A certain confluence of circumstances created specific guilty pleasures that I delight in to this day.
On one of my first trips abroad, I was wandering around Prague’s uneven streets with a fellow photographer that suggested we duck into a tea house. Until that moment, I don’t think I ever thought about tea houses, or their atmosphere, or the kinds of tea that one could get in them. My tea knowledge to that point was limited to thinking that all tea came in bags. My companion ordered a cup of Kukicha, called “Japanese twig tea” because it’s made from the stems and stalks of the tea shrub instead of the actual leaves. A little embarrassed for my ignorance, I ordered the same thing. Small, handle-less cup in hand, I drank down the brown liquid: slightly nutty and slightly earthy, but in a very particular and pleasant way. A happy warmth spread through my palate and being. This was way better than Celestial Seasonings. A curiosity and love of this simple pleasure began. I now hunt down tea houses in the cities through which I travel, have a short-list of favorite online tea distributors (let me know if you want to know what they are), try to push good tea on friends and family as gifts, and several cups of tea are now part of my daily routine.
In my first year of graduate school, I was invited to a get-together at the home of one of the faculty members of the photography department. Another graduate student was house-sitting while the photographer was on sabbatical, and hosted a bbq complete with a view of the fireworks from (then) Comiskey Park. While the highlight for most people that evening was seeing the Flying Elvises jump out of planes, fully costumed, and onto the field, my stand-out moment that night was being glued to the same spot in front of that faculty member’s photography bookshelves. They were floor to ceiling, spanning the full wall length of a very long room and starting near the front door. I seem to remember a funny curtain made from thin fabric that pulled along a skinny steel wire, maybe that was to keep the books from getting dusty. But the books! There seemed to be everything there: first editions, monographs, gallery catalogs and it went on and on and on. Photographers I knew and loved, photographers I had heard of but did not yet know, photographers I had yet to ever hear their names uttered. I don’t remember pulling many books from the shelves that night. A fellow book lover, I know how ungenerous of spirit I can get when unknown characters start pawing my shelves, cracking spines, and leaving oily greasemarks on pristine pages. I remember thinking: this is a lifetime of love and learning. Of investment, trust and community building. The collection that I looked at that night could easily fetch thousands of dollars with just a small selection of titles going up for auction at Photoeye or the like. But what I came to recognize in that instant was the sensation of “sympatico” with the absent photographer/collector, and the knowledge that this too, would become a guilty a pleasure throughout my lifetime. That this love of looking and and learning through the imaginations and work of others would be something that I would most definitely want in my life.
And so what constitutes a guilty pleasure?
Any definition would of course be entirely subjective. I don’t know if other people have thought much about it, or share any of the same qualifications for it that I do. For one, a guilty pleasure is first and foremost Pleasurable. Even thinking about what the guilty pleasure is can be enough to begin a totally solipsistic reverie about what one loves about it, what else there is to know and discover, and what one wants from it next. And the guilty part? This may sound strange and contrary to language and definition, but for me the guilt comes from the fact that there is no guilt. I feel no guilt whatsoever in the (sometimes copious) amounts of time that I spend researching a tea vendor, poring through oolong varietal descriptions, scrutinizing the quality of the tealeaves shown in the online sample, or the community boards I’ve found that discuss high quality pu-erh teas at length (yes, they really do exist). Similarily, there is almost a joy handing over my money to the cashier at an art or gallery museum’s bookstore, or clicking “Submit” on any of the online publishing sites that I count myself a happy consumer. Maybe then what I’m describing is a kind of meta-guilt, one removed of the sting and pangs of conscience because it has to do with the largely cerebral conception of a guilt arrived at for not Really feeling guilty about the useless, unproductive pleasure in the first place.
I’ve been thinking about art publications lately, and art presses, publishing houses, the things that get made in them and the kinds of aesthetics and philosophies that get bundled between the pages and pushed along with the publication itself. Over the next few posts, I want to perform a kind of informal analysis of a few different variations and takes on this theme, but to begin let’s take a look at a long-standing favorite mover and maker.
