English 日本語

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"Don't judge a book by its cover!"

The overall condition of an antique object ultimately determines its market value. This has long been the case with artifacts such as oil paintings, drawings, sculpture or crafts and certainly also applies to photographic books. Especially Japanese publications, printed from around 1900 onwards, are currently receiving a great deal of international attention. Consequently, their state of preservation has become a matter of concern to both book sellers and their growing number of customers.

The fact that the majority of these printed works (quite unlike e.g. oil paintings) has been - in accordance to the mass-producible nature of photography - published in editions of more than one copy, may give comfort to keen collectors nourishing hopes of acquiring their objects of desire in a more than satisfactory condition. However, considering the inexpensive materials frequently used in the production of many of the by now much sought-after photobooks, it is not seldom that editions of once 1000 or more have been reduced, due to daily use and (as in the case of Japan) humid weather conditions, to only a few remaining pristine copies.

While the careless handling of some of these books seems absurd in retrospect, one needs to remember that their current appreciation (and significant market value) could not have always been anticipated at the time of their release. Even if (theoretically speaking) someone did foresee it and, in order to preserve the "original" condition of a particular publication, left it untouched, one could argue that the actual purpose of the medium would have been thwarted.

Books, as many have rightly argued before, are not objects made for the sole purpose of being looked at or kept stored away. Instead, they ought to be used. In order to fully comprehend their individual quality as works of art, they need to be picked up and opened. Only when turning the pages for the first time, one starts to register their distinct features such as the unique smell of inks or the texture and weight of the paper. This immediate and indispensable interaction with the objects itself inevitably leaves traces of usage.

But instead of merely regarding them as "defects" lessening the publication's (market) value, they should rather be acknowledged as part of the individual history and character of the publication. Depending on the subject-matter (e.g. that of a protest book like Tamura Shigeru's Nawabashigo to Tetsukabuto / Rope Ladders and Steel Hats, Pen Poporo, 1960 or Tōmatsu Shōmei's seminal OO! Shinjuku / Oh! Shinjuku, Shaken, 1969) damage - to a degree - can actually strengthen the overall impact upon the reader. It provides another visual, and more importantly, another palpable element that was intended neither by the artist nor the publisher but conveys a feeling of the radical times in which these books were once produced.

Nevertheless, collectors naturally look for the potentially best deal and are willing to pay up to ten or more times the price of a slightly used books in order to get their hands on one of the presumably last pristine copies. This attitude can be considered as proof of what has been said before, that Japanese photographic books are now more than ever appreciated by an international audience as genuine works of art.