The Japanese Photographers Who Build Experimental Artist Books

Osamu Kanemura and Hiroko Komatsu speak about photographing Tokyo, the virtues of the Plaubel Makina camera, and why a single picture is never enough.

Osamu Kanemura, All the needles on are red, 1998, from Spider’s Strategy (Osiris, 2001)

In October 2021, Hiroko Komatsu and Osamu Kanemura held a parallel set of exhibitions at the newly reopened gallery space of dieFirma, New York—Komatsu’s Sincerity Department Loyal Division and Kanemura’s Looper Syndicate. In Komatsu’s installation, upstairs, visitors were welcomed by a subtle and moving smell, a combination of photographic paper and printing chemicals, that enveloped them as they walked through photographs, and on photographs, in a multisensorial experience. Amidst the prints, Komatsu also presented a selection of her new artist books. Downstairs, in Kanemura’s exhibition, visitors encountered a monumental collage made of twenty thousand color photographs, mainly of the artist’s hometown, Tokyo, and a few of New York, complemented by a (loud) film on a loop as well as a myriad of books on pedestals that all were invited to browse. Pauline Vermare recently spoke with Komatsu and Kanemura about these experimental installations.

Hiroko Komatsu and Osamu Kanemura, 2021

Pauline Vermare: What struck me first as I visited both of your installations is their incredible physicality: the utter joy of being surrounded by unframed prints and handmade books, of being in such direct contact with your art in an intimate and nonprecious way. It seems like a visceral reaction to our world, a desire to re-materialize, which feels so good in the midst of this COVID crisis. How did this work come to life?

Osamu Kanemura: While many people have been staying home for the past year, I’ve been out taking photographs of Tokyo using the Ricoh GR. I’ve been thinking that a digital camera should be completely different from a film camera and wondering how I could exhibit digital photography that is more than an imitation of film photography. That’s why I decided to present a large number of photographs, not in a conventional way where enlarged, framed photographs are exhibited in a white-cube gallery but as an installation and as handmade books.

Hiroko Komatsu: Same as Osamu, I was busy going outside to take pictures. Actually, I found it very easy to do so because there were few people outside amid the pandemic. In Tokyo, there had been a building rush linked to the Olympic Games, but much of the construction had been halted as part of lockdown. I enjoyed taking photographs of those empty construction sites, which gave me an impression of shiny ruins. When people look at those pictures, they can’t tell whether the scenery shows the process of building or of demolishing something. Those who work in these sites are so-called blue workers, and I believe those sites are where you can see the people who make up the lower part of our society and our infrastructure most clearly. As a photographer, I think it is very important to visit such places to take pictures.

Spread from Osamu Kanemura, Bird Study (Artist book, 2021)

Vermare: Osamu, would you tell us about your other camera of choice, the Plaubel Makina? In your excellent 2019 book, Beta Exercise: The Theory and Practice of Osamu Kanemura, a collection of your interviews and writings, you explain: “The Plaubel Makina, which creates an element of unintentional noise, taught me the importance of unintended effects. . . . This adds street snap-like motion to static, urban landscape photos.”Why did you choose that camera?

Kanemura: Well, Daido Moriyama was already photographing Tokyo with a 35mm camera, and I didn’t want to do the same thing as him. So I decided to use a camera with better image quality, which was a 6-by-7 camera. I chose Plaubel Makina because it was lighter, which is an important factor for someone like me who shoots all day long. One of the features of the camera is that its viewfinder coverage is 80 percent. With such a wide coverage, when I try to take a picture of something, the object in the foreground enters the picture. Now, I consciously include things in the foreground in my photographs, but I used to think such a photograph would be a failure. Eventually, I realized that it would be more interesting if things I hadn’t imagined or things I had thought of as obstacles were in the images. This kind of “noise” in photography should be appreciated, I thought.

