Photographs copyright of Eliji Ina, 2008, courtesy of Nazaraeli Press
Eiji Ina’s recent book, Emperor of Japan, is part documentation, part examination, and part aesthetic observance. He has documented the burial sites, miasai, of the Japanese Emperors since the Kofun period, which reaches back approximately 1,600 years into history. While Ina was at each of these sites, which are spread across Japan, he also photographed the surrounding landscape terrain which is included within the Imperial Gardens. Thus the book has the feel of a collaboration that might have occured between Minor White and Brend & Hiller Becher.
From the book’s description provided by the publisher;
The scenes that Ina has captured – not of the tombs themselves, but rather the places for worshipping at the tombs, and the surrounding gardens and landscapes – were created by the emperor system, with its claim of an unbroken line of sovereigns, that served as the foundation of the modern nation state of Japan.
In one sense, this body of work by Eliji Ina reminds me very much of the Bernd & Hilla Becher’s Typologies, such as the examples that are here and here. For the burial mounds, Ina provides a consistent viewpoint, with the subject presented straight forward & centered and the horizon at a fairly consistent 1/3 point within the horizontal images. The photographs all appear to be taken at the same time of year, during an overcast sky that allows a glowing light, but few shadows, thus we have shadowless trees and architectural features. Regarding the photographs, they exhibit an almost full range black & white values, but seemingly without the darkest blacks and few really white highlights, creating a podominate grayness consistent with the overcast days that they were photographed.
The burial mound’s are photographed at a mid-range viewpoint, rarely providing a larger overview of the surrounding landscape. The repetative burial mound compositions are formal and tight to create a consistent appearance. There are similar page layouts to the Becher’s work, with multiple burial mounds on the same page to work as a typographic theme. And similar to the Becher’s Typographic series, there are no people present, but there are the traces of their presence.
This group of photographs serve to illustrate the similar but yet different burial sites that have evolved over the last 1,600 years.
As a counterpoint to the consistent stylist documentation of the burial mounds, there are the accompanying landscape photographs. Where as the burial mounds are formalistic, the landscape photographs have a very broad range of subject, composition, and focus. There are tight arrangements of the underbrush, narrow slice of focus of the groomed rocky ground cover, mid-point compositions of the ponds and waterways, and straight down viewpoints of the growing ground cover. These landscapes photographs create for me an equivalence, much like Minor White’s photographs in feeling to the potential sacred experience of the Japanese who visit these burial mounds.
One large difference between the Becher’s books and this book is the layout, pairing and pace of the photographs through out the book. Where as the Becher’s maintained a rigid consistency of how their photographs were illustrated, Ina’s book has a lot of variability, that in many ways improves the readability for me. My issue is with the occasional black backgrounds for the group and individual photographs. Especially for the few pages where a small photograph of a burial mounds is printed on the large black page, this combination just seems to fatigue my eyes as the large black page seems to compete for my attention equally with the smaller image.
In contrast, what I do enjoy is the pairing of the photographs in which there are facing pages of a burial mound and a garden landscape. On one side is a large photograph of the burial mound in which you can fully appreciate the content of these cultured and manicured landscapes. On the facing page is the corresponding natural landscapes which is totally random and free form in how it exists, a total opposite to the controlled burial mound sites.
Interestingly while examining the content of these photographs, I find that these burial mounds, regardless of how long ago that they were created, are still well maintained, orderly, well manicured, structured. As mentioned earlier, there are traces of visitors, perhaps those who may have just stepped out of the picture frame. I see the foot marks and other disturbances of the raked gravel before the burial mound gates. Somebody has been here recently, there presence almost seen, but surely felt. I also find myself confronting my own sterotypes about the Japanese culture, as I find only a few of these burial mounds have the orntatness that I would have expected, such as the photograph of the burial mound of Emperor Konoe, the fifth image below.
Within the photographs of some of these these sacred sites, I see the signs of the current society starting to intrude, bridging the reverence of the past with the reality of the present; such as the television antennas and other signs of current technology.
This book is about mortality and immortality, time, tradition, reverence and about the on-going social and technological evolution. That opposites occur in life, the pursuit of control and order, but yet the unpredictability of a natural world which continues to remind us of how little we can really control. We do our best, but it is a constant battle to survive. Even the gardens and areas surrounding these burial sites that are intended to be part of the sacred experience, the man-made ponds, the carefully planted trees, will become wild and unrulely without constant attention.
The hardcover book is case-bound with an elegant black Japanese cloth and has photographs tipped into both the front and back covers. The book’s impressive size of 11 1/2 x 14 1/2″ allows the large singular images to be easily studied contemplated. There are 145 duo-tone plates within the 132 pages, with the images lacquor coating in combination with the beautiful printing creates a wonderful presentation of this body of work.
By Douglas Stockdale
Update: Eiji Ina has been recognized for this photobook, details here.