It is rather like deciding on having dinner at a Japanese restaurant and finding that the menu is in Japanese only, and the waiter does not speak a word of English. Total bewilderment. It is quite some time that I bought these two books of nudes. I suppose at the time I was fascinated by the exotic quality of the books rather than the artistic quality of the photographs , or the women portrayed. In later Japanese editions there is usually something to go by, a date, a publisher, but here there was no clue whatsoever. Japanese characters, an obscure stamp pasted in, but nothing identifiable. I vaguely remembered the book had some sort of instructional title, ‘How to …’, which seemed to be borne out by a number of diagrams and drawings clearly intended for artistically-minded amateurs with an understandable ambition to create of book of nudes of their own.
But who took these pleasant, but harmless pictures? Not a clue. Fortunately, there are always the experts. I had a faint recollection of buying a book at an American bookshop specializing in Japanese photobooks, and after a couple of misspellings I traced them: Mikitimi Books & Prints. Perhaps they could help me out on this mysterious photographer. And they could, for there they were, my Nippon nudes, complete with dustjackets and all: Rafu no utsushikata [‘How to Photograph Nude Women’], and Zoku rafu no utsushikata [‘How to photograph nude women again’], by Kira Sugiyama, published in 1950/51. Both books are described as ‘historically important’.
As a rule, the phrase ‘historically important’ is a way of damning by faint praise. It implies that these photographs may have been considered groundbreaking at the time, but that to more modern standards they have little to recommend them. And there is some truth in that. The models are frolicking about in nature, their bodies retouched in vital spots, radiating innocence and happiness. It is only very rarely that the photographer ventures out into slightly more experimental approaches. To appreciate these pictures, we must be prepared to view them in a historical perspective, abandoning more contemporary notions of artistic quality. Bertolotti, in his standard work Books of Nudes, suggests that these photographs were modelled on the American pin-ups pf the 1950s and on photographs taken by André de Dienes in France for the Nus albums at the same time. My esteemed colleagues of Mikitimi Books, to whom I owe so much here, even speak of ‘sixty-year-old nostalgia from the ‘Dienes of Japan’. But again, if a sense of nostalgia is a prerequisite for appreciating these pictures, it will be clear that these volumes, exotic as they may be, are of interest chiefly for the historians of modern photography. But, of course, there is a good deal to be said for that as well.