If you’re at all interested in photography, you will be at least curious in Views of Japan.
From the atmospheric recent work of Rinko Kawauchi to the revolutionary high-contrast black and white images favored by the seminal ‘60s magazine Provoke, Japanese photography has a prominent place in a market hungry for well-designed and collectible photo books. Recent publications from the august publishing house Steidl give you two different portions of Japanese photography to choose from. The door-stopping, 576-page The Japanese Photobook, which quickly sold out stateside, is a thorough and essential history that charts a path from more traditional, conservative photographers to such modern iconoclasts as Daido Moriyama. On the other hand, the modestly handsome Views of Japan, which shares a font with its bigger sibling, is a more compact survey as seen through the print collection of filmmakers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Both tomes are edited by Steidl’s Manfred Heiting, and although the latter book condenses this sprawling topic into a more affordable 128 pages, the dedicated collector will probably want to hold out for the pricier book. Or maybe just get both.
Katz and Huyck, who co-wrote the screenplay for American Graffiti with George Lucas, provide the book’s “narration,” which begins with a telling anecdote about visiting director Akira Kurosawa on the set of his late-career film Kagemusha. Travelling with Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, “passing through shabby industrial towns,” they write, “we wondered how Kurosawa could shoot a 16th century samurai epic in what resembled a dreary day in Jersey City.” That contrast speaks to the character of Japanese photography, which is sometimes unfairly reduced to variations on Moriyama’s grainy “shoot-from-the-hip” aesthetic, but the national character encompasses much more than that.
Attending USC and UCLA film schools in the ‘60s, Katz and Huyck bonded over Japanese movies, and while their best-known work as screenwriters is associated with the most commercial of directors, the first collaboration from the husband-and-wife team was the anti-consumerist 1973 horror movie Messiah of Evil. As collectors, the couple have been drawn to everything from hand-tinted 19th century photographs of samurai and geisha (which are not as sentimental as one might expect) to the most experimental Provoke photographers to the peep-show exploits of Nobuyoshi Araki and other materials that the authors cheekily describe as “nsfpm (not suitable for promotional material).” Views of Japan samples all of these varieties of Japanese photography in brief glimpses and full-bleed layouts that may not be precisely true to the image’s sources, but will sure whet your appetite to learn more.
While their book is ostensibly about Japanese photography, Katz and Huyck’s tales of acquiring their photos at times turns Views of Japan into a meditation on collecting; they relate one story about the DeKoks, collectors with whom they would often compete for rare photos. These desperate photography fiends once helpfully escorted a wheelchair-bound collector into a Paris photo fair, simply as an excuse to enter the fair early and get a head start on the proceedings. (To any crate-diggers who might be reading this: don’t get any ideas about the next record fair.)
As for the book’s content, its merit is a given; if you’re at all interested in photography, you will be at least curious in Views of Japan. Because of the way the book is presented, the deciding factor will be your feelings about Katz and Huyck. While their assessments can be a bit breathless, their stories are endearing and their varied taste in photographs exquisite.