If you ask photobook aficionados what the "greatest" photobook of all time is, there will be a whole bunch of answers. In this poll, The Americans by Robert Frank got the most votes, Ravens by Masahisa Fukase and New York by William Klein were up there, and somewhere in the top ten, you’ll find Chizu (also known as The Map), by Kikuji Kawada.
Made in 1965, Chizu was a labour of near spiritual obsession in which Kawada retells the history of the Second World War and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a book that weighs heavy in your hands.
It’s not a big book, and it’s not a fun book. It feels momentous in your hands, it feels like a trace of the horrors that it references, the blacks sitting on the surface of the paper looking like the carbon traces of fire that will come off on any hands that touch the page.
The original Map came in a box. Open that up and you get a modestly sized block with a matt black cover. Open that up and you enter a world of scorched earth, the traces of destruction, and a maelstrom of political and military imagery that doesn’t allow for easy or comfortable reading.
The book came in a gatefold structure that mirrors the doorways on Buddhist shrines. You open the book and the left and right pages open up to reveal further images below. Sometimes the gatefolds open to show the destruction and stains that Kawada photographed in Hiroshima’s Genbaku Dome. Situated directly beneath the blast, the earthquake-reinforced building was protected from the shockwaves that killed 140,00 people and devastated the rest of Hiroshima. It was here that most of the photographs that Kawada took for The Map were made, abstract images of swirling patterns of stains, what Kawada later identified as eidolon (eidolon is Greek for a mythical phantom-like shade of a person).
Open up these gatefolds and you go from the realm of the dead to the realm of the human and back again. Then things get more complicated. There are imperial flags, fused bullet casings, the last letters written by kamikaze pilots before they flew to their deaths, as well as images of Coca-Cola bottles and Lucky Strike packets, all in super high contrast with the details blown out (a style heavily influenced by William Klein’s visit to Japan. The man wasn’t loved. The style was). Kawada made images in Japanese temples to militarism like the Yasukuni Shrine, a place which is now known by many in Asia as a site where Japanese war criminals are glorified. And you get the feeling that Kawada was thinking along similar lines at the time. It’s a complex book then.
The book up for review is not Chizu however. It’s not a facsimile of Chizu. Instead it’s a facsimile of the macquettes that Kawada made for Chizu. It’s a facsimile of a dummy book if you like.
The original macquette consisted of two books; one consisting of images that included the more abstract ‘stains’ from the Genbaku Dome, the other with the more descriptive work photographed at the Yasukuni Shrine, the Naval History Museum, as well as abandoned military sites around Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Accompanying these two books is a contextual overview of Chizu which contains excellent essays, a layout guide to the original Chizu, and an interview with Kawada.
Kawada describes how Kohei Sugiura (the designer) ‘…recognised that my work consists of two parts. One comprises actual objects. The other transcends the objects; they are abstractions. Finally we decided to simply make two books. I liked the idea of two volumes, but wondered whether the reader would be able to retain the images from one book to the next and see them as a double image – to know that the meanings must be combined to form a whole. Yet at the same time I was attracted to the concept, because I had never seen a photography book in two volumes.’
This macquette issue explores what went into the original two volume version, how Kawada developed the motifs apparent in the book, and the ways in which Chizu links into broader Japanese and photographic history.
The original stimulus for the book came from Ken Domon, the photographer who was best known for making (with Shomei Tomatsu) Hiroshima-Nagasaki document 1961. This is a book where the traces of the atomic bomb are everywhere, from Tomatsu’s surreal melted-bottle-rabbit and bullet holed helmet to the scars on the faces of bomb survivors that Domon photographed.
Kawada was commissioned to photograph Domon in Hiroshima and began taking pictures of the walls and ceiling of the Genbaku Dome. These images form an abstract textual chaos of rocks and plaster, of the fractured skin of construction, of the very stuff the earth is made of fused into book form.
Kawada describes his first solo visit to the Dome. “It was damp, dark, there was a strange smell… my eyes took a moment to adjust before I noticed the stains. It was an unspeakably powerful moment. I felt like I had encountered this terrifying, unknown place. I had the illusion that I could almost hear faint voices merged with the wind… I believe that when one experiences an event as foreign and improbable as this, it is felt as a full sensory experience. New events like that for me are often connected with my senses of smell and hearing. When I encountered the stains, I felt electrified.”
This is work that is not easy to look at or read. It’s work that fits the idea of New York painter, Adolph Gottlieb that “different times require different images… To my mind, a certain so-called abstraction is not an abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.”
The original intention to publish Chizu as two volumes was just one of several possibilities that were mooted. The designer, Sugiura, proposed wrapping and carrying “the photographs around in a furoshiki (a cloth used to wrap and carry around personal items). He then proposed to make a case in which the 100 or so prints would be encased as loose sheets… Finally we decided to make two volumes.”
The two-volume version didn’t happen. Instead, the one volume version was made. But that has its origins in the original macqette. “This gatefold design couldn’t have come out of nowhere,” says Kawada, “it had to have this two-volume design first.”
When that didn’t happen, the macquette was sold to the New York Public Library, there to lay more or less undisturbed until this version of the two volumes happened.
It’s not Chizu (but then even Chizu is not Chizu. It’s a difficult book considering how highly it is ranked. Chizu makes Ravens, Fukase’s book on loss and sorrow, look like something from a Merrie Melodies cartoon. And The Americans? That’s Dora the Explorer in comparison. It’s a dense read), but this version presents the book closer to how it was intended to appear, and details through ideas of how light, shade, the abstract, and the concrete could be sequenced into one of the most seminal photobooks of all time. The only thing that is missing is some added commentary on the political elements related both to Japanese and American militarism that are apparent in the book and the period it was made and are remain relatively unexamined in western photographic history. But on this, perhaps the last word goes to Kawada: “I rejected details. Details are too descriptive. Details speak too many words.”
By Colin Pantall
Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.
Chizu (Maquette Edition) (2021) by Kikuji Kawada is published by MACK.