Yoko Sawada: An Unofficial Ambassador of Japanese Photography and Photobooks

Yoko Sawada
Yoko Sawada

Yoko Sawada, the energetic publisher-agent behind the Osiris imprint, is a well-known and prominent figure in Japanese photobook circles, but her name may not register immediate recognition in the West beyond a small group of in-the-know collectors and book dealers. However, the books and magazines that she has published during her more than 20-year involvement with Japanese photography are familiar to many and easily found on the shelves of the ICP Library. Sawada is modest to a fault — letting her work as a publisher, editor and photographer’s agent speak, rather than crafting a flamboyant persona. As an unofficial ambassador of Japanese photography, she speaks fluent English (and near-fluent French) and travels regularly to the West to promote photographers such as Takuma Nakahira, Asako Narahashi, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Takashi Yasumura and Osamu Kanemura. She was in New York this past May for the opening of the Nakahira exhibition at Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea and was kind enough to share information on her background and some of her insights on photography over a cup of coffee.

Russet Lederman: You have an extensive history within the Japanese photography community. How did you first become involved?

Yoko Sawada: It is a long story punctuated by a series of fortunate introductions!

I studied French literature at university and before graduation had a chance to travel to Paris. There, in the mid-1970s, I had the good fortune to meet the activist, poet and art critic Alain Jouffroy, who was at the time editor-in-chief of the French contemporary art magazine XXe Siècle. Through Jouffroy, I was introduced to many notable individuals in the French avant-garde creative community and learned the importance of artist and writer collaborations.

In the late 70s, I found an entry-level position assisting the highly inventive graphic designer and art director Eiko Ishioka, famous for her Oscar-winning costume designs for the 1993 film Dracula, and her visually vibrant and sexually charged print and television advertising work in the late 1970s for Parco, a Japanese department store that emphasized the intersection of culture and fashion. I learned a lot from Ishioka– especially how to work out the details for complex design and printing projects.

After working for Ishioka, I was hired in the early 1980s as an editor for a cultural magazine published by the Japanese imprint Heibonsha. During my seven years there, I was more interested in film and contemporary art, but had the opportunity to meet the photography critic and historian Kohtaro Iizawa, another individual who would reshape my course. In 1989, Iizawa was formulating plans to develop a new photography magazine called déjà-vu. He approached me to be part of his editorial team.

RL: You began as an editor at déjà-vu and by issue #14 became the magazine’s publisher.  As a relatively short-lived publication, it had a great impact on a cross-cultural Japanese-Western photographic dialogue. Can you speak more about your involvement with déjà-vu?

YS: When I began working at déjà-vu in 1990, I really didn’t know much about photography and was not thinking seriously about it as an art form. I barely knew who Araki was! Iizawa explained to me that there were many technical camera magazines in Japan at that time, but none that presented photographers and their work in context with critical essays. He launched déjà-vu with the financial support of a Japanese paper company and conceived it as a bilingual publication to introduce the work of both Japanese and non-Japanese contemporary photographers. It lasted for 20 issues, ceasing publication in the mid-1990s due to financial constraints. In the beginning, we only had brief summaries in English, but with subsequent issues we integrated more English texts. Through déjà-vu, I began to learn about photography and work with well-known Japanese and international photographers.

RL: The editorial structure of déjà-vu was distinctive and allowed for focused surveys on specific topics. Who were some of the photographers you worked with on déjà-vu?

YS: Each issue had a theme. For example, the inaugural issue entitled déjà-vu #1: L’Oeil of déjà-vu began with 2 images by Robert Frank and introduced our then unique perspective for a photo magazine.  Iizawa presented in his introductory essay his desire for déjà-vu to be “a map… that will guide those caught by the fascinations of photography, those of us who are drawn to those realms that lie beyond photography. The map has many blank spaces, and does not come with a manual – no theory, no perceptions – on how it might be read…” (139). Included in déjà-vu #1 was a collaboration between Kishin Shinoyama and Yasumasa Morimura; a portfolio and interview with Daido Moriyama, and sequences of images by Kikuji Kawada, along with several other portfolios and short reviews. It was the first time that I met Daido Moriyama.

