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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 14 JANUARY 2011 — To the list of once-healthy traditional forms of media now on life support, you can add the illustrated book. Electronic media are not the cause: big books devoted to artwork have not taken an easy passage onto digital-device screens. Blame can be given to rising production costs, increased retail prices and a corresponding unwillingness by cautious retailers to devote the needed shelf space. (No doubt some popular blogger will shortly demonstrate that it’s really all because the world’s coffee tables are full.) Three new books out for the new year are prepared to make a go of it, however, and for that alone, their publishers get credit for bravery in the face of a regrettably weak market.

Mika Ninagawa

To understand the problem of photography in Japan, try this simple thought experiment: first, take a moment and try to call to mind the photographs made in Japan by Japanese photographers that have become part of the world’s photographic canon. Next, look at the trademark stamped onto your camera — and nearly everyone else’s. When you consider that Japan is where most cameras are designed and a huge number are still made — and that seemingly everyone in Japan has and is quick to use a camera — it is perplexing that so little of photographic significance could have emerged from the islands. So when a Japanese photographer gets any kind of international reputation, the temptation is to go a bit easy on him or her, if only to encourage more.

I kept that in mind as I trekked through the many color and handful of black-and-white photographs in Mika Ninagawa's eponymous new coffee-table book (Rizzoli, 357 pages). The book starts with color-saturated pictures of flowers, progresses through an interview and then launches into two art-speak essays by Midori Matsui:

In Ninagawa's photographic world, details are constantly used to suggest associations or hidden links between heterogeneous things. Accumulations of flower petals and expanses of fish scales indicate the proliferation of cells or the infinite expansion of a structure sustained by the repetition of minute units.

Well, that explains it. You just repeat those minute units often enough and get a little heterogeneous on us, and the next thing you know, they’re exhibiting your work at major galleries worldwide.

© Mika Ninagawa: Chiaki Kuriyama, Princess
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

After that expository break, the book expands graphically — even as it collapses aesthetically — into a long and repetitious series of highly stylized photographs of people feigning injury, riding fake animals, eating oversized fake sweets, assuming threatening poses with real and fake weapons, practicing some light bondage and otherwise telling stories with the visual grammar of contemporary staged photography. For a home-grown touch, there are people in variations of traditional Japanese costumes, including two cute ninja ladies in thong bottoms, coquettishly holding their throwing stars. Ninagawa stages her tableaux vivants with verve, and she photographs them with good technical skill and an obvious delight in color. The term used here before to describe this style of photography, however, is New Kitsch: the celebration not of sentimentality over substance (that’s old, traditional Kitsch) but of style over substance and virtually everything else. The main purpose is not to draw meaning from themes grounded in the shared experiences of humankind but to showcase the cleverness and the intellectual chic of the artist. 

Mika Ninagawa: you’ve proved that you’re a cool woman with a Canon. Now please pick up the camera, get out there and prove some more compelling point. We await your next book with that hope in mind. 

(Reviewer’s note, in anticipation of possible reader responses: yes, we really did go light on Ninagawa just now.)

When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans

As with Ninagawa, the photographs by Sascha Pflaeging in When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans (Univerisity of North Carolina Press, 157 pages) are staged, but what a difference does respect for your medium and your subjects make. Just as Ninagawa struggles toward art in her fantasy world, Pflaeging finds art seemingly without trying in his environmental portraits of ordinary soldiers who, in this twist on a photographic staple, are all women.

The photographs punctuate interviews with the subjects and text by Laura Browder on the role of women in the armed forces during times of war and the unique burdens they face. No better example of that can be given than Pflaeging’s portrait of Captain Gabriela Ordonez-Mackey, of the United States Army air assault forces, cradling a sleeping newborn in her arms.

© Sascha Pflaeging: Captain Gabriela Ordonez-Mackey
Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina Press

The women’s war stories, from the invasion of Panama to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, read like the stories of men who have been in combat: of watching friends die, of suffering serious personal injury, of trying to understand the enemy and, most of all, of just working to stay alive. What the experience of combat has done to men has been the subject of Western literature since the Iliad. What it does to women is only now becoming known. You can get a sense of what that might be by reading the interviews and taking in the portraits in this book: the women here come across as both more self-aware and less afraid to appear vulnerable in the face of death than contemporary men have appeared in works devoted to their stories.

The effect of having women in the prime workplace of the military — the battlefield — is another subject for exploration. In her portrait by Pflaeging, Major Veronica Hutfles of the United States Air Force, wearing her Air Combat Command flight suit, stands in a corner beside an American flag, coolly staring at the camera, hands at her sides. Her job was to shuttle a B-52 from Diego Garcia to Afghanistan and loiter over the unseen enemy, ready to "deploy" (her word) forty-five 500-pound bombs onto the heads of Taliban irregulars, should they make their presence known. In Iraq, women launched Maverick missiles from under the wings of their A-10 attack planes at the best of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers. As any Vietnam veteran can confirm, war is as much a battle against the enemy’s will to fight as the fight itself; the American military has therefore offered a frightening subliminal message to its brutishly sexist opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan: our women are tougher than your men.

