Miwa Susuda: A Driving Force in the Photobook World

Interview by Julian Lucas | Kathleen Graulty

As the founder of Session Press, Miwa Susuda has made quite an impact in the photobook world by creating a gateway to emerging and established Japanese and Chinese photographers. Since 2011, Session Press has published 8 limited edition books of contemporary and historical works with artists such as Koji Onaka, Daisuke Yukota, and Ren Hang.

With a passion for photography, Miwa is not only a photobook consultant for Dashwood Books in NY, but is also a writer. Miwa writes for multiple magazines and photography platforms including IMA magazine and 10x10 American Photobook.  She is also known to write book reviews for various artists like Alec SothAri Marcopuoulos, and Takuma Nakahira. To add to Miwa’s impressive list of accomplishments, she gave a lecture for VSW's Photo-Bookworks Symposium this past June.

Where does the name Session Press come from?

Miwa: I chose a name that I thought was accessible, and love it very much since I feel it captures the collaborative spirit behind the press, which is driven by collaboration between photographers, designers, editors, printers, and binders, as well as inspiration from my beloved friends, not to mention my boss, coworkers and clients at Dashwood Books who give me tremendous support for introducing works from Japan and China. Each project requires the participation of a group, just like a jazz session.  

Besides my publishing work, I write and lecture to American and European audiences on Asian photography. Similarly, I interview western photographers and review their work for Japanese media.  I recently published an essay in the IMA spring issue, entitled “Ryan McGinley and his early influence,” and would like to take a moment if I can to give a special thanks to George Pitts for his invaluable advice on the piece.  George is one of my biggest mentors and pushed me to pursue my dream at the earlier stages of my career.  I also want to thank Giles Cassels, Julie Casemore and Stefan Kirkeby at Casemore Kirkeby Gallery in San Francisco, who generously gave me a chance to conduct an artist talk at their contemporary Japanese photographer’s show this May.

 
A few of your earlier books consist of landscapes and cityscapes. Tell us about the transition to the focus on the body and sexuality in your most recent books. What draws you to the use of bodies as the subject?

Miwa: That’s a good point, although I don’t think it is a choice I made consciously, and I still love landscape very much. I always chose to publish a photographer based on my general admiration for their work, and not on their current subject matter.  I decided to work with Kohey, Saiki-san and Onaka-san because I had admired and followed their work for a long time.  I enjoy Kohey’s discreet yet contemplative approach to color and composition in landscape and I respect Saiki san (http://www.katsuhirosaiki.com) as the one of the most important conceptual artists in NY and Tokyo, and it was like a dream come true when I finally published his book, ”For the sake of future days” in 2013.  Onaka-san’s work is just stunning, and his books are of course very beautiful, but his prints are really something else. He is definitely a significant figure in the history of Japanese photography.  I am very thankful to both of them for giving me a chance to realize their respective projects and I will certainly support their work in the future. 

Yes, I love nudity, but I also love portraits, since I believe that the face is the map of one’s destiny.  My favorite portrait books are Walter Pfeiffer’s "Das Ague, die Geake, unentwegt wandernd” (1986) and Helmar Lerski’s "Der mensch-mein bruder” (1958).

I also have a strong admiration for Avedon’s ability to find beauty in an aging face/body.  It is easy to make a popular picture of a young, attractive person, but Avedon eschewed the easy path.  I admire people in any field who challenge themselves, since your true self is only revealed by pushing your boundaries a bit further each time you face a new challenge.

©Katsuhiro Saiki, "For the Sake of Future Days"

©Katsuhiro Saiki, "For the Sake of Future Days"

©Kohey Kanno, “HONEYMOON”

©Kohey Kanno, “HONEYMOON”

You studied philosophy in college. Does that play a role in your choice of artists? 

Miwa: Ha ha! I don’t think philosophy has played a role in my choice of artists, but I believe that philosophy is the foundation of all subjects, and that you can’t fully comprehend the big picture of contemporary life simply by following current events. Keeping up a good and solid philosophical foundation helps one to make good choices in life, but I definitely can’t say I have entirely achieved that foundation. I am still learning every single day. 

