Takashi Homma, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Mack Books (here). OTA bound paperback, 24 x 30 cm, 80 pages, with 58 color and black-and-white reproductions. Includes a text by Pico Iyer in English/Japanese. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (C0ver and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: If you were designing a majestic mountain from scratch, it would be hard to improve on Mount Fuji. Japan’s highest peak—12,388 feet—is the platonic ideal of alpine symmetry. Its solitary snow-capped cone dwarfs the low-lying surroundings. It’s easily visible from all directions, yet still distant enough to feel heavenly. A wise person will climb Mt. Fuji once in their lifetime but only a fool would climb it twice. Or so says the aphorism.

Unsurprisingly, Fuji occupies an outsized role in the Japanese psyche. It is a national icon, spiritual talisman, and geographic wonder all rolled into one,“the still, solitary heart of Japan,” as described by Pico Iyer. For Americans the rough symbolic equivalent might be the Statue of Liberty crossed with Old Faithful. The mountain’s physical and mystical charms have attracted artists of all types over the centuries, including photographers. In recent decades, photobooks by Chris-Steele Perkins, David H. Gibson, Masanao Abe, Masahi Kohara, and Naomi Ishikawa have targeted Fujisan as a galvanizing subject. 

It’s likely that Takashi Homma was familiar with these predecessors as he embarked on his recent monograph Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. But he looked beyond photography for inspiration. His monograph is a direct tribute to the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Hokusai. Created painstakingly in the early 1830s, Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji collected fanciful depictions of the peak and its surroundings, as observed from various locations and weather conditions. The series achieved international recognition, and the opening image The Great Wave of Kanagawa—with tiny Mt. Fuji seemingly about to be swept under the seas—may be the best-known Japanese artwork in history. All of which is to say, it’s a formidable launching pad for contemporary reconceptions. 

Undaunted, Homma plunged ahead. His photographic homage borrows broadly from Hokusai, with the same title and thematic framework. But deeper connections are more tenuous. Hokusai’s woodcuts were exquisitely arranged, with the stoic grace of a Japanese garden. Homma’s photographs are decidedly quotidian and drab in comparison. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the two series. In fact neither man was much of a stickler for numbers. Hokusai extended his original plans to include ten prints in addition to the original 36 (leading eventually to an expanded series One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji). Takashi Homma’s monograph contains somewhere between 43 and 58 photographs of the mountain, depending on how one counts.

Taking its centuries-old cue from Hokusai, Homma’s project has a throwback edge. The book feels closer to a bound sheaf of loose-leaf papers than the contemporary photo world of screens and pixels. Homma employed a variety of photographic tools for his project, most notably pinhole exposures directly onto photo paper. Mack’s monograph—another well considered design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown—uses uncoated paper and blurred resolutions to preserve their tactile quality. The pictures come across as rough glances, intended merely to affirm Fuji’s presence rather than glorify the spectacle. Some are inverted in the book as if seen in a ground glass viewfinder. Others are stitched together into panoramic panels or broad grids. Chemical stains and borders are left intact in several images, serving as added visual tics amid the broken landscapes. Subdued tonality and heavy color casts lend an impressionistic quality throughout. We’ve landed far from Hokusai’s artful precision it seems, but Fuji still beckons. The great cone pops up here and there behind obfuscations, the same mysterious figure which tantalized Basho: “Fog and rain. A day of Fuji unseen. Rather nice.”

Even if we could penetrate the murk, it would difficult to locate specific viewpoints. The book contains no identifying captions, and Mount Fuji looks roughly the same from all sides, at least to my untrained eye. But the sequence seems to hint at a broad circumnavigation in the mind if not on foot. The mountain appears alternatively at mid-day, dusk, or dawn. In several spreads, twin frames capture vantages separated by a few minutes or meters. Other foregrounds vary like the hours. Sometimes they reveal dense cityscapes (perhaps Tokyo or its suburbs?). Other frames capture the mountain overlooking patchy developments, clouds, lakes, or dark hills. Gradually the sky scapes and topography blur into supporting roles. The only immutable presence is Mount Fuji.  

Photographers have poked around similar terrain before. I don’t just mean Mount Fuji, although Raoul Ries’s 2017 monograph Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji foreshadowed Homma with unnerving precision. But the impulse to document one site as a typology has some lineage. Joel Meyerowitz’s St. Louis And The Arch comes to mind, along with Richard Misrach’s Golden Gate, Andre Kertész’s Washington Square, and Tod Papageorge’s On The Acropolis. 

All helped sketch the way. But the photographer closest to Homma’s heart is surely Ed Ruscha. With its nondescript perspectives driven more by menial purpose than aspirations to sublimity, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji can take a number just after Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations and Thirtyfour Parking Lots. In fact Takashi Homma has been on an Ed Ruscha kick for the past decade, paying homage to Ruscha’s early monographs with his own contemporary takes. Recent Homma titles like Real Estate Opportunities, Royal Road Test, and Nine Swimming Pools offer spot-on impersonations, while monographs like Various Covered Automobiles And Snow, Scandinavian Mushroom, and Babycakes honor Ruscha in spirit if not direct imitation. Homma even did Ruscha one turn better with 2019’s Every Building on the Ginza Street, returning Ruscha’s Every Building On The Sunset Strip to its 1954 Japanese roots in Yoshikazu Suzuki’s Ginza Haccho.

To my knowledge, Ed Ruscha has never photographed Mt. Fuji. But if he tackled the mountain as a project, the results might look something like Homma’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The monograph is a blunt offering, a mere accounting exercise if we accept its title at face value. The photographs follow a systematic routine, refraining from artifice or aesthetic device, with no interpretative text or explanation (Pico Iyer’s afterword is mostly anecdotal). In the channel between Ruscha and Hokusai, it seems Homma has struck a new route to Mount Fuji, if not around it. The national icon has been photographed and adulated by others ad infinitum. But Homma’s approach neatly subverts this camera pageantry while honoring Japan’s rich artistic history. Beams of light spraying through a pinhole radiate like pilgrims around a sacred peak. Ruscha would be proud. Perhaps Hokusai would be too? 

Collector’s POV: Takashi Homma is represented by Taro Nasu Gallery in Tokyo (here). Homma’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Takashi Homma, MACK Books

One comment

  1. A. J. Verdon /

    Thank you Blake for your review.
    I cannot tell the title is wrong, but it’s the only common point with Hokusai’s work.
    Bromide books (Bromide Publishing books Ltd) released a similar but (subjectively) better project in 2022 with more intensity : 200 VIEWS OF MOUNT FUJI as the photographer Hiroshi Matsuko takes the part of the actual society in the balance (shops, cities or villages, and most of all people) just like Hokusai did with wanderers, merchants, tourists, not only landscape with artistic blur and dusk/dawn light. The flow of pictures in the book is broken only one time with a calligraphied haiku about the mount Fuji from 1628.
    A personal favorite Japanese photobook of the 21st century.

    Have a look by yourself on this video : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eH-FfkNhC0I

    Thanks.

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