interview with Atsushi Fujiwara, founder of Asphalt magazine
“We stand on this asphalt and this is where we capture the world”THE first time I saw Asphalt magazine was in a photobook reading room, not quite the average place you’d expect to find a magazine. In fact, Asphalt can be described as something in between a magazine and a photobook. It opens with a Japanese/English bilingual introduction followed by 46 pages of quality black and white pictures: three photo essays coherently sequenced with explanatory text kept to a minimum.
Asphalt is the creation of photographers Atsushi Fujiwara and Shin-Ichiro Tojimbara, who partnered themselves with the legendary photo editor Akira Hasegawa, editor of, among many others, “Solitude of Ravens” by Masahisa Fukase and “Journey to Nakaji” by Daido Moriyama.
The format is simple: every issue features the work of Atsushi Fujiwara and Shin-Ichiro Tojimbara along with the work of a guest photographer, usually a quality “no name” discovered by Akira Hasegawa.
The magazine has been published in Japan every six months between 2008 and 2012. At the time of writing in October 2012, its 10th and last edition is fresh off the press.
During its 10-edition lifespan, the magazine managed to become a point of reference, even in the Western hemisphere, despite its short run of 700, the lack of big names in its pages and its anti-mainstream attitude.
In every issue there is a good balance between straightforward snaps in overphotographed places and reportage from remote realities: for example in Asphalt VII Shin-Ichiro Tojimbara portrays Tokyo’s fashion district of Shinjuku followed by Akiko Sudo’s intense report from Tibet, while Atsushi Fujiwara closes the issue with the first instalment of “Butterfly had a dream” where he follows the work and private life of a bondage S&M professional. On paper it may sound like a wild cauldron, but looking at the big picture of the issue, all these elements work well together as an organic whole. In the introduction to Asphalt II Akira Hasegawa commented:
“So, here I have a photobook consisting of photos by 3 photographers with completely different points of view. I edited so many photobooks in the past, but this one has been a challenging book to put together”.
Akira Hasegawa’s larger than life personality is presented clearly through the selection of images and his witty introductions explain the work of the artists. At the same time he raises questions about the role of photography today as well as well as subtle concerns about social issues as borders, imperialism and militarism. He constantly challenges the photographers and their role: the pictures he selects don’t try to give univocal answers but instead multiply original points of view.
He makes his idea of photography clear in the prologue to Asphalt III :
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but if you think sceneries in Paris back in the early 20th century look beautiful and sceneries in Tokyo in the early 21st century look ugly, then you have no idea what photography is all about. Photographs capture reality before anything else. As long as we live in cities such as this one, taking our eyes off of its scenery is just another attempt to drift away from what is real
At this point I was already hooked, so I contacted Atsushi Fujiwara to find out more about the publication. Here is the interview he kindly granted:
How did you discover photography?
Initially, I was not a photographer. I had many different occupations in society. However, I started managing a photo studio and I was watching commercial shoots every day. This got me thinking that there must be a form of photography which has a more pure format; its purpose doesn’t always have to be commercial. So I started doing research. I was 40 years old already at this point. I soon found that, in Japan, the field of photography did not have a clear set of values or evaluation systems, so I began to research the past (although there is not a long history anyway). I was quite shocked to see photos in Japan from the 60s and 70s. It was there and then that the my journey as a photographer really began. I made a profit doing the commercial shoot at my studio and I spent my time and my money producing “photographs in pure format” in an office or a dark room and this eventually became the “Asphalt” project.
Why did you choose the name ASPHALT
There is a bar district called Golden-Gai in Kabukicho in Shinjuku, where theater people, writers, musicians, editors and photographers gathered night after night to discuss art and society since the 1960s. I met a photographer called Shinichiro Tojimbara at a gallery bar called “KODOJI”; this bar was known to attract photographers in particular. We hit it off and we discussed at length the modern state of Japanese photography and came to the conclusion that we had to show our own self-expression through photography and that it should represent Japan. The name ASPHALT comes from Mr Tojimbara’s exhibition title.
By using this name, we wanted to demonstrate that “we stand on this asphalt and this is where we capture the world”.
Regarding the Asphalt format: how do you, Shin-Ichiro Tojimbara and Akira Hasegawa, work together? I’m interested in how the collaboration works on the same project.
This is not limited to Japan, but I notice that photographers in general are extremely self-centered and they are quite challenging people to work with. I had experiences in organizational management, so I knew that the responsibilities and authority of each figure had to be clearly defined. Otherwise, things would just fall apart even for a small project like this. Most plans simply do not work out after 3 attempts or so. I’ve seen this happen over and over again here in Japan. I undertook all responsibility regarding monetary risks and making final decisions. Mr Hasegawa was responsible for the content, such as selecting guests and editing. Other than that, Mr Tojimbara and I were simply participating as regular photographers.
Can you tell me something about the Asphalt format ?
Our editor in chief, Mr Akira Hasegawa, is very well known for editing legendary photobooks such as “Solitude of Ravens” by Masahisa Fukase, “Journey to Nakaji” by Daido Moriyama, and “Heiseigannen” by Nobuyoshi Araki. If he had wanted to, it would have been quite easy to collect works from famous photographers. However, if that was the case, then Asphalt would be the same as any other commercial publication. By nature, photographs should remain anonymous. We wanted this publication to be a place where talented photographers, regardless of how well known they are, can send their messages to the world. As a result, we have a unique magazine with excellent content, thanks to Mr Akira Hasegawa. Photographs in Asphalt are not art and are not a news report. Our philosophy is basically “Photographs are photographs”. It may sound abstract, but we are continuously trying to answer the question, “what exactly is photography?” This was the question asked in the 60s and 70s in Japan.
I personally believe that every project needs a deadline. Even if you cannot produce an outcome that you are happy with, you have to accept this and evaluate it as it is and use this as a new beginning all over again. I have always said that the 10th issue was going to be our last issue. As you know, however, we can never predict what may happen in this world. I cannot say that I was so confident about completing 10 issues at the outset.
Is there any particular feature in the magazine that you liked the most ?
I like my own works the most, thank you very much! lol
However, I personally thought works by Yang Seungwoo and Nozomi Iijima were quite shocking. These are photographs that only they could shoot.
Can we consider Asphalt a starting point for the featured essays and images and not just a finishing line? It looks like there is an endless dialogue between the pages and the outside world, a photographer’s shots come to life in Asphalt and then become something else, a photobook, or an exhibition, or a new approach.
Sure. Each artist is having photo exhibitions and publishing their photobooks while keeping the link with Asphalt. As for me, I am going to publish a photobook, which will include works I produced for Asphalt
Can you tell me something about contemporary Japanese photography, whether it can or cannot be defined by common themes, techniques, trends, or points of view?
As I said before, the previous form of Japanese photography from the 60s and 70s had died out. Nowadays, everyone is taking pictures with their cellphones and the world is full of things that took a step closer to modern art. They are not real artists. Instead they are regular people with an “artistic mood”. This is absolute chaos! This is why I would like to persevere with the true sense of photography.
I would just say, “Photographs are photographs” and I would like to pursue expressions that only I could reach, even if this style is called old fashioned or whatever.
What will your next project be now that the last issue of Asphalt is just released?
I will publish a few photobooks of my own starting next year. We don’t have anything official yet, but I would like to start a new project within a few years and I would like to continuously challenge and question the world in which we live.
I would like to finish the interview by thanking Atsushi Fujiwara for his time and his whole team for bringing us a magazine that really makes you travel. You can see a digital version of the sold-out back issues on the Asphalt website.