Tokyo Photobook Trip, Part 3, by Robert Dunn

So in Part Two of my Japan journal we left off with it being Sunday and my not knowing what to do. Well, I really didn’t do much. Sunday, you know. Walked around some, snagged a couple strong photos, bought a couple more Beatles LPs, but went back to the hotel early to rest up for my final week in Tokyo.

Turns out Monday’s not much better in terms of places being open. I’m sitting in my hotel room not at all sure what to do when an email pops up from Sayaka Takahashi, the director of PGI gallery and publishing house. We’ve met before at AIPAD in New York, and at her invitation I head out to her gallery. We have a fine time catching up. I show her copies of some of my books, and leave with her a copy of the one she likes best, “New York Street.” She gives me her latest publications, including a moody, highly textured book by Yuji Hamada called “Broken Chord,” which I’m happy to have. We also talk about how great it would be if Tokyo had a world-class photobook festival like Paris Photo or the New York Art Book Fair. I’m all for it: a good reason to come back.

I also want to check out Megutama, the fabled café with thousands of photobooks to peruse. Off I go, walking a long way from the Ebisu subway stop, only to discover the curse of Monday applies to them: the café is closed. I think. Either that or I can’t find it. Or I might be standing in front of it and not realizing I’m there. Either way, I’ll try to give it another shot but don’t know if I’ll have enough time.

It’s Tuesday now, and my fantasy of endless creamy fall days and light is dashed. It’s raining, and hard. I spend most of the morning in the hotel room, but soon I’m eager to venture out, even though it’s still pouring. I have a destination, So Books, a highly curated photobook store near the Yoyogi-Koen subway stop. I find the shop easily enough and introduce myself to the proprietor, Ikuo Ogasawara. He knows about Photobookstore Magazine, but doesn’t seem to know me or my reviews. He’s also deep into inventory work. I poke about. A wide range of books, the preponderance from America and Europe. Everything very neat and tidy. The store reminds me of Dashwood Books in NY’s Noho, where I spend a lot of time. I look around, don’t see anything I’m searching for, then ask if he has a couple rare Japanese books I’m interested in. Turns out he does, and the prices are not unreasonable, but I suddenly feel spent out. This has been a looooong trip. So I take a card, can imagine myself back home, next month’s rent paid, deciding I’m interested and reaching out to Ogasawara. But today … nope, just can’t buy anything more.

Which turns out to be not quite true. On my way to the hotel I go back to the first shop I stopped into, that first full day in Tokyo, and look again at Araki’s first book, “Oh, Nippon.” I’ve been thinking about it, and since the store is less a bookstore and more a shop full of old and collectible skin mags (Araki right at home there, of course), I make the owner an offer twenty percent less than his asking price. “Cash?” he says. I tell him a credit card would be easier—cash machines? Haven’t gotten that far yet—but he says he doesn’t take credit. Why would he for old magazines the equivalent of “Hustler” and “Escort”? So I tell him I’ll find a way to get the money (the book is priced at about a third of the best online price) and be back tomorrow. He takes my name, “Bob san!,” and we shake on it.

And feature this: the convenience store next door to the hotel simply pours out yen notes after I put in my bank card and pin number. And then it’s a simple exchange the next day with the owner of the skin mag shop, and Araki’s “Oh, Nippon” is mine. A clean copy. That wonderful thick gravure printing I’m such a sucker for. And on Araki’s part a lot of wit, more so than with his endless bondage shots over the ensuing 45 years. Not to mention the old-school cut-and-paste work with the two naked (not nude, naked) models disporting away. Yes, another book from this trip I’ll treasure always.

Big sigh. Okay, that’s it, I swear, no more books. And right after I buy “Oh, Nippon,” I head to Genkido Books again to work out the plan for them to ship all the books I’ve bought home. My new good friend Shinichiro is a prince, and the whole deal couldn’t be easier. A ten-minute walk to my Hotel Niwa, quick taxi with my books back to the store, weighing them, filling out the EAS form, paying the shipping cost, and that’s it … I’m bookless.

And later this day, it turns out, on my way back to Megutama, with the best possible guide meeting me at the subway: Yoko Sawada, the publisher of Osiris Books and all-around scholar of, and participant in, the Japanese photobook scene.

So here we are at the café, surrounded by the best photobooks in the world, all for tableside perusal. Yoko starts telling me about being the publisher of “déjà-vu,” the profound Japanese photo magazine of the ’90s, and especially the issue they put out on the Provoke movement in 1993, thereby spreading the word universally of what happened in Japan twenty-five years earlier.

She pulls the Provoke “déjà-vu” from the shelves. It’s lush, beautiful, dark and powerful. Yoko tells me it pretty much introduced the Provoke artists to the rest of the world, with results we all know. Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira … two of my favorite (and most personally inspiring) photographers … I might not have known about them but for the work of the woman before me. Oooh, a slight, delightful chill.

