As one of the highlights of the Kyotographie satellite event KG+2018, SIGMA hosted a three-part talk session with the topic “photobooks and photo technology from the eyes of the photographer”.
In this article, we introduce the final discussion event “Seeing and Photographing”, which photographer Go Itami meets photography researcher Mika Kobayashi, who contributes the regular column “Ways of Seeing” to SEIN ONLINE.
Meeting at the Epsite exhibition
Mika Kobayashi: Let’s start by talking about how we came to know each other. Allow me to begin – my name is Mika Kobayashi, I am a guest researcher at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, I teach photography at universities, I write about photography or organize exhibitions. In 2014, I organized a two-month-long exhibition of works by Go Itami in cooperation with EPSON, who provided the printers for the current exhibition here at KG+, at their Epson Image Gallery (Epsite) in Shinjuku. And I think that’s how we first met.
Go Itami: Yes, that was the first time, wasn’t it?
Kobayashi: While I was in the very early stages of preparing the exhibition, I learned about your work through an online article called “Geometric Visions of Tokyo” in the American Photo Magazine, which our mutual friend, photography critic Dan Abbe, had shared on his Facebook feed. The thumbnail for that Facebook post was a photograph of an “Emerald Mountain” coffee can.
“What is that?” – photos that stick with you
Kobayashi: The first time I saw that photograph, I thought, “what the hell is this?” Even after I had read the article, this first impression stayed with me. To be honest, many of your works make me wonder “what’s that?” but this one did so in particular. It’s a coffee can that I have seen many, many times before, and yet in your photograph it feels like something is different.
Itami: I have always liked the design of the Emerald Mountain coffee can, perhaps a bit too much. I wanted to use it in a photograph of mine. Of course, I could have just copied the object in my photography as it is, but it felt like that wouldn’t have been enough. Instead, I gave the can to a painter friend of mine and told him, “I don’t care what you do with it, but please paint this. I want to make it into a photograph”. When I saw the finished painting, it was different to how I had imagined it. I was confused; I didn’t feel like I could take a photograph of it. Then my friend had an idea. He filled a sink with water and asked me, “how about we float it in here?” We gave it a try, and I took a photograph of the resulting scene from straight above. That’s all we did, really.
Kobayashi: And then the floating Emerald Mountain coffee can floated through my Facebook timeline and something in me reacted to it. I found the interplay between flatness and three-dimensionality in your work so intriguing that I reached out to you regarding the exhibition I was planning.
The meaning of exhibiting photographs in a space
Kobayashi: Hitoshi Suzuki said the other day that the photobook can be understood as the finished format of photographs, a statement I agree with. The strength of exhibitions, on the other hand, is their ability to offer an alternative, fresh viewpoint, which lasts only for the period of the exhibition. I thought that, with regards to your work, that’s an interesting approach.
Itami: Yes, I agree.
Kobayashi: On the risk that this will not make sense to anyone but the two of us – during the preparations for your exhibition at Epsite, I nicknamed your Emerald Mountain photograph the “principal idol of worship”, akin to sacred objects in Buddhist temples. I planned the exhibition and thought about the use of space in the gallery with that photograph at its center.
Itami: Every time I hold an exhibition, I begin by putting a lot of thought into how to approach the gallery’s space; I think about its structure, its condition. I thought that it wasn’t enough to simply hang photographs onto the walls of a gallery. I wanted to involve the space of the gallery as much as possible. For the Epsite exhibition, I tried to express the notion that “photographs are pieces of paper”. It was important that the backside of the photographs were visible as well, which is why I decided to hang them in mid-air.
Kobayashi: Yes, I see.
Itami: In principle, my general approach hasn’t changed that much. The works I exhibit need to be large in scale in order to show everything I photographed, all the details captured by the camera, even if it was unintentional. Otherwise there will be details that won’t be visible to the visitors. I wanted to use the large-scale prints from the ceiling so that they actually sectioned off parts of the exhibition, it was almost like an installation piece.
Presenting photographs as layered structures
Kobayashi: The photographs you shot of the exhibition itself are a bit eccentric too, would you agree?
Itami: Yes, that’s something I only realized after the fact. You have the photo prints hanging from the ceiling, obstructing your view, and then of course the photographs on the walls as well. Your viewing experience depended a lot on where in the gallery you would stand, it overlapped in complex ways. I had almost expected something like this before I held the exhibition. I had little experience with exhibitions back then, and simply put a lot of blind effort into the preparations instead of focusing on making my intentions clearer. I only noticed that the prints were physically overlapping once I stood inside the finished exhibition, when everything was already set up. But I actually thought the exhibition worked as a physical manifestation of the way I take photographs. And then I wondered whether it may be possible to create a sort of “exhibition views” series, to turn the exhibition itself into an artwork by photographing it. And then I began to take photos.
