The Last Cosmology

©Kikuji Kawada / Mack Books

© Kikuji Kawada / Mack Books

Paul Caponigro, the  landscape photographer, was a student of Minor White. He, along with a group of other young photographers, lived in White’s house and helped maintain it in exchange for the Master’s Wisdom. White at the time was an amazingly influential photographer and teacher. But yet, Caponigro, arguably White’s best student and close companion decided to break away and leave. He saw the situation with White as a club and he was tired of being in a club and decided to cut the umbilical cord. He was not alone in his sentiments. There were a few critics of White that argued what he was producing as a teacher were a bunch of copies of himself.

Caponigro’s feeling about Minor White reflect my frustrations with contemporary photo books. Although we are supposedly living through a boom in photo book making I find very little that grabs my attention and demands that I acquire it. A lot of the images looks the same, easily moved from one book to another.  I am not the only one who thinks so. Recently, Frances Hodgson, the British Photo Critic wrote recently that:

People who are interested in photography have turned it in on itself. It is as though photography has become effete, enervated, in the eyes of those who practice it most publicly. I have written elsewhere about my dislike of ‘project’ books. The photobook industry is booming, at least among a small self-selecting group of collectors. But I wonder if a high enough proportion of what will have been produced during the boom will later be considered any good.

Time and time again when I shop online for books or go to book fairs there is very little that engages me. Most of the material appears to be very stylized and self referential, effete as Hodgson would say. A good photo book is not really about photography. Photography is a medium of communication and a good photo book communicates something; a feeling, a way of seeing, a way of being, a way of knowing. It can be any or all of these (and probably more). The photographs in a photo book should be able to stand on their own individually (mostly) as well as collectively. It seems that the main point of many photo book makers is to show that they belong; that they went to art school and that they get “it” (whatever “it” happens to be at the time).

Every once in awhile a photo books comes along that stands out. A book made by someone with a voice and a particular way of seeing. Such is the case with Kikuji Kawada’s new book, The Last Cosmology. Kawada is best known for his book, The Map, a metaphorical tour de force about Japan, The Nuclear Age and the future. As Kawada explains:

These works led me to attempt to create this photographic book, using the notion of the map as a clue to the future and to question the whereabouts of my spirit. Discarded memorial photographs, a farewell note, kamikaze pilots – the illusions of various maps that emerge are to me like a discussion with the devil. The stains are situated as a key image of the series by drawing a future stratum and sealing the history, the nationality, the fear and anxiety of destruction and prosperity. It was almost a metaphor for the growth and the fall.

The Map was first published in 1960. This new book is also about himself and his preoccupation with the Cosmos. Kawada, born in 1933, is a child of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and so his is a troubled soul, having witnessed the atrocities and follies of the 20th Century. The photographs in the book are of unusual and calamitous weather conditions. Photographs reflecting his mental and spiritual states of being. As a book it is also a grand statement of photography as a very impressionistic medium. For Kawada it seems that The Last Cosmology is a way to map out the consequences of human folly in the 20th century as well as the wonder that is The Cosmos.

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