Issei Suda, Tokyo Modern Pictorial

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Zen Foto Gallery (here). Hardcover, 200×200 mm, 132 pages, with 107 black and white reproductions. Includes essays by the artist and Mark Pearson (in English/Japanese). In an edition of 700 copies. Design by Mistuhiro Kakinuma. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The first photograph in Issei Suda’s Tokyo Modern Pictorial captures a woman walking down a city sidewalk with an umbrella. It’s a nondescript Tokyo street scene, with sleek modern buildings in the background, and it’s actually a sunny day, so she’s using the umbrella for shade. Nearby, the long branches of a willow tree billow out in the wind, creating the appearance of ribbons of falling rain, almost like a Hiroshige woodblock print. It’s a photograph that is at once modern and traditional, and this conscious mixing of old and new is at the heart of Suda’s photobook.

The photographs in Tokyo Modern Pictorial were made in a relatively short period of time – roughly fifteen months, from January of 1982 through March of 1983 – and they were serialized in 15 issues of Asahi Camera, along with commentary by the photography critic Masao Tanaka. Suda had made his photographic mark a handful of years earlier with the publication of his now-classic photobook Waga Tokyo 100. The Tokyo Modern Pictorial project brought him back into the streets of Tokyo, this time primarily in the Kanda neighborhood (where Suda was born), shooting with a 35mm camera, instead of the square format he had used previously.

While an urban metropolis like Tokyo is constantly transforming itself, the early 1980s were a particular moment of change in Japan, sitting between the end of the post-war expansion and the beginning of the asset bubble that would create a steep boom and bust cycle in the following decade. Down in the streets, the textures of the city were increasingly rubbing against each other, with Westernized modernity interleaved with more traditional Japanese cultural motifs. This everyday friction, in many disparate forms, was the broad subject that caught Suda’s eye.

In its simplest form, this juxtaposition was taking place architecturally all over town. Suda sees an old dome flanked by new steel girders rising into the sky, a spindly aging evergreen matched with concrete block walls, a modern train bridge crossing over older housing blocks, and shiny silver ductwork climbing up the side of a blackened building. Other images capture the increasing visual cacophony of the streets, where gas stations, painted crosswalks, electrical wires, and commercial/traffic signage collapse into a dense jumble, which is then made even more chaotic by the constant motion of throngs of pedestrians.

Suda also notices the evolving social contract, particularly in the ways that men and women are seen out in the world. Of course, there were still women wearing ornate kimonos and salarymen in long overcoats or passed out on sake casks, and from time to time, the streets still carried the traditional costumes of theater players and festival participants. But Suda was also consistently seeing more evidence of modern living, particularly in everyday fashions. Suda’s pictures capture women in a variety of contemporary looks: sharp polka dotted skirts with matching shoes, bold plaids coming out of the subway, high contrast striped suits, long flowy dresses, and animal print furs, and women actually laugh and joke in the streets, as opposed to being traditionally formal and understated. When kimonos do reappear, Suda repeatedly sets them against artifacts of modern life – shiny motorcycles, huge steel girders – highlighting their anachronistic place in the new world. Women are now wearing the uniforms of the traffic police and the hospital, young girls are baton twirlers and ballerinas, and silk robes are shown on mannequins with revealing cleavage – change, in many ways, was clearly afoot.

Some of Suda’s strongest photographs push this eye for urban transformation further, toward found combinations that discover the surreal in the mundane. An extra large crab seems to menacingly poke in a suited man’s ear. A discarded soda can gracefully sits atop a cluster of lily pads. A yawning Dalmatian seems to bite the shining tire of a motorcycle. And a showy floral blossom is paired with man’s wrist and a silver Rolex.

Suda also has a particular eye for off kilter surfaces – he gives lobster tails, a man’s combed grey hair, the elbow of a shiny suit, a dead fish in the gravel, and several meals cooking in hot pots a definite edge of strangeness. And seen as a connected sequence, we watch Suda push and pull between the two poles of tradition and modernity, with images of a pile of refrigerators, a Western clock in an antique paneled room, a bunch of futuristic fluorescent light bulbs, a display of shiny knives, a gathering of flash lit chrysanthemums, and a dense shop window of whiskeys, the past and present seemingly oscillating back and forth as he walked down the street.

The design of Tokyo Modern Pictorial is generally straightforward. Its glossy cover is a bit unusual, given the trend toward cloth wrapped covers, but its shininess fits well with crispness found in Suda’s photographs. The intelligence in the design comes in the use of a square format photobook to house wider rectangular photographs. The flow of imagery is roughly organized into thirds, with the first and last sections showing two images to a spread, and the middle section showing a single image across the spread. Since the image sizes don’t inherently match the page dimensions, white space can be found on the top and bottom or on the sides of the images, as well as on the unbalanced single image spreads, creating a sense of motion through page turns. While it might seem simple, this structure is surprisingly elegant and makes the book function with a minimum of fuss.

While Suda’s images were all taken in the early 1980s, they feel representative of a larger tide of constant urban change that continues even today. His image of a crowd of men standing in a paved plaza, all looking in the same direction with their eyes shaded by their hands, feels strangely emblematic of this whole project – the men in suits can see that something is coming (perhaps its the future), but they don’t yet know what to make of it.

Collector’s POV: The estate of Issei Suda (the artist died in 2019) is represented by Miyako Yoshinaga in New York (here). Suda’s work has very little secondary market history in the West, 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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