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 The story of Asphalt


The story of ASPHALT

<History of Asphalt magazine>
The term photo magazine often evokes images of colourful, glossy camera and ad-saturated publications. However, when AtsushiFujiwara, photographer and publisher of Asphalt, showed me his photo magazine, I was pleasantly surprised.

Fujiwara left behind a successful career to venture into the world of photography by opening a hire photo studio, catering to high-end advertising and commercial photography clients. With no formal background in photography, Fujiwara benefits from an open mind and a fresh perspective when viewing photography. Seeing the commercial work produced in the studio each day, he started wondering: aside from a carefully arranged world for commercial purposes, what else could photography be?

Golden Gaiin Shinjuku, a famous stretch of small bars and restaurants, started as a black market following World War II. Remnants of 65-year-old barracks can still be found among the bars in the street. In this area, there is a bar called KODOJI that served as a legendary bohemian hangout in the 1960s for photographers like Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki. It is in this bar, one night that Fujiwara happened to meet Shin-ichiro Tojimbara. Tojimbara graduated from Tokyo Visual Art College as a student of Moriyama and was asked by his former teacher to take over the next generation of photographers. Tojimbara wanted to establish a forum or platform for upcoming photographers in Japan, but due to several factors, among them a mental illness, was looking for collaborators. The two connected instantly and decided to found a photography magazine; this was the birth of Asphalt. The pair approached two other photographers as contributors and started working on the first issue in April 2008.

They then approached an acquaintance, newly retired photo editor Akira Hasegawa, and asked him if he would be interested in editing the magazine. To Tojimabara's and Fujiwara's surprise, he agreed. Hasegawa had been the editor for the well-known and now collectible Asahi Sonorama Shashinshu series, consisting of 27 books published in the late 1970s.In addition to this series, Hasegawa edited some of the most famous milestones of Japanese photobooks: "A Journey to Nakaji" by Daido Moriyama,"HeiseiGannen" by Nobuyoshi Araki, and "Solitude of Ravens"by Masahisa Fukase, to name a few. His editorial influence can still be felt bya wide crop of current editors and publishers such as Michitaka Ota of Sokyu-sha.

The Asphalt team hoped that the presence of famous editor would enable them to get some big names in Japanese photography, but this was not Hasegawa's priority. Instead, he was more interested in finding quality no-names, as well as providing a stronger direction in the selection and presentation of new photography.

"The Asphalt concept will be exhausted eventually and there is no need to carry it forward indefinitely."

Asphalt's early concept was simply to bring together their own material with that of other photographers they knew and to produce more of a photo book than a magazine. Upon Hasegawa's arrival, from issue #2, the concept of two regular photographers and two guests was introduced. Hasegawawas also eager to expand the cultural horizon by looking at emerging photography outside of Japan, from China and Korea for example. His main motivation was to provide an improved view into the Japanese and Asian photographic landscape and to give guidance to the next generation of photographers. Asphalt washis vehicle of choice to pursue this objective.

Hasegawa has been working to reach an international audience for Japanese and Asian photography for almost 30 years now. During Asphalt's hey-day,he was working with Shoji Yamagishi at Camera Mainichi, the most influential monthly photography magazine in post-war Japan. Even though much of the editorial content of Camera Mainichi was devoted to the usual news and reviews of cameras, lenses, and other equipment, from the start it was a space for first-rate and unconventional photography and this editorial work was perfected under Yamagishi. Yamagishi was a friend of John Szarkowski, the director of the photography division at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at a time when noone outside of Japan seemed to know anything about Japanese photography. Inclose collaboration, they worked to mount two milestone exhibitions in New York:"New Japanese Photography" (Museum of Modern Art, 1974) and"Japan, a Self-Portrait" (International Center of Photography, 1979).As ground breaking as Szarkowski's pioneer work has been, Hasegawa believes thatit still has not led to a full understanding of Japanese photography in the West.

"This may come as a surprise to some of you, but if you think scenery in Paris back in the early 20th century looks beautiful and scenery in Tokyo in early 21stcentury looks ugly, then you have no idea what photography is all about. Photographs capture reality before anything else. As long as we live in cities such as thisone, taking your eyes off of its scenery is just another attempt to drift away from what is real."