© Sascha Pflaeging: Sergeant Constance Heinz
Photo courtesy of University of North Carolina Press

Ninagawa’s naughty ninjas ought to take a look at Pflaeging’s nocturnal portrait of Master Gunnery Sergeant Constance Heinz of the United States Marines: the fiery red hair, the arms crossed, the blue eyes staring with tough determination over her left shoulder at whatever may come. With that image and almost all the others, Pflaeging has done something here that places him outside the walled city of contemporary art: he has shown all of his subjects with dignity, finding in them not only strength but grace and a touch of nobility. We can only wonder if the art market will ever forgive him.

Photos-souvenirs au carré

All critics come with certain prejudices affixed; this job is all about advertising your personal opinions, after all. In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer will own up to a long love affair for the silks (and other delights) of Hermès, and chokes to admit that he owns more Hermès neckties and pocket squares than classics of Western literature. He therefore has no immediate explanation as to why he finds a book about Hermès scarves, Photos-souvenirs au carré (Éditions Xavier Barral, about 980 pages by our count), such a bore.

The book (co-published under the Hermès brand) shows, almost entirely in pictures, how the French artist Daniel Buren created 365 limited-edition Hermès scarves by ink-jet printing a series of color photographs onto silk. For each scarf, the border is a boldly striped pattern. Unlike a typical Hermès silk series, which is done by repeating a pattern in different color schemes, here the colors of the photograph remain the same; only the colors of the borders in each of the variations in a given series are different from one another. The book consists mostly of hundreds of pages of photographs of those photographs, as made into scarves. You turn the pages, looking at the same photograph of a photograph, each time with a different border, until the next photograph of a photograph appears and the process starts anew. If you compare the scarves as published in this enormous book with, for example, the small seasonal Hermès neckwear catalogue, which does largely the same thing, the catalogue wins — for graphics, text and salesmanship. As for the 365 scarves themselves, the images are of flora, paving stones, window panes, architecture and other things photographed by Buren over the years as "souvenirs" of his travels. The graphics are strong and for the most part the colors are intriguing, but Buren’s source photographs are rather commonplace, ranging in quality from journeyman stock photography to tourist snapshot, and his scarves don’t look like what one would expect from Hermès. That makes the collection either a show of stylistic daring or an overly intellectualized blunder. In fashion, even more often than in art, the answer to whether a risk pays off lies ultimately in what affect, if any, it has on sales.

Daniel Buren: Photos-souvenirs au carré for Hermès Éditeur
Filtres colorés 2, Travail in situ (détail 1), Seoul, South Korea 
11.11.06 Hermès Éditeur - Pièce unique - Rose / Blanc
Photo courtesy of Hermès of Paris

The most interesting photographs in the book are black-and-whites of the artist and his team at work. This may be a publishing first: nearly one thousand pages into the review copy, on the last page bearing any text at all, in small type printed on red and difficult to read, the creator of the book’s best work earns this solitary mention: "Photographies noir et blanc © Tadzio." We can recall that Tadzio was the name of the adolescent boy who became the protagonist’s object of longing in Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig, but nothing substantive is known of the photographer using the name.

You get the book as a toss-in if you buy one of the scarves, and the price is US $6,800. With Valentine’s Day approaching, take this good advice: put a fraction of that toward a traditional Hermès scarf for that special woman — even if she happens to be you. Perhaps the Buren scarf/book package will be worth something to a collector one day, but your Valentine will be wearing something classic and beautiful; in art as in fashion, a sure thing nearly always beats a maybe.


Mika Ninagawa
Contribution by Takashi Murkami, Antonio Marras and Anna Sui Photographed by Mika Ninagawa
Foreword by Daido Moriyama
Rizzoli (October 2010)
ISBN: 978-0-8478-3397-
US Price: $75.00
CAN Price: $88.00


When Janey Comes Marching Home: Portraits of Women Combat Veterans
By Laura Browder
Photography: Sascha Pflaeging

Hardcover: 168 pages
The University of North Carolina Press (May 2010)
ISBN-10: 0807833800
ISBN-13: 978-0807833803


Photos-souvenirs au carré
By Daniel Buren

Paperback: 986 pages
Hermès Paris + Editions Xavier Barral

Alan Behr’s documentary photography, Naked at the Ball opens at Leica Gallery, New York on 3 March 2010. He is a partner at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP and last wrote on Albert Watson's UFO (Unified Fashion Objectives) for Culturekiosque. 

Headline photo: © Mika Ninagawa: Chiaki Kuriyama, Princess
Photo courtesy of Rizzoli

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