The Defamiliarisation of Ephemeral Reality Issei Suda’s “The Mechanical Retina on My Fingertips” by Robert Dunn

It’s pretty old-school. Just bang out photos, taken on the street, and let them amass, then put them out in an inch-thick book of four hundred and thirty shots, and have virtually every one of them be interesting and telling, placed next to another photo that makes them together even more interesting and telling … and have the whole book simply blow you away.

Who did this? Well, the book is from Zen Foto, the innovative publisher in Tokyo, and the photographer is the great Issei Suda, evidently actively wrapping up his career before passing away at age 78 on March 7, a saddening loss.

The photos in “The Mechanical Retina on My Fingertips,” we learn, come from shots Suda took from 1991 to ’92 with his Minox “spy camera,” snapping away on the streets of Tokyo and getting photos with a Moriyama-esque profound casualness. Indeed, the book reminds me a bit of Daido’s “Bye-Bye Photography.” Not as radical, not a total dismissal of all photographic conventions, but still a wild hodge-podge of quick shots, glimpse shots, even a fair number of missed shots … that all work.

And a book that works better than any of the many other Issei Suda works I own.

Recent Suda books treat him with great respect (well-deserved, of course), but that means beautiful, luscious black-and-white prints in elaborate hardcover books such as the “Complete Fushi Kaden,” “Tokyokei,” and “Work of a Lifetime.” But with “The Mechanical Retina on My Fingertips” it turns out that Suda’s mostly street photographs are best presented piled on, one atop the other, in a five-by-seven-inch paperbound book of 480 pages priced at forty-two pounds. (The Suda book closest to it is Super Labo’s recent “Sein.” Those pictures are far fewer and all in color, though equally diverse and rich.)

Some of the photos in “The Mechanical Retina,” we’re told, were in exhibitions of Suda’s work in the 1990s, but most of them—photos from a camera of which no other one “ever accompanied my activities so closely”—were kept in what he calls a “Box of Lingering.” (I like the appellation; next time my wife bugs me about all my own photos stuck away in her flat-storage drawers, I’ll tell her that they’re all just out there “lingering.” I’ll let you know if that mollifies her.) But now the book is out, and, again, it’s for me the one indispensible Suda book.

Unlike his more formal portrait shots in the fancier books, almost every photo in “The Mechanical Retina” is different, and interesting. You never now what you’ll find. Here’s a run of photos from my randomly opening the book about one-third in: a toy barge powering down a concrete canal; a man (alive? dead?) chained to a rack, a glimmering liquid being poured through a funnel into his mouth; a naked female’s fleshy torso, forward and back (in a mirror); a votive-appearing candle burning bright in front of a low-resolution woman’s face; a flock of cranes; a businessman looking away on a subway; two women in the door of another subway car, patient and stoic through the doorway windows; two geisha-dressed women looking surprised in a phone booth, a Whirla Whip sign behind them; a bike-helmeted man staring at the camera next to a case displaying life-sized models of Japanese desserts; a gardener on a walkway in a park; a non-Japanese woman taking a bite of a sandwich on the far right of the frame; and a pompous male politician about to speak into a microphone, police and bodyguards looking on.

Again, the above are simply twelve photos in a row, picked totally by chance from the book, and at least half of them as good as anything Suda’s ever taken.

The casualness of the shots, that magic that can happen when you’re not worried about anything with your camera other than squeezing off the shutter; the askew angles, totally uncentered composition; glimpses of people unnoticed or maybe wondering who this dude with the spy camera taking my picture is, surprise lighting up their faces … “The Mechanical Retina” is a rich banquet of happenstance and street-side mystery; in no way a well-planned and produced feast, but a little this, a little that … and the best photographic meal you’ve eaten in memory.

I don’t know if Suda was thinking Daido as he was taking these shots. My guess is he was more enrapt with his little spy camera and the way it liberated him to just go banging down the street grabbing whatever caught his eye. Kind of like Daido does it. Kind of like legions of other street photographers try to do it. The key line: what caught his eye. As in: Issei Suda is one of those rare photographers who can make almost every shot he takes interesting. Think about it: how many others can fill up well over four hundred pages like this?

And the title, how beautiful is that. “The Mechanical Retina on My Fingertips.” Yes, seeing through your fingers, through your whole body. That’s how you do it. A great photographer’s “eye” implies everything about him or her: their actual eyes; their skin and their bodies; the feelings bubbling away inside them; the thoughts they woke up with and those they fell asleep to; the books they’ve read, paintings they’ve studied, other photographers they’ve envied or despised; a wide swath of all the people they’ve met; the power of their empathy; the emotions—the joy, the despair, the accomplishment, the frustration—they’ve celebrated and cursed; and, well, every previous photo they’ve taken and all the ones they simply know they’ll take in the future. That’s what a great photographer’s “eye” is, all of the above, and everything else.

On a page well into the book Suda writes about how much his little Minox meant to him. “The camera fit into my pocket, with a shutter release as light as the blink of an eye…. Scenes from yesterday were quickly swept away into the past. The ephemeral reality that we call the ‘present moment’ is defamiliarised. The Minox effortlessly handles the manipulation of time that I was always struggling to achieve. I was very satisfied by its capacity to reveal new aspects when I looked again at images of those scenes that I had once viewed.”

“New aspects” of scenes once viewed. What more can we hope for from any of our photographic efforts? And reality? The common notion is that photography freezes reality so we can look at it over and over, and understand it. But here, for Suda, this “ephemeral reality … is defamiliarised.” We’re not talking about Instagram shots that show everybody what you’ve been up to. We’re not talking anything actual at all. We’re talking, I guess, moments that pass before us ephemerally, as all moments do, but that in these photographs, the more we look at them, the more they lose their familiarity. Is that it? Do Suda’s shots become something other? Something strange or inexplicable? Or become almost nothing at all?

Here the allusion up top to Daido’s “Bye Bye Photography” gains new resonance. In “The Mechanical Retina” Suda is moving in a way beyond photography, or at least he’s taking it to whole new places. The cacophony of small, blurry images. The way we leap from a jiggle of city lights to the photographer grabbing his own image in a car’s rear view mirror to a rusted umbrella sign to an old air-conditioner amidst a jumble of angles of tin roofs to people on motorbikes to a woman at the left edge of the shot petting her cat on an asphalt parking lot while her dog wonders who’s taking our picture … O.K., I’m doing it again, just running through random photos and marveling at how each shows us something that is there; and perhaps, by Suda’s lights, in the photo’s grainy, smudgy depiction, not quite there. Defamiliarised. Mysterious and startling as the best photography always is.

I mentioned above the glimpse of Suda and his spy camera in the car mirror. There are other shots of him in “The Mechanical Retina.” Eleven photos in, we get a side shot of Suda snapped fast, “in a blink of an eye” in a mirror as he walks past, his mouth at the top of the frame, an arm at the bottom, and in-between that cherished (“Minox … which held me in thrall from 1991 to 1992”) spy camera.

Simple, casual, yet also furiously and profoundly powerful, upending and defamiliarising reality over and over again in four hundred and thirty photos.

The Master at Work.

* * * * *

And, alas, a master no longer to work at all. Word came as I was writing this piece that Issei Suda passed away. He was working as hard as he could till the end. All his work will live on long and just as profoundly powerful as in this magnificent book

The Mechanical Retina on My Fingertips by Issei Suda can be purchased here.

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.