A book review of Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers
By marty mora
The cliché goes; a photograph is worth a thousand words. If this is true, these are a few thousand words from different Japanese photographers about the how and why of their photography. Setting Sun is THE photo essay book that everyone wants, but unless you are willing to pay a premium price and look hard for a copy, this book unfortunately remains elusive and out of reach for many. Having been lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to purchase this book, I thought it might be a good idea to review it and share some of the wisdom contained inside.
Setting Sun is a collection of photographic essays written by Japanese photographers, translated from Japanese into English. As the wonderful introduction by Anne Wilkes Tucker states, unlike the west, photographers in Japan regularly contribute writings about photography not only in their books, but in magazines and other published works. Indeed, Japan is home to perhaps the biggest market for published works, so it makes sense that many photographers would write about photography.
The book is divided into seven sections, with 19 photographers contributing 29 articles. Leading the pack with the most articles are Araki and Moriyama, four apiece. This is not surprising as they can be considered the two big Japanese photographers that are the most well known outside of Japan (more on this later).
Other photographers have two articles within the book, Fukuse Masahisa, Tomatsu Shomei, Miyamoto Ryuji and Makahira Takuma. Everyone else has one. The seven sections are as follows, along with the number of articles within each: Realism (5), Landscapes (4), Memory and Time (5), Media (3), Photo Log (4), Man/Woman (4) and Sentimentalism (4). This is by no means a complete list of well-known Japanese photographers, but it is a nice spread with something for everyone. Let’s dive in…
Domon Ken, the father of modern Japanese photography, starts us off. It is his adherent opinion of the ‘absolutely unstaged’ photograph that sets the tone of post war Japanese photography. Noting ‘…even the slightest hint of pose, artificiality, or performance in the photograph…with time and repeated viewing…will not hold up.’ This is the underlying philosophy of Japanese photography that future photographers will build on, branch off of, or utterly demolish.
Tomatsu Shomei’s back to back articles layer in the growing Americanization of 70s Japan into his reasons for switching from black and white to color film, while at the same time poking fun of himself for saying that he had seen everything in Okinawa, while truly seeing nothing.
Rounding up this section is Kurata Seiji’s Camp Story Playback, a wonderful reminiscing of a group of fellow photographers in the 70s. His memories of the parties, fashion, and atmosphere in the photography scene help to set a later tone about a sense of belonging and wondering if one truly fits in as a photographer, a thought that has certainly come into anyone’s head who has held a camera at one point.
Ueda Shoji starts with a story about an amateur photo contest which, instead of judging, he put the decision to a vote, only to have the selected photograph be one that was ‘…neither well photographed nor superlatively framed… it was an honest…average landscape photograph…’ This experience taught him that ‘…the common belief that photographers are always right and lay people lack sophistication,’ was not always right.
Takanashi Yutaka takes his belief that ‘photography is a manner of ending, or concluding’ and applies this to the famous Japanese poet Basho, who wandered all around Japan while composing poetry.
Miyamoto Ryuji photographs buildings being demolished, and how the ruins or lack thereof add a sense of ‘desolation’ to the newly built cities. He laments the complete destruction of older, more atmospheric buildings that added character to the surrounding landscapes, starting with the 64 Japanese Olympics, and continuing to present day.
‘The familiar places interest me,’ is the reply Gocho Shigeo longs to tell others when advised that he should venture out of Japan for photography. His landscape is the everyday, the familiar and how the interaction with the familiar leads to the ‘other reality.’ Being a huge fan of Gochos’ work, this is perhaps the article that influences me most; the familiar being the ‘…door to the labyrinth leading to the world of the profound.’
Memory and Time
Perhaps the most basic function of a photograph is to allow us to freeze a moment in time, to commit that memory to something tangible and hold on to that tangibility for as long as we can.
Furuya Seiichi uses the preparation for an exhibition of his wife’s photographs to remember the events leading up to her suicide. His memories recall despite always being surrounded by sickness and death, seeing his wife’s mental collapse before his eyes shook him deeply. Recalling the hope and anxiety along with the before and aftermath of his wife’s suicide, he concludes his essay with saying the photographs of his wife are ‘proof of the life Christine and I lived’ and the wish that his son will one day look at them.
Fukuse Masahisa gives us the history of his photography lineage, starting with his grandfather becoming a licensed (!) photographer, continuing with his father until the start of WW2, and how after the war he acquired his own camera during high school with the thought that he, as the eldest child in the family would be the one to continue the family business. After living in Tokyo for a while (which is common for Japanese youth to do) he returned to his hometown in Hokkaido to take on the family business.
This article by Fukuse ties in beautifully with his recently re-released book ‘Family’ which is a collection of semi-yearly family portraits that are referenced in this article. ‘Memories are simply images that cross one’s mind, while photographs make it possible to see something more,’ argues Miyamoto Ryuji. He goes on to say that a photograph can only be considered an entity ‘…once the scene that it captured has gone from this world entirely.’ He sums up his thoughts by expressing that photographs can only speak in the past tense, and that photography allows us to see what should not be seen.
