The current exhibition
in the reopened Photographers’ Gallery, Contemporary Japanese Photobooks
, isn’t your average exhibition. Instead of the usual ‘do not touch’ signs, you are encouraged to don a pair of white gloves (provided by the gallery) and pick up any book that catches your fancy.
There is a large variety to choose from, as the books come in different sizes and shapes, ranging from the large hardbacks to the palm-size, from the ‘proper’ book with contents page, foreword, essay etc to the fold-up leaflet. There was even a scroll, made by this year’s Deutsche Borse Photography Prize’s nominee Kawauchi Rinko. Not used to handling those, I was rather clumsy and, holding the head of the scroll, I dropped the end of it onto the floor at one point. (Oops. Luckily I wasn’t told off, the gallery assistant just popped over and nicely asked if I needed any help…)
With hundreds of books in the room, you get to see a much larger number of artists and works than you would in a normal exhibition. But the exhibition is much more than a space-saving tactic: it took its current form because the photobook is a common way to show photographic works in Japan. Unlike its western counterpart, the photobook in Japan is not just a way to catalogue and document photographs which should, ideally, be seen in the flesh. It is not subordinate to the photograph displayed on gallery wall; in a sense, its pages are the walls.
The photographers experiment with layouts and opt for the format best suited for particular works or series. Among several books by Araki Nobuyoshi is one that consists entirely of thumbnail images, showing that small size isn’t always a disadvantage for images. Seeing forty carefully juxtaposed Araki photographs on one page is simply a different, but not discounted, experience.
The curators are after a non-hierarchical approach, and it does work quite well. There is no established sequence for viewing, no start or end point in the exhibition. While some photographers have more books on view than others, none of them is highlighted and there is no introductory texts on any of them. As everything is contained within one room, it is easier to hop back and forth the space. The visitor can even take up the role of the curator momentarily, just by shifting the books around.
The book format allows the viewer to establish a different kind of relationship with the works. One that is more intimate, as you hold the book in your hands and peruse the images at your own pace, without having to worry about being in somebody’s way; and also more private, as you find yourself engaging with the images in your own space, because the person next to you wouldn’t know what you are looking at. It could well be a picture of a naked woman tied up or an innocent collection of trees in a forest.
In many cases, the photobooks can be seen as the actual works of art, and as such they give rise to a new model of consumption and circulation of artworks. Compared to the unique artworks and the limited editions, these can be collected and enjoyed in private by a great many people because of their affordability – much less exclusive, and more egalitarian, I would say, which is why I love them.