Twenty years on, Miyako Ishiuchi & Asako Narahashi discuss and reflect upon starting their own photography magazine.
Currently at Goliga, we are completing work on a hundred-year history of Japanese photography magazines. We begin in the 1880s and continue through to about 1985, when Camera Mainichi ended. It was around that time when magazines lost their position in the photography world as the primary distribution vehicle for photography. As readership started to become segmented, the allure of mass-driven publications diminished. Photographers looked to do more interesting work independently and the relationships with editors, which until then had been indispensable for photography magazines, also faded. In many instances, photographers assumed the roles of the editor as well as that of publisher. One important example of such independently produced magazines was Main (1996–2000), which was co-published by our two interviewees, Miyako Ishiuchi and Asako Narahashi.
Ivan Vartanian (IV): How did Main come into existence?
Narahashi: In 1990, I opened my own independent gallery, ‘03FOTOS,’ in order to exhibit my photography and a few times a year I continued to publish my work. In 1995, for the first time, I had a year-long serialization in a camera magazine. Until that happened, I didn’t clearly grasp the value of the printed page; it wasn’t something that came naturally to me. But exhibitions were short-lived and I started to feel that I wanted to engage in some activity that would remain as a tangible result. So, I started thinking about making printed matter myself. One day, I happened to casually mention that to Ishiuchi and, much to my surprise, she said, without skipping a beat, “Let’s do it together!” “What?!” — I couldn’t believe it. (ha!)
Ishiuchi: I used to belong to a group called Shashin Kōka, which is where my career in photography got its start, and we made a magazine with the same name. We only published one issue but I wrote a text for the magazine. From that experience, I developed an interest in magazines as a media with the potential to serve as a record by transcribing the real of the now. I thought about how they can record such information and how interesting of a media it was. I did not think about doing it by myself but I immediately got the sense that with Asako we would somehow be able to do it.
Narahashi: At that time, I was only just getting my work into camera magazines but Ishiuchi was already a star so I was totally surprised by her suggestion. Everybody said that I was the one who talked her into doing it. (ha!) At any rate, I was an absolute beginner and even working up the courage to talk to her was quite the struggle. But since she’d made such an offer, I realized I had to do it properly. I wrote out a business proposal and we started by thinking about what the title should be. For the first issue, we combined our initials, which spelled out main. In French that means ‘hand’ and so we able adopted the French pronunciation too, which is man. As it was just us—two women—there seemed to be just the right amount of irony to make it an okay title.
Ishiuchi: I had participated in a group exhibition “Hyaka Ryōran” (Hundred Flower Revolution), which gathered ten female photographers together. That experience stuck with me and I thought I wanted to do another project with someone of the same gender rather than on my own. The participants of “Hyaka Ryōran” were all of the same generation, relatively speaking. Asako, however, was a little bit younger and she really gave off the fresh, new feeling that she still had so much left to accomplish. It was quite the coup for me; I benefited greatly. (ha!) It felt like we might just be able to do something interesting. Two women, working together, there was the potential for something new and so the start just flowed naturally from there. This was about when camera magazines started declining in status and we wanted to create a space of our own to publish our work. That was clear from the outset.
IV: From a Westerner’s perspective, it is incredibly rare to see photographers start their own magazine. Daidō Moriyama’s Kiroku pops into my mind as one example. Some of these magazines lasted for a while, others ended quickly. Either way, the impulse to starting a magazine—in other words, creating your own media— is, in itself, one characteristic of Japanese photographers.
Ishiuchi: Huh, that’s quite interesting. Shōmei Tōmatsu was the first instance of self-publishing. He used publishing as a form wherein his photography would endure. So maybe there is some particular cultural identity amongst the Japanese to do so.
IV: When I look at independently produced magazines like Main, I get the sense that there is a strong desire to be in control of how one’s work is released into the world, including its context. The independent spirit registers quite palpably.
Ishiuchi: Freedom! And doing something in whatever way you want. That is absolutely the biggest thing about self-publishing. There aren’t any restrictions placed on you by someone else.