déjà-vu #9: Private Life was another important issue for me. Iizawa showed me many books as we were preparing for this publication. One of them was Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986). Ultimately this issue included an interview with Goldin, along with features on Araki (who was also the thematic focus for déjà-vu #4) and Shinzo Shimao. Through this issue, I was prompted to contact Goldin and extend an invitation to visit Tokyo for the interview. It was the first time that she came to Japan and soon after, we organized a symposium in Tokyo that included a slideshow of images from her Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

In déjà-vu #13, we devoted the entire issue to two photographers: Larry Clark and Sebastiao Salgado. I traveled to New York to meet with Clark to discuss with him the images that he would include. We were all excited and a bit nervous about the Larry Clark issue, because we were unsure of the reaction to his work. In the final selection, Clark picked images from Tulsa, Teenage Lust and Collages 1989-1992, which we reproduced without any censorship.

RL: Through your editorial work on déjà-vu, you also met Takuma Nakahira, a photographer who you represent and were instrumental in introducing to Yossi Milo, where he is currently having a show.

YS: Nakahira’s photographs were included in déjà-vu #14: The ‘Provoke’ Era: The Turning Point in Post-war Japanese Photography.  This issue was important because it carried interviews of all the members of the short-lived and highly influential Provoke magazine (1968-69): Nakahira (1938-), Moriyama (1938- ), Koji Taki (1928-2011), Yutaka Takanashi (1935- ) and Takahiko Okada (1939-1997).  It also was the first time that Provoke magazine was ever critically discussed in English. On a personal level, issue #14 was also very important in furthering my own interest in photography.  It helped me realize that I was drawn to a particular visual sensibility influenced by the post-war photography of the 1960s and ‘70s and gave a focus to my future work in the field of photography.

RL: What did you do after déjà-vu ceased publication in 1995?

YS: Due to dwindling financial resources and lackluster advertising sales towards the end of the Japanese bubble economy, déjà-vu had to stop publication. In 1996, without the involvement of Iizawa, I launched a tabloid magazine focused on photography criticism called déjà-vu bis under the imprint of Photo-Planète, the original publisher of déjà-vu. But that venture only lasted for 3 years, and in 1999 I formed my own company, Osiris. The first photobook that I published under my own imprint was Spider’s Strategy (2001) by Osamu Kanemura, another photographer who I met while editing and publishing déjà-vu. Kanemura and I worked with a graphic designer to make sequences from the hundreds of photographs he had of frenetic Tokyo street scenes. I asked Arata Isozaki, one of the most famous Japanese architects, to write the text. He wrote a very good essay on the metropolis, in which he referenced Walter Benjamin’s Passages and Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York. Within a very positive critical discussion, Isozaki compared Kanemura’s images of Tokyo to a “junkyard.”

We printed 2500 copies of Spider’s Strategy, but sales were very poor. I think I only sold about 600 or 700 copies in Japan and very few in Europe and America. When I showed the book to western distributors and booksellers, they told me there was no way they could sell it. But then a few years later, I gave a copy to Marin Parr, who I knew from my time at déjà-vu. He was so surprised and said,  “Yoko, it’s a great book!” And then without me paying him, he began to promote Kanemura’s book to all the photobook collectors in Europe and America.

RL: When did you first publish a book with Nakahira?

YS: Over the last decade, I’ve published four books with Takuma Nakahira. Shorly after I began Osiris, Nakahira’s assistant from the early ’70s, informed me that he had found a stash of negatives that included Nakahira’s Circulation images from the 1971 Paris Bienniale, along with others from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I shared this discovery with Shino Kuraishi, the curator of the Yokohama Museum of Art, who also liked Nakahira’s work very much. As a result of these images, Kuraishi curated a Nakahira exhibition in 2003. The first Nakahira photobook that I published was titled Degree ZeroYokohama and was conceived as the catalog for this retrospective exhibition.

