Japanese Photography: The Birth of a Market
BY Noelle Bodick, Art+Auction | December 16, 2015
Eikoh Hosoe and Yukio Mishima's "Killed by Roses," 1963.
(Courtesy Bauman Rare Books)
Moriyama is but one of several postwar Japanese photographers to be rediscovered by Western markets over the last 10 years. Among the others whom Pasquer herself promoted at Paris Photo in the 2000s are Eikoh Hosoe, whose first book, Killed by Roses, 1963, featured Yukio Mishima as model and muse in psychologically fraught erotic imagery; and Shomei Tomatsu, who collaborated with Ken Domon on the photo book Hiroshima–Nagasaki Document 1961, which explored the lingering effects of the atomic bombs. These three, together with Masahisa Fukase, Yutaka Takanashi, Takuma Nakahira, and Kikuji Kawada, rank among the top tier of photographers gaining recognition in Europe and America under the banner of the Provoke movement, named for a short-lived avant-garde magazine many were affiliated with. (Another key Provoke artist, Nobuyoshi Araki, was already familiar in the West, though principally for his later, sexually explicit works.) In the aftermath of World War II, these artists cast aside the dispassionate observations of the documentary tradition and embraced deeply subjective styles, producing images that are jittery and stark, and often expose erotic machinations.
That campaign’s success so far rests on a confluence of trends. By the turn of the century, dealers and auction houses had successfully established a canon of Western photographers, flushed out most troves of their vintage work, and driven prices for it beyond the reach of new collectors. Dealers set out to find new sources of affordable material, and several Europeans looked to Asia. At the same time, the once marginalized field of photography was becoming more entwined with contemporary art, and young collectors who came to the medium through the work of later American artists like Larry Clark and Nan Goldin were primed for the earlier Japanese photographers’ gritty aesthetic, which soon earned the label are, bure, boke (“rough, blurred, out-of-focus”). Dealers were not alone in rediscovering this work. A number of museum curators, eager to explore new material and attracted to these pieces’ affordability, mounted exhibitions that in turn amplified dealers’ efforts to attract and educate collectors.
While both vintage and new prints now claim prices undreamed of by the photographers 15 years ago, they remain relatively affordable. “We are seeing a unique window in which you can buy masterworks for under $10,000 to $20,000,” says London photo dealer Michael Hoppen, whose gallery deals with many of the photographers or their estates, including Fukase, Kawada, and Miyako Ishiuchi. “If you were to look at masterworks by American or European photographers—even late prints by OK photographers—they are going for much more than that.”
Art markets regularly stage rediscoveries of both individual artists and supposedly undervalued movements—witness the recent rise of Gutai. The Provoke story appears to be a success: Endangered works have been brought to light and preserved, institutional validation of their art historical worth has been established, and prices have increased at a measured pace. But before the full impact of the market-driven resurgence is understood, questions remain, ranging from issues of recontextualization to the balance of supply and demand.
The market growth in the West has not been matched in Japan. This may be chalked up to the relatively small size of the country’s photo collector base. Likely, however, the lack of a surge in Japan stems also from collectors there being more attuned to the photographers’ original intentions, which revolved almost exclusively around the creation of photo books.
“Contemporary Japanese photographers have values that seem distinct from those of the photographers of the West,” wrote Shoji Yamagishi, the highly influential editor of Camera Mainichi, in 1974. “They are, for example, not particularly interested in the quality of the finished print.” That attitude reflected the fact that these artists’ primary vehicle, from the late 1950s through the late ’70s, was photo books, sometimes excerpted in magazines like Camera Mainichi and Provoke. The book format encouraged work produced in series, and not infrequently hinting at sequential narratives, while diminishing concern for the individual print. “At the time Moriyama started to work, the edition system didn’t exist,” says Christophe Guye, who began working with the artist seven years ago and also shows younger photographers, such as Kosuke and Kazuna Taguchi, who have been influenced by the Provoke artists. “Moriyama’s photographs were used as printing proofs.”
Yuka Yamaji, senior photo specialist at Phillips London, notes how foreign the single, framed photo was in Japan, and not just among Provoke artists. “The notion of an ‘original print’ was virtually unknown,” she says. “For this reason, original prints from the 1960s and ’70s are very rare and highly sought after. It was only in the 1990s, with the advent of institutional photography collections and regular programs of photography exhibitions, that the Japanese public began to understand photography as prints.”
That institutional support came slowly. Zeit-Foto Salon, the first gallery to specialize in photography in Japan, opened in Tokyo in 1978. But it wasn’t until 1988 that the Kawasaki City Museum in Kanagawa Prefecture became Japan’s first public art museum with a department of photography. It is only since the 1990s that gallerists like Taka Ishii, Sayaka Takahashi, and Tomoka Aya began tracking down the Provoke artists and reorienting them to the contemporary markets, laying the groundwork for the Western dealers who would come in the 2000s seeking material.
