What is autobiography in a photobook? On one level all photobooks are autobiographical, since a photographer has to be there to take a shot, thus has to have lived it in some way. But most photobooks tell us how a photographer sees, how they understand their art and pursue it. A true autobiography—a work set out to capture actual events in a photographer’s life—is much rarer than you might think. Consider Robert Frank’s classic The Americans. When we get to the final photo, of his wife and two children in their car (I recently learned it’s the back of Frank’s daughter’s head in the foreground), the shot is a startlement. We’ve been looking at America, or at least Frank’s profound story about the nation—how he sees it—and are not prepared to drop into his personal story, all those endless days and hours driving no-count back roads, sometimes with family in tow.
There are a few classic out and out autobiographies. Perhaps the most famous are Araki’s Sentimental Journey, the visual story of his honeymoon with his wife, Yoko, and Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the self-revealing record of her wild 1980s (and recently a powerful audio-visual exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art). Both works are wholly revealing (Yoko post-coitus, Goldin herself black-eyed and battered) and both are unflinching autobiographies, there not only to reveal the photographer’s life but to tell an essential part of his or her story.
These days it seems everyone’s documenting their lives with cameras (phones, throwaways, what have you), even if it’s just spur-of-the-moment selfies up on Facebook or Instagram. Is this autobiography? Of a sort, but more like a diary, though possibly a whole new form that will be codified in the future. But it’s not yet serious, committed, artistic autobiographical photography. To achieve that you need that personal story to tell and an unhesitating desire to tell it in full … as painful as that may be to do.
Which brings us to a new work that does both: Takahiro Kaneyama’s While Leaves Are Falling, the powerful story of his mother and her two sisters, a book both revealing and disturbing.
What do we see? At first read, Kaneyama’s mother looks to be a proud woman, a strong one, a sad one, and from the pained lines on her face and haunted eyes, perhaps a soul not wholly well. We see her holding her beloved tawny Yorkie, out with her sisters behind a cloud of blown bubbles, the three women along a balcony before a gentle hill, stolid, posed, unrevealing. So what is the story here?
You only have to turn to the afterword to find out. There we learn the mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when Kaneyama was in his teens … oh! Look back through the photos. Now the storyline is clearer: The family does its best to hold the disintegrating woman together, but from the expressions on the mother’s face, we can see every step of how she falls apart—and how her son’s world falls apart around her.
Kaneyama intersperses other photos, mostly of landscapes. These shots, taken, he tells us, on short trips around Japan, mostly to places his mother always wanted to visit, both lighten the book (pulling it away from the familial intensity) and demonstrate a fine and subtle eye for nature. As the book’s story pulses along you get the notion that some of these photos—a blue mountain shrouded in a blue cloud, the end of a pier—might have even more significance. They could reflect Kaneyama’s mother’s disintegrating mind, or his own distress.
Then our hearts break. We come upon a full spread of five old-school snapshots, a lovely young woman and her newborn son, her white dog, her infant in a traditional Japanese robe. Happy, healthy, their whole lives before them … till the disease wipes it all away.
The next photos are in a hospital, a stark bed, a woman whose crumpled face betrays little yet expresses all the sadness in the world.
One final spread toward the end brings this soul-stripping book to poignant art. The mother sitting on the floor, before a set of windows, staring at the camera, her eyes telling us now of unfathomable anger and loss. She looks present … too present. There’s a message there she needs for us to know, and she knows we don’t want to know it. You can’t take your eyes off this face even as your gaze drifts to the photo next to it: three furry toy chicks, white, yellow, pink, the kind you buy as cheer-up presents in a hospital gift shop.
There is no cheer. Just a final shot of the courtyard of the hospital, followed by a reprise of the cover shot, the three damaged women, the sweater-bound Yorkie, the ever-haunted expressions, the unhelpful sea.
Is While Leaves Are Falling a true autobiography? Even though it’s more directly a portrait of the artist’s mother, I believe it is. Araki’s Sentimental Journey was mostly photos of his newlywed wife, yet he was there, experiencing it all as closely as a human can. So, too, is Kaneyama there. The questions we might ask only make this more apparent. Why does he take this shot of his mother? Why juxtapose it with a jumble of apartment buildings? What’s the effect of her disintegration upon him? How does the face of chaos and terror affect you when it’s your own flesh and blood? The way he chooses his shots, breaks up the portraits with the travel shots (metaphors?), drops in the historical family snapshots, it’s not hard to feel what Kaneyama is feeling. There’s no way around it: This is his mother, as heartrending as that fact may be.
The afterword and a guide to when each photo was taken help us. As a rule I think photobooks should tell their stories just through their photos, but with While Leaves Are Falling, because the story is so personal, and the histories behind the photos essential, we need this supplemental info; it expands the power and meaning of the book. That “oh!” again. Now we know what’s going on. Now we know how we got here, and what we’re looking at. There’s no way to get Kaneyama’s story wrong, not take it seriously enough. It’s all there in front of us.
Revealing. Upsetting. Heartbreaking. And a worthy successor to Sentimental Journey.
The book itself is impressively made, with fine details. There are two choices of cover shot, both photos laid into the front and framed nicely with an inset indentation. (I do question running the black title over the very darkest part of the cover photo, at least on the version I have.) There’s a faint ghostly impression of the cover picture on a thin leaf before the title page. A handy job, and quite underpriced.
But the real value of Kaneyama’s While Leaves Are Falling is the subtly powerful tale of this young man and his burdened, shattered mother and family. It’s not an easy tale, but this is not a normal photobook. It’s overtly personal, and a great example of how the photobook can expand, like written literature, to encompass all types of stories and approaches, even the most harrowing.
While Leaves Are Falling by Takahiro Kaneyama can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here and his latest book here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.