Some images become so iconic that it can be difficult to recover their original legibility, obscured by layers of interpretation and a burden of accolades that transmute its meaning into the stuff of legend. Kawada Kikuji’s photobook The Map has been treated for some time with the kind of reverence that borders on orthodoxy, with the risk of misinterpretation or criticism tantamount to an act of sacrilege. To dispense with the preliminary rites then, this book is often lauded for its scarcity, its expense, and its canonical supremacy as ‘the ultimate example of the photobook as art object.’
None of these qualities have much bearing on MACK’s release of The Map’s maquette, which remains (at least for now) relatively accessible, and stripped of the gatefold pages which structure such a distinctively physical experience of its pictures. This publication follows two reprints of the 1965 first edition (Nazraeli Press, 2005, and Akio Nagasawa, 2014), but offers a radically alternative imagining of The Map that never made it to press before. This version is a facsimile of the unique, handmade book created by Kawada and designer Sugiura Kо̄hei, held in the New York Public Library’s collection.
Any scepticism about whether yet another reprint of this work is warranted is dispelled by the magnitude of difference between these works. Choices about the narrative sequence of images, dramatic crops, textual inclusions, and even the volume structure were comprehensively overhauled between the maquette and the 1965 first edition. As an exercise in understanding the complex interplay of dynamics that make a great photobook, comparing the two versions is fascinating (and this process is broken down clearly in the third volume of the MACK edition, which uses thumbnails to illustrate the two versions in parallel). Both of these books are best-in-class supreme champions, so I’m not going to try and put them in a cage-fight scenario to pick a winner.
Prior to the fetishisation of finite, ‘definitive’ editions, these images enjoyed multifarious existences across a range of non-art journals, publications and institutions.
The supplementary texts by Joshua Chang and Miyuki Hinton take pains to reveal the complete arc of Kawada’s creative development, covering ground that has been written about so often that various fallacies have sprung up. These details are acknowledged and killed off in the footnotes, but the occasionally exhausting intricacy of The Map’s various presentations points to a much larger truth about Japanese photography in the decades before it was penetrated by the tentacles of the globalised art market. Prior to the consecration of photographic prints as an artistic commodity, with its fetishisation of finite, ‘definitive’ editions, these images enjoyed multifarious existences across a range of non-art journals, publications and institutions. Whilst this isn’t exclusively true of Japan’s photographic culture and it hasn’t been killed off completely, the length of time and the range of projects Kawada used to distill The Map illustrates a particularly rich moment of creative ferment.
Within this galaxy of iterations, what makes this treatment worthy of fresh attention? The maquette’s structure creates an opportunity for reassessing the entire body of work on the strength of its conceptual – even spiritual – foundations, beyond those troublesome iconic qualities. The maquette comprises two volumes, one of which lays out Kawada’s ‘stains’ [the abstract textures below] and the other illustrating an archaeology of other traces. Kawada travelled to Hiroshima with documentary photographer Domon Ken in 1958, and returned to the Atomic Bomb Dome in the evening after the shoot had ended:
It was damp, dark, there was a strange smell… My eyes took a moment to adjust before I noticed the stains. It was an unspeakable powerful moment. I felt like I had encountered this terrifying, unknown place. I had the illusion that I could almost hear faint voices merged with the wind and crackling sounds coming out of the walls.
Kawada’s uncanny encounter with the surfaces of the Dome, weathered by a decade of post-explosion exposure, inspired his earliest independent engagement with Hiroshima, and these pictures constitute the contents of the maquette’s first volume.
This body of work is essentially abstract and textural, with all sense of scale and depth reduced to meaningless visual grammar by the camera. In trying to construct legible images from the pictures you might make out geological strata, smoke, lichen or distant landscapes as seen from the window of a plane at night. The stains illustrate organic constellations of decay, blistering and dissolving into focus as the pages turn and the camera’s perspective shifts into new negotiation with these surfaces. The dark points are so dark that you might be travelling through this material instead of visually navigating across it. It is in this unsettling dimensionality, achieved through going beyond what we can read in the walls’ traces, that Kawada’s photographs provoke a sense of physical excavation and visceral immersion.
Before Kawada conceived of The Map as a book, he published some of the stain photographs in Nippon Camera in 1962 and showed them as part of the NON exhibition at the Matsuya Ginza Gallery in the same year. Making up a substantial proportion of the first edition, these images stand apart, prompted by a singular encounter with the Dome and executed in a concentrated and highly conceptual line of artistic inquiry. The maquette’s demarcation of these images as a separate imaginative terrain to the more symbolic, intelligible pictures allows for a different experience of both this part and the series as a whole. To readers familiar with the first edition’s combined approach, the stains can come to appear as an oblique foil to more immediate works, creating a shroud through which to approach Kawada’s dazzling pop arcana. Set aside in their own book there is no such respite, but the sense of searching alienation animates a viewing of the second volume with fresh strangeness.
A world of Coca Cola bottles, neon signs and Lucky Strike packets are rendered so flatly graphic that it is hard to imagine them occupying the same plane of reality as the Atomic Bomb Dome’s scarred walls.
This part of the book grants us clearer views, at last allowing us to orientate ourselves within Kawada’s shifting field of vision. While the first part swings uneasily through a shadowy domain in which perspective never fully materialises, the second volume’s structure leaps between fragmentary vistas, through sequences in which the parameters dividing natural and constructed images are constantly called into question. A material world of Coca Cola bottles, neon signs and Lucky Strike packets are rendered so flatly graphic that it is hard to imagine them occupying the same plane of reality as the Dome’s scarred walls. Photographs of people lose their indexical charge amongst photographs of other photographs of war conscripts, bringing truths of memory hard up against the biological density of helmeted bodies slumped in dark anonymity. The traces of graffiti on stone and tangles of plant-life appear almost hopeful in contrast with the unresolving tragedy of the stains.
In 1960 Shigemori Kо̄en characterised Kawada as part of a generation preoccupied with constructing a new visual language through photography, and he draws a comparison between this movement and the Nouvelle Vague in France. Shigemori asserts that when live television supplanted photography as the most direct channel for the transmission of public truth, photographers who had come of age during the the Pacific War were prompted to reconsider the unique properties of their medium, and the possibilities and responsibilities projected by this brave new media landscape. Shigemori observed how these photographers felt compelled towards a mode of visual expression beyond linear storytelling, using an experimental approach utilising abstraction and subjective interpretation so that they could ‘put feeling and experience first.’
Reflecting on The Map in its different versions, I was struck by the cinematic qualities of this series. The editions are like alternative cuts of a film in which the director has decided to alternatively prioritise intensity of experience (maquette) and integrity of vision (first edition). There is a seamlessness to the sequencing in both cases that bridges the gap between disparate points of view, but this experience of looking is essentially an exploration of textures, surfaces and material traces of the passage of time. Feeling your way towards The Map’s meaning involves spiralling through a labyrinth of conflicted recognitions, but the experience of coming into touch with its dense history is all the richer and more provocative for this process of revelation.
Lucy Fleming-Brown graduated from the University of Oxford in 2018 with a BA in Japanese Studies. Specialising in Art History, Fleming-Brown’s dissertation explored Japanese post-war photography. She has worked at Michael Hoppen Gallery as a specialist in Japanese art, and is currently undertaking an MA in Arts Studies and Curatorial Practices at Tokyo University of the Arts, focusing on representations of Okinawa in Japanese historical photography and visual culture.