Japan’s postwar innovators piqued the interest of American and European curators decades before the dealers took notice. In 1974, Domon and Kawada were among those recognized in the first survey outside the country, “New Japanese Photography,” curated by Yamagishi and John Szarkowski for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. More surveys followed in this first wave, at the Graz Municipal Art Museum in Austria in 1976 and ’77, at Bologna’s Museum of Modern Art in 1978, and at the International Center of Photography in New York in 1979.
By the late ’70s, a younger generation of Japanese photographers who were more attuned to international practices, such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, were emerging. Western curatorial interest waned, though a few prescient institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) continued to collect work by the earlier artists.
Two decades later, when the recent wave of European dealers first made the trek to Japan, they found what they had been looking for. Hoppen reports encountering a 20th-century trove that appeared “unstripped,” with a demonstrated craftsmanship superior to what he had seen in any other country. “If you could equate it to Europe, it was a bit like going to Paris and being shown 20 Man Rays when you were hoping you might get to see 1,” Hoppen recalls of his first trip, in 2000.
In 2001, New York rare-book dealer Andrew Roth published The Book of 101 Books, an international compilation of important postwar examples of the form that included Moriyama’s third book, Bye, Bye Photography, Dear, 1972. Since then, the Western audience has been receptive to Provoke artworks in their original form, with many important titles experiencing a renaissance as reprints. Scholarship by Martin Parr and Anne Tucker has provided further impetus to consider the work in its original, unframed context.
But a modern art market cannot be built around goods selling for less than $100—the typical price for later reprints of Bye, Bye Photography, Dear. So dealers in the 2000s went looking for more valuable material: publishing proofs, rare vintage prints, and first editions (Bye, Bye Photography, Dear originals have sold for more than $5,000). Through the middle of the decade, they promoted this work to a small but growing audience, garnering assistance with name recognition from the reprint publishers.
Commercial viability was confirmed, and prices for nearly all artists got a solid bump in 2008 and 2009 when photography specialist Yamaji engineered annual Japanese photography sales for Christie’s, her employer at the time. “Distinctly Japanese,” held in London on May 15, 2008, set records for Moriyama’s Smash-up, 1969 (£31,700; $62,000); Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s Machi, 1960/1968 (£6,000; $12,000); Kawada’s Woman of Sankt Pauli, 1969 (£18,500; $36,000) and his seminal photo book Map, 1965 (£16,100; $31,000); and Yutaka Takanashi’s Untitled from the series “Toshi e,” 1968 (£6,875; $13,000).
The following year, in July, the Christie’s London sale “Distinctly Japanese II” registered more high-water marks with Ikko Narahara’s Engraved Arrow, 1972 (£6,250; $10,000) and Young Men, Niida, Akita City, 1952 (£18,750; $31,000) by Ihee Kimura, a postwar photographer not affiliated with Provoke.
In the fall of 2009, market-makers got their next big break in the form of SFMOMA’s exhibition “The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography,” built entirely from the museum’s collection and featuring Fukase, Hosoe, Moriyama, and Tomatsu, among many others. It was the first of several museum shows that have further galvanized the market over the past six years.
The market, in turn, has played a role in driving the museum exposure through the Provoke material’s relative affordability. Tate Modern, for example, never collected photography before curator Simon Baker joined the institution in 2009, immediately facing the challenge of building the collection from scratch while staying within budget. The attractive price point of the Provoke-era photography as well as access to living photographers who were able to make available complete bodies of work—the museum’s preferred method of collecting—helped make the effort feasible. “We don’t collect things because they are cheaper,” says Baker. “But with the Tate starting its collection very late, there are some things we see that are not viable for a museum—that arguably should have been bought when they were at a reasonable value, or that we should wait for as donations. We really have to think about how we use the resources we have.” Having collected work from a range of Provoke photographers in short order, the museum has in recent years mounted two shows with heavy emphasis on the field: “William Klein+Daido Moriyama” in 2012 and “Conflict, Time, Photography” in 2014. A third, “Performing for the Camera,” opens in February 2016, with work by Hosoe and Fukase, among others.
One Japanese gallerist with ties to many of the movement’s photographers has witnessed the uptick in museum purchases firsthand. “A few years ago,” says Taka Ishii, “American and European curators came to Japan to do research for the international art festivals and exhibition shows, but nowadays the museums are the ones visiting, bringing their patrons in order to collect for their institutions.” Ishii adds that they mainly focus on collecting vintage photographs.
