An era’s ideas expressed with that era’s latest technology
Kobayashi: There was one image among the photographs exhibited at Epsite which showed a building with a tiled facade. When I looked at the photo again, suddenly a particular artist came to mind – Albert Renger-Patzsch, the German New Objectivity photographer. He photographed anything he could with as much detail and sharpness as possible. Animals, factories and so on, he photographed it all up close, from the front. There’s one image by him called “Snake Head” (1927), of a curled-up snake. When I line up that picture with your photograph in my mind, the bright, reflecting scales of the snake overlap with the tiles of your building. That’s an unexpected connection, isn’t it?
Itami: In some way, I’m doing the same thing that avant-garde photographers did in 1920s Germany with the latest technology available at the time, and my photographs and Patzsch’s somehow evoked the same feelings and ideas in you. That’s fascinating, isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder what Patzsch would say if he were alive today and he could try out SIGMA’s Foveon sensor.
Kobayashi: Photography really is a medium of expression that results from a combination of the circumstances and the technology available at a given period in time, isn’t it?
Itami: Right now we’re in an age where photographers have the power to use all possible kinds of expressions. Take the Masahisa Fukase exhibition at this year’s Kyotographie International Photography Fair, for example – Fukase was a photographer who experimented with every possible techniques. Even though everyone now says how much they respect Fukase and his work, there are only few who actually follow his example, who try to do things beyond the usually real of the photographer. If they truly wanted to see things they have never seen before, then I think the only way to achieve that is by keeping pace with today’s technology.
Kobayashi: There’s an artwork called “Light-Space Modulator”, first created by László Moholy-Nagy in 1930 and re-created in the 70s. It’s a machine made of metal and acrylic sheets, moved by a motor, which uses reflections to light up everything in its surroundings. The point being that the piece incorporates its surroundings to create a certain effect. I think there’s a certain connection with your exhibitions. In your work, you don’t try to express anything through individual photos or expose your inner world or anything like that, is that right?
Itami: Yes, it’s not like that at all.
Kobayashi: As an artist, your point of view is unavoidably subjective, but for exhibitions, you need to regard your finished works from a somewhat remote, objective point of view. And I find it interesting that this point of view, for you, sees a glimpse of the temporary trial-and-error processes during your exhibitions.
Itami: Yeah. Exhibitions examine the gap between the already finished photobook and how the photographs actually look when it is placed in a space.
Kobayashi: Let’s talk about this in more detail while we look at a few photobooks.
Meeting RONDADE’s Osamu Sakuma
Kobayashi: Let’s begin with your first photobook, “Study”. In the book, there are fifty successive pages of yellow paper with the words “Go Itami Born In Tokushima 1976” written in the top left corner. Why did you choose this particular design?
Itami: It was my first photobook, and that’s when I started being able to see my own work more clearly. The company that published it, RONDADE, actually were a music label which published CDs. The company’s owner, Mr. Sakuma, is a special person. He has a very high standard for CD jackets. One day, I was contacted by them with a request to use one of my photos on a CD sleeve. Back then, no-one knew about me or my work, it was a rotten time for me. I was very happy to work together with them. But at some point during the planning and preparation stage, Sakuma said to me, “if I focus on your work too much, it’s disrespectful towards the music. And if I focus on the music, it feels disrespectful to ask for your cooperation. We’ll cancel the idea to use your photo for the current project. But instead, let’s make a photobook together!”
Kobayashi: That’s how it started?
Itami: To be honest, at first I thought it seemed a bit shady. Besides, I wanted to know what he thought was interesting about the photos. So I told him, “please go ahead. You’ll have full freedom, from the selection of the photos to the size of the book, the design, the binding and so on. I’ll provide you with my work, and I’m looking forward to seeing the book”, and I sent him all my photos. He replied, “understood. I’d like to ask Simple Society [German-Japanese design collective based in Berlin] to design the book.”
A while later, he contacted me—“it’s done!”—and sent me a PDF of the photobook. The 50 yellow pages that just go on and on, they look like post-its, don’t they? The general idea they went for was, “what’s so bad about a photobook falling apart?” Who cares if the pages come loose, just stick them back in – that sort of idea. I was very surprised when I saw the photographs they had selected for the book. This is what my photos look like to people, I wondered. And the photobook was in an upright format, too. At any rate, everything felt fresh, and I was excited. The whole project has also freed me of a lot of received knowledge that had burdened me, and allowed me to hold exhibitions at places like VACANT in Harajuku and POST in Ebisu.
