How important is an actual story to a photobook? By story here I mean almost literal narrative, with characters and situations: a mini-movie or a play in photos. Clearly the best photobooks carry aspects of story such as theme, structure, motion, even narrative drive—can’t wait to turn to the next picture. But an actual story? That doesn’t happen that often in important photobooks. I can think of Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank and … not a whole lot else. Photobooks are not photonovellas or film storyboards (and Left Bank is pretty close to a photo novel, in truth).
So just as a photobook can have no story shape at all (and lose much of the force that holds a great book together), a photobook can also have too much story and veer toward comic books.
But there is a sweet spot of actual narrative in a photobook that still remains purely a photobook. That place is where the pictures do delve into character and dramatic situation and actual narrative yet don’t succumb to it; they stay books of pictures that move us by the force and power of the photos themselves. And that brings us to John Sypal’s new book Zuisha, which mostly hits that story-laden sweet spot. There are characters, well, at least one visible one, apparently Sypal’s girlfriend (photos of a woman who in the afterword he explains were first exhibited under the title An Endless Attraction, so I believe I’m drawing a reasonable inference; more on this to come), and also an only-twice shown-character, the fellow taking the photos of her, John Sypal.
What is Sypal’s story? Ah, that’s where the magic of photography and the photobook comes into play. The photographer also explains in his afterword that the book’s title, Zuisha, comes from a piece by the eminent scholar Donald Ritchie on a Japanese literary genre called zuihitsu, “an informal essay created through an approach where it is not ‘the assumptions of the writer’s controlling mind that are followed but, as the Japanese phrase it, the brush itself.’ ”
That is, the story in Zuisha isn’t what Sypal has in his mind, or what he wants to tell us, it’s the story written by his camera itself, and presumably the story of the intriguing and mysterious woman we first encounter half concealed behind a street pole as a motorcyclist blurs by.
And that’s what intrigues most about this subtle new photobook: How “an endless attraction” begins to reveal its own story, with its own rules and mysteries; and how Sypal’s camera was there to capture it all.
Of course not all the photos are of the young woman; and that’s what also makes the book mostly work. We’re not seeing an enforced narrative, we’re simply rolling through time with the photographer and his fascination. (Notably, before the book Zuisha came a series of thirteen shows, also called Zuisha, at a gallery in Tokyo. Sypal, a Nebraska native who lives and works as a middle school teacher in a Tokyo suburb, would put up a series of twenty shots at the gallery when they were ready; the book presumably is a distillation of them.)
So, what is the story Sypal’s “pen-like” camera is writing for us? First of all, simply a series of black and white photos that feel right together. Most are street shots, those moments when you’re walking along and see something worth chronicling: a couple taking a stroll by a lake, the woman gazing up at tree blossoms; a man dozing on a hard-surface park path, a scatter of petals over and around him; a couple dining outside, the woman lifting cigarette smoke into the air.
But then the narrative heats up. Sypal catches a couple cats in a window, follows that photo with a coy look from his girlfriend (an old-fashioned pendulum clock behind her) and another of a shot of her right eye reflected in an oval mirror, and then—jackpot—those two cats captured copulating in the very same window.
I can’t explain the meaning here, but I sense it. Just as in the next pairing of shots: an intensely gazing girlfriend followed by two birds in flight outside what looks like a barn. Or even stronger, a few pages on, another cat, this time perched upon a stand-alone coat closet next to a shot of the woman supine on a bed, her doe eyes gazing up in tender expectation.
This is the way literal story works best in a photobook: enough shots of a recognizably significant character paired with shots that inchoately expand the narrative—and never give away anything too overt or obvious.
The plot, such as it is, ticks on, thickening. There is what appears to be a blurry selfie of the photographer and his inamorata, next to a Robert Adams–looking backside of a building, and then a few pages later another mirror photo, this time the photographer standing almost hidden behind the woman, whose left eye is concealed by a rectangular spot of white, possibly another reflection, with this photo matched with the first stirrings of building under construction.
The pairing of shots of the woman and chance buildings or landscapes builds. Finally we get an almost Tomatsu-like blurry photo of a soccer field, followed by the photographer shooting into a blurry aquarium, and in the final shot the woman in full frame, garbed in a loose flowery robe and high-thick-heeled shoes walking down what looks like a suburban sidewalk, and smiling widely.
What holds Zuisha together is the implied sense of endless attraction, and the unknowable way all passionate relationships unfurl. Is there a plot? Possibly one known to Sypal if not to us, though that final smiling-girl photo does suggest a happy ending.
I’m reminded some in Zuisha of Araki’s early book about his honeymoon, Sentimental Journey, which while mostly photos of his newlywed, Yoko, also mixes in shots of landscapes, buildings, what have you. Since it’s Araki, Sentimental Journey doesn’t stint on what we might call the wifely arts (fellatio, mouth gaping throes of passion), and thus there’s nothing coy about it, with no doubt what the book’s about and what its story is. I mean, there’s Nobuyoshi and Yoko’s wedding-dress photo on the cover (at least of the original) to clue us in.
Which is appreciated. The more we understand the basic story—their honeymoon, their love—the more moving the photobook is. Indeed, Sentimental Journey is one of the few photobooks that rise to the status of enduring literature. And not the least for Araki’s boldness in his range of what he shows us.
And that’s a problem with Zuisha. It’s not even close to as clear a work as Araki’s, or Masuhita Fukase’s equally love-struck book for his wife, Yohko. That is, I feel I’m working a little too hard to find a story here, and worrying that perhaps I’m getting things wrong. The woman on the cover of Zuisha, the woman most often shot in the book, I assume is the woman of “an endless attraction,” Sypal’s girlfriend. But I’d feel more comfortable knowing that for sure, and also drawn deeper into the book without the uncertainty of who she is. The love story, if that’s truly what Zuisha is about, would lend the book a far more compelling mystery if we know for sure that’s what we’re looking at. (And by nailing down the certainty, Sypal might then feel free to let his camera-brush sweep into wider ranges of material.)
See what I mean? I want to read the book as more than simply a collection of photos taken over a few years, I want to draw out the story. So a thought for Sypal, for anybody intending their photobooks to reveal narrative: make sure we know the set-up, the grounds of the tale about to be told. Build that foundation strong, then go as far as courage, will, and heedless abandon will take you.
Only then can you let the camera, as free and unaware as a brush, paint what happens as it happens, with not only our eyeballs but our story-loving souls rapt.
Zuisha by John Sypal 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). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.