And institutions around the world have expressed interest. M+, the museum of visual culture currently under construction in the West Kowloon Cultural District of Hong Kong, for example, is vacuuming up art from the region, including Japanese photographic prints. “Is Japanese photography more recognized than, say, Japanese painting or Japanese sculpture?” asks Doryun Chong, chief curator at M+. “I think mostly you can say yes. Photography has been incredibly strong in Japan and is a natural area for us to focus on and to include in significant ways in the collection.” So far, the museum has acquired documentary photos from the 1960s (by Kiyoji Otsuji, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Narahara, and Shigeo Anzai), as well as work done by bona fide art photographers like Araki, Moriyama, and Hosoe. Chong also expresses interest in acquiring work by the female Surrealist Toshiko Okanoue.
This season, more curators are staging Provoke-era shows, starting with the J. Paul Getty Museum’s October opening of “Ishiuchi Miyako: Postwar Shadows,” which runs through February 21. “She is worshiped by all the big, bad boys in Tokyo. When you mention her to Araki and Moriyama—these red-blooded Japanese photographers—they go, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s the real deal, we are nothing,’” says Hoppen, who works with Ishiuchi. The dominance of men in the movement was, in part, the impetus for Getty curator Amanda Maddox to organize the show.
October also saw the unveiling at New York’s Japan Society of “For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979,” running through January 10 and featuring the work of Ishiuchi, Moriyama, Tomatsu, and Jiro Takamatsu. And in January 2016, the Albertina in Vienna will debut a show of Provoke photographs curated by Matthew Witkovsky; it moves to the organizing museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, in July.
Ultimately, this raft of shows may play a part in pricing museums out. “The scholarship that is coming forward and turning into curatorial practice has a real impact on the market,” observes Alison Bradley, an independent curator and dealer who helped organize a special sale titled “Provenance: Japan” as a part of Phillips contemporary sales series in New York last month. During the November 10 day sale, Provoke photographers including Fukase, Ishiuchi, Moriyama, and Tomatsu were represented by a total of 13 photos in eight lots.
The next day, a pair of special sales at Christie’s London focused on Japanese art, and work by Araki, Ishiuchi, Moriyama, Rinko Kawauchi, and Asako Narahashi was among the offerings. This past summer Sotheby’s tried opening the market in China with a two-week-long selling exhibition at its S2 gallery space in Hong Kong titled “Shashin! Japanese Photography Then/Now,” which paired young photographers like Mika Ninagawa and Kawauchi with Moriyama, Araki, and Hosoe.
The move by auction houses to capitalize on the current moment has not gone unnoticed by the dealers who toiled for years to build the market. “This is virgin market with no actual control yet, which is why I think all the big auction houses are jumping in,” says Hoppen. The dealer cautions that the rush to bring new material to light may attract those interested in the market potential more than the aesthetics. “I don’t think one should be under the illusion that this is going to be driven purely by taste.”
Despite Hoppen’s concerns, the early dealers themselves have played a role in pushing ever more material to market. Most Provoke photographers are now septuagenarians and octogenarians, but many still living continue to work. Once the vintage output inventory became more difficult to find, some dealers in Japan and the West also started working with the photographers to create modern prints of old work on demand. “There is a great demand for the vintage prints,” says Zurich dealer Guye. “However, collectors can also benefit from the availability of modern prints, as Moriyama’s most iconic images are still available, and modern prints hand-proofed by the artist become vintage prints over time.” Gallerist Pasquer insists that the cultural divide still persists, making modern prints issued in open editions an inevitability. “You cannot work with Japanese photographers with this Western idea of editions,” she says.
There may still be more vintage material if one looks carefully enough. For the past four years, Michele Vitucci of Micheko Galerie in Munich has traveled to Tokyo and Hokkaido in August to spend time with the photography communities there. “There is a huge treasure of photography that risks disappearing,” he reports. “I have seen guys with shoe boxes full of subjective photography; each print would sell for $5,000 to $10,000 at Kicken Gallery in Berlin. They have no concept of saving this stuff, though—some of it is half-eaten by mice. It’s really a shame.”
The lingering uncertainty about the actual amount of vintage material that may ultimately become available, combined with the relatively recent introduction of modern prints, some issued in open editions, may pose the greatest risk to long-term prospects for a Western market for Provoke art. Until the scope of supply is more fully understood, buyers are often left to calculate monetary value in comparison with other photographic material of similar aesthetic value. Where that kind of calculus will lead the market in the long run is hard to know.
But for now, the dealers’ long-term commitment seems to be paying off. Or as Hoppen says, “It’s getting louder and louder—that’s the way I think you could describe it.”