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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The provenance of a photobook - Kimura Ihei: "Gaiyū shashinshū | Impression of Europe" (1955)

Every now and then, while standing in front of my bookshelf, I cannot help but wonder to whom all those second-hand photobooks once belonged before I had the pleasure of discovering them at antique book shops or the like. Did these books outlive their original owners or did she or he simply lose interest in them at some point and decided it was time to thin out the collection? For whatever reason those books ended up with me, it certainly is an eerie but still overwhelmingly exciting thought that they will inevitably end up with another person in the future. In the end, that is what any books are made for: to be enjoyed, cherished and revaluated by generation after generation. By writing this blog, I for one try to do my part in keeping the discussion alive and hope that you will find some joy with me during the process.

Kimura Ihei: Gaiyū shashinshū | Impression of Europe (1955).

When I first laid eyes on this particular copy of Kimura Ihei's (1901-1974) Impression of Europe (1955, Asahi Shimbun Publishing) - a lucky find by my wife for an astonishing price of only 2 euros - it was admittedly not love at first sight. It showed all the common symptoms of an ex-library book. The dust cover had been removed, cut up and glued onto the interior of the volume's front and back cover. The corners were kinked after years of use and it had been labeled on the spine as well as stamped numerous times on the last page above the imprint. Suspecting that other original parts might be missing, I researched the book, and, sure enough, had to face yet another disappointment - a second accompanying volume and a slipcase were indeed missing.

Kimura Ihei: Gaiyū shashinshū | Impression of Europe (1955).

However, after this initial setback, I stumbled across a neatly written Japanese inscription - executed vertically on the book's first page with the help of a brush and black ink. As it turned out, to much of my delight, the signature underneath the inscription actually belonged to non other than Kimura Ihei. Right next to it a purple colored stamp had been placed bearing the German last name Schmidt and what appears to be an obsolete address format referring to a residence in the small town of Wetzlar - the birth place of the Leica cameras. Since Kimura's personal dedication matched the stamped name, the book's original owner was then suddenly verified.

Kimura Ihei: Gaiyū shashinshū | Impression of Europe (1955).

It has been repeatedly noted that Japanese photobooks were practically unknown to the common photography enthusiasts around the world until only about two decades ago. With this in mind, it seemed remarkable that a work such as Impression of Europe would end up on the bookshelf of anyone living in Wetzlar in the mid-1950s. When I took a closer look at how the photographer chose to phrase his brushed dedication, the main Japanese term kintei (engl.: respectfully presenting; with the author's compliments), followed by the recipient's name, certainly stood out. The choice of words hinted at the fact that this book might have been a personal gift. But why would Kimura Ihei - at the time one of Japan's most prominent photographers - give Mr. Schmidt of all people this photobook? A convincing answer to this question was fortunately provided by Kimura himself when he wrote about his travels across Europe in an author's note:

The trip - very expensive for a poor man like me - was made possible only because of help from many friends. I wish to acknowledge that help and express my deep gratitude to those understandings friends. […] Nihon Kogaku […] furnished me with two Nikon cameras with special range finders adapted to my weakened eyes and with various lenses. […] One of the Nikons was stolen in a well-organized theft in Rome. I was reloading it on the street, when a thief snatched it away. Another man, apparently his team-mate, deliberately bumped into me, knocked me down, and prevented me from giving immediate chase. But a windfall came to me in Germany. The Ernst Leitz Co. gave this dispirited man a brand-new M-3 Leica - perhaps out of sympathy and perhaps out of appreciation of my efforts of taking thousands of pictures with Leicas in my career. A number of the pictures in this book were taken with this new Leica. (Taken from the author's note in Impression of Europe; original text in English)

A true windfall for me, too, since it now seemed obvious that Mr. Schmidt must have played a direct role in the interaction between the Ernst Leitz Co. and Kimura. This, of course, is not a fact but an assumption based on the markings found in the book. Yet, considering how nicely all these clues match, it seems very unlikely that they are mere coincidental. Rather, I feel propelled to say that this volume of Impression of Europe - although missing its accompanying volume and slipcase - is actually of some photo-historical importance because it embodies Kimura's gratitude towards those affiliated with the Ernst Leitz Co. in 1954 who were kind enough to put artistic ideals over monetary matters in order to enable him to continue his photographic endeavor.

Kimura Ihei: Gaiyū shashinshū | Impression of Europe (1955).

The provenance of any (photo)book is often not as clearly reconstructable as in the case described here. Often there are only very few or no clues as to whom a particular issue once belonged to or where it has been since its initial publication. But at the same time that is precisely the reason why the excitement is truly beyond all description when we do find those vital clues in the form of inscriptions, stamps or other traces of human interaction with the object itself. With a bit of luck and investigative skills they can tell us not only about the life of the book itself but maybe even a thing or two about those who once purchased, inherited, used or abused it along the way to your bookshelf.