I often come back to Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” For me, it is less about translation versus original text and more about the powers of interpretation and the perceptual tension between photographer and observer, publisher and artist—about communication in general.  Highly recommended since each time I read it, it gets deeper and gives me a different perspective on the space between people.  It really asks the essential question of Self/Other and I/World, which I find vital since I am communicating with an audience through my publications.

I also enjoy reading Hideo Kobayashi (one of the most important Japanese critics in the 20th century), and one essay in particular has always stayed in my mind, in which he writes, “There are beautiful flowers; there is no such thing as the beauty of flowers.” As I understand it, Kobayashi is saying that beauty exists in the things we chose to ascribe the concept of beauty to and not in some abstract realm, which is very interesting to me. Nowadays, the majority of images are appreciated over the internet and there, everything is arbitrarily manipulated and edited in a kind of one directional way.  As a publisher, I try to make the work accessible to a bigger audience, but more importantly, my role is to present the work of the photographer as it is, and understand what the photographer perceives through their lens.

You have published Dildo and Bible with Momo Okabe. We would like to see a third - any future plans for more?

Miwa: Yes, Momo is working on a new one and hopefully it will come out soon.  We just finished making a film and zine with the talented British photographer Harley Weir and Art Partner team (Diane Tellarini, Victoria Mortimer and Julia Lang) for The Fifth Sense project.  This amazing opportunity is possible by partnership with i-D and CHANEL.  For celebrating female creativity.  Momo is chosen as the other four inspiring female artists in the world; actress Oulaya Amamra (Paris), artist Christine Sun Kim (Berlin), poet Zariya Allen (LA) and dancer Manthe Ribane (Johannesburg) by Harley. 

Harley’s film of Momo is inspired by “Bible”, Session’s publication in 2014.  She got the copy from Sean Vegezzi, another young talent in NYC, and she decided that feelings of the film should be just like Momo’s Bible book.   I am very happy to see that the book has an infinite possibility to reach more people and I am so proud that my small edition inspires many creative people in the world.  I believe that a photobook is not commodity.  The book is art even it is reproduction of the original.  If you make it in full attention and love, it wins enormous power.  I love to continue to make a book like that.

If you’d like to know what Momo is up to, please check out Harley’s film about her:

https://thefifthsense.i-d.co/en_gb/hero/harley-weir/

We are highly fond of Ren Hang's work and appreciate the way he composes his images. The women are sometimes presented in a provocative way. What are your feelings, thoughts, or emotions?

Miwa: Ren has an enormous respect for women, and I love his honesty, creativity, freshness, and strength as a photographer.  He works very hard and believes in himself and his friends/subjects.  It is not easy job and I admire him for his dedication and would like to support his work as much as I can.

Ren is often compared with Ryan McGinley or Juergen Teller and I am sure that he is inspired by their work, but Ren’s twisted repression and dark mysticism are perhaps better understood in the context of his background living as a gay artist under the restrictions of the Chinese government.  Interestingly, the attention to nature and tendency toward theatricality can be observed throughout the history of Chinese art. I enjoy Ren’s ability to hybridize opposing elements in a genuinely provocative way, mainly the tension between his heritage and the contemporary visual currency.  Ren just received the 2016 Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund, and I am looking forward to seeing how his work will evolve in the future.

What’s your next publication from Session Press?

Miwa: I am currently working on the projects by two important Japanese photographers right now, Mao Ishikawa and Nobuyoshi Araki.  Both will be published in spring 2017.  For Araki’s book, it will be a co-publication with Dashwood Books and designed by my favorite designer, Geoff Han, who did a beautiful job with Daisuke Yokota’s “Taratine" last year.  For Mao Ishikawa, I am working with Alex (Studio Lin), another talented designer, and we would like to focus on Mao’s photographs of women she met at the bars in Koza and Kin, Okinawa.  Those were shot from 1975 to 1977, many of which are unpublished.  I find her work quite powerful, but it is lesser known in the west compared to other photographers (Miyako Ishiuchi, Shomei Tomatsu, Keizo Kitajima) concerned with similar subject matter.  Politically speaking, Mao’s work can be seen as dealing with freedom of speech and expression, but I would prefer to focus on the more personal aspects of her work, like her diary.  Her eyes are genuine, and her work speaks very strongly to me.  Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to publishing two of my new publications.

©Mao Ishikawa, from the series “Hot Days in Okinawa”

©Mao Ishikawa, from the series “Hot Days in Okinawa”