Issei Suda, Monogusa Shui

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Akio Nagasawa Publishing (here). Hardcover with debossed title and tipped in image, 207 x 216 mm, 84 pages, with 61 black-and-white reproductions. Includes an afterword by the artist (in Japanese/English) and a list of plates. In an edition of 600 numbered copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The respected Japanese photographer Issei Suda died in 2019, and in the years since, his legacy has been slowly cemented by a range of gallery shows and photobooks that have helped to fill in some of the backstory to his artistic career. Suda might be best known for his early photobooks Fushi Kaden (published in 1978) and Waga Tokyo 100 (published in 1979), which established his particular brand of street photography and urban portraiture.

What came after those books, and how his photographic eye continued to evolve, has been somewhat less well understood, at least until recently. The 2020 photobook Tokyo Modern Pictorial (reviewed here) brought together works made in 1982 and 1983 that were serialized in 15 issues of Asahi Camera; they were shot with a 35mm camera, which was a departure from Suda’s usual square format and thereby offered some new compositional possibilities. This 2023 photobook gathers up a complete version Suda’s “Monogusa Shui” project, which slides into the narrow chronological gap of the early 1980s (after Waga Tokyo 100 and before the Asahi Camera images), and includes 48 works serialized in Nippon Camera along with a dozen other images exhibited in 1982, all in square format.

While Waga Toyko 100 focused on portraits of people in the streets, the images in Monogusa Shui have a different thematic and stylistic perspective. In a short text drawn from the December 1980 issue of Nippon Camera, Suda notes that he was interested in the “spiritual power” of  “purely inorganic objects”, in a sense seeing more than just the found object itself but the sometimes perplexing resonance of that thing in the context of the surrounding world. There are of course some people in Monogusa Shui, but they are generally seen much more indirectly than previously, which creates the distance required for Suda to notice the nuances of strangeness hiding in plain sight.

Many images settle into a mood of eeriness, where normal drifts toward abnormal. A barking dog jumps into the air constrained by its leash, a train speeds by leaving behind a ghostly blur, and a single eye seems to watch us from a painted mural. Suda’s use of bright flash adds to this edge of discomfort, with everyday finds like a motorcycle windshield, a traditional painted screen with trees, and a carp floating in a dark pool of water given an almost menacing spirit. And then Suda offers up a few even odder discoveries, from a children’s play structure shaped like an octopus to a silhouetted camel seen on a city rooftop.

Suda returns again and again to the uneasy coexistence between nature and the urban environment. The photobook begins with a lovely image that juxtaposes dark factory smokestacks with blurred flowers, and he finds this same kind of conflict in a paired evergreen and lightpole, dense trees underneath a curved tower, and an overlay of dark branches over the same white building. The creepy mood then returns in spooky shadows and vines that are taking over a wall, wrapped trees covered in suffocating burlap, and a view upward at a pruned evergreen that billows like clouds. Suda seems to have a particular love for how showy flowers operate in the urban world, with images of flash lit tropical flowers, dripping wet flowers, blurred and distorted flowers behind a restaurant window, a parked car covered with fallen flower blossoms, and a man carrying an exuberant bouquet of flowers on the subway. With a little imagination, we might even bring Suda’s long exposure image of fireworks in the sky into this extended floral motif.

Structures, patterns, and textures are another repeated visual theme that Suda explores. The cover image features an intricate tangle of industrial piping, and Suda finds similar gridding in zoo barriers, an ominously dark pergola over a posing group, and a man’s jacket leaning against a chain link fence. Shiny surfaces catch his eye as well – a shimmering corrugated fence, the scales of a fish in a tank (and another in a plastic bag) – and these then link to other more geometric images, including the flattened pairing of a firetruck and some condos, the reaching twist of a vent and the nearby electrical wires and smokestack, the contrasty light/dark corrugated edge of a house, and the dense all-over patterning of tile covering a building.

When people do appear in Monogusa Shui, they are often seen from the back, or otherwise made anonymous, turning many of the figures into objects of a kind. Suda shows us a woman with a double braid, another with an astonishingly frizzy head of hair, the bald head of a man with a camera, and the overcoat of a man waiting on a bench. Another standout image features a crouching fireman and a long length of hose that runs along the sidewalk, and moments of subtle comedy further appear in an image of a man puckering up to a bird on his shoulder and another looking into the front of his shorts. More poignant is a photograph of two connected hands, one old and one young, the reach across generations taking place in a gentle touch of reassurance.

In terms of design and construction, Monogusa Shui is a photographs first affair, with roomy high quality black-and-white reproductions largely shown two to a spread in an otherwise intimately sized volume. It’s an understated but quietly confident approach that gives Suda’s images plenty of room to breathe, and enough space for the nuances of his observations to shine.

As more and more of Suda’s work is organized and reproduced, the depth and consistency of his photographic vision is becoming even more clear. For an in-between book of likely lesser known images, there are plenty of worthy discoveries here, and patient time spent in its pages will be rewarded with unexpected strangeness in nearly every frame. In this way, Monogusa Shui is a welcome addition to an already esteemed lineup of the artist’s publications.

Collector’s POV: The estate of Issei Suda is represented by Miyako Yoshinaga in New York (here). Suda’s work has very little secondary market history, with only a handful of lots coming up for sale at auction in the past several years. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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