Narahashi: At that time, just like it is now, there weren't that many commercial galleries in Tokyo. I wasn’t interested in the galleries of manufacturers and camera magazines didn't have the energy that they used to. And, so, for contemporary photographers that left the photobook as the primary media to publicize your work. But I didn’t want to do it in that way. I wanted to show my work as being something that was currently in a state of progression.
Ishiuchi: At the time there was a clear division between "serious photography” and commercial photography. Serious photographers didn’t take photos for someone; photography was solely a matter of self-expression. What do I want to express? It's feeling of wanting to visualize something instead of rendering it in words. It came to me clearly: the form to utilize was the dōjinshi typical of the traditional Japanese literature and not camera magazines. And so generally speaking, this might just become a discussion about the history of Japanese expression.
IV: From the outside, it seems like during that period there was a lot of change in Japanese photography and Main was a reflection of that. Of course, the magazine serves as an archive of your work at the time but also in terms of the history of Japanese photography, it was an important activity of documentation. 20 years have passed since its publication and, far from feeling old, it rather feels quite fresh. Can you talk about what happened during your editorial meetings and the editorial process?
Ishiuchi: We discussed who we should meet and who we wanted to meet. We mutually agreed that we would take turns for each issue to decide who to invite as a guest. Otherwise, we didn’t establish anything like an editorial plan.
Narahashi: For every issue, each of us would dedicate eight pages to feature our photography and/or writing. Apart from that, some regular parts to the magazine included dialogues or a column called “My Favorite,” where we featured a book or photobook that we liked. We asked my designer friend Tetsuya Ishizuka to create our layout. The layout and composition of an issue was done in one single (albeit intense) day. The number of copies we printed for each issue varied, but basically there are about 650 for every issue. Because the magazine was self-published, of course we paid for everything ourselves. Along the way we talked about getting advertisements but we abandoned that idea.
Ishiuchi: It was a black-and-white publication for the whole run except for one issue. The issue that had color took a bit of more money. We split the costs we talked about how it was getting expensive and how we usually sell each issue for ¥500. But the color one we sold for ¥700. I don’t think that sort of thing is normally done (ha!). The two of us were quite the amateurs and so there were a lot of different things that we didn’t really understand. What we were doing was fundamentally a cottage industry. We did our own labeling. And because we couldn’t have our magazines in bookstores we had to sell them ourselves at places like galleries and events and such. During those four years I was traveling overseas a lot. I carried our freshly printed pieces to show people in cities like Amsterdam and New York. Michiko Kasahara introduced me to John Coplans just before his death. We included snapshots like that into our issues. These were personal moments and, being so, they were also universal; photographs can communicate without words, and they were devoid of some odd Japanese-y feel. But when I think about it, even though those snapshots were our own personal histories, that sort of photography shared a bit with a larger meaning of history. I cannot believe it has been 20 years, as I read and look through the issues, pardon me for boasting but they don’t feel that old to me. (ha!)
IV: How important was it that two women were producing this magazine?
Narahashi: There's a 12-year difference between my generation and that of Ishiuchi’s and I didn’t particularly think differently about the magazine being made only by women.
Ishiuchi: I did. I was just the right age to be a part of the student movement generation and so, of course, I was involved with the early days of the Women’s Lib movement at the beginning of the ’70s. There were a lot of things that I didn’t accomplish during that time. One of which was “Hyaka Ryōran” exhibition. We put together the work of 10 women. The exhibition’s theme was to look back at the lookers—to photograph men. We got a lot of television coverage! The reason being I had taken nudes of men. “A woman has photographed a male nude!” It caused quite a sensation. Even still, the exhibition was totally ignored by the photography world. Photography is part of a man’s world. That’s the sort of strange discrimination I faced as a woman taking photographs. The majority of female photographers who had extraordinary talent eventually quit because of this. Because of this, “being female” was something that remained in my awareness, always in a corner of my mind. That having been said, I didn’t do this project because I am a woman. Being a woman is not an excuse or motive. At the end of the day it is no more than a premise. Above all, I wanted to solidly create.
