Jesse’s book review – Counting Grains Of Sand by Hiromi Tsuchida
Jesse is back with the latest book review and it is a personal favourite of mine. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
There has been no photographer that I have come across who through a number of techniques and approaches managed to metaphor their country’s social-economic direction like Hiromi Tsuchida. Capa’s career spanned five wars, Cartier-Bresson’s travels defined eras, and Freindlander’s constant change in direction was an individualistic exploration. Even with that there were Japanese photographers whose photography depicted specific periods from Doman to Kitai, yet none did it through so many progressions as Tsuchida did.
His life’s work can roughly be complied into seven distinct works, five of which I will explain here as they relate to the thesis of Tsuchida’s art as a metaphor for Japan’s direction. His first work Zokushin: Gods of the Earth was shot between 1968-1975. Like other photographers at the time, and incidentally novelist too, there was a need to reaffirm what it meant to be in Japanese in the fury of rapid social-economic growth. All subjects where approached here and shot with a level of familiarity that wouldn’t be visited again. Counting Grains of Sands then becomes his second major work. This could be viewed as an antithesis to Zokushin as we find Tsuchida moving away from the individual and traditional in favor of the crowd in a modern context. Shot primarily in Tokyo from 1975-1985, this work comes at a time when the Japanese population was now over 100 million and losing its rural identity in favor of mass urbanization. These crowds are shot at a peculiar distance where faces and expressions can always be made out. The third work of his are all shot at parties in Tokyo shot between 1980-1990; precisely at the height of Japan’s economic bubble. It was time to celebrate which he literally chose to depict here shooting only at high society parties. In a sort of ironic return to form the distance to his subjects is similar to that of his first work. He would come full circle revisiting his first two works, first with New Counting Grains of Sand shot going into the new millennium. These photos were all shot in color and are shot at an even further distance than the first Counting Grains so faces can no longer be made out and the people take on ant like proportions in their daily toils. Here the images actually do make the subjects look like grains of sand, and to even play on the technology of the times as he digitally inserted images of himself in the each photo pushing the limits of the technology or really exploring the possibilities of technology with this sort of Where’s Waldo concept. Coming full circle Zokushin is revisited in his work Zokushin: Gods of the Earth, Continued. This series consists of studio portraits shot in color. The costumes of various regional Japanese festivals are the focus of this work.
With this understanding, Counting Grains of Sand will be the focus for the rest of this review. This book was actually given to me by John Sypal along with two other books at the time. I flipped through the book briefly saw the crowds and sadly never really gave it much more thought. I saw a post from Michael Tan who had a status update thanking John for recommending Zokushin which reminded me I too had the photographer’s work. After really sitting down and examining the book I think my initial disinterest stemmed from the fact that this work is actually quite hard to get. What I mean is there essentially is no point of focus in any one of these photos that contain so much information; instead there are only question marks. Today we desperately need and look for meanings in everything and instead what he gives us is life as it is which quite existentially he leaves it up to us to find out our own meanings. Typically juxtapositions would be used or extremes in distance to either bring us closer or distance us so far that it takes context, but here at this mid distance compositionally we are left with little meaning. Our eye has us wondering from each face which to me only brought up the quote from French film director Jean Renoir, “the ugly thing about life is that everyone has his own reasons.” We see these transitory collectives with no unifying factor each has their own reasons for why they are gathered and a suitable facial expression to match.
On the topic of film, this is really the definitive point I was hoping to make about Tsuchida work. Good films carry a film within film or really a story that is enhanced through mise-en-scène that is an order, composition, harmony, the placing of the subjects, the movement within the frame, the capturing of a moment or look, or really in short the intellectual operation that puts the general idea to work. What I mean is he didn’t set out to tell the story of Japan (if he even did) approaching it all in the same manner. A few days ago, film director Oshima Nagisa died and had a friend point out that for such a great director he really had no style of his own. I pointed out that this was the genius of his art because he let the film’s subject and content dictate each individual film’s style. Tsuchida does this perfectly because every concept he put forth was enhanced by his compositional approach.
Speaking specifically on the photography, there are 73 photos in all and are labeled as such. There are a few that I picked out that I think within the context of this work highlight the points I tried to make and at the same time show a progression in his own work during the period. Photo number 1 (above) is the first shot of the book as its numerical numbering suggests. There is a man and a woman at the photo’s center and through their body language and items they are carrying one can conceive they are not together but just passing by despite what the photo’s juxtaposition suggests. This focus on the couple is heightened by an extraneous finger on the left side that points straight to them. By photo four these extraneous elements are no longer utilized suggesting later on the tighter control of his framing that he developed before the 80s. To comply with attention spans, (this review is long) the other spread I will talk about are in photos 7 and 8 (below). At first glance the double page spread looks to create one massive photo. While the location is indeed the same, the reason for the gathering differs as indicated by the temperament of the crowd. One is for a celebration of some sort while the other is for a mourning which can both only be discerned by looking at the people’s faces as a whole…all of whom are oblivious to the camera caught up each in their own moments. Other curious juxtapositions of double page spreads are the fronts and backs of crowds, or the accessories the people hold rather it be rows of cameras or Japanese flags.
All of the above books I mentioned tend to carry high prices tag on auction sites and Amazon. For the sake of convenience they do have a compilation book that contains samples of his seven works. Whichever you choose his work is simply something to be experienced.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Many thanks Jesse, looking forward to more.