Kobayashi: Didn’t you do an exhibition at POST before the Epsite exhibition?
Itami: Yes, that’s right. POST is a bookshop-slash-gallery in Ebisu in Tokyo, run by Yusuke Nakajima. When I released my first photobook “Study,” POST let me hold an exhibition of my work. I had no idea what I was doing back then.
Itami: At the time I had this idea I wanted to share, that “everything overlaps, joins together, forms a layered structure.” I wanted to express this no matter what, and was looking for a good solution. The question of how to approach and how to deal with certain spaces is a process of trial-and-error, it took me a lot of work.
Kobayashi: A small print of the Emerald Mountain photo was part of the exhibition as well, wasn’t it? That’s rather peculiar, looking back.
Always aware of being a Flatness Artist
Itami: This is from a big exhibition I was lucky enough to hold in Taiwan about three years ago. The gallery had four large spaces I could use, and so I was able to divide the exhibition into four separate rooms. This particular room I decorated with framed images from my “this year’s model” series which I hung at regular intervals.
Kobayashi: I actually wanted to talk about framing with you! The photographs in the exhibition here at KG+ have colored borders or are simply framed in black ink. In short, you’re using what I would call “pseudo frames”.
Itami: Yeah. My approach is still the same, I use trial-and-error each time. In particular, I’m aware of being a “flatness artist”. When I face the task of exhibiting in a space, I always wonder if it’s enough for me to just put flat images on the walls.
Kobayashi: The photographer as a “flatness artist” – that’s an interesting line of thinking. I think it’s this sort of consideration that may then inspire people involved in your work, for example book designers or people familiar with your subjects, to impart it with three-dimensionality.
Itami: Lately, I’ve been receiving many inquiries where I’m sent clothes or jewelry with the request, “please take cool photographs of them”… (laughs)
Kobayashi: After the Epsite exhibition, I remember you told me you were approached by a German materials manufacturer. They understood you as an artist who photographs the surface of materials and decided to contact you.
Itami: When I receive such requests, I’m very thankful of course, but there’s also a part of me that cries out in rebellion, “There’s more to it than that!”
Kobayashi: When we were preparing the Epsite exhibition, I remember you suddenly said, “wow, look how many images! Isn’t this amazing?” with the glee of a two-year old looking at ants scurrying over the ground and telling his mom, “look, so many ants!” I remember thinking how serious you take primitive joy of seeing.
Itami: Yes, and the key point is, shooting with SIGMA cameras is similar to this. For example, when I went to look at Gursky’s works and saw the joy of the audience – of course there is much more to the work than this, but it is possible to excite people simply by capturing a lot of detail. And I think it is okay to create works based on such a simple reason. I get excited by the crazy amount of detail that finds its way into my photographs, and on a fundamental level, if you fully devote yourself to this process, I think that’s good enough in itself.
You don’t necessarily need to do anything complicated or difficult. If you capture things you know very well at almost scary levels of detail, the scenes and objects you photograph can look completely different and alien. To me, nothing is more interesting, and I wonder why that shouldn’t be enough.
Kobayashi: Yes! I remember how infected I was by your glee when you showed your prints around.
Itami’s homages to photographers and the history of photography
Kobayashi: Okay, I can understand this for individual pieces, but one more question I often wonder about is, “how did he decide to do this?” For example, the Emerald Mountain can — you liked the sight of the can, so you’d like to turn it into a piece of work. You ask a friend to paint a picture of it, then find a sink and let the painting float around in it. These things make you wonder, “what’s up with him?” Another example is this photograph you showed at the Epsite exhibition – it’s an homage of yours to a famous photographer and the history of photography. But the way you pay your respect is peculiar.
Kobayashi: We nicknamed this piece “Powder-dusted Sander”, didn’t we? It’s based on a work by August Sander, one of the most important German photographers of the 20th century.
Itami: Yes, he is one of the grand masters. This was inspired by Sander’s photograph “Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne.”
Kobayashi: It’s a photograph I love as well. The original photo shows the new concept of the woman at the time. It’s a highly praised photograph. And somehow the way you express your love for it leads you to cover it in powder (laughs). The same with the Emerald Mountain can, where you submerged a painting in water.