A new prototype for the relation between photobook and exhibition
Itami: When I asked the designers about their inspirations for “Study”, they told me they wanted the book to express a direct connection between my birth in Tokushima in 1976 and the here and now. They also liked the creepiness of the movie “Shining”, when Jack Nicholson types away on his typewriter, and told me they tried to emulate the feeling of leafing through the pages of a phonebook. I wondered “are they serious?” but I enjoyed listening to them all the same.
Kobayashi: How did you approach the exhibition at VACANT, which you held before publishing your next photobook?
Itami: At that exhibition, I combined photographs from the already published “Study” with new photographs which would eventually end up in “this year’s model.” I created the prototype for exhibitions like today’s back then. In those days, I was still exhibiting my work photograph by photograph. I could only concentrate on single images, rather conventional. Looking back, the photographs themselves haven’t really changed that much over the years. On a fundamental level, I mean.
Kobayashi: Next, there was the exhibition at POST.
Itami: Yes. By that time, I was already doing a lot of different things in my art. For example, my photographs became layered, like traditional Japanese ukiyo paintings. A road, people walking on that road, utility poles, traffic lights and so on overlap and form many layers, and the photograph turns them into a flat surface. That’s the sort of stuff I tried to express.
Kobayashi: That’s close to the philosophy of printmaking, isn’t it?
Itami: Yeah. This awareness has stayed with me, and I try to incorporate it in the exhibitions I hold.
Kobayashi: You always find a different approach for each exhibition, whether it’s the one at Epsite or the one here at KG+.
Kobayashi: You always find a different approach for each exhibition, whether it’s the one at Epsite or the one here at KG+.
At Epsite, you exhibited your works inside what looked like bookshelves, and visitors could edit and layout the works as they pleased.
Itami: I’m always aware and skeptical of the dangers of my being in full control of something. I don’t really trust myself. I think it leads to much richer results if I involve another person who can intervene. I’d like everyone to make this experience. There is something valuable to be learned from selecting someone else’s photographs. Your way of looking just changes completely.
Kobayashi: The word “study” connotes learning, researching. The word is used to express the act of “trying, figuring out” at various stages. Was that something you wanted to express in the exhibition?
Itami: Yes. In that regard, I think “Study” could be the title for all of my works, but of course that’s not possible.
Distancing yourself from how other people look at your photographs
Itami: Back then, I was often told that my photographs were “very graphical” or “like visual design”. I still hear similar opinions today. But I actually think my work is rather classical, I think I’m doing very photographical stuff. There’s a certain subtext to words such as “fashion” or “graphical”, they sound a little dismissive to me. I’ve always had a defensive reaction to these words. I imagined that, in the understanding of the people using them, there are clear lines and borders, like “the world of photography stops there, and over there begins the world of fashion”. I thought that I should try handing all my photos to a designer, have him dissect my work, digest it, turn it into graphic design. And then exhibit the results – “now is it photography or graphic design?”.
Kobayashi: And this then led to the series “study/copy/print”?
Itami: Yes. There are several things I began to understand very clearly thanks to that exhibition – the difference between my own perception of my work and other people’s, and how well an exhibition can work as a spatial representation of your perception. And also what we talked about earlier, how I myself am connected with history and the past.
Meeting Shin Akiyama for “this year’s model”
Itami: From then on, I photographed at higher and higher rates as I approached “this year’s model”. When I take photographs of objects around me, the desire grows stronger in me to accentuate their otherness. I just want to get really close to the objects. I took more photographs from very short distances, turning the objects abstract in the process, and the result were the photos in “this year’s model”.
Kobayashi: Shin Akiyama again joined the project as a designer, yes?
Itami: Yes, and the presence of Akiyama’s design was very strong in the book. I asked him to participate in the project without knowing whether he’d agree or not. When I showed him the photos, he just said, “yeah, okay”. He told me he’s got an idea and asked if I was interested in it – it was about using acrylic for the book. He told me, “I’ve had the idea to use acrylic for a book design, but I don’t know if it will work as a product. Do you want to give it a shot?”, and we decided to try it out.
An entirely new approach, without intention or subjectivity
Kobayashi: How did you decide which photographs to use?
