This essay is a slightly revised version of the lecture I gave in Kassel for the Fotobook Festival on 25 October 2013 in the form of a « photobook study, » a term coined by Markus Schaden. Thank you Markus.
The book is Simmon: A Private Landscape by Eikoh Hosoe. I see it as one of the most beautiful and universal books published in the last few years, because of the photographs, the exceptional presence of the main character, and also as a result of a superb printing quality. While the images were produced in a specific environment, it is universal in that it questions largely issues related to human nature, gender, our relationship to others, to nature, and to civilization.
Simmon is linked to the theme of this sixth Kassel Fotobook Festival celebrating Daido Moriyama in two ways. First, Hosoe-San and Moriyama-San know each other well. Daido Moriyama started working as an assistant for Eikoh Hosoe in 1961, the year Hosoe began to shoot with the writer Yukio Mishima, which led to the publication of Barakei in 1963. (I have been told that there are photographs of Moriyama-San wrapping the hose around Mishima’s body for what is one of Barakei’s most famous images.) Second, this book compounding photographs made in 1971, was published in 2012 by Akio Nagasawa, who is now the main publisher of Moriyama-San’s work, with the recent release of the Records series and some major publications such as Labyrinth.
Before reviewing together Simmon: A Private Landscape, I would like to give you some context. First, regarding Hosoe. Born in 1933, he is thus 12 years old by the end of World War II, at the time of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings. I certainly don’t mean to do any psychology here, but Eikoh Hosoe has mentioned that period on several occasions and instances, including in his post-face to Simmon. He is thus an adolescent growing up fully conscious of this drama, of the defeat, and of the subsequent American occupation.
This national trauma profoundly marked Japanese postwar avant-garde artistic practices – notably with Buto, a form of dance and performance created by Hijikata Tatsumi at the end of the 50s. This artistic avant-garde is set within a contradictory movement: rejecting both the national tradition that led to the catastrophe, and American imperialism, yet fascinated by Western, notably European, artistic movements - German expressionism and existentialism for exemple. Influences that are indeed visible in Simmon: A Private Landscape.
In 1959, the performance of Kinjiki (Forbidden Color) conceived by Hijikata and based on a text by Yukio Mishima is a revelation for Hosoe. He has since claimed that Buto is the pillar of his work. And here is another link with Moriyama, who in his first book, Japan, a Photo Theater, represented the troupe Tenjo Sajiki directed by another avant-garde director, Terayama.
And this being a small world, Kazuo Ono, another Buto pioneer, appears in Tokyo (1964) by William Klein, whose book about New York had strongly impressed Daido Moriyama. So many more examples could be given to illustrate the extent to which this Japanese artistic scene was intertwined. We could for instance also consider Tanadori Yokoo, graphic designer for the second edition of Hosoe’s Barakei who was also very close to Terayama, and Moriyama’s traveling companion on his first journey to New York in 1971.
Hijikata, inventor of Buto, and Mishima are the subjects of Hosoe’s two most famous books: Kamaitatchi and Barakei. Simmon: A Private Landscape could then be considered as the third element of a trilogy focused on a unique and mythical character (in the theatrical sense of the term): Kamaitatchi being a fantastical animal, somewhat similar to a unicorn; Mishima, a scandalous and unconventional writer; and Simmon representing both childhood and a reflection about gender differentiation. Three characters totally staged by Hosoe.
According to me, Simmon is a very successful photographic narrative. There is a starting point and a finishing point, with a narrative that evolves in between. And the attentive reader can easily understand the suggested visual narrative.
Since Photography can never totally be done with words, let us start with the title. It suggests two elements. Simmon is the name of the narrative’s only character. Simmon was, at the time of the shooting in 1971, one of the lead actors in the “Situation Theater,” an avant-garde troupe inscribed in the Buto tradition created and directed by Juno Kara, and famous for performing under a red tent. Simmon played female characters. And this is an assumption, to be confirmed by Akio Nagasawa, but could it be that the stunning red book-cover be a reminder of this red tent?
Simmon also performed his own character in Nagisa Oshima’s film, The Diary of a Shinjuku thief. Simmon chose his so remotely Japanese-sounding name as an homage to Jazz singer Nina Simone. The actor Simmon has since become a creator: he designs world-renowned and stunning dolls, somewhere between those of Hans Bellmer and anatomical wax representations displayed in Medical Museums.
The second element, “A Private Landscape,” implies a personal journey, an intimate geography - both in the neighborhood where Simmon lived at the time, and places in Tokyo inscribed in Hosoe’s memory. Recollection and memory are indeed at the core of both Hosoe’s and Moriyama’s photography. Hosoe once said in an interview: “The dearest photographs are the ones that act as memory because memories can never be remade.”
Past a frontispiece and two essays, tributes to Simmon, starts a journey that begins in Ishikawadai train station. Tiny to the right of the first image is a crouched man, holding a mirror and applying white make-up on his face outside the train station. He is dressed in western style. The metaphor for the journey (the narrative) and for the transformation is clear. And the Greek term Metaphora means transport. The fact that Hosoe’s narrative is a fiction, a construction, is established from that very image. He actually feels – and he possibly learned this from Buto, which is often performed on the street – that the photographic camera is a stage on which a performance is being played and whose audience is the camera, and not a recording of the real. So Hosoe breaks away from the Japanese photographic tradition that was until then conceived as the representation of truth.