Vermare: Both of you have incorporated the creation of objects into your recent practice, which we are surrounded with tonight as they feature prominently in the exhibition. I’d love for you both, maybe starting with Hiroko, to talk about those incredible objects—they’re something more than books, really. Black Book #1 (2021) actually is a bottle, filled with little cut-out pieces of paper that are the words from Greta Thunberg’s book No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. Another one is filled with Theodore Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and Its Future: The Unabomber Manifesto. Hiroko, can you tell us about those books, those objects, and how you started making them?

Komatsu: In making my first artist book, Book #1 (2016), I wasn’t interested in selecting photographs from the approximately one thousand photographs to be shown in my exhibition and arranging them. Nor did I want to make a catalog from the photographs. I felt such a book would not represent what I was doing. I’ve been photographing my exhibition sites with the same camera I use in making the work outside. One time, I put those photographs of my installation side by side with the ones I took outside, and there was something consistent about them, and that inspired me to put them together for Book #1. Digital technology is also an important tool for me, and I digitally scan images made with an 8mm camera. The idea behind my artist book Black Book #1 is that text and photographs are very similar. A single photograph is not enough to make sense. A single word doesn’t make sense by itself, either. And when you put together multiple photographs or words, a meaning emerges. Also, when you take a picture, you frame a part of reality, and then you move the image to another place, such as an exhibition venue or bookstore. I thought the process was very similar to cutting out texts from a book and putting them in an object—in this installation, a bottle.

Installation view of Hiroko Komatsu: Sincerity Department Loyal Division, dieFirma, New York, 2021. Photograph by Hiroko Komatsu
All photographs courtesy dieFirma, New York

Vermare: In your case, and in Osamu’s work with books as well as with photographs, there’s this idea of accumulation. Osamu, you have recently been making two kinds of books: the ones that are collages of images and elements that you cut out and assemble in colorful, unique albums and those made from existing books that you intervene on, by drawing in them, cutting them. When did you start this process?

Kanemura: Before, I had a strong idea of what a photobook should be like. The reason I’m interested in handmade books is because it’s very interesting to see the preconceived notions of books that I’ve been trapped in until now breaking down. I couldn’t treat photobooks violently because I was thinking about distribution and preservation. But once I got rid of those things, many ideas came to me. For example, I cut or fold the pages of a book with a cutter or use tape that will not be well preserved. I made my first artist book two years ago. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable about my black-and-white photographs because they were like tableaux. It was also then that I visited New York and bookdummypress (bdp). I was shocked to see the handmade books of Victor Sira, the director of bdp. I thought, This is more like a drawing. I also found it very interesting that he didn’t aim to complete his works but presented them unfinished. I decided to do what he was doing, with collage as a start.

A single photograph is not enough to make sense. A single word doesn’t make sense by itself, either. And when you put together multiple photographs or words, a meaning emerges.

In making collages, I use such materials as digital photographs and clippings from magazines and newspapers. I also realized that I could do things with digital photography that are difficult to do with film photography: taking photographs of my life, of what I see on a daily basis, and displaying my politics. I’m Zainichi—a Korean living in Japan—and because of my origins, I’ve encountered situations that have forced me to feel uncomfortable with the Japanese system since I was a child. In Japan, for example, you can see ads of racist magazines in major national newspapers. They say, “Zainichi Koreans should leave Japan.” This is also my daily life, and I’m clipping those words, too, in my collages. I like to make something out of something that exists, rather than creating something from scratch.

When I make my artist books, I use other people’s photographs, texts, and printed matters, and by doing so, I try to deconstruct the meaning and context of others’ materials and create another context. In this respect, photography is the same. It’s about framing the part of reality that exists in front of us. You may have noticed that I have repeatedly drawn circles in my artist books, using a special ruler. In other words, I drew the shape of an object with a tool, which made me realize that what I do with a camera is photograph the shape of an object. My every action serves to expand my concept of photography.

This piece originally appeared in The PhotoBook Review in Aperture, issue 247, “Sleepwalking.” Interview translation by Yuri Mano.