Thursday, January 9, 2020

Crit: Tokyo Panic Stories by Dan Ryan

This is a self-published book, and I think a first book. Set your expectations accordingly. (Dan seems to have taken the attitude that he's just "giving up" but I am going to insist that he's self-published it, with electronic distribution). The short review is that the book has a lot of problems, but the material is good and I like it. It's quite long, and you have to invest some time.

You can get the book here, Tokyo Panic Stories, in the form of a PDF (well, 2 PDFs in a ZIP file, one of them is the cover).

I have, in a 1000 unreliable snippets from 1000 unreliable sources, come to understand that Westerners have trouble making sense of Japan. There is a psychic and cultural wall which is difficