#6. Imaginative leaps.
Old work and new.
Greetings! Spring is here in Tokyo, albeit cold and rainy at times. I am Joel Pulliam, and this is the sixth issue of my newsletter. If you’ve recently signed up, you can find all the previous issues in the archive. (And if for any reason you’d rather not keep receiving these, there is an unsubscribe link is at the bottom of this email.)
To start things off with a bit of nice news: I have been nominated for the global Prix Pictet. This prestigious prize recognizes outstanding photographers who are addressing the most urgent social and ecological issues of our time. Entry is by nomination only, with the shortlists from previous competitions reading like a who’s who among photographers—Robert Adams, Rineke Dijskstra, John Gossage, Rinko Kawauchi, Joel Sternfeld. I feel honored to be participating.
On the bookmaking front, I have finished the text for Old River (I’ve dropped The from the title). There will be writing that accompanies every photograph: not words about the photo, but glimpses into the history and art and ecology of the Furukawa river and the collective memory held in its banks.
Very few photography books these days give much space to language, beyond perhaps an essay at the beginning or end. But I have other inspirations. The combining of pictures and texts is central to the 1200-year-old tradition of 絵本—picture books—in Japan. Typically, these books required readers to make imaginative leaps between the images and the words, and that is my goal with Old River as well.
Along these lines, I was happy to find a recent video by the photographer Alec Soth, talking about the relationship between photographs and words, and showing a number of Japanese photobooks. My favorite part begins at 6:58, with his extended discussion of one of Daido Moriyama’s most famous works, Farewell Photography:
Speaking of the written word: one of my favorite books as a child was The Hobbit. Last year, I had the pleasure of reading it with my son and introducing him to dwarves and wizards and magic quests. I only recently learned that J.R.R. Tolkien updated and and rewrote portions of The Hobbit throughout his life, to keep pace with his evolving vision of Middle Earth.
Mary Shelley similarly rewrote Frankenstein. Charles Dickens revised the ending to Great Expectations. A more recent novel to receive this treatment is The Stand by Stephen King. But such examples are rare.
On the other hand, when it comes to music, every performance is a revision to some extent. Sometimes just changes in tempo, but not infrequently, significant reinterpretation. For me, that is a major part of the magic of music! And it seems to me that photography, too, has this potential. Every new print is an opportunity for different choices. And yet often, we photographers treat our initial choices as locked in, as if the photograph is as a final as a painting.
But that’s not always the case.
I am thinking about Ansel Adams, who reprinted his work, “Moonrise, New Hernandez, New Mexico” in numerous different ways throughout his life, playing with different levels of contrast. Here are just three of the versions, all in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:
And, I am thinking about Walker Evans, who recropped the works from his American Photographs exhibition in radical ways before publishing them in book form. And, I am thinking of Kikuji Kawada, who continually prints photographs from The Map on different papers, using different techniques, to bring out different ways of seeing them.
All of this is on my mind is because I have been looking back at a series of photographs of mine from 2019.
Tokyo has been building artificial islands in the Bay for nearly 200 years, often from the city’s waste. Some have become home to industries that are vital to the shaping of Tokyo. Others are now transportation nodes, connecting Tokyo to the world. On still others, generations of developers have attempted—and continue to attempt—to build the residential neighborhoods of the future.
And yet, when I searched for a photographic record of life here, I found almost nothing. A few snapshots by Daido Moriyama, a few photographs of Shibaura by Issei Suda. So I took my camera to see what I could see.
I walked every street of these islands—Toyomi, Harumi, Toyosu, Ariake and more—often for full days. I shot in an intentionally flat, low contrast style: a lot of grays, but almost no black and no white. Thousands of photos, just documenting. I finally finished shooting in December 2019. And then 2020 happened.
Lately, I have begun to look at them. The photographs, which captured life as it looked to me then, now seem strangely distant, as if taken by another person. But, I asked myself, if I were to isolate certain details, reprocess them, could I make them feel like mine again? So I have been cropping, increasing the contrast, looking for ways to bring out new meanings. And though I am not intentionally seeking to reflect themes of frustration and isolation, I do find such feelings frequently coming through.
What might I do with these? This doesn’t yet feel like a book or exhibition. Perhaps a zine, something with a rough, newspaper-like aesthetic. We’ll see where the narrative takes me as I continue to review and rework these photographs.
One of my inspirations when I took these photos in 2019 was the photographer Kazuo Kitai. In the 1970s, as other photographers flocked to the phenomenon that was Tokyo, he went the opposite direction and photographed the rural Japanese villages that were collapsing as a result of urbanization.
In Pictures from my Cabinet of Memories, Kitai writes of the rules that he followed during this period: “Do not take photos of tourist spots, famous people, or scenery. Do not take photos of flowers I thought were beatiful. Do not take photos of things that everybody valued. I tried to focus my photography on capturing the scenes of ordinary lives of ordinary people, because such scenes are not valued, and will otherwise be forgotten and disappear over time.”
His resulting series, 村へ (To the Villages), is widely recognized as a masterpiece of Japanese photography. This year, from April 1 to June 30, Fujifilm Square at Tokyo Midtown will be exhibiting around 30 vintage prints from this series. I’m very much looking forward to seeing them.
And that’s all for this month! Over the next few newsletters I’ll be sharing some exciting new work that I am just starting to engage on. Until then, thank you again for joining me.