Sugimoto Hiroshi talks about time, and how time will render everything away. He brilliantly ties in Mishima Yukio’s Golden Pavilion into his thoughts about ‘…existing in a time that no one can see.’
Nakahira Takuma started his photography journey admiring William Klein, and began to take photographs himself. Trying, and failing to make photographs like Kleins, he returned to a more normal form of photography in hopes to ‘expose society.’
Kimura Ihei tells of his experiences in postwar Japan, at first struggling to find work and being without a darkroom to print in. Bouncing from one magazine to the next, he is finally able to gain a stable foothold and focus on projects that he genuinely wants to do. His dream is to photograph outside Japan, in part to meet fellow foreign photographers, but to also help him develop his own skill at news photography. His story encompasses personal experiences such as what film to use when in Europe, and his hopes to meet the widow and children of a fellow foreign photographer who died before they could meet each other again.
Hatakeyama Naoya’s article ‘Lime Works’ is sublime. Upon returning to Tokyo from Kyushu, he reminisces about the time spent photographing a lime mine. The memories that he has from this experience tie in with his childhood memories, as well as comparing the depleting of the mine to the building of concrete cities and how mines and cities are like ‘…the negatives and positives of a photograph.’ His philosophical thoughts cover a wide expanse from farming to the human brain, a truly superb article.
Nakahira Takuma dives into the philosophical side of photography, tying together the topics of time, underdeveloped concepts, man’s place in the world, the ‘dissolution of identity,’ and art, all while explaining on why he chose the title for his work, Illustrated Botanical Dictionary, a title which has nothing and everything to do with his subjects.
The last article in this section, Barakei by Hosoe Eikoh details the experience of being asked Mishima Yukio to photograph him the way that Hosoe wanted to photograph him, as ‘a destruction of a myth.’ The relationship between the two men and a camera draw into play, unknowing intertwined with the impending suicide of Mishima almost ten years later.
Nagashima Yurie is the first female photographer featured in Setting Sun, and her article perfectly complements a photo-diary that she keeps of her husband. She compares a child’s strategy to winning a game of kick the can (a little different from the way it is played in the west) to her feelings about the man she is married to and the accompanying feelings that relationships bring.
‘Being seen by looking, by being seen to look…’ is the thought of Ishiuchi Miyako, another female photographer. Her article starts off with her looking at Araki’s nudes at a bookstore while a 13-year-old boy looking at her asks her to ‘play.’ While reading this, I was reminded of The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore oddly enough. Her article reinforces the importance and duality of looking and being seen.
‘I myself had become a raven,’ clarifies Fukuse in his second article. Like a raven flying about, he describes the events and feelings he has at different points in his life when dealing with his continuing Ravens project. One key point of the article is when he decided to carry a camera with him at all times, a great piece of advice.
The last article in the book, by Sanai Masafumi, is just crazy. Yellow Kodak paper boxes yield a yellow car with shoestring tying ants and that yellow car cannot get clean no matter what. Dogs bark and meals are partaken. A yellow Skyline GT Turbo to be precise.
And there you have it, more or less…
Noticeably absent from my review are the articles written by Moriyama and Araki. This omission is for the simple fact that these two gentlemen are known worldwide for their photography, and have published a huge volume of work. While their articles featured within Setting Sun are undoubtedly insightful, purchasing this book solely for their contributions would be a waste. It is the other photographers, the ones mentioned briefly above that truly help to capture the essence of what Japanese photography is, and for that reason alone this book worth its price tag.
Unless you were to translate their articles yourself, there is almost no other way to read what they have to say, whereas you can read quite a bit of translated work by Moriyama and Araki.
But to sum up their numerous articles, Moriyama is quite philosophical, asking the why, what, and how while creating his own ‘On the Road,’ trip, following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac. And Araki is, well…Araki. Whether it be photographing women, eating too much, his puns, or simply his ramblings, his writings do make for some insightful reading. (Apologies, but I can do no justice to Araki, so I shall not even attempt to do so)
Another notable and delightful point about this book is the connections within the Japanese photography community. Within the articles, people, places, and times are mentioned by various authors, connecting the dots back to other photographers. Also, many of the articles deal directly with specific photobooks that these photographers have released, bringing you that much closer to understanding the photographs you are looking at.
But the question remains, is this book worth it? Yes and no. As mentioned before, pricing and availability make finding a copy difficult. If you read this review hungry for more, then find yourself a copy, you will not be disappointed. My pristine copy has since been beaten up pretty good, but I am fine with this; it was bought it to read, not to collect.
I do hope others who have the book are reading theirs as well. It is a fabulous glimpse into some of the brightest minds in Japanese photography.