JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softcover, 116 pages, with 90 black and white and color photographs. Includes an interview with the artist conducted by Dan Abbe. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Koji Takiguchi’s poignant new photobook begins with two pictures that at first glance look identical. Takiguchi’s young wife leans over the hospital bed of her ailing mother, holding her hand as the invasive tubes crisscross her face. In the first photograph, her mother’s expression is flat and weary, the daughter’s a potent mixture of worry and anguish. In the second image, the despondent mood has brightened for just a moment, with a tiny fleeting smile spread across the mother’s face and a look of happy relief on that of the daughter. The two images succinctly capture the complex emotional roller coaster of having a terminally ill parent, and signal that Takiguchi has brought us deeply inside his family’s life, unflinchingly recording its ups and downs with tenderness and nuance.
To call Sou a family album is a relative kind of truth, as Takiguchi’s photobook does indeed contain snapshots of weddings, births, and other pictures from the milestones of life. What’s different here is that Takiguchi has boiled these landmark events down to their essence and reconstructed the narrative of his family’s life in such a way that the emotional resonance is laid bare. We follow along as his wife’s mother dies of cancer, her father moves into dreary assisted living, his wife becomes pregnant and gives birth to their son, the beloved family cat dies, and ultimately, his wife’s father dies as well. It’s a gut wrenching up and down journey in a short span of years, made more so by the way Takiguchi has crafted his pictures and sequenced them into an affectionate and sensitive flow.
Takiguchi’s photographs are full of windows (hence the title of the book), and his family’s experiences are often metaphorically tied to being inside or out, or crossing barriers. Their many hours at hospitals and institutions are bracketed by windows: shades shut, glimpses through slivers of glass, glows from behind frosted doors or pulled curtains, and lonely looks off balconies and down grim hallways. As the cycles of birth and death repeat, the windows become wet with mist and fallen ginko leaves, or sparkle with the momentary brightness of the sun or the breeze through a dandelion. Fingers grasp across space, clawing at the condensation or reaching for a human touch.
Interspersed with the portraits, snapshots, and supporting scenes are delicate still lifes that combine pressed flower arrangements made by his wife’s mother and old family photos that show the father and mother when they were younger. The inclusion of these pictures in the middle of the narrative arc creates a telescoping timeline, where we jump back and forth flashback-style between the lives of the parents and those of the children, often combining images of similar life moments into one resonant connection. Images of his wife holding their newborn son are juxtaposed with those of her parents holding her, and mother and daughter are both seen in their wedding dresses. Pictures of his gaunt father-in-law in the hospital are matched by pictures of his younger more vital days, when he worked in the garden or played with his daughter on the living room floor. The old photographs move time back and forth with innocence and grace, weaving the specifics of the present into a larger continuum of family history.
Part of the reason this book is so successful is that we are not held at arm’s length, looking at the fake smiles and staged for the camera perfection we would find in most family albums. Instead, we are right up close, where the real, raw, happiness and sadness are exposed. There is authentic joy to be found around the birth of their son, particularly in the twinkle in the daughter’s eye as the grandfather is introduced and in his wondrous reaction. And there is heart wrenching agony at the slow death of the cat, and in the tearful brave but despairing face his wife puts on for the last images with her father. It is impossible to follow this story and not be moved by the human emotions on view. The best pictures are both hard to look at and entirely engrossing and mesmerizing; we’re not used to participating in another family’s life with such intense intimacy.
Even with all the subtle misery and death in this story, in the end, Sou is surprisingly life affirming. Takiguchi has used his family to document universal emotions and reactions, and the tragic cycles they endure are ones all of us will face at some point. The fact that his young son points at the shadows with such excitement and curiosity at the end of the book is a good reminder that life does indeed go on, with new joys coming on the heels of searing, empty sadness. As a complete experience, this book delivers the kind of emotional ferocity that we need more of in contemporary photography (here), sympathetically reminding us that this medium has the power to grab us not only by the head but by the heart.
Collector’s POV: Koji Takiguchi does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above).