Jesse’s book review, Alaska Eskimo by Yukichi Watabe
Jesse has been busy lately with his film projects, but he has still managed to put out another brilliant review of a wonderful Japanese photo book. Check it out.
With photo books it is important to understand what their purpose was as they are now today. Before the Internet: encyclopedias, magazines, and libraries were your guide to the world and a lot more went into accessing the information you wanted.
If you come from a country like Japan in which your language is only spoken in your own country, information could be even more difficult to come by. Photographers were sent to the ends of the earth to provide people of their countries with images often in the context of their own cultural view. Today these books are still important in that they show us images taken by actual good photographers and I guess one can say the fun is in seeing a photographers style utilized to say shoot Eskimos in Alaska.
You may remember the photographer’s name here from his more recently released photo book, A Criminal Investigation. However, he is one of the few Japanese photographers who made his name from work outside of Japan, primarily in the early 60s with his work in Egypt and here with Alaska and later Morocco. Although starting later his career later, he is from the same town in the north of Japan as photographer Ken Doman and both would be notorious as say a Eugene W. Smith in seeing an assignment to the end and not stopping until perfectly satisfied. And interestingly enough due to WWII he was essentially a darkroom technician and due to the man shortage was given a Leica and put straight to work never really having an amateur period.
The book is done in three parts. Before the beginning of Part 1, we are treated to an aerial shot and topical landscape shots setting if you will the atmosphere for the book. Part 1 is concerned with the Inland Eskimo at Anaktuvuk Pass. We see their daily life and communal aspects of their culture. When not hunting it seems time is passed with crafts and dancing. Their attire gives the complete Eskimo look, as most would imagine with the furry hoods.
In a lot of those shots Watabe likes to use the outlines of the hoods in the foreground to fill his frames with the vast winter nothingness in backgrounds. The heavy tonal contrast is a point of focus for a lot of the outdoor photographs here setting a point of interest by design on the Eskimos. I like the sequence shots as well of the woman weaving threads. Sequence shots are something I think are heavily lacking today with the Internet format and the one money shot everyone goes for as a result. Books always seemed to suit sequences best, while with exhibitions it could go either way. Part I closes with landscapes that seem to dwarf the Eskimos and the animals they hunt much like the 1950s American westerns did that seek to express not only the isolation, but also man’s true proportions to nature.
Part 2 looks at the Coast Eskimo at Point Barrow. Instead of hunters they are fishers after fish, seals, and whales. We see the complete effort it takes for men to conquer such a vast creature as a whale and see the women for their part assigned with cutting up the prey.
In particular I liked the action shots on the boats. For another film reference the manner in which they are shot is reminisce of the Italian neorealist film Stromboli by Roberto Rossellini. It takes place on a small volcanic island that sees the community come to gather to fish and many of the scenes were shot raw, focusing on the contrast between man in his self made boats and the ferocity of the sea and power of the creatures they were trying to capture.
Part 3 concerns itself with the Whaling Feast at Point Hope (you can tell this is Alaska with the unique mix of names for these locations). The Whaling Feast is a major event for the Eskimos as we see the preparations and celebration they have for the occasion. The chapter starts off showing the complete use of the whale from it bones being used for cemetery crosses and fences (curious how they bury the dead since the ground must be frozen solid) to the structuring of their huts. Everyone from the children to the elderly are tasked with jobs that end in dance. Visually the lives of the various Eskimos are depicted visually with out a single explanation beyond locations.
This book is the 20th edition in this Japanese series that I just love. Each book is dedicated to a Japanese photographer you should know. Over the decades a few have become quite rare and while others can still be easily had for around their original value of 15 USD (not sure the exact value with inflation). Previously I reviewed Fukase`s Yohko that is 8th in the series and on the more pricey end of the spectrum in this series. While they are tough to find they aren’t impossible and any book you can get serves as a rewarding experience.
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:
Some of the old Japanese books just blow you away. They show an adventurous spirit that your rarely seen in the society today. Looks like I shall be trying to hunt one of these down. Hara rules. Thanks Jesse.
Want to read Jesse’s other great reviews? Then click here to go to the archives.