Document travels to Arles, France, for the influential photography festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles, and visits with some of the festivals’ most compelling contributors. Photographer Thomas Giddings and Art Editor Drew Sawyer sit down with some of the festival’s most compelling contributors, Simon Baker (Senior Curator of International Art [Photography] at Tate Modern), David Campany (Writer, artist and curator), and Hannah Watson (Director of Trolley Books) to speak about their involvement in the festival and where photography is headed, globally. Produced by Max Hirschberger.
SIMON BAKER (Senior Curator of International Art [Photography] at Tate Modern)
For Arles, you organized the exhibition, Another Language: Eight Japanese Photographers. Can you talk a little about the artists in the show and the title Another Language?
The idea for the show began by looking back at a show that happened at MoMA in 1974 called “New Japanese Photography.” That was really the first time there was a significant show, outside of Japan, that a non-Japanese audience got to see what had been happening in Japanese photography in the 1960s and 1970s particularly. We looked back at that show and thought it would be a really interesting moment to think about what had changed, what was visible and what was not visible in Japanese photography now in contrast with that early moment. It became very clear to us that—looking at that exhibition, which had about 15 or 16 photographers, some of them were very, very famous, like Shomei Tomatsu, Daido Moriyama, Eikoh Hosoe—many of them had disappeared. From that first moment, their careers hadn’t been profiled outside Japan, hadn’t progressed in the same way. Using the exhibition as a jumping off point, we decided to include some of the artists that were in that show and some that weren’t. Even with those artists that weren’t in the show in ’74, we chose series that they’d never shown outside Japan. We had bodies of work by Hosoe and Moriyama, who were the most famous and had the biggest success since and were able to show series of work that had really never been shown before which was very exciting. Two of the photographers that were also in the show in ’74, Masahisa Fukase and Masatoshi Naito, we showed, who really had not really been known now at all compared to Moriyama and Hosoe. We also showed four other photographers all at different points in their careers who really had not had so much exposure to give a sense of a sort of deeper, richer sense of what Japanese photography is like. So we showed Issei Suda, Kou Inose who are both incredible photographers and probably had the biggest response from the audience in Arles, in fact. People were coming up to us who’d never heard of these guys saying how amazing it was to see their work. Also, two younger photographers Sakiko Nomura and Daisuke Yokota, who we thought their work really related interestingly to those earlier generations and took it forward in an interesting way. That was the idea of the show.
Beyond that, the idea of another language was really thinking about, what does it mean to talk about Japanese photography? Does it have another aesthetic or approach to any other geographical region. We thought what connected the works, was the relationship between the everyday and the performed. So you see in the show some very performative and controlled, precise works. In one way or another it came around to the everyday and the world around us as a basis to making photographs. Which I think is quite distinct from the studio based practices we see in Europe and America. There are some things there that I worked on particularly with one Japanese publisher, Akio Nagasawa who was instrumental. He was one of the people who published Hosoe’s book: Simmon: A private Landscape, a series we showed that was created in 1971 and published in 2012. He met with Hosoe and found that work that Hosoe had never published for 40 years. He was very important in bringing forward unseen things by Japanese photography and making it available to an audience today. We had examples of many of these books, both the historic and many of the ones Akio Nagasawa has been publishing to really get a sense of where this research came from. Certainly, it doesn’t come from me as an individual, but from Japanese publishers being very attune to what is and isn’t available and bringing this information forward, which is very important. Likewise, it echoes the MoMA show in 1974 [New Japanese Photography], because then John Szarkowski worked with prominent Japanese critic of the time, Shoji Yamagishi. Not assuming that I personally knew about everything about Japanese photography, but working with a significant figure in Japan enabled us to bring things to the audience in Arles that may have been overlooked otherwise.
One of the reasons why Japanese photographers were making photo books is because there wasn’t an audience or market for print. They were making books that people could buy.
The past few years have witnessed a greater interest in Japanese photography, this year in particular, with an Aperture issue out this summer and the show For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, plus several upcoming group and solo shows in the next year. Why now?
There isn’t necessarily a specific reason for Japanese photography suddenly coming forth, but rather in a more “slow burning” sense. More and more focus has been on photo books. The more that the “photo book” has been taken seriously as an artwork, the more Japanese photography has come to the fore, because Japanese photo books are so strong historically as well. It’s really opened up everyone’s eyes to the fact that in Japan, arguably since the ‘60s, they’ve been making incredible photo books. And recently, through the works of Martin Parr, Jerry Badger and Ivan Vartanian as well as ICP and Aperture in New York, we’ve become much more sensitive to what’s been happening in Japan. If you talk to someone like Moriyama he’ll speak about how the book was the work that he made, and now if someone wants to put the work on the wall, he’s very happy, but originally he conceived it as a book. That was the work, itself. The more audiences come, globally, to take that concept seriously, inevitably, there will be more and more interest about what’s happening in Japan. That’s opened the door to interest in Japanese photography more generally. The show in Houston for example has some really incredible conceptual work that doesn’t often have to do a lot with the book, but without that interest in the book, I doubt that show would’ve happened in the first place.
