The PhotoBook Review: Collecting the Japanese Photobook, Part Two

A conversation with Manfred Heiting from The PhotoBook Review 008.

Manfred Heiting is an inveterate and encyclopedic collector of the photobook. He began his career as a designer before gaining experience and acclaim as a curator, editor, scholar, and connoisseur of the genre. In 2013, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, added his library of books to their extensive set of four thousand prints from his collection, acquired in 2002 and 2004. This addition will include more than twenty-five thousand titles from around the world, including Germany, the Soviet Union, France, the United States, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and roughly two thousand volumes from Japan. As a committed outsider seeking insight via the Japanese photobook, Heiting’s interest in the form operates complementarily to historian Ryuichi Kaneko’s inside track [as discussed in App Issue 9]. In addition to the forthcoming volume Soviet Photo Books 1912–1941 (Steidl, 2015), Heiting is also at work on the book The Japanese Photo Book: 1912–1980. The following conversation with Lesley A. Martin, creative director of Aperture Foundation and publisher of The PhotoBook Review, appeared in The PhotoBook Review 008.

This article originally appeared in Issue 10 of the Aperture Photography App.

Lesley A. Martin: How and when did you first become interested in the Japanese photobook as a particular area of collecting?

Manfred Heiting: I started collecting Japanese photography in 1972 after a visit to Tokyo to meet with Goro Kuramochi, a curator and editor who later became a friend. He introduced me to a few photographers: Ikko Narahara, Eikoh Hosoe (who helped me a lot), Teiko Shiotani, Shoji Ueda, and others. I knew at that time that vintage prints were not part of the Japanese narrative, and during that visit I only bought a few contemporary prints from those photographers I met. I also acquired some books as part of my reference library, useful to understanding the work of the photographers; they were not seen as “collectible” at that time. It was only at the beginning of the 1990s that my interest in [photographers’] books became more focused. I see 1912 as a decisive starting point for my collection of Japanese books, based on a photobook by Kazuma Ogawa that documents the Meiji emperor’s funeral that year (which traditionally took place at night), Photographic Album of the Imperial Funeral Ceremonies. Floodlights had not been invented yet—just the magnesium flash for close range. The Japanese government purchased all the magnesium they could get and placed it alongside the road so that the long, nighttime procession could be photographed. The images are quite impressive, and I think that is a fitting beginning.

For now, however, I’ve stopped looking at books produced after the 1980s. I call most Japanese photobooks produced after that period “Eastern art for Western taste.” Before the 1980s (and in particular before the 1970s), publishing photobooks was an elaborate and expensive undertaking, and there was only a small market for them. In other words: before a publisher would take the risk, a book had to offer a very good value proposition, featuring the most acclaimed work from well-known photographers, and be well-designed and technically well-executed to ensure that the book would be a commercial success.

In the 1980s, more museums began to show photography, and more publishers saw the photobook as a new and attractive market. More buyers gave the publishers confidence to invest in photobooks, and English became the accepted language of choice for many of those publications. And when the museums rediscovered photography, the most common type of photobook became the catalogue, designed to replicate the individual print on the gallery or museum wall. You saw less diversity of printing and materials, less design, less individualistic layouts—just more and more color surrounded by more and more white paper. In my opinion, these are less “book” than just “printed, colorful paper.” This was the situation in the U.S. and Europe in the 1980s, which soon arrived in Japan and took away the most admired—and different—concepts of the Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s, with their unique design and photographic languages, and their high-quality printing. Photographers and publishers both had their eyes on the international market and adapted to our tastes in order to sell them to us. There are exceptions of course—but I shy away from most of the contemporary Japanese books.

Kazuma Ogawa, Photographic Album of the Imperial Funeral Ceremonies, Top: standard edition; bottom: palace edition. Privately published, 1912

Kazuma Ogawa, Photographic Album of the Imperial Funeral Ceremonies, Top: standard edition; bottom: palace edition. Privately published, 1912

LAM: What were your criteria for buying books when you started to collect in this area? Has that criteria changed over time?

MH: The criteria has not changed much—I am always interested in “complete-as-published” volumes—but the understanding and knowledge of what that means regarding Japanese photobooks has increased, and with the network of trusted local advisors, I now know more of what I am still missing.

LAM: Beyond its completeness and condition, what is it you look for when you buy a book, especially a Japanese photobook?
Are you interested in the design, in the quality of the pictures? Perhaps the real question: do you need to fall in love with a book in order to buy it?

MH: Of course, all of the above. As I have explained before: I am talking about the printed B-O-O-K (I have collected original photographic prints before and have closed that
chapter). Therefore, I am interested in a “book” with all its unique parts and attributes: for its particular photographic language and authorship, its design, layout, size, printing, and binding quality—and that’s for each period and country. If I like a photographer’s work or think that the subject and style warrants “preserving,” I look for every book from a photographer, from every period and most subjects—provided that the book and all its attributes are of a high quality. I think this is a different way of falling in love with a book, but also an admiration for the complete result intended by the makers.

LAM: Are there any particular themes or motifs that you have found of interest or that especially define the Japanese photobook?

MH: Yes. Without being dogmatic, I categorize twentieth-century
Japanese photobooks in four distinct periods.

The pictorial period: This includes publications from amateur photo clubs (which have played an important role in Japan). Also, pictorialism extended longer in Japan than in Europe and the U.S., lasting until the beginning of the 1930s.

The avant-garde: Including the surrealist advertising and Bauhaus-influenced photobooks and advertising of the 1930s (these are not easy to find).

Propaganda: Many books and magazines were published by the imperial government, the military, and the occupying authorities in Manchuria and elsewhere. These materials are quite substantial and more “impressive” than European fascist-propaganda photobooks—but fall a bit short of the creativity
seen in Soviet propaganda photobooks.

The 1960s and 1970s: This is the best-known and most widely admired period of Japanese photography and photobook making. During this period, books were it! And the quality of the photography, aesthetics, and production (mostly in sheet-fed gravure) are unmatched in other parts of our photobook culture.

LAM: The canon of the photobook has begun to solidify in the past ten years. Are there any Japanese photobooks that you feel have been left out of the surveys or best-of listings?

MH: Best-of listings are very bad for collectors who want to do more than just invest in the top/best/rarest of books. The market aspect has certainly helped to focus on a particular period or culture and has brought a lot to light, but other than “the top ten”—or, in particular, prewar photobooks—we are still mostly in the dark, or the books are unrecorded. The Japanese protest photobook is certainly on everyone’s radar, but that does not mean that we know much of what we are after. Robert Hughes, the most celebrated art critic of the later twentieth century,
famously stated, “What strip mining is to nature the art market has become to culture”—this fits perfectly into our field as well.

LAM: How would you define the relationship between connoisseurship and scholarship in your role as a collector?

MH: In my particular situation, my quest and my goal cannot be separated: I seek to combine both connoisseurship and scholarship. I basically collect the twentieth-century photobook (more precisely the “printed photobook,” from about 1886 until 2000). Because of the two world wars, the twentieth century is a difficult period for the photobook—so much was produced and so much is lost forever, including most of the subject matter, and history needs to be preserved. I see the photobook in the twentieth century as one of the most important mediums in our culture and of that part of history, and recording it as a very important task for scholars, libraries, universities, museums, and collectors alike.

I also think that only a private collector is more “privileged” and can do both—if he or she is prepared to spend the time and money to accomplish both of these tasks. At the outset, one has to decide for whom and where the results will be made, deposited, and placed to keep it all together. In my case, I decided that some time ago. No one can take things with them.