Narahashi: Certainly. When we were working on Main, we developed such a natural rapport that I forgot Ishiuchi was a woman or that I needed to use terms of respect when addressing her.
Ishiuchi: Age did not have any relevance, we worked together as equals. That’s why we said what we needed to say to each other, and how everything would be fine if we could share our feelings in wanting to make a good magazine.
Narahashi: I have little patience for people who use gender as a selling point. Ishiuchi was easy to talk with because she has a neutral quality.
Ishiuchi: We always said what we wanted to say. And we never fought or split up.
Narahashi: But there were times when we were furious with one another. (ha!).
Ishiuchi: Well that’s par for the course when only two people are working on something to such an extent. There were lots of that. (ha!). Maybe because among all the women that I’ve known, when I met Asako I realized we shared a certain sense of value. That is why what we did was really interesting.
IV: Looking back at the 100 years of photography magazine history, we can see images of women photographed by male photographers comprise a lot of what was published. So much so that the female image is a recurring theme throughout the magazine history we are making now. One can make the argument that camera makers and camera magazines have constructed the female image.
Ishiuchi: As I said, when we held the “Hyaka Ryōran” exhibition, our theme was to consider that dynamic of those being looked at actively doing the looking. But we were totally ignored. (ha!) All the same, I am glad we did it.
Narahashi: Even when Main was first introduced in Asahi Camera, it was described as the work of “two female photographers.” But I think that was all they could do to begin with.
Ishiuchi: That’s fine. It was the truth. So what? What is important is what comes next. The starting point can be anywhere. But you are made aware of your relationship to society just by being a woman. Even if the person herself isn't continually mindful that she's a woman, the people around her will do the reminding. As a female photographer, I think that’s a problem that cannot be constantly avoided. But I do think that recently there have been various social movements and so the situation has changed slightly.
Narahashi: When I started my career in the mid-80s, a lot of my older fellow photographers (mentors) were members of the macho brigade. (ha!) Now that I think about it, their method of instruction was fairly absurd but at the time I had no concept of what power harassment was. So there were times when I just had to accept what was happening. Thinking about it like that, the situation of other female artists in my generation was probably the same.
Ishiuchi: It was only recently that the response to work by female photographers has changed. They’re interesting—women, that is. Photographs by women are just better. Powerful. And their themes are amazing.
Narahashi: And they maintain delicacy. When I’ve seen great photography, it often turns out to be something shot by a woman.
Ishiuchi: We’re free and our ideas are completely different to that of men.
IV: Is there work that was prompted because you created Main?
Ishiuchi: For me, we included in the magazine “Kieru Machi,” a series photos of various Akasen and Yukaku (Red light districts). I think that I wouldn't have been able to make that work unless it was a magazine serialization. But I didn't make pieces with the specific intention of included it in our magazine. I just serialized whatever I was taking pictures of at the time. I'm glad I was able to show the process of development as it was happening. Introducing work as is, without knowing what will come next—this is how it is right now—was what made the magazine interesting.
Narahashi: Compared to making a photobook, a magazine is much easier. Photobooks cost more and take more time and effort. However, you can summarize a journal of one’s travels in eight pages of a magazine. Also, you can be freer with layouts in a magazine. Exhibitions at 03FOTOS were held to coincide with the publication of our magazine among the images that I’d made, some were more suitable for magazines and the ones that were more suitable for exhibitions. And, so, I started to have a way of seeing my photography differently based on the way it would be shown.
Ishiuchi: That’s right, there are quite a number of photographs that I have only ever shown on the printed pages of Main.
IV: Narahashi, since you had your own exhibition space, did you feel there was a difference showing your work in an exhibition versus seeing it in your magazine?
