligraphic inscriptions. More recent photographers have packaged their work in bookseverything from short-run fine art editions to cheaply photocopied chapbooks. Some of these images, too, are shown here as they were originally published, with pictures of the book’s cover and binding. Encyclopedic compilations like The History of Japanese Photography are also a kind of package. The ribbon that wraps it all together is the notion that Japanese photography is an important and not very well-known part of the history of photography. The authors make an excellent case. I didn’t find any Japanese photographers listed in Beaumont Newhall’s classic The History of Photographyalthough the index mentions some Japanese cameras. Even a glance at these pages makes it clear that Japanese photographers have been doing world-class work since photography arrived on their shores in the 1850s. There are photographs here that are breathtakingly beautiful and horrifical ly shocking, graphically interesting and emotionally charged. A few are all of these things in a single frame. The evolution of photography in Japan followed the familiar outlines of western photographyearly portraits and touristy curiosities; records of technical and imperial achievements; the emergence of self-consciously “art” photography; and the subsequent entangling of art and reportagebut with details that reflect the unique and often turbulent course of Japanese history and culture of the last 150 years or so. Most of these pictures are little known in the West. The same can be said for the photographerseven the few who have achieved a limited degree of recognition. For example, if we were to judge him by his books that are readily available in the States, we could say 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/1/03
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