- Akira Hasegawa, in his introduction to Asphalt III

From its inception, Asphalt was created with the intention to produce a finite series of only ten issues, stemming from the belief that the concept, as it stands now, will eventually be exhausted and there will be no need to carry it forward indefinitely. As an experienced entrepreneur, Fujiwara is also mindful of the fact that apart from creative and artistic concepts, the long-term continuation of the project is crucial to its overall success. Like a group of friends who join up to establish a band or other creative group, projects like this usually stall or fail after the firstattempts of producing output, even if there is an initial success. Conceptual disagreements and battling egos threaten the long-term sustainability of such aventure, not to mention financial responsibilities and obligations. Therefore, the group wanted to define key responsibilities from an early stage, including conceptual, editorial and business aspects.

Fujiwara seeks to emphasize his underlying motivation of providing a reflection on Japanese photography, past and present. In his view, despite the enormous general interest in photography in Japan, there is a great lack of institutional and individual examination into the cultural context within which photographers operate and produce images. Ofparticular importance is the need to find the connection and evolution pathbetween the previous generation of photographers from the 1960s and 70s, with the more recent wave of artists since the mid and late 1990s. Academic institutionsthat look at the medium and art of photography are far and few between, Tokyo National University of the Arts or "Geidai" being a notable exception. Education is most commonly concentrated on teaching technology and technique in vocational schools, preparing photographers for a commercial career, while putting aside the aspect of personal expression. This void notonly includes image creators, but also the traditional role of photo editors, like Hasegawa. The legacy of Camera Mainichi seems distant in a world where commercial needs dictate, or at least heavily influence, what a magazine is in order to draw their readers' attention.

Despite a lack of institutional support, the artistic photography world in Japan is kept alive by to the strong energy of the working community of photographers. Publishing a photo book remains one of the top ambitions of photographers, and since the books are essentially financed by the artists there will be a continued stream of publications as long as these individuals can afford to do so. The only exception to this system are within the thin layer of top league artists like Moriyama and Arakior cases where a school or sponsor steps in to provide financial support, which is obviously not always without self-interest and could, therefore, impact the range of work being published.

During our conversation, Fujiwara and Hasegawa introduced me to the concept of yotei-chowa (予定調和[よていちょうわ]), which translates to "pre-established harmony."Fujiwara explains that the photographers working in his studio each day, to the highest standards of commercial photography, have all started with the desire to produce art in some form. However, after becoming so skilled and technically sophisticated they have great difficulty expressing themselves freely. Photographically, since the results of their daily work are pre-determined by the demands of the clients, their skills and minds are aligned to achieve these results. So when they, perhaps longing for more artistic creative output, try concentrating on their personal work and attempting to produce a photo book or magazine-like publication, the results look just as polished and immaculate as their commercial work. However, they lack a raw energy that makes the images interesting. Hasegawa adds, that to be successful in producing artistic photography, the artist is better off engaging with the unknown, not knowing where it will take him, and going to the extreme, regardless of whether his work can pay for the bills the next day or not.

"The photo editor's job is like cooking a meal with a range of ingredients put at your disposal."

Asphalt is published every six months and prints around 600-800 copies. Volume 1, 2 and 3 are sold out and no longer available.This should not imply any commercial success, as Fujiwara made great efforts to distribute sample copies to museums and photo galleries around the world to promote the magazine. Commercial distribution is also more difficult because booksellers find it difficult to categorise it between "real" photo magazines and art photo books.

However, the main goal of this project is not commercial. It is a journey for the photographers and the editor, a document of personal development. Like sitting down with a photographer friend every six months with your latest prints for a discussion, Asphalt is a vehicle for everyone involved to periodically review one's own growth and progress. The concept of two regulars and one guest mixes elements of consistency and surprise, which is highly engaging for the magazine's readership.

Since he is such an experienced editor, I asked Hasegawa-sensei whether he finds the work on Asphalt, post-retirement, challenging or a routine. He made it clear that editing remains a challenging task. The photo editor's job is not to determine whether a photograph is good or bad; in fact, he would not comment on this aspect at all. The editor does not simply collect quality images and then publish them his own way; this would be easy. Instead, he takes on the challenge of working with a set of photographs brought to him and presenting them in a meaningful way.

Despite having worked on over 100 photo books of photographers, both famous and unknown, the most complex aspect for Hasegawa-sensei remains finding the best way to present the work to the viewer.

Author/Editor: Dirk of Japan Exposure

2008 winter at bar SAYA in Golden-Gai Shinjuku Tokyo

Shin-ichiro Tojimbara, Akira Hasegawa, Atsushi Fujiwara, Left to right