Narahashi: After opening the gallery in 1990, I hold solo exhibitions a few times a year. After a while, the people who came to see the shows were the regulars: Ishiuchi, Moriyama, and Nakahira would come. I was happy but the people who came to see the shows was limited to the number of people to whom I send postcard announcements. So I felt like I had to spread out more and making Main was a good opportunity to break out. There was also a synergy between Main amd the timing of the camera magazine serializations I was doing. Visitors I didn’t know at all would start coming to the exhibitions.
Ishiuchi: With the publication of each issue of the magazine, we held a two-person exhibition at 03FOTOS, focusing on the work that was published in the issue.
Narahashi: Each of us used one wall in the long and narrow gallery.
IV: The link between the printed page and exhibitions is quite interesting. In the West, the history of photograph is mostly told through framed prints on a wall. But for Japanese photography it is important to look at photography culture, and that includes the print page—magazines and photobooks.
Ishiuchi: Japan’s photography culture has little to do with original prints. As I mentioned, people would gather for our events but naturally there were no collectors in attendance. We did sell prints but in the time we published 10 issues and held 5 exhibitions, I think we sold just a few prints.
Narahashi: It's really only been recently that the original print has been considered important.
IV: Also, for some reason, Japanese photographers write quite a bit.
Ishiuchi: As I said earlier, Japanese people might have a special relationship with the book and writing culture that is separate to photography. That’s why I think it bad if photographer cannot write well. So, I told Asako to write, write more, and write with all her ability. “Keep writing,” I told her. Whenever she’d stop writing halfway through, I’d get really angry with her. (ha!) I thought that because it is a magazine it must including writing so I did my best to write as much as I could. My aim was to give the magazine some volume and communicate something more than just photographs. As a result, I think that our two roles balance out very nicely. She would show pictures while I was quite aware that I intended to make the reader read.
IV: Have you felt that with the publication of Main changed how you saw your own work?
Ishiuchi: Fundamentally, I just thought of Main as an extension of my usual work so there wasn’t really anything particularly special to an image once it had been in the magazine. Because there were the two of us working on the magazine, I was conscious of balancing our pieces, of course. I didn’t think of her as a rival or anything but I did wonder what kind of photos she would include in the next issue. It meant I had to have a critical capacity. There was never “anything will be fine.” I think that both of us were aware of that.
Narahashi: Looking at it now, I may have gone a bit overboard, putting too much effort into the photography. Looking at it now, there are some images that I wouldn’t have included.
Ishiuchi: For me, rather than something to clench my energy about, the magazine was more like an extension of my daily life. And that’s fine. That’s because at the time my days were spent being quite serious and that was reflected in the magazine. She and I have different senses of distance relative to our photography and that is palpable in the work. It wouldn’t have been interesting if our approach had been similar. I think that we were able to do the magazine because our differences were clear. And this was a period when there were a lot of different independent magazines.
Narahashi: During the same period as Main, the magazine Kaiten by Mie Morimoto and Hiro’omi Sahara, who were students at Tokyo Zokei University left quite an impression.
IV: There are a lot of photographers who felt the potential of independent magazines. This sort of culture isn’t as pronounced in the west. There is a vibrant Zine culture now but a culture of independently produced photo magazines is quite rare.
Ishiuchi: They cost some money to make. If it’s just text, a magazine is relatively simple to print. But once photography is involved, it can get expensive to make but that’s fine. It was really fun to give concrete form to something new and I am happy that we did it. That sort of joy permeated the process so we were able to make 10 issues. That’s a lot! Now that I think of it, our reputation wasn’t bad either.
IV: Did you plan from the outset to make 10 issues? Or did you choose at some point mid-way to stop at 10?
Narahashi: At the beginning we made the decision to commit to publishing 10 issues of the magazine.
Ishiuchi: It took four years but that was just how long was needed. I’m glad we made it. We were able to do interviews in Main that surpassed my imagination.
IV: I was quite surprised when I learned that the two of you hadn’t been interviewed about Main before.
Ishiuchi: In Japan, magazines are a minor media and, over time, they will be forgotten. If someone digs them up again, it would only be after a very long time. That said, looking back on the issues now, I can see that we were able to create something really important.