Lena Fritsch’s new book, Ravens & Red Lipstick, is a visually bold and richly detailed study of Japanese photography.
This volume traces the development from post-war Realism severity to contemporary photography’s diversity and technical ingenuity.
It takes readers on a journey via movements and groups including Vivo in the 1960s and ‘girls’ photography’ in the 1990s.
Ravens & Red Lipstick is also interspersed with new interviews with influential practitioners, from Moriyama Daido to Araki Nobuyoshi and Kawauchi Rinko.
Fritsch writes with imagination and clarity, interrogating a cross-section of photographic movements and works against the vivid, shifting backdrop of Japanese social, cultural and political history.
The result is an accessible introduction and an illuminating work of analysis, for general readers and aficionados alike.
We caught up with her to find out more about the project.
A passion for Japanese photography
Fritsch has been researching Japanese art and photography for around 15 years.
She began thinking about writing a book during her time at Tate Modern.
“I wanted to share my passion for Japanese photography and create a beautiful coffee table book that introduces Japanese photography and its socio-cultural context to a ‘Western’ reader,” says Fritsch.
To create the book, she teamed up with leading illustrated book publisher Thames & Hudson.
“Tate has a good photography collection but my book has always been an independent project, focusing on the photographs that I personally find most relevant.
“With their focus on art, Thames & Hudson seemed like the perfect partner for this project.
“I’m happy that they also helped organise a Japanese version of my book, published by Seigensha.”
The book’s title refers to two images. Fukase Masahisa’s Ravens series and Ishiuchi Miyako’s image of her dead mother’s lipstick.
These disparate images symbolise the diversity of Japanese photography.
They stand for black and white and colour, photo books and exhibitions prints, male photographers and female artists.
“Ravens by Fukase Masahisa is particularly known as a black and white photo book, first published in 1986,” says Fritsch.
“It’s a fantastic work – Fukase’s ravens convey such a melancholic feeling.
“The term ‘red lipstick’ references the portrait-like photographs of old lipsticks that are part of another impressive series, mostly taken in colour, by an important women artist, Ishiuchi Miyako.
“This personal series documents the things that Ishiuchi’s mother left behind after her death.
“Mother’s was exhibited as large-sized prints in the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale in 2005.
“Ishiuchi has explained laughingly that she switched from black and white to colour photography because ‘a red lipstick just looks better in colour’.”
A dialogue with photographers
Fritsch says a highlight of creating Ravens & Red Lipstick was spending time with photographers, their galleries and photo experts.
“A major part of my book is the dialogue with photographers. I conducted 25 interviews, mostly face-to-face in Japan.
“The interviews represent the photographers’ voices, and they are really fun to read.
“It was a highlight to interview Hosoe Eikoh and Suda Issei.
“I love both photographers’ work and had never met them before.
“It was fascinating to hear from them about photography in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Hosoe still remembers many details and is a great story-teller.
“Suda, his wife and I enjoyed a memorable afternoon together in Tokyo, in a tiny café called Kanda-Coffee-En, built under railway tracks.”
A shifting viewpoint
From a purely practical point of view, Fritsch says one of the project’s biggest challenges was gathering the high-res images.
Although she had a picture researcher, she communicated with most of the photographers, galleries and museums herself as it was more efficient to do it in Japanese.
With around 220 images it took a while to receive all the the images and secure copyrights.
“The second challenge is linked to an important reason why I wanted to write this book,” she says.
“As both a European art historian and somebody whose personal history has been intertwined with Japanese culture and language since an early age – I first lived in Japan when I was four years old and Japanese is my second language – I have attempted to interpret the photographs from a perspective that avoids clichés.
“My viewpoint is constantly shifting between a European distant position, and a Japanese proximal perspective.
“Two research principles have been paramount: an awareness of my own cultural perspective and continuous interaction with specialists in Japan.”
Fritsch says she doesn’t have a favourite group or artist but is a ‘big fan’ of all the Vivo artists.
“Hosoe Eikoh’s or Kawada Kikuji’s photographs are so powerful, so expressive and beautifully printed too.
“And I’m glad that my book features some of the greatest women photographers in Japan, ranging from Ishiuchi Miyako to Yoneda Tomoko and Ninagawa Mika.”
From academic to coffee table
In 2011, Fritsch published The Body as a Screen: Japanese Art Photography of the 1990s.
It was based on her PHD thesis in art history at at Bonn University, Germany.
“The book is based on three years of full-time research in Japan and Germany, funded by the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung) and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation,” says Fritsch.
“It’s 372 pages and over 125,000 words long, addressing an academic reader.
“In contrast, Ravens & Red Lipstick is a carefully-designed coffee table book with many photographs.
“It presents an overview on Japanese photography since 1945, for general readers and aficionados alike.
“I worked on this project while also working full-time as a curator, first at Tate Modern and now at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
“The idea to include 25 interviews in Ravens & Red Lipstick goes back to my PhD book though – it was a very positive experience to interview the photographers in 2008.
“Artists like Morimura Yasumasa and Izima Kaoru were interviewed for both books.”
For Fritsch it is the diversity of Japanese photography which makes it so inspiring.
“Photography in Japan has grown into an unparalleled industry and socio-cultural world, with camera companies, photography clubs, journals, galleries and competitions.
“This ‘photography world’ has produced a vast number of interesting images.
“I keep discovering new photographers and works in Japan all the time.”
Fritsch is currently at the Ashmolean, University of Oxford, as its first curator of modern and contemporary art.
Her first project at the Ashmolean was an exhibition of Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi’s work.
“He is a well-known pioneer of African and Arab Modernism,” she says.
“Ibrahim has been based in Oxford for 20 years now and never had a solo exhibition in his home-town, so this felt timely.
“My next exhibition is going to be a solo show of German Neo-Expressionist A R Penck, focusing on his ‘70s and ‘80s works.
“I also just started working on a related project on Neo-Expressionism, with the aim of building a representative and inclusive collection of works on paper.
“This project has been made possible with a New Collecting Award by the Art Fund.
“But I’m also working on a big 2020 exhibition at the Ashmolean which will feature Japanese art and photography. There are many exciting projects coming up.”
Ravens & Red Lipstick
Published by Thames & Hudson, Ravens & Red Lipstick is available to order here.
While major exhibitions of Japanese photography have become more frequent over the last 30 years, it is one of the first English-language overviews.
Main image: Satō Akira, Takashima Mieko (Cold Sunset), 1960. Courtesy Satō Ema and Michael Hoppen Gallery, London. ©Satō Ema