Moe Suzuki, Sokohi

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Chose Commune (here). Spiral bound, 25.7×18.2 cm, 150 pages, with roughly 100 color and black-and-white reproductions, some printed in silver on black paper. Includes an essay by the artist in English/French/Japanese, in a small bound-in booklet. (Cover and spread shots below.)

This photobook was the winner of the 7th edition of the LUMA Rencontres Dummy Book Award Arles in 2021. The book was originally published in 2020, in a different format and sequencing, as an artist’s edition of 76 copies.

Comments/Context: As family members, friends, and loved ones struggle with illness and aging, it’s sometimes difficult for those outside that battle to truly understand what they may be experiencing. From afar, we can be supportive and sympathetic, but we can’t entirely know what it really feels like to fight a particular disease or have a body that fails us. And so we watch, sometimes with a feeling of creeping futility and helplessness, looking for clues that might teach us about what is happening, both physically and emotionally.

Moe Suzuki’s powerfully expressive photobook Sokohi tries to get inside her father’s ongoing fight with degenerating vision. Using her own photographs, as well as images from family albums and her father’s journals, Suzuki weaves together an intimately progressive journey, both through time and through the slow failure of his eyesight. In a sense, Suzuki has taken on the challenge of photographically recreating his experience of the world as the blindness encroaches, and with grace and patience, her photobook actually documents two people – both father and daughter – working hard to perceive the world in new ways.

Sokohi begins by introducing us to the artist’s father Tetsuichi; a black-and-white portrait of him as a young boy is spread across the first page turn, putting one eye on each side of the page and symbolically introducing the idea of split vision. Other early pictures find him looking into cameras and mirrors, and soon Tetsuichi is a young man with a beard and glasses, leisurely smoking a cigarette or intently reading on a ferry. Interspersed with these family snapshots, images of flickering vision are introduced – the darkly dappled leaves of a tree, the small orb of a sunset over water, a dry view out an airplane window, the blur of the streets, some sparking lights, and the swirled distortions of water and waves, each image representing a fleeting (and often perplexing) glimpse of the elusive possibilities of sight.

The next informal chapter in the story brings the father-daughter relationship into view, with a series of endearing childhood moments where dad and daughter are spending time together – lying together on the grass, him carrying her at the park, the two wading in the water at the seaside, and the pair smiling while sitting in a red hammock. A few of these moments have an understated vision theme, from playing hide and seek amid some evergreens to sharing a view through a telescope, and these hints then connect to snapshots where the father’s view is momentarily blocked or impaired, by a wayward kite, by a flare of light across his glasses, and by the smoke and bright light of celebratory sparklers. Suzuki is subtle in her choices, and only after paying close attention to each image in the sequence do we start to see all the vision allusions, particularly the recurring motif of shaggy white waves and images veiled by curtains or washes and fogs of light.

While there are no overt separations in the overall flow of Sokohi, by roughly midway through the book, her father’s beard is getting a little more grey and the darkness seems to be making more consistent inroads. In English, sokohi can be translated as “shadow at the bottom”, and Suzuki offers various versions of this effect, from the dark hills of a rolling landscape to the dark areas at the bottom of images of riverside fishing and buildings blasted by glare. Sliced portraits of her father repeatedly show us only one half of his face (and one eye), and another interior portrait places him in almost complete darkness, the light from outside leaving him underexposed.

As the pages turn, we watch as Suzuki grasps for (and experiments with) visual metaphors and representations of what her father is seeing. A string of images is printed in silver on black paper, turning branches of cherry blossoms in bloom and petals strewn on the ground into all over patterns; these are matched with fragments of her father’s writings, the scrawled letters creating similarly abstract visual markings. The shadows continue to encroach, the dense fog rolls in, and her dad goes through the motions of everyday life (like brushing his teeth), with the imagery becoming increasingly dark, blurred, and impressionistic. Another one-eyed half portrait leads to more dark pictures, of ominous clouds across a dark landscape and more letterforms that look like densely black palm fronds.

A picture of her father in the hospital after eye surgery lets us know that Tetsuichi’s glaucoma is worsening, and a paired image of a bright spot of light against an undefined fuzzy darkness is a likely proxy for what he might be seeing. More silvery cherry blossom spreads, broken up by an up-close image of the gauze covering his eye, become increasingly lost in darkness, the clusters of blooms getting darker and darker with each page turn, leading to yet another extremely dark view of the sky with a tiny dot of sunlight. The progression feels quietly exhausting and dispiriting, and the next spread finds the father resting on a bare mattress, perhaps in a mode of trying to come to terms with it all.

The last images in the photobook find the father trying to recalibrate his life, by sitting close to the television, wearing sunglasses over his regular glasses, and walking with a hiking pole. Suzuki’s images imagine an even more blurred and disorienting reality, where scenes dissolve into fogs of muted color or murky darkness, punctuated only by flares of light that appear as bright discs. What he sees is only vaguely distinct, perhaps a figure walking, or the silhouette of a cat, or a bird perched on the balcony, except when he drops the eggs, which smash on the hardwood floor in a pattern not dissimilar to other nearby flashes of light. The book ends with the father walking up a lonely hill, the textures of the road breaking down into silvery inversions.

Part of the success of Sokohi lies in its smart design and construction. An expressively blurred image provides a wrap around front and back cover, and inside, all of the images are printed full bleed, bringing immediacy to the interaction. A double spiral binding allows the pages to open fully and lay flat, and different paper stocks and inks are used to create different visual sensations along the way. The essay is tucked into a small booklet bound in the back, leaving the explanation of the flow to the end and forcing us to deal with its discomforts and confusions before behind told the backstory. All of these decisions help the imagery to tell its nuanced tale, letting the visual narrative slowly build from front to back.

Suzuki has clearly approached this delicate project from a place of warmth and affection, and the bond between the father and daughter feels tender and compassionate. Sokohi is impressive not only because of this poignant connection, but because Suzuki has worked so hard to creatively represent the progressive deterioration of her father’s vision. Not only do the days get darker, but the journey gets more blurred and confused. Her photographic experiments and expressions draw us into this slowly shrinking world, helping us to understand and empathize with the father’s situation. As a single integrated statement, Sokohi is a movingly personal study of loss, that uses photography with subtle and evocative care, to tell a disappearing story.

Collector’s POV: Moe Suzuki does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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