Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture

“Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture” Wins CAA Prize

At the 2011 College Art Association conference in New York, the annual Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Award for Smaller Museums, Libraries, Collections, and Exhibitions was presented to Yasufumi Nakamori—assistant curator of photography at the MFAH—for his book Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture, Photographs by Ishimoto Yasuhiro.

The award recognized the book in part due to the unusual story:
“[Through Nakamori’s work,] It emerges that the architect Tange Kenzō (with Walter Gropius, who authored the original Herbert Bayer-designed book from 1960) extensively altered the vision of Ishimoto, a fledgling photographer, by drastically cropping the images to better align them with Bauhaus aesthetics, and to reinforce his own position in postwar Japanese debates on the relation of the modern to tradition. In this astutely, impeccably produced catalogue, Nakamori importantly rehabilitates Ishimoto’s initial vision of Katsura, reproducing his original, perfectly stunning photographs.”

In this Q&A, Nakamori explains more about this fascinating exchange between two 20th-century artists, as well as his own discovery and interpretation of the work.

When and how did you first discover Tange’s role in shaping Ishimoto’s work?

While working on my doctoral dissertation, I started to explore the connections between architecture and photography. In particular, I was interested in collaboration as artistic methodology; how artists working in different media affect each other’s process when working together.

The first such collaboration I came across was between Erich Mendelsohn and Fritz Lang, who shot the skylines of American cities and explored the ironies of urbanism, such as the juxtaposition of gleaming skyscrapers and dark, crowded alleys. I then looked to see if there were similar examples of collaborative work in postwar Japan, a period of social and political radicalism.

How does your book contrast with and/or complement the original Katsura book, published by Yale University Press in 1960?

When I first met Ishimoto and asked him about the [1960] book, he said “Those are not my photographs anymore. . . . I can’t die without showing the world my true photographs of Katsura.” So clearly the most significant difference is in the presentation of these photos. But I didn’t want to depict Ishimoto as a victim, or Tange as a villain. My book is, hopefully, an equal and fair treatment of the two artists.

Two of the most important things achieved by this book are, one, the celebration of Ishimoto’s great talent—he is an understudied figure—and two, the recognition of Tange as a photographer. While Tange is well-known as an architect, his work with the Katsura project clearly demonstrated a deep interest in photography. When I started doing research, I discovered that Tange himself had taken many photographs of Katsura before being approached by Ishimoto to contribute to the 1960 book.

Your book is, among other things, a story about publishing—a sometimes labyrinthine and frustrating experience. After studying the way the various players involved with the original publication interacted, you must have felt pressure to make sure that your Katsura book fairly represented everyone. How did you approach the publication process?

The central question I had to answer as the author of this book was, What is the role of curator? Normally, the curator is an intermediary. But in this case, I saw my role as that of a historian—my job was to unearth the facts, frame what I found, and make an argument. I took an activist role in this project.

The process was largely a collaboration between myself, MFAH editor Heather Brand, and a freelance designer, Daphne Geisner—who coincidentally studied at Yale under some of the same people who worked on the 1960 book. I also spent a lot of time poring over archival material, both in libraries and among Ishimoto’s personal records. When I first visited Ishimoto, I was able to see and make low-resolution scans of the notes that Tange and others had made about how to arrange and crop the original photos. When I later approached him about getting high-res images to use in the book, Ishimoto became reticent, and claimed that he had since lost the material.

Many of Ishimoto’s friends and family members asked me, “why do you want to reveal the painful story behind this book? Why can’t you leave it as what it is, a classic and important work on Japanese architecture and photography?” Though Ishimoto wanted the past to be at least partially revealed in order to be rectified, going through yet another publication process surely brought back some painful memories.

Did you send him a copy of the finished book?

Yes, and I was with him when he saw it for the first time. I gave him the book, then got up to use the bathroom. When I returned, I saw that he had removed the dust jacket [which creates the effect of cropping the photo printed on the cloth cover underneath]. He couldn’t bear to see his images cropped any more. But the next time I was in his office, I saw the book on his shelf, and the dust jacket had been put back on. So I think he eventually understood what we were trying to do.


Katsura: Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture is available at The MFAH Shop.
To purchase a copy, click here or call 713.639.7360.