Nazraeli Press, I love you. You consistently produce some of the most varied, ground-breaking, nuanced and wonderful work in the world of contemporary photography, and I am a devoted and grateful consumer of your wares. I’ve been doing business with you since doing business meant rationalizing the purchase of a new release by a favorite photographer as an “educational expense” with student loan money. I’ve since continued giving you my business even when I could get a discounted price through Amazon or Photoeye, because I want to make sure that I’m always doing right by a press that has given me so much. You have long been championing work and artists that do not get much exposure in their own countries, and might not at all if it were not for your patronage. It is actually a pleasure to spend my money on what you have to offer.
This art publishing house first came to my attention because they were the first to publish the works of Masao Yamamoto, and I have been following them following him ever since his first book (A box of Ku) was published in 1998. One thing that I have been struck by in their attitude towards publishing is how they tend to “adopt” an artist, and create a relationship with them that seems a true collaboration of both artistic vision and commercial risk-taking. They have published works by Yamamoto in a traditional linen-bound book format, but have also produced works in full scroll form (the publication Nakazora, that I was lucky enough to jump on at the time, 18′ in full rolled-out length and complete with a lucite display box and a hand-made print by the artist), or as in the case of Omizuao (Pillowbook), a 14′ accordian-style book that is bound by two lacquered pieces of wood on either end.
Yamamoto is not the only artist that Nazraeli makes these kinds of arrangements with: Michicko Kon, long a favorite female Japanese photographer of mine, published a piece consisting of 40 duotone (and display-ready) 6.5×6.5″ cards, and Toshiko Okanoue, a relatively unknown and remarkable female Japanese collagist has a collection of works that are an off-set color printed portfolio of 13×16″ sheets. And then there is their classic and understated “One Picture Book Series” (shown above), a truly sweet feat of artist and publisher collaboration. If the traditionally understood artist’s monograph could be compared to the novel form of a literary author, then the One Picture Book series is the photographer’s equivalent of the writer’s short story. As Eleanor Jane Cardwell writes at A Good Idea on Paper:
Each book in this mouthwatering series of 5 by 7″, 16 page books contains an original print and around eight reproductions, there are 500 numbered and signed copies of each title. How amazing would it be to have the complete collection all lined up on your shelf?
I only wish that I had an unlimited budget to purchase so many of the other items that have languished on my “wish list,” many of which have since gone out of print.
Like a fine but modest-sized winery, Nazraeli Press makes small and short run publications of artists that are hard-sought and hand-picked, and they nurture and expand our knowing of these artists’ work off of the gallery wall. The experiential relationship of reader/viewer from the anonymous and sometimes sterile act of seeing work in institutional spaces as opposed to the far more intimate and personal experience of holding something of that artist in one’s hands is So Very Different, and Nazareli Press possess an inherent understanding of this fact. Aside from consistently producing ground-breaking work in the genre of artist’s books, I often stumble across my next artist-obsession in going through their catalog of works.
The most recent publication by Nazraeli Press that has been bowling me over, and to whom I had not been exposed to previously (though notably a few other favorite bloggers were already in-the-know: Tim at muse-ings , Miguel at [EV +/-] and Ferdinand over at japan-photo.info), is their publication of Asako Narahashi’s recent work Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water. The monograph is part of a series of books curated by Martin Parr, and in his introduction he gives away what delights and terrifies him about Narahashi’s work. It’s worth quoting from the publisher’s site in full:
These photographs make me shudder with fear. This is because I am a non-swimmer, and I imagine it is scenes like this that I might witness at the moment before my head finally goes under the water. One final look at the world. We are surrounded by water and land, and much of the history of landscape photography has used these two familiar ideas as a starting point. Yet I have never seen these two components put together in such a compelling way.
One of the shudder-worthy images that Parr might be thinking of when he looks at Narahashi’s work:
Her images immediately elicit a feeling of damn, I wish I had thought of that; a mix of professional awe and jealousy that characterizes well-seen and well-felt work. The images are at times vertiginous, an undertow-in-the-making, and others you can just feel the hapless sting of a few droplets of salt water reddening your eyes.
From the perspective of a floating body in the water looking out, we see lake sides and ocean shorelines of a country with a coastline that stretches over 18,000 miles long. Beach-bathers, swan-shaped paddle boats, blossoming cherry trees, a passing airliner and even Mt. Fuji are all within view in the tidal waters Narahashi places us within, buoying our water-filled bodies and blurring our line of sight. The printed monograph offered by Nazraeli includes 59 plates, and the tome itself is a hefty viewing size of 12 x13″. The first printing quickly sold out, and a second printing is available as of August. If you were lucky enough to catch either of her U.S. shows this summer, one at her first U.S. solo-exhibition at the Yossi Milo gallery or in her inclusion in I.C.P.’s summer show of new Japanese photography Heavy Light, you would have experienced large, 35x 53″ sized prints, enough to allow you to slip into a narrative of suspended disbelief, and become engulfed in the half-submerged point-of-view of her work.
