Surface Zero

Another view of Kikuji Kawada’s Hiroshima

Kikuji Kawada, Chizu (Maquette Edition) (detail), 2021 (MACK, 2021).

KIKUJI KAWADA, CHIZU (MAQUETTE EDITION). London and New York, New York: MACK and The New York Public Library, 2021. 272 pages.

EARLY IN JULY 1958, the Japanese photographer Kikuji Kawada, then aged twenty-five and a staffer at the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, visited Hiroshima for a cover story to run in the month following. He was there to photograph another photographer, Ken Domon, whose book Hiroshima had been published in the spring. Among Domon’s subjects: the scarred bodies of survivors of the atomic-bomb attack of August 6, 1945, and the skeletal dome of the city’s riverside industrial exhibition hall. When he had finished his assignment, Kawada lingered in the ruins below the Genbaku Dome, where brick and concrete walls were covered with stains composing, as he put it, “an audibly violent whirlpool.” Kawada took no photographs of the enigmatic markings, but returned two years later with a 4 x 5 view camera, and began making long exposures in “this terrifying, unknown place.”

The book that resulted, Chizu (The Map), first published in 1965, is one of the wonders of postwar Japanese photography, as much in Kawada’s approach to the form and boundaries of the photobook as his singular address to the atomic history that was then exercising Japanese artists as well as antinuclear activists. The images are coarse-grained, high-contrast evidence of the influence of William Klein and Ed van der Elsken on Kawada and his contemporaries, and a precursor to the even starker imagery and style of the Provoke photographers later in the decade. Published on the twentieth anniversary of the dropping of the first bomb, Chizu went beyond the documentary ambitions of Domon (and the more poised, classical images from Nagasaki made by Shōmei Tōmatsu) into a more abstract and opaque register. In its original run of seven hundred copies—a third of them were destroyed by fire during the Tōdai riots of 1968 and ’69—the book was an unfolding mystery. Bound in a black paper chemise, this exquisite artifact had two textual elements: a poetic preface by Kenzaburō Ōe, and a constellation of words and phrases attached to the atomic catastrophe itself, or to its cultural aftermath under Allied occupation. Words like: Enola Gay, keloid, energy, machine, popcorn, 7-Up, secret.

Kikuji Kawada, Chizu (Maquette Edition) (detail), 2021 (MACK, 2021).

A new edition of Chizu reconstructs something else: the initial conception of the book, by Kawada and designer Kōhei Sugiura, as two discrete volumes to be contained in a slipcase. In addition, the new version also features a third volume, with essays, an interview with the artist, and thumbnail comparisons of the differing layouts. Here we learn, from curator Joshua Chuang, that an original maquette of the two-volume edition was acquired in 2001 by the New York Public Library. What is to be learned by comparing versions? The book as published in 1965 mixed Kawada’s photographs from inside the Dome with his studies of wartime relics and artifacts of the decades following. The latter images now form an uninterrupted frieze, each given a full-bleed double spread. There are photographs of abandoned military infrastructure—a curving concrete tunnel with a blaze of light at the end, a looming fortification or gun emplacement—that resemble the ruins of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall, as photographed by Paul Virilio in the same period, and published in his 1975 book Bunker Archaeology: “concrete altars built to face the void of the oceanic horizon.” For the most part, Kawada’s objects are less monumental. A display of photographs and mementos of kamikaze pilots. Coca-Cola bottles, a crumpled Lucky Strike pack, a pile of bottle tops rendered so obscure in the darkroom that I at first took them for dentures. At the more abstract end of this volume: a montage of neon signs and advertisements, white against pure black—a nightmare adaptation of Klein’s 1958 film Broadway by Light.

Kikuji Kawada, Chizu (Maquette Edition) (detail), 2021 (MACK, 2021).

In the version of 1965, some of Kawada’s large-format photographs of the stained walls at the Genbaku Dome acted like endpapers, framing the more recognizable images, then interrupting the essayistic ensemble with digressions into a kind of abstract unconscious or atomic sublime. In the variant proposed by the two-volume maquette, we’re presented instead with one teeming cloud or shadow after another, a sort of howling static, largely resistant to sense or figuration. Still, the eye searches for mimetic or allegorical intent, and finds the most obvious clues. The book’s title is one such, of course; the punctures, contortions, and tonal variations on the walls look like the draft of a blasted mental topography. They call to mind ruined flesh, or how we might imagine the roiling energies at the heart of an atomic explosion. The pictures are punctuated now and then by blank white pages, more reminders of the blinding moment of detonation—or are they rather vacant pauses for reflection? If so, this is an emphatically different rhythm from the 1965 edition and its subsequent iterations. Kawada hopes the viewer will retain memories of each volume while moving between them, but it seems legitimate to say that something is lost: a sense precisely of the vexed relations of wartime history, contemporary commodities, and barely illustrable horror.

Kawada called Chizu “an object headed towards the future.” The photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that immediately predate his project still belong to a humanist (and for Kawada, sentimental) vision of documentary photography, quite of a piece with the universalizing impulse of the epochal “Family of Man” exhibition, which toured Japan in 1956 and 1957. Tōmatsu’s image of a watch stopped at 11:02 a.m., the time of detonation at Nagasaki; the blind children of Hiroshima in Domon’s book—many of Kawada’s photographs sit alongside these representations of August 1945 and its legacies. But the photographs taken inside the Dome, their presence intensified in this shadow version of his book, suggest another domain of historical reckoning. Interviewed here by Chuang and Miyuki Hinton, Kawada, now eighty-eight, says: “I think in retrospect the time when I was by myself in that dark space. . .that was my star time. That was a moment when I found myself shining, like a star in the dark sky.” He means, I take it, that it was a signal moment in his career, but it sounds too like a memory of vast, inhuman energies from the past, working their influence on the present.