Colin Greenwood on Cuny Janssen, Yoshino
Snoeck Verlagesgesellschaft mbH
Cologne, Germany, 2013
Designed by -SYB-
18 ¼ x 13 ¾ in. (46.3 x 34.8 cm)
19 color photographs
Cuny Janssen’s photographs of the sacred and beautiful Japanese mountain of Yoshino make you feel like you’re there. Her camera directs your eye to the blossoms and branches, streams and forest floors. In one image you float, ghost-like, above the other tourists. She invites us to imagine we are sharing these views with the ancient writers whose texts are interspersed between Janssen’s images. In combination with the texts, Janssen’s photographs become an enraptured revisiting of pre-photographic scenes of Yoshino.
Yoshino’s cover is a Sharpie-pen sketch of woodland; its swaying trunks and entwined limbs are like animist spirits. The book begins with traditional Japanese texts (translated by Jos Vos, who also contributes an essay), which fan out over five widening pages. Janssen’s images don’t appear to be in any seasonal order; rather, they are a series of vivid stills that fix you in their moment of beauty, and are interleaved with writing praising the same occasion.
The book form and design brilliantly serves to narrate the experience of Yoshino. Its size is like a large sketch book, such as you’d take to draw outdoor scenes. Holding this book and turning through its pages is an intimate experience, and the smaller pages of poetry and prose about Yoshino—tipped in on a different paper stock cut to varying sizes—propel the reader along into each sequence of Janssen’s images. I experience the texts between the photographs like a drama’s chorus, exhortatory voices that punctuate longer, more contemplative passages and spur on this storybook. Janssen matches the different tones of the writings with the forms in the photographs—the bare rectitude of the deciduous trees’ trunks is contrasted with the playful, exotic, splayed sprays of kerria, with cherry-tree blossoms, and with the red-gold-green badges of maples. Her photographs convey a sense of personality in nature—particularly in the later images, where Yoshino’s natural glories butt up against human structures. You start to feel that some of the trees—the cherry trees at the back of the house and in the Shinto cemetery, the bright persimmon in the vegetable patch—are indeed spirits. By photographing them, Janssen makes them active, watchful participants in her scenes of Yoshino.
Vos’s essay describes a pilgrimage to Yoshino in steamy August and an arduous climb through the hills in the poets’ footsteps. Through it runs a nice thread about the fallibility of memory as it relates to place. This is underscored by two small, lonely black-and-white photos, which remind me of the depopulated photographs in W. G. Sebald’s books and follow glumly after Janssen’s glorious portraits of nature. Yet Vos and Janssen have created a harmonious book, one that expresses the enduring desire to share some collected memories of Yoshino, a place of pilgrimage, retreat, and return. As Vos writes: “It is as Tanikazaki once said: you can go and party under the cherry blossoms in a Tokyo park, but enjoying the same kind of blossoms at Yoshino, surrounded by spirits of the past, is a totally different thing.”
Or you can just get the book.
Colin Greenwood plays bass guitar with the English group Radiohead. He enjoys photographing the other band members on tour, and is interested in the history of photography. He has recently come back from working with the South Africa–based Children’s Radio Foundation and enjoyed documenting his trip on crf.waste.uk.com.
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.