Tsugaru (Poems, Texts, and Photography) by Ichiro Kojima, reviewed by Russet Lederman

A few years ago, a Japanese photobook collector friend asked me if I knew where he could get a copy of Ichiro Kojima’s Tsugaru from 1963. It was a new name for me and I told him that I would ask around for leads in Japan. Shortly after we corresponded, I was forwarded a link for a copy on an antiquarian Japanese book site. Not wanting to lose the chance to secure the book at a good price, I jumped without consulting my friend. Through a series of miscommunications, I was unaware that my friend had already purchased the book and no longer needed my help. I was stuck with the book. At first I groaned, but then I opened the book and smiled. My mistake was a wonderful surprise.

Inside Tsugaru I found incredible images by Kojima, which were taken in and around the Tsugaru region within the Aomori Prefecture at the northern tip of Japan’s main island. Rich gravure photos of snow covered landscapes and rural residents engaged in traditional customs and rituals are interwoven with the poetry of Kyozo Takagi and writings of Yojiro Ishizaka. It is hard not to see a connection to Hiroshi Hamaya’s Snow Land (1977), another book that explores a remote northern Japanese culture. But unlike Hamaya, Kojima, Takagi and Ishizaka are all native sons of the Tsugaru region. Their depictions are highly personal views of their childhood homeland and its fading traditions: a quiet and deeply moving place of shorelines dotted with small houses framed by winter grasses poking out of the snow into a hazy sky. Several of the images are reminiscent of the French painter Jean-Francois Millet, whose scenes of peasant farmers Kojima deeply admired. A similar sense of respect for age-old traditions permeates Kojima’s work. It is as if the soul of the countryside can be heard in the fields and on the unpaved country roads. A mystic beauty envelops all.

My interest in Kojima’s photography only increased this past summer during a visit to his retrospective exhibition Ichiro Kojima: To the North, From the North at the Izu Photo Museum in Shizuoka (about an hour southwest of Tokyo via shinkansen train). With interiors designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto, the Izu Photo Museum is a peaceful space and was the perfect setting for Kojima’s soulful imagery. Similar to the first time I opened Tsugaru, the photographs in this small, well-curated show delivered a visceral punch. I could feel the air leaving my body as I was drawn into a deep mysterious space.

Until recently, the only way to experience Tsugaru was to find a copy of the expensive original edition from 1963 (although selected images from the Tsugaru series could be found in other books by and about Kojima). But fortunately, in conjunction with the Kojima retrospective, the Izu Photo Museum released a limited edition facsimile. Aside from a few subtle differences that include changes in color and tone due to paper age, the addition of an English colophon and a supplemental booklet with English text, the facsimile is very accurate. All in all, the Tsugaru reprint provides a very affordable way to experience this unsung treasure among postwar Japanese photobooks.

Tsugaru (Poems, Texts, and Photography) by Ichiro Kojima is available to purchase here.

Russet Lederman is a media artist, writer and photobook collector who lives in New York City and teaches at the School of Visual Arts. She is a co-organizer of the 10×10 Photobooks project and regularly writes on photobooks for print and online journals, including FOAMThe Eyes, and the International Center of Photography’s library blog.