Worth A Look: Rinko Kawauchi / by Graham Dew

The Deutsche Börse Photography Prize is perhaps the most prestigious art photography award in the UK. Today the newly refurbished Photographers Gallery hosts an exhibition of the four finalists; Pieter Hugo, Rinko Kawauchi, John Stezaker and Christopher Williams. I must admit that I've rather lost interest in most of these big-ticket photo prizes over the years. Curators and judging panels seem to value the conceptual over the visual in most of these events and most of the victors' work is usually pretty dull & dour. I'm sure that they talk a good story...

This year's prize is a bit more interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing the exhibition this weekend; I'll post my thoughts about the exhibition next week. I think I'm going to like John Stezakers juxtaposed torn postcards and found filmstar pictures (not actually his photography), and I'm very keen to see the work of Rinko Kawauchi, whose work I have been interested in for the past couple of years.

I first came across Rinko Kawauchi's work from a blog article by Martin Parr on photographic genres. She was cited by Parr as example of the poetic approach to photography and fits this description well. Her work examines the incidental, the everyday, the intimate and personal details. Throughout her work there are references to birth & death, and fragility and impermanence. 

The work that was considered for this year’s Deutsche Börse is Illuminance published by Aperture, and is her first book to be widely available in the west. I bought a copy prior to her nomination for the DB, after researching her work on the web. The two best places to see her work online is at FOIL and at her own recently launched website. Her work falls into a particular genre or ethic of Japanese photography, of personal, intimate and often of near-field pictures, square and in colour. This style has a natural resonance for me. Whereas I am comfortable working digitally, Kawauchi and her peers often work with old medium format film cameras, the favoured instruments being TLR Rolleiflexes.

I really liked most of her images that I found on the web, and a good deal of what I found in Illuminance. Many of the pictures do indeed show Illuminance; bright contre-jour images, light and airy pictures with a lot of sky, bright lights, myriad rainbows scintillate out of water droplets. There are pictures that are very high key, almost on the point of being over-lit or over exposed. As a counterpoint there are some very dark, dense images such as this shoreline at dusk that provide a more sombre balance. 

However, I have to admit that I still feel some disappointment with Illuminance. For a start, the narrative of the book does not seem to hang together. There are pictures that don't fit with the general concept of the book; pictures of elderly tourists walking around a rock in Japan for instance. There are often pictures of the same subject matter repeated - soap bubbles, road kill, a lame mural, that occur without enhancing or reinforcing the sequence of photos. And there are some pictures that just don't seem very good.

As a physical object, the book production too is something of a curate’s egg. Colour prints are tipped in on both the front and back covers, which are finished in a rather nice muted blue canvas. The title however is embossed in sparkly rainbow metallic, which looks more suitable for a schoolgirl’s annual. 

The book is put together in what is described as a 'Japanese Binding'. What results is something akin to a concertina book, with all the pages bonded to a paper spine, and the whole block bonded to the back cover of the book.

The effect is rather peculiar; pages curl to a tubular 'S' shape when the book is opened.

Even stranger is the choice of paper. Creamy in colour, it has a very matt finish and rough tooth, which has the effect of sucking all the contrast and density out of the images. This sort of surface might work well with gritty monochrome, but seems completely inappropriate for the delicate high contrast colour images. The printing does seems to lack a certain Illuminance... In comparison, Ernst Haas' ColorCorrection, published by Steidl, has images that just jump off the page. Steidl are the gold standard for printing these days, I guess. 

Illuminance can hardly be considered as Kawauchi's magnum opus, and for this reason seems a strange nomination for this year's Deutsche Börse - nominations are for books or previous exhibition. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing actual photographs in the flesh and I hope that they will have rather more illuminance than the book does.

The newly reopened Photographers' Gallery is exhibiting work from the four finalists in the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2012, 13 July - 9 September 2012. The winner will be announced September 3rd.