Certainly with the Tate [Modern], when we did the William Klein and Daido Moriyama show, the basis of that show was the fact that Moriyama was very influenced by William Klein’s photo books and then made the most amazing photo books. Even though the show was full of prints and objects on the wall, the intellectual and historical component of the show was around the book. We’re all very much more interested in photo books than we were 10 years ago, especially in New York with events like the MoMA PS1 Book Fair. It’s very, “in the moment.” In London, as well, it’s become a very exciting place for photo book publishing as well as events and exhibitions, which we’re more and more used to encountering. Going back to the origins of the photo book in Japan, it’s very democratic. One of the reasons why Japanese photographers were making photo books is because there wasn’t an audience or market for print. They were making books that people could buy. That still happens now. In New York, you can go to Dashwood Books in New York and buy a real masterpiece for $50-100, whereas if you wanted to go to a gallery and buy a print, you’d be looking at 10x to 20x that cost. In that way, it’s very democratic. Many more of us can become collectors and enthusiasts with books as opposed to prints.
When you’re not organizing shows at Arles, you’re the curator of photography at Tate. What’s the difference between organizing exhibitions at a museum and a festival like Les Rencontres d’Arles?
I’m sure I wouldn’t have been asked to make a show at Arles unless I was working at the Tate. We have a specific interest in Japanese photography and have been building a significant collection of Japanese photography. There’s a huge difference—Arles is a festival with 35 exhibitions with varying kinds of material being shown, which is really nice, actually. At Tate, we always show photography within the context of all the other art forms, i.e. painting, performance, sculpture, etc. At Arles, it’s really a celebration of photography—always trying to made different connections with other forms of media. There are amazing shows at Arles this year about music and architecture. It’s quite a big difference as a context and an opportunity to be experimental—to show unseen things which museums should do, and maybe do occasionally, but tend to be at more established levels of recognition. For us, it was a great opportunity to research and learn more about what’s happening in Japan, as it was definitely a collaboration. That’s something that’s very important. The nice thing, is that two of the series we showed in Arles will be in our next show at Tate. So there’s a connection there. The next show we have is on photography and performance. We’ll be showing the Hosoe series about a Japanese actor who dresses as a woman and performs in the street as well as a series by Fukase about his wife leaving for work, everyday. She sort of performed for him in front of his window. Those things will be shown at the next show at Tate.
HANNAH WATSON (Director of Trolley Books)
As the director of Trolley Books, what brings you to Arles? Did you participate or did you come to observe?
Both. Trolley were in the Cosmos book fair as a pop-up for a couple of days, but I also wanted to see things and more importantly people. Arles is very social. I was actually planning to get to Arles and find a little trolley and fill it with books like back in the day but I couldn’t find the right one, I’m fussy with trolleys!
What was one of your favorite exhibitions or programs?
Well without being biased the Cosmos book section is a hot highlight in all senses. I also liked Simon Baker’s show on Japanese photography and old Trolley friends Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin’s ‘Congo’. I was also happy to see Sergiy Lebedynsky and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok in the Discovery section, their Euromaidan book was one of the most interesting new projects to come out last year.
The financial crash forced the next generation of artists and photographers to take matters into their own hands and making books and publishing is a very inspiring world. The most creative periods always come out from recession.
There’s been a huge interested in books and printed materials over the past few years. Why do you think that is?
As well as the best way to look at photography, printed matter is also a hugely innovative medium. The financial crash forced the next generation of artists and photographers to take matters into their own hands and making books and publishing is a very inspiring world. The most creative periods always come out from recession. It’s also a reaction against the digital age, that the book as an object would gain significance not lose it.
What are some forthcoming projects from Trolley Books?
A collaboration with The Photographers’ Gallery in London for their first book award, a project by British photographer Angus Fraser on Mexican religious cult Santa Muerte, and a book with Sian Davey and her project on her daughter ‘Looking For Alice.’
DAVID CAMPANY (Writer, artist and curator)
For Les Rencontres d’Arles, you organized an exhibition on Walker Evans in conjunction with your recent book, ‘Walker Evans: the magazine work’. Is Evans well known to European audiences? And what might visitors be surprised to find out by the book and exhibition?
Evans is known in Europe much the way he’s known in America, mainly for the photographs he made of the American south in the mid-1930s. But his career was long and a big chunk of it was spent working for Time Inc., the huge publishing house that owned magazines such as Fortune, Life, Time and Architectural Forum. Evans didn’t really like those magazines, but within them he managed to fashion his own counter-commentary on American society and its values. No celebrities, no consumerism, a love of vernacular design, and a sincere interest in the recent past. Evans set his own assignments. He took the photographs, wrote the accompanying texts, and did his own layouts. This is highly unusual in magazine culture, which is usually so collaborative and committee-like. In the exhibition we present many of these magazine pieces, several of which were shot in color, along with vintage prints. It’s another view of Evans, one that looks at how in his ‘commercial work’ he pursued exactly the same themes and motifs as in his ‘personal work’. That’s a great lesson for any young photographer today.
Printed matter has been central to the development visual culture for over a century, and critical to the development of photography both as a mass medium and as an art form. What’s so surprising is that the museums and the established histories of photography ignored this fact for so long.
Why do you think there has been such a renewed interest in printed materials, whether photo books or magazines?
Printed matter has been central to the development visual culture for over a century, and critical to the development of photography both as a mass medium and as an art form. What’s so surprising is that the museums and the established histories of photography ignored this fact for so long. It’s only since the advent of the Internet that curators and historians have been able to see error clearly, and to grasp the specific characteristics of printed matter for what they are.
Besides your show, of course, what was a highlight of the festival?
There’s a terrific show about the art of the music record cover. It’s lovingly researched and beautifully presented. Who knew Richard Avedon had done over one hundred record covers, many for cheesy French singers in the 1970s? It was great to see Lee Friedlander’s early photographic work for the jazz labels. Jeff Wall doing photography for Iggy Pop? Amazing. It’s the kind of show the Rencontres in Arles does really well, something few other museums or galleries would ever do.