Ivan Vartanian’s sprawling tome plots the history of Japanese photo magazines

From late-19th century manuals to the “golden era” of the 1980s, this mammoth publication illustrates how photo magazines shaped the development of the medium in Japan

When Ivan Vartanian arrived in Tokyo in 1997, he knew nothing about Japanese photography. Fresh out of NYU, he became assistant to the senior editor at Aperture, where he worked on a co-publication with Japanese publisher Korinsha. The publisher took a liking to the then-22 year old Vartanian, and offered him a job. “I thought it was going to be just a year, and then a year became two, and here we are,” he laughs. Now, 26 years later, Vartanian is the author of numerous books on Japanese art and photography, as well as the publisher of photobook editions, under the imprint Goliga.

Over the years, Vartanian has sought to deepen the discourse surrounding the genre of Japanese photography, and “to build a chronology and lineage that is from within,” he says. “I make all of my things with the intention of talking about Japanese photography in this self-referential way, as opposed to ‘this is the Western history of photography, and this is how Japanese photography fits into it’.” 

His latest publication, Japanese Photography Magazines, 1880s–1980s, presents 1,300 scans from hundreds of magazines, accompanied by newly-written contextual essays and texts pulled from original publications. Beginning with the earliest camera-related publications and amateur photo clubs of the 1880s, through to magazine publishing’s “golden era” in the 1980s, the 500-page book is the world’s first comprehensive study of Japanese photo magazines.

The book was produced in collaboration with photo historians with Ryūichi Kaneko and Masako Toda. Sadly, Kaneko passed away in 2021, aged 73. He served as a Buddhist monk at the Shōgyōin temple in Tokyo, but was also a revered curator and photo historian. He was one of the founding curators of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and one of the first collectors of Japanese photography publications.

“His loss to the history of photography in Japan is incalculable,” says Vartanian. “I was extremely influenced by him and our discussions… The book really is a product of an intense collaboration with him.”

The idea came about while the pair were working on a 2009 Aperture publication, Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s. During the research process, “it became clear to me that these books came out of a culture of magazines,” Vartanian says. He began to recognise the discourse of magazines as “larger, more complicated, and nuanced”. Photobooks tend to be a solitary medium, while magazines are often a product of a wider and more reactive collaboration: photographers riffing off the work of editors, designers, and writers, influencing one another to create spreads, as well as the images themselves. The aim for this new book is “to look at photography in the context that it was created”. 

Almost all of the featured photo stories are printed in their entirety, accompanied by historical context that provides the reader with “a grounding into the core concepts and vocabulary for understanding the definitive characteristics of photography from Japan”. Featuring lesser-known work by established artists like Araki Nobuyoshi, Fukase Masahisa, Hosoe Eikoh, and Moriyama Daido, as well as overlooked practitioners, this sprawling study will be an invaluable resource for collectors, academics and enthusiasts of Japanese photography alike.

Japanese Photography Magazines, 1880s to 1980s by Kaneko Ryūichi, Toda Masako and Ivan Vartanian is out now (Goliga).

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.