This evening, I did a talk event with the writer Akiko Otake at the Educational Foundation Bunka Gakuen. Folks in Japan repeatedly ask me what is the difference between Japanese and Western photobooks, as one audience member asked this evening, to which I replied:
The western photobook, general speaking, is an assembly of reproductions. At some point the photograph made a master set of prints and the work of the publisher is to create something that approaches as closely as possible those prints.
The photobook in Japan, on the other hand, is not viewed as a series of reproductions. Instead, it is through the form of the photobook (or the magazine!) that the image is given a form (ink resting on the paper’s surface). It is that duality of the image in its printed printed (mediated) form that makes the photobook in itself the photographer’s work. In this sense, each photobook, though is produced in lots of thousands, is itself an original. That level of photobook culture is what distinguishes how the photobook is understood/consumed in Japan versus the west.
Also, I find that many if not most photographers in Japan are comfortable with their work remaining ambitious and/or inscrutable. It’s not that they are putting on airs or trying to be cool. It has more to do with being comfortable with indecision, lack of resolution, the breakdown of categorization. This all has to do more with the differences in culture as reflected through the form of the photobook.
Even though the magazine culture here in Japan is drying up, I still see a lot of folks inheriting the legacy of the masters.
Having spent some time looking at more 1960s photobooks from Japan, it’s really quite true how the book itself is part of the experience, rather than a recording of an exhibit that happened somewhere else.