The series itself was three years in the making, and Narahashi says that it began with a photograph taken of friends on the beach:
One day in summer, I went to the sea with my friends. While I was swimming, I happened to see my friends, who were having a party on the beach. That was the very beginning. Swimming backstroke like a sea otter, I took photographs of them from the water. After a year, I put the camera into the water more intentionally.
She shot the images beginning in 2000. Outfitting a normal 35 mm Nikon film camera with a waterproof casing, she floated chest deep into waters of her choosing and pointed the camera toward the shoreline, without looking through the viewfinder, often leaving the camera half-submerged in the water. While there is the constant element of chance in such a process, the images that are published and displayed feel honest and true to the experiences of an act that most people, regardless of nationality, have a memory and precise vision of.
The series also places her squarely in the camp of a Japanese tradition that appreciates as an art form the consideration of an omnipresent, mundane subject from varied and multiple views, such as the Edo-era ukiyo-e prints by Hokusai in his 36 Views of Mt. Fuji–the most famous of which, not incidentally to this discussion of Narahashi, is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa:
Hokusai’s near-contemporary, Ando Hiroshige, found inspiration and immense critical success in his woodblock series describing the famous Tōkaidō road station series, The 53 Stations of the TÃÑoÃÑkaidoÃÑ (1833-1834) (which he followed up with later in his life with the 69 Stations of the Kiso Kaidō, 1834-1842). For those unfamiliar with the work, the Tōkaidō was one of the five main roads that connected Japan’s city of Edo with the then-capital of Kyoto, and travelers that were headed to or from the court city used this main road and its post stations (at which one could procure food, lodging and meet other travelers) as rest stops along the way. A kind of Canterbury road, or tale, except without the Christianity. These roads were very much known to all Japanese, and made up a kind of collective experience that if not directly shared by everyone, was at least alive in anecdotal tales told by people that had walked them, or in the trinkets and trade that circulated because of them. Hiroshige’s artistic breakthrough with the series was to depict the common and the everyday in this series, to illustrate the stories, the famous views along the station path, and to show these stations and the people that used them in every kind of season, weather and circumstance.
(n.b. I fell in love with this above image long before I knew anything about Hiroshige or this series. I found a second-strike of this print for sale the summer that I had petitioned for a divorce, moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone, and felt completely overwhelmed by forces and circumstances beyond my control. At the time, this image of travelers fleeing a sudden summer storm was the perfect metaphor for what I felt like I was experiencing. Only later did the context for its creation come, but for my whole life the context for my being drawn to it in the first place will be the one that I remember first.)©Ando Hiroshige. Night Snow at Kanbara, #16 in the series of 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō
Narahashi’s Half-Awake, Half-Asleep series shares with these examples an emphasis on the subject from a variety of conditions, locations, seasons, views and distances. Like Hokusai and Hiroshige, the photographs also depict a readily identifiable, inherently omnipresent facet of Japanese life: its engulfment on all its narrow geography by water. Curator Michiko Kasahara, who included images from this series in her show “Kiss in the Dark” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, said of the work:The title of the series […] is very cleverly expressed. Her works, while betraying the stereotyped images of resort areas, somehow make visible as a shared recognition the image of the sea that people embrace. Therein, an uncomfortable feeling like seasickness and a pleasurable feeling of floating and entrusting yourself to the sea lodge side by side.[…] They call forth an ambivalent feeling.
I have only been able to see a few prints in the ICP Heavy/Light exhibit over the summer, but she is currently in a solo show here in Germany at the Gallery Priska Pasquer in Köln, through Nov. 6th. The second printing of Half-Awake just went on sale at Nazraeli Press in the past month, and if I’ve learned anything buying art and artist’s books over the years it’s this: Buy It Now. Before the publisher decides to raise the price, before it goes out of print, before it becomes something that you have a severe case of buyer’s regret for not buying.