Next image, after his metamorphosis, Simmon is in the middle of a street, euphoric, dressed in a Yukata, the traditional summer outfit lighter than the Kimono. But quickly (three images later,) stems the fantasy and desire to return to the matrix, in utero. Simmon slips into a hole along a riverbank. It could also be reminiscent of Kamaitatchi’s burrow. Then comes a rather sexual sequence of relations with nature. First, he embraces a tree in ecstasy in front of a small traditional house. Next image, the way he offers his lips to a flower is here again unequivocal. Let’s turn the page: Simmon is lying down half naked on the grass, ecstatic again. To the right, carp-shaped tenants, Koinobori, celebrate youth day. Simmon actually represents man, woman, and child. And this notion of childhood is present throughout the narrative.
Following an image in which Simmon seems to be ready to dissolve into a bush, he reappears in front of a Buddhist temple, leaning against a cast iron bowl in which incense is burning and holdding an opium pipe in his mouth. Oneirism. From here on in the book, his gaze is almost always facing the camera. This image is also the first in which an audience interferes. In this traditional and sacred venue, Simmon is dressed traditionally, scrutinized as if he were a strange animal by an audience dressed in Western style. Here is a key notion in Buto: the purpose is less to perform a theatrical play, than to act a performance in a public space, to trouble its quiet quotidian and to bring people to question the meaning of this quotidian.
After this experience, the purpose of which was in some way to reflect upon tradition, but that in fact crystallizes ineluctable change, Simmon, feeling somewhat desperate, leaves towards the modern city. Tokyo is a city of architectural strata and while Simmon is a private landscape, it is also the vision of a vanishing urban landscape. Of course, the book being published 40 years after the images were shot, today’s Tokyo no longer compares to that in the images. Just as today Berlin no longer looks like Berlin in the seventies.
We then see Simmon childlike again, dancing by a small temple dedicated to children. Nearby, white canvases promise to reveal the name of one’s future child with acupuncture.
Simmon then plunges back into the modern city. We find him on a street corner in front of a clothing store, crying out of desperation. No one cares about him. Here again, opposition between tradition and modernity; and also that common feeling of not being able to find one’s own place in the city. Japan was the first experience of imposed democracy by the United States. This, tied to the humiliation of the defeat and the very fast modernization of the country, led many Japanese, probably, and certainly a great many artists, including Yukio Mishima, to reflect upon issues dealt with in Simmon: what is Japan today? Who am I in this Japan? What is the place of the individual in it?
The following image is comparable in form and theme. But Simmon, holding a rose, seems to have become the invisible wise man again, confronted to the speed of the modern city materialized by blurred bikers and bystanders. Both Baudelaire and Benjamin have established that the crowd of the modern city creates anonymity. For Benjamin, the crowd is a mask that hides the truth, symbolizing the impossibility of a collective experience. Simmon’s makeup is also clearly a mask. A mask between his true identity and the character he is portraying; a mask between him and the others. But this apparent serenity is shattered with the following image in which Simmon is sadly seated on the doorstep of a store, while the shopkeeper near him, blurred, is laughing.
Then comes the third chapter of the book. In most of the following images, Simmon is nothing but a tiny character lost in the urban landscape. Even if there might be exceptions, going back and forth, Heiko Hosoe’s narrative is anything but simple and literal. So here is Simmon, a tiny creature in front of the Asahi Brewery, whose name could translate into “Morning Light”. Yet, what seems to be shown here is something more of a twilight. Whether facing the crowd or facing the city’s architectural immensity, the individual once again vanishes.
And here is Simmon tiny again, on a bridge over the Sumida River. While his expression seems to be one of curiosity, bending over a bridge implies the possibility to jump from it. The next image, again sexual, in a form of hysteria, seems to mock this suicidal fear that might have impressed the reader. One really has to bear in mind that for Hosoe, photography is not a recording of the real, but a performance acted by the actor and the photographer. The camera is the stage of this performance. The book offers a possibility to reactivate it.
Simmon returns to the crowd and busy neighborhood in the next two images. Seated on a street, or tiny silhouette observing a market place from a window, he is totally ill-adapted to the movement of the modern city. And we see him again like a kid, seated with his legs dangling over a canal, his reflection in the water. Sad Narcissus. Next image, still along the canal, almost naked, he plays with fireworks. But beyond the playful child, the image evokes even more strongly the notion of self-combustion. Simmon then returns to busier neighborhoods, in turn invisible behind a door, hieratic and mocked by a group of women, or the fool posing with a group of children as they pull faces.
The end is near, and Simmon, framed between two pillars, enters into a trance, undressing. Then he flees. Escapes the city. We find him panting in a prairie, nature again, yet an outer-urban nature, soiled by modernity. In the background, a bridge, a road. Next image, stretched out diagonally in the image, the character Simmon is symbolically dead in a nature marked by modernity, with electrical posts lined up in the distance.
In the last three images, industrial landscapes: Simmon has simply vanished. In the last image, traditional kites rise to the sky above a suburban zone. The symbol seems rather obvious.
Text © Rémi Coignet. English translation : Frédérique Destribats.
I would like to thank Frédérique Destribats, Pino Musi (for the photographs of the book), Jean-Kenta Gauthier, and Marc Feustel for their precious help.