A Subjective History of Photography Before and After Literature
By Andrew Maerkle
Although they rarely feature people, the photographs of Naoya Hatakeyama often evoke the grand narrative of humanity’s interaction with the environment. Like monuments once forgotten and then rediscovered, the alien contours of the landscapes captured from remote vantage points in his “Lime Hills (Quarry Series)” (1986-91), for example, communicate the idea of an entire civilization waiting to be excavated and pieced together from a larger-than-life artifact. Other projects range from “Underground / River (Tunnel Series)” (1999) and “Ciel Tombé” (2007), investigating underground spaces in Tokyo and Paris, respectively, to “Tracing Lines / Yamate-Dori” (2008-10), documenting the length of one of Tokyo’s major thoroughfares. In each of these series it is apparent that for Hatakeyama, the environment is the artifact – inscribed with the traces of our actions and the values and necessities that motivate them – and photography, larger than life, is the means for reading it as such.
Ironically, this is reinforced by a group of photographs, currently on view alongside other works in the exhibition “Scales” at London’s Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, comprising tightly framed photographs of architectural models of New York City and Tokyo that distort perspective and its role in arbitrating between the real and artificial. ART iT met with Hatakeyama in Tokyo prior to his exhibition in London to discuss the relations between literature and photography, his ideas on language and the ways that discourse shapes perception.
Naoya Hatakeyama on the origins of the literary photograph.
Slow Glass #081 (2001), C-print, mounted on aluminum, 90 x 120 cm. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.
ART iT: Previously you’ve mentioned that in the 1980s the phrase “literary photograph” was used pejoratively in critical circles. I thought we could begin by discussing this phrase in greater detail. How exactly was it used and what did it refer to?
NH: There aren’t so many people left who think this way now, but there was once a pervasive mentality that different intellectual fields should be kept as pure as possible. For example, photography should be pursued in a photographic way, without borrowing from other media. This tendency applied not only to photography, but also to painting, theater and perhaps even literature as well. At the time, it was understood that works made using one medium should not evoke a different medium. In the case of photography, the phrases “literary photograph” or “painterly photograph” carried with them the negative connotation that the work in question had strayed from the ideals of photography. These phrases had a critical or even pejorative linguistic function, and as far as I can remember the use of such terminology continued into the late-1980s.
If you think about the primary characteristics of literature – its use of language, narrative, and metaphor to express an internal state and create associations between different ideas – you might be able to visualize a literary photograph. At one point there was a strain of practice that attempted to apply these characteristics directly to photography. A simple example would be the photographers who made works based on haiku and tanka poems – the classic forms of literature in Japan – through depictions of their references to flowers, birds, landscapes, famous mountains and so on. Such a reformatting of literature through photography is what would first be called “literary.” Typified by their admiration for facial expressions recalling actors in mid-performance and their earnest attempts to capture almost ad nauseam “nice” lighting and moments, these photographers had a tendency to express a vulgar or pedestrian sensibility. So the word “literary” was often used more or less as a substitute for “vulgar.”
This approach differs significantly from the refined formalism of the Modernist photography that emerged in the West in the 20th century. The Modernists’ desire to understand what could be achieved through the medium of photography was the fundamental basis for their experimentation; in Japan what was understood to be “literary photography” was an empty appropriation of literature as a means to practice photography. Viewed from the perspective of the photographers who in tracing photography to its origins seemingly sought to dissect the very medium itself, those who borrowed pre-established, socially constructed values in making their works could only appear to be intellectually lazy, or to use an old turn of phrase, lacking in self-criticism. And that’s how there came to be a period when the word “literary” was used as a critical term in photographic circles.
ART iT: How did the understanding of literature change in photographic circles in Japan after the 1980s?
NH: I can only speak from my own experiences, but I think there was a shift in attitude in the 1990s as international esteem for the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki began to rise in not only specialist but moreover contemporary art circles. Roughly contemporaneous to this you also had the emergence of American photographers like Nan Goldin and prior to that, Larry Clark. All of them radically broke from the purely formalistic approach to photography that predominated until then, which is to say that the very idea of art photography was not as accepted then as it is today. Perhaps even these photographers could have been criticized as being “literary” at the time.
If you wonder what art photography was like leading up to the ’80s, you might say that it was approaching the end game of formalism, as had also been the case for painting and sculpture at various points in their respective trajectories. No matter how far you push a formal line of inquiry, after a certain point you hit a wall, or rather, actions and their results produce a kind of poverty of expression. In terms of painting, you could follow a progression from artists like Rubens to Cezanne and Picasso, but then expanding the inquisition into the essence of painting ultimately leads to the blank canvas of minimalism, and you have to give up or start all over again.
Correspondingly, there was a similar movement in photography, and once the formalistic experimentation hit the wall, the focus of inquiry was transferred to what might be called the original, primary function of photography: in other words, the first, immediate impression a photograph communicates – how it represents the subject; if the subject is beautiful, thinking about how it represents that beauty. So in the ’80s these straightforward effects of photography underwent revised scrutiny. It was no longer a case of trying to develop an abstract understanding of the medium of photography, but rather an attempt to understand photography as a kind of physical experience, a sensation. It was a resurrection of photography’s magical character. By “magical,” I mean that quality of being able to arouse the viewer’s naiveté, to the extent that in extreme cases one might lust after or even fall in love with the person in the photo. In Japan, Araki became a figurehead for advancing this aspect of photography, and it was around that time that the pejorative use of “literary” fell out of use in the critical parlance.
ART iT: Did widening acceptance of critical theory about the complex relations between photographic images and “the real” open up further opportunities for a reevaluation of photography’s literary potential?
NH: I understand what you’re getting at. Essentially, the photographers who until that point had been using the word “literary” as a shorthand critique began to recognize the complexity and diversity of literature, even as history showed them the complexity and diversity of their own practice. In reevaluating literature, they realized it’s not just about introspection or “flowers-birds-landscape-moon,” and includes many works of serious experimentation. The naturalist literature of Émile Zola, for example, cannot be overlooked as an influence on photography and Modern art. And then in the 20th century there was the radical literary experimentation of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. In the case of post-war Japan, you had authors like Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe who developed unprecedented approaches to writing.
I think if anybody gave serious consideration to such writers, they would realize that using “literary” as a shorthand critique for something else makes no sense. As people continued using the word “literary,” there emerged as well a need to clarify the kind of literature to which they were referring. I guess the critics who condescendingly used “literary” to describe what they deemed to be vulgar or inferior works realized that in recklessly using such terminology they were only revealing their own limitations, and began to take more care in their approach to language. In this sense you could say that the critics were themselves uninformed about literature. I don’t think sensible people used that word, although at the time I was still young and didn’t get to associate with such an enlightened crowd. I was stuck with my peers.
This may circle back to where we started, but in terms of historical periods, we can think about the pure photography movements that emerged in the US prior to World War II. In their manifesto of 1932, the Group f/64 stated, “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea derivative of any other art form.” Seeking to activate photography’s fullest potential, the group condemned the use of ideas and structures that could not be dealt with strictly through the medium itself. In that way, they hoped to refine the medium and purify it, much as one polishes a diamond. For the generation who were familiar with such movements, were they to uncover anything with “impure” connotations in a photograph, using the word “literary” as a point of critique was probably second nature. But I think it is actually the ideas behind the Group f/64 manifesto that have become relativized now.
A Subjective History of Photography Before and After Literature