Yoko goes on to tell me that Provoke was not only a visual movement but a literary one, with great poets involved who haven’t yet gained the recognition of the photographers. As a former poet myself (my first published piece was a poem in “The New Yorker” magazine), I take note and plan to dig deeper into the words that bloomed along with all the are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, out of focus) photos.

Yoko is now administrator of the estates of a number of photographers, including Nakahira, for whom she’s just been in Hong Kong at a festival. We talk more about all the actual Provoke people, then we get onto Araki. She tells me Araki wanted to be part of Provoke but was working in advertising at the time and didn’t feel quite worthy. Also, he was a few years younger. So he missed being an actual Provoke artist and instead went his own way, inventing his “I Novel,” a fictive self he’s lived to the hilt ever since. I ask Yoko if Araki was as wild as one always imagines, and she very diplomatically says, “I don’t know if you and I have the same definition of wild.”

Fair enough. I’d rather hold my own notions of the photographer, good or bad. We talk more about “déjà-vu,” and she shows me further issues from its prime. All the copies are stunning. What a coup to have created and produced a great artistic magazine with such high production values. Which leads to a story Yoko tells me on the walk to the Osiris office. Back in the day the beautifully printed glossy magazine was supported in part by a paper manufacturer who wanted to show off their paper stock. Then “déjà-vu” published a lot of Araki at his most Araki-est, and, well, the company pulled their support. Then the Japan economic bubble popped. And the magazine went the way of so many print magazines these days: phffft. (If you’d like to know more about Yoko Sawada and “déjà-vu”, here’s an interview from a few years back:

Which leaves me with one full day left. My wife has returned from her small town adventures, carrying tales of amazing stone gardens and a restaurant where the chef laughs hysterically as he ritualistically dissects crabs and passes them among riotous patrons, the whole meal capped by drinking sake from the crab’s shell. I listen patiently. I’m allergic to crabs, they almost knocked me off once after my first trip to Baltimore. Oh, well, better off a hundred miles away.

I’ve sworn, no more books, but I can still take pictures, so at my wife’s bidding we’re off to Ginza so she can go to a venerable art supply store; it’s been there hundreds of years. Pat’s deep into brushes and rice papers when I remember that the Akio Nagasawa gallery is only a few blocks away. Daido’s gallery. A place I definitely want to take a look at.

Off I go. I find it easily, take the elevator up to the gallery floor, the door opening on a whole wall of Daido lips. That’s what’s going on: Daido has a show there called Lips. Of course. And the wall of them looks a lot like the famous wall of Andy Warhol pink on yellow cows, which opens the question of whether Daido’s somehow entering the very air as Warhol has.

The photos are colorful, crazy, vital, but I’m here mostly for books. I already own a lot of the recent Akio Nagasawa–published Daido works, but here’s one so new I’ve never seen it: “Lips,” of course, one of his books of intensely contrasted photos with a sleek silk-screen cover … O.K., this really is it, the last book, and light and thin enough I can simply toss it in my suitcase. I buy it quickly and head out.

But not before chatting a little with the gallery attendant, who says that Daido celebrated his eightieth birthday last month, and now he’s off in Paris. I take that in. I’ve come a little late in my life to my own photography, and Yoko Sawada paid me a fine compliment when she said that from my writing and my photographs she thought I was much younger than I am—”younger in spirit and energy.”

Well, damnit, Daido is hugely younger in spirit and energy and brilliance than eighty. In my recent review in the Magazine here of his book “Pretty Woman” I wrote about how I thought he’s lately been doing some of his best work ever. I also mentioned that the two times I’ve met him I told him I think of him as the Bob Dylan of photography, on his own never-ending tour.

Well, maybe Daido’s also like the 76-year-old Paul McCartney, who on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 played three-plus-hour shows at the Tokyo Dome, only a hop from my hotel. Alas, I didn’t know about the show in time to try to get tickets (I do manage always to see Macca when he comes to NYC), but how inspiring these artists are, charging ahead into the future no matter how old they become.

It’s a question of intense personal vision, undying commitment to one’s art, enough success to keep going in the real world, and the drive always to take on new challenges. To that point I didn’t just come to Tokyo to look for photobooks but to throw myself into a whole new world of (at least at first) boundless challenges, from puzzling out a language I couldn’t begin to grasp to streets that curl and turn with no sense, to an energy on the street that insisted on my finding new ways to photograph it.

I had endless fun digging up old and inspiring books but mostly I took pictures. For the first couple weeks the photobook I plan to make was to be called “Lost in Tokyo.” Now I’m not so sure. By the end of my three weeks, I definitely feel far less lost than at the beginning, though I know I barely touched the enormous metropolis.

No, I don’t know what I’ll call my finished book. I hope inspiration strikes. But I know that even if I was dazed and head-spun by the city at first, I quickly found out how I wanted to photograph it. Perhaps from all those years studying the masters I’ve written about in these three pieces, perhaps because I’m used to city shooting in New York, or perhaps because in the same way I love these photobooks so much, from my first glimpse of a Daido book, in a way Tokyo has always been deep in my soul.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.