The second Nakahira book that Osiris published was a compilation of his extensive writings on photography, film and media released in 2007.  Since meeting him and working on déjà-vu #14: The ‘Provoke’ Era issue, I had wanted to edit a book of his highly influential writings. Unfortunately, this incredible resource book is only in Japanese.  Subsequent Osiris publications by Nakahira (discussed in an earlier ICP Library post) include a reprint of his seminal Provoke book For a Language to Come (reprint 2010), and his most recent Circulation: Date, Place, Events (2012), which collects the images he presented in 1971 at the Paris Biennale. These images are currently on view at Yossi Milo Gallery through the end of July.

RL: What other photobooks has Osiris published and do you think they represent a particular sensibility?

YS: Osiris only publishes a few books per year – most are photobooks by Japanese photographers. I realized after déjà-vu that there was only a small group of Japanese photographers who I wished to work with. I am quite selective in what I publish.  Some of the other books in our catalogue include: Yoshiko Seino’s The Signs of Life (2002), Takashi Yasumura’s Domestic Scandals (2005), and the just released Ever After (July 2013) by Asako Narahashi.

What I find most intriguing in photography and photobooks is the potential for the media itself to exist at a boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness. I’m most interested in the elements that are beyond the photographer’s deliberate control. If everything is clear and “determined” within the photograph, then I lose interest. For example, the photographs in Asako Narahashi’s Ever After document what exists, while simultaneously capturing an intangible juncture where the sky meets water and all is uncertain. Their success is not about illustrating a particular place or idea, but about a larger entity that includes the physical presence of the photographer as they destabilize the viewer. It is a different way of thinking about photography.

I believe that presenting a feeling beyond a simplistic illustration of a concept is particular to post-Provoke Era Japanese photography. Through the various artists that I publish and work with as an agent, I am constantly thinking about how to define this “feeling.” I think Takuma Nakahira touches upon it in his comments from 1970.

…when we say the word tree, which is not a particular tree in reality, we only see the meaning of trees in general. Yet, by meticulously looking at a single tree here before us now, the word tree we had, together with the concept and meaning it held, is slowly forced to disintegrate. Thus, I am describing a kind of image that as a result of this process expands the truth that the word tree has for the individual viewer.1

1Takuma Nakahira, “Has Photography Been Able to Provoke Language?” in the book of his critical essays, Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary? published in 1973. English translation by Franz Prichard appeared in the supplemental booklet for the 2010 reprint of For a Language to Come.

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Books Published by Osiris in the ICP Library Collection

Osamu Kanemura. Spider’s Strategy (2001).
TR655 .K35 2001

Takuma Nakahira. Circulation: Date, Place, Events (2012).
TR659.8 .N352 2012

Takuma Nakahira. For a Lanuage to Come (2010 reprint).
TR140 .N351 2010

Asako Narahashi. Coming Closer and Getting Further Away (2009).
TR647 .N374 2009

Yoshinko Seino. Everywhere – Gather Yourself- Stand (2009).
TR659.5 .S451 2009

Yoshinko Seino. The Sign of Life (2002).
TR660 .S451 2002

Shinzo Shimao. Maho-chan (2001).
TR881.F28 .S556 2001

Takashi Yasumura. Domestic Scandals (2005).
TR659.4 .Y371 2005

Erika Yoshino. Just Like on the Radio (2011).
TR179.5.Y667 . J87 2011

Magazines and Books Mentioned, but not in the ICP Library Collection

déjà-vu: A Photo Quarterly, Vols. 1-20 (Tokyo: Photo-Planète Co., Ltd., 1990 – 1995).

déjà-vu bis [bi-monthly] (Tokyo: Photo-Planète Co., Ltd., 1993-1996).

Takuma Nakahira. Degree ZeroYokohama (Tokyo: Osiris, 2003).

Akihito Yasumi and Masato Ishizuka, Eds. Mitsuzukeru hate ni hi ga: Nakahira Takuma hihyo shusei 1965-1977 / Fire at the Limits of my Perpetual Gaze: Collected Essays of Nakahira Takuma 1965-1977 (Tokyo: Osiris, 2007). Text in Japanese only.

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