Itami: Yes, it’s the same. This photograph was the cover of one of the volumes in Sander’s 7th photobook, called “People of the 20th Century”. I love Sander’s photography, and I wanted to use his art in my photography in some way. Well, in the end, it’s pretty much Sander’s photograph as-is, right? (laughs)
Kobayashi: Yes, that’s true. (laughs)
Itami: When you copy the photograph of someone else, especially such a great master, you have to do it with utmost respect. And that meant that it was important to use the original photograph with as little change as possible. I thought it would be enough if something added to the photo, shadows covering it in an interesting way or something similar. In the end I trickled flour onto it, directly from above, and very carefully.
Kobayashi: To cover it evenly?
Itami: It was a surprising amount of work.
Kobayashi: So, you took out the photobook, carried it into the kitchen—
Itami: No, I think it was my living room. I spread out some newspaper below the book, then sprinkled flour onto it. I was careful to cover the parts around the eyes. And then I took the photograph. In the original photograph in front of me, there was the texture of the paper it was printed on, the halftone dots of the print itself – and then the particles of flour I had sprinkled on top of it.
Kobayashi: There’s other things than flour in the photo, as well.
Itami: I don’t remember whether that was on purpose or by accident. The brown particles here, that’s instant coffee. I only realized that after enlarging the photograph later.
Kobayashi: In other words, on one hand we have a reproduction of the photograph, but at the same time, thanks to the coffee grounds, we’re also looking at a ‘scene’.
Itami: That’s right, I would agree.
Kobayashi: If you look very closely, the shadows of the powder actually overlap with the ink dots of the printed photo…
Itami: It’s an amalgamation of different particles.
Kobayashi: It’s all just fine particles, isn’t it. There’s a pleasure in looking at the photograph very closely, but at the same time there’s also something scary about it.
Itami: Of course, I wanted to express Sander’s influence on the photography I’m doing these days, but I thought it would be interesting to use a little visual joke to show my connection with photography’s history.
Kobayashi: If Sander came back to life and saw your piece, what would he say?
Itami: I think he’d be angry with me. (laughs)
How to connect our lives today with the history of photography
Kobayashi: Taking another look at the photographs you shot of the exhibition, I begin to wonder what people alive 90 years ago would say if they saw your work. I’d love to invite a few master artists from history and see what they’d have to say if we took them to the exhibition. Now that I think about it, I realize how rich your technique actually is. It is not simply about your awareness of history or showing off your knowledge of it, I think it’s also dealing with the question of how to live with the history, now, today. You’re very serious in your approach, aren’t you?
Itami: I am serious, yeah. This is the only thing I’ve got a semblance of confidence in. (laughs)
Kobayashi: Yeah, I realize how serious you are about it (laughs). This image here is part of both your “this year’s model’ series and the current “photocopy” series. It’s “Man Ray covered in Iron Sand”, a continuation of the flour-dusted Sander photograph from before.
Itami: Yes. That’s why I was careful not to cover his signature with sand.
Kobayashi: The work in your photo is Man Ray’s “Tears” (1932). How did you shoot it?
Itami: There is a photograph in the series [part of the exhibition at KG+] of overlapping, colorful sheets of paper onto which I glued fake eyelashes. I wanted to use those eyelashes. I wondered which work would be interesting if I combined it with the eyelashes, and I thought it’s best to use them on the most well-known portrait.
Kobayashi: I see!
Itami: Now, I had already done Sander. I thought that with Man Ray, even if you don’t know the photographer, you might still be familiar with his work. And that’s why a version of the Man Ray’s photograph with glued-on eyelashes now exists. But it was too much.
Kobayashi: You can’t do it too cleanly either, can you.
Itami: Yes. I printed out the photo, tried folding it, rolling it up. I experimented with a few different techniques, again and again. And while I experimented, I remembered that I had some iron sand. I spread the photograph out once more and covered it with the sand.
Kobayashi: There’s always an element of chance involved, isn’t there?
Itami: Yeah. There is no preparation, in the true sense of the word. I always begin whenever an idea strikes, and I try to execute the idea before it leaves me again. Walking through the streets, seeing something that strikes a chord with you and taking a photograph of that right then and there, that’s the same process. I don’t like approaching things logically and overthinking them. I take out some of the stuff I have stockpiled, move things around with my hands for a while and at some point inspiration strikes. That’s pretty much my approach.
Kobayashi: I like that, when we look at your “Many Ray covered in Sand” again, we begin to re-examine the original work and how it was created.
Born in 1976 in Tokushima Prefecture. Recipient of the 27th Canon New Cosmos of Photography Award in 2004. Photobook publications include “study”, “study / copy / print”, “this year’s model” (all published by Rondade) as well as the self- published “Mazime”. His latest work “photocopy” was almost exclusively shot with the SIGMA sd Quattro H and the SIGMA dp3 Quattro.
Active in many fields including conducting lectures and workshops on Japanese and international photography, planning exhibitions and contributing to magazines.