Itami: We had already done a light pre-selection of the photographs, and both Sakuma and I wanted a third party to join and approach the project in a way that neither of us had thought of, and so we invited Akiyama to work on the book. But as we went to Niigata Prefecture to meet him, he told us, “ on the Shinkansen here, shuffle the photographs as if you’re playing cards”. And boy did we shuffle them (laughs). In Niigata, we rented a large room at the community center and arranged the photographs in groups of two photos each. If they fit together well, we kept them like that. The rest we shuffled again. We repeated this process over and over, until about three hours later we were done. Even though we relied on the element of randomness, the book actually is a result of our attempt to make a selection based on intuition. At first, it may look like a logical, thought-out selection, but in truth three people selected and arranged the images based solely on their instincts.
There’s a tendency in audiences, especially from Europe, to over-interpret these things. “There must be a certain meaning to the order and grouping of these photographs and the way the book unfolds”, things like that. I always answer, “I’m sorry to disappoint you but we decided on the order by playing card games.” But of course they still won’t believe me. (laughs)
Kobayashi: I know what you mean. Audiences look for meaning.
Itami: Yes. But Sakuma, Akiyama and I, we deliberately chose an approach that excluded meaning. I think that aspect of our photobook is groundbreaking. The next project to follow was “photocopy”, but the creative hurdle was set really high.
Kobayashi: You showed me a huge collection of prints before you began to work on “photocopy”. I remember thinking “this is beyond me.” (laughs)
Itami: Personally, I think “photocopy” is the polar opposite of “this year’s model”. I wanted to create something completely different. I’m heading towards a more photographic approach in my work.
The book design of “this year’s model” was stunning. But with this project, rather than rely on the strength of the book design, I had to improve the thinking behind my images, and the strength of the images themselves. That’s why the photographs themselves had to be different, and why the design of the book had to be different, too.
Changing the process of creating a photobook
Itami: Now, I thought it would be interesting to show the entire process of creating a book, from start until it is finished. And, actually, can’t we incorporate some of the feedback we’ll receive on the way? I talked to Sakuma about this idea, and while we were creating the book, we exhibited our entire process during shows in Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo and Taiwan, and held meetings that people could attend.
Itami: I wanted the photobook to be in A3 size. I began by printing out about 700 photos which I showed to Sakuma. In Osaka, we spread the 700 photos on the ground and told people, “We will create a photobook with a selection of these photographs. Only, we don’t know yet which photographs to select.” For this book, Sakuma and I had agreed to let Akiyama do the design the book without actually seeing the photographs. Apart from our public meetings, the three of us would not be in contact. It was a bit nerve-wracking.
Kobayashi: Didn’t Akiyama say anything?
Itami: Yes, at first, I had no idea at all how he would react. But after our meeting in Osaka, all three of us thought that this would turn into something interesting. We decided to continue with the public meetings and involving the audience in the book’s creation process.
Kobayashi: How did you approach the basic design of the book?
Itami: Originally I thought of doing a normal two-page spread but Sakuma told me, “if we line up two images of yours next to each other on a single two-page spread, they become a bit too heavy. I’d prefer showing them one at a time.”
It was very difficult, we just couldn’t decide on a format for the book. We thought of many different ideas and dismissed them again. We did not want to make something that deviated too much from the concept of a “book”, but we did want to create a book, no matter what. We had to find something new, a book that we hadn’t seen before. While we continued thinking and brooding, eventually Akiyama came up with an idea, and it was something that we actually had used very often during our meetings: sheets of paper, stapled together at the top left.
You don’t really pay much attention to this effect in everyday life, but the moment you turn over to the next page, the image you’ve just seen disappears from your consciousness. He seemed to really like this idea, and that’s where the design for this book came from.
Kobayashi: And after that, you experimented with the order of the photos?
Itami: They told me that the order was all up to me. I thought about the order again and again. I tried to find an order in which my own feelings were absent as much as possible. But when I showed the result to Sakuma, he commented something like “too emotional” or “it’s a bit sentimental, don’t you think?” I thought, “no, no, what you’re seeing are your own prejudices!” In the end, no matter the age or background, everyone looking at art sees what they want to see in it. It is an impossibility to try and control this process.
But then I had an idea – by changing the order of the photographs in a photobook for each new viewer, you could free yourself of leading the interpretations of your audience and imposing your own thoughts on them.
Photographs are given meaning the very instant they are put in order
Kobayashi: How was it possible to create a new page order for each issue of the photobook?
Itami: It was all done by hand by the people in the printing factory.(laughs)
Kobayashi: Doing public meetings, changing the photographs’ order for each issue, those are very imaginative ideas and processes.
