Performance and the japanese photobook

interview with Ivan Vartanian:


A reading room full of Japanese photobooks. No hierarchy, no display cabinet, just a room with benches, tables and BOOKS which are there to be TOUCHED a sign on the wall informs.
This summer, the Photographers’ Gallery became to me an habitual place of pilgrimage, a chance to see the masters’ work and discover hidden gems from a selection nothing short of brilliant: Daido Moriyama’s Records, Nobuyoshi Araki’s Theater of love, Osamu Kanemura’s Spider Strategy, the Asphalt magazines side by side with other amazing lesser-known works such as Yumiko Utsu’s Out of the ark, Nagahiro Kumagai’s Mortar, Ayao Nakamura’s self-published booklets, and Masafumi Sanai’s screw-bound Trouble in Mind, just to name a few of the hundreds of books on display.

Ivan Vartanian japanese photobooks 1960s 70s

The man behind the exhibition is Ivan Vartanian, publisher, author and book producer based in Tokyo with his polyhedric publishing/events/editions company Goliga. He paired part of his personal collection of photobooks with that of photographer Jason Evans to bring the exhibition to London.
I met Ivan Vartanian on the last day of the show. He is working in London for six weeks, and even on his tight schedule he still finds the time to hang out at the pub for a chat.

What types of projects are you working on at the moment?

Right now, I carry out publishing and organize events with various institutions. I recently produced “Approaching Whiteness”, a bookmaking performance with Rinko Kawauchi at the Photographers’ Gallery. For the next few weeks, I’ll be involved on various levels in the Daido Moriyama exhibition at the Tate Modern. My main focus during this time is producing and organizing an event with Daido which will take place inside the Tate Modern on October 14th. The event is called Printing Show and participants will edit and sequence their own copy of a limited edition Daido Moriyama photobook.
I’m based in Tokyo with Goliga but my company travels with me…[he points to his bag and his coat hanging from the chair].

ivan vartanian japanese photobook photographers gallery

With regard to the Contemporary Japanese Photobooks reading room, where did the concept come from?

It all started with my research for the book Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s.
In Japan, for many if not most photographers, the photobook is the final form for their work. An easy way of putting it is that photographers will start their projects with the intention of creating a photobook, or images will be made specifically for inclusion in a particular edit or sequence. So to show a large assembly of photography from Japan, it makes most sense to have an exhibition of photobooks, like a reading room.
The photobook culture in Japan started because there was no gallery or museum system; it was the only way to show photography to a wider audience. It is a very different concept from western standards, where what matters is the print on the wall and sometimes the photobook is still seen as a reproduction of prints.
Historically, for the Japanese, a print is no more useful than the sample you give to the printer for color separation. However, that is a generalization and certainly there are many photographers who make extensive use of the print as the final form for their work. Having said that, the book form is how a sequence of photos is intended to be seen. In a sense, every copy of a printed book is in itself an original.

ARaki Daido Moriyama

When I first proposed this show, I had people telling me the whole idea was crazy: “an exhibition of books? No prints?”. Only books. No prints, no hierarchy, no display cabinets. Just a reading room where you can sit down, browse and explore things.
It was not easy to gain trust for the project, but from the start the show was very well attended: we had more than forty thousand attendees in less then two months.
I had produced this type of show previously in Le Bal in Paris but on a smaller scale.

Are you not scared to leave collectible books to be read and creased by thousands of people?

Not really. That’s what books are made for and frankly I was expecting to see them destroyed, so even from that point of view it has been a success. There were several books that I obtained specifically for the exhibition with the expectation that they would come back damaged. You want people to look at the books.

Spiders strategy - Mortar - Night Flight

You organize photographic-related and bookmaking performances. Can you tell us more about this?

Back in New York I was into performance art and that’s where a lot of my ideas come from.
I like the idea of a book evolving from an event, the public interacting with the photographer and his world.
Every performance I organize is different in concept and very specifically about a photographer’s work.
One of the first was the re-enactment of Moriyama’s “Printing show”, where the public can choose the sequence of the book from a grid of images and then have them printed on the spot with a silkscreened cover. We plan to do it again now at the Tate Modern during the Moriyama + Klein exhibition.
Another performance was “Human Noise Amplifier” with Osamu Kanemura, where during a slideshow of his images Kanemura took pictures of the public show in front of the images of the wall, with the people becoming “noise”, just as it happens on the streets of Tokyo.

The last performance was Rinko Kawauchi’s “Approaching Whiteness” at the Photographers’ Gallery, where she used nine Japanese scrolls, each with 10 images themed around a different subject. A pattern of the participant’s choice was screen printed on each scroll, Kawauchi’s mother wrote the title in brushstroke and Rinko stamped and signed every scroll. The whole process of bookmaking was again carried out under the eyes of the audience. It is interesting when the physical creation process becomes an integral part of the book. In the West the concept is still unexplored: usually you don’t make money from performances because you don’t sell any prints.
All these performances are experimental but the Japanese photographers are very comfortable with modifying their work in different ways. A photographer can choose to re-purpose an image, manipulate or re-title it: nothing is final, the concept of the ephemeral is very important in their culture.
Each time it is a risk but I think that they accept this because they trust me.


For one of the last performances in Tokyo I worked with Ryan McGinley. I rented some animals from the zoo: a monkey, a parakeet, a sheep, a snake and a baby pig … the idea was to have people come to a studio to have their photographs taken by Ryan with the animals. Ryan’s first idea was to shoot nudes. I thought in a shy city like Tokyo nobody would show up for nude photos with animals. Nevertheless, eventually I set up one room for the few nudes I thought would come but in the end we had a hundred people queuing up to be shot nude. Tokyo has changed quite a bit!

It makes me think about Araki: you said that Tokyo is a shy city so where do all of his models come from?

I think it is because of how he depicts his models: desirable, fragile and powerful at the same time, and every woman in every city wants to feel desirable. When Araki gives talks, during the Q&A session there is always some girl who asks to become a model.

Moriyama magazine works - Modern Times Patrick Tsai Asphalt

Getting back to the photobook, culturally speaking what makes the Japanese books different?

They don’t make strong statements. They are comfortable with being vague and ephemeral and usually not much information is given outside the photographs. It is like the photographer is saying “I don’t care if you don’t understand”.
They have almost no interest in conceptual art; it is not about intellectualizing. They are very resistant to theory and conceptualization; it is more about reality. So from a western point of view there is the risk of over-reading: things are less complicated than you may think.
Usually they relate to photobooks in terms of cool/not cool. It is all about the feeling something can give to you. It is not a mental thing.

mushroom from the forest homma

Can you tell us something about the self-publishing world in Japan?

Self-publishing was common in the seventies, and still happens now. However, there are a lot of publishing houses for photobooks so it is often a choice for the photographer to come up with a self-published book, usually because the work is very personal or experimental. Sometimes they just don’t want to be bothered with the publishing world; even established artists self-publish. They sometimes publish private editions of photobooks not intended for commercial sale at all: they create books they can distribute among family and friends.


Alex Bocchetto – Ivan Vartanian


Additional resources:

Experience Photography, interview with Ivan Vartanian by Rasa Tsuda on Azito

Goliga website: