Jesse’s book review, Utatane by Rinko Kawauchi
This week we have a wonderfully understated and underrated photobook from Japan. Rinko Kawauchi’s work is sublime and thoughtful. This is a real joy to read.
“Unconventionally conventional” must have been the oxymoron statement to make when Rinko Kawauchi came on the contemporary photography scene in 2001. On one hand she simultaneously released her first three books (the one here is one of the initial three) to the world in effect launching herself, yet did it with photos of fish, clouds, fried eggs, ants, and the sky. I was given this book some years back from a friend and I guess now for a few reasons I simply didn’t get it then as I do now. When I received the book, I had already started on the Japanese photography scene and came to find her photos indicative of what I see from most Japanese female photographers in the galleries here in Shinjuku (in a way a point I will make whenever I review Abe Jun’s Kokubyaku). What I didn’t understand then as I do know was that really Kawauchi was first to bring this style to the mainstream, as I was so used to seeing it put forth that I couldn’t truly appreciate…which says a lot about her influence. What really got me into her later was not the greatness of her individual images, but the sheer editing of them. In the previous Kitai Kazuo book I reviewed, I allude to the editing as the book’s strong suit; however it is truly the case with Kawauchi.
Utatane is an exercise in understatement. The books design suggests as much with nothing but a simple image of fish eggs on a spoon from what could be the vantage point of a child. It is at once pure and innocent, yet knowing. With my copy there is no title on the cover but only on the books binding that is entirely in Japanese. The photos are made up of color 6×6 images captured through a Rolliflex that at the time she preferred due to the soft character of the images it produced ( I read recently she shoots a large format and a Canon 5D…lol someone always points out current camera corrections). There is absolutely no text in the book, which to be fair with her photos; words would do nothing but hinder their potential effect.
To reiterate, her editing is just amazing. With a photo per a page, the juxtapositions she creates are really what makes her work…work. I think more often than not when editing a book the juxtapositions can either be “too well put together” or nothing more than an afterthought. This does become an interesting point of western photography versus Japanese as there is always more of an emphasis with Japanese photography on the power of having images work with each other, while in the west it always feels like a succession of one great individual shot after another. This could be further examined to attribute essential philosophical cultural differences as well…
So an interesting aspect of this book was not in being able to remember a photo in particular, but photos in twos. I love the juxtaposition of carp with their mouths’ open to fried eggs on a pan. The center circle shapes of the carps’ mouths and the yellow of the eggs is just an absurdly good juxtaposition. Take another instance of a washing machine and a clearing of clouds in the sky. The suds in the center of the washing machine and the center opening of the sky create opposite but similar effects in terms of their overall loose compositional shape as well as their texture. Yet, another one I like shows us a baby crawling at night in a park with one hand extended forward. This carries to the adjacent shot of an outstretched hand in the immediate foreground and that of a child’s in the background. It becomes a loose visual association with each page that adds to their charm.
The other interesting aspect I got in a few of the photos was the visual association of sources of light. I initially gravitated to these photos when I first glanced at the book which became the theme of her most recent work Illuminance. Although, little balls of light in a fashionable interior juxtaposed against light shimmering on water come off a bit easy; the photo of a street light against mice in a cage is a better example. The light from the street light streaks down almost to the next photo of the mice who are all looking up seemingly to embrace the light. I haven’t flipped through Illuminance, but attended the exhibition at the Tokyo Museum of Photography. I really enjoyed it and particular the short film she shot to accompany the photos. This book with the rest can easily be had from most sites for about 50 dollars.
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.
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This is a great review, many thanks for sharing it with us, Jesse. I have looked at Kawauchi’s work in the past, but only briefly. I will definitely go and have a better look.
Excellent book review as always Jesse! Thanks for taking the time to introduce these gems! I came across Rinko’s work not too long ago and have since been quite enamoured by her whimsical understated work. You did a great job of explaining her work and how thought provoking and joyful it can be to read! Definitely going to search out some of her books to own now!