Itami: Thanks. During yesterday’s talk, Hitoshi Suzuki mentioned that, “Nobuyoshi Araki’s instructions were to arrange the photos in the order he had taken them.” In other words, that means he was already editing the photographs while still shooting them, doesn’t it? I don’t really do that. Photographs that I have taken individually are nothing but singular “dots” to me, and it’s impossible for me to forcibly insert a sense of predetermination or meaning into the images when I’m compiling them. Akiyama had similar reservations about this. Without having talked about this, we had all agreed on a similar direction. We decided to stay away from any kind of story structure and artificial meaning, and this photobook is the materialization of that approach.
Kobayashi: with photobooks, there’s a tendency for the design to provide a theme, a box, and this becomes the groundwork which then influences everything else. But your approach rests on a different angle, doesn’t it?
Itami: Yes. Also, all three of us are people revolting against preconceived ideas. (laughs)
But we’re not trying to show off our crazy ideas or be rebellious for rebellion’s sake. I think we have a certain critical sensibility that tries to question common ideas.
The challenge of creating an exhibition which avoids meaning
Itami: For the exhibition, I couldn’t think of the perfect way to incorporate the idea behind my photobook “photocopy”, where the photos are in a different order in each copy, and only a single photograph is visible at any given time.Firstly, there’s no exhibition method that allows each visitor to experience the photos in a different order, photograph by photograph. When I held the first “photocopy” exhibition in Tokyo in March, I tried out different ways to show visitors only one photo at a time, but unavoidably they still saw other images in the corner of their eyes.
Kobayashi: A few minutes earlier, you mentioned that with the book’s design, each image would soon leave your consciousness. But if you put the photobook on the table and look through it quickly, in the end the photos end up overlapping and interfering with each other, isn’t that right?
Kobayashi: And for the current exhibition at KG+, you deliberately chose a design where the photographs would interact with each other, yes?
Itami: Yes, that’s something I just have to accept. In order to create an exhibition, you have to select and arrange your work. Through that process you give the photographs a connection, a meaning, no matter what you do. But I have no desire to control these connections or meanings. Rather, I’d want everyone’s consciousness to focus on a single image at a time.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the photos’ arrangement, their size and so on, but I don’t put them together based on a logic approach. If you asked me to provide explanations for the photographs, that would be possible, but to be honest, that isn’t the important part. Rather than that, I am interested in where people’s eyes will wander when they look at the photographs, what their consciousness will turn to, and then the problem of framing arises.
Kobayashi: Yes, framing’s an important part.
Itami: Framing means to lock an image inside a frame. It is a great technique to lead the consciousness of the audience. And with an awareness of that effect, rather than using physical frames I instead colored the edges of my prints or used painted-on frames. I think with that technique I manage to frame my images in the strict sense of separating, punctuating them. This technique is easily employed thanks to the large-scale inkjet printers we have now, and I tried to make liberal use of it. It was one of my big goals for this exhibition.
Kobayashi: If I take a closer look, the outer borders are covered in pink and other colors.
Itami: Yeah. I also used a variety of shapes to surround the images. I tried to experiment if I can’t use this technique as a replacement for picture frames, It doesn’t matter if the audiences really notice it. With this exhibition, I wondered if I can get the consciousness to pay more attention towards individual images.
Creating works as a Flatness Artist
Itami: Also, everything is connected to what we talked about today… Essentially, an exhibition exists to show your own work within a space, but there are similarities to how I take photos by chance, using randomly arranged things that I collect. Doesn’t arranging my photographs in a large space directly lead to my shooting of the next photographs? Isn’t there a nested structure to all of this?
That’s why I took photographs of the exhibition space in Tokyo last month, with the intention to exhibit the images at a different place once I turned them into works again and flattened them once more. That’s another big goal of the exhibition.
Kobayashi: So the photos you took at the exhibition will form another exhibition?
There’s another question I’m interested in – when you look at a single photograph, what exactly is this “single photograph”? At the exhibition space here, I pasted a large print onto the wall, from one end to the other, over eight meters long, and then added photographs on top. Rather than just exhibiting the flat images on their own, I add one more layer, a physical layer. I try to explore what it really means to look at a single photograph.
Kobayashi: I’d like to invite the audience to pay attention to this when they visit the exhibition later on.
There still is so much left that I would love to talk to you about, but unfortunately we’ve run out of time. Thank you so much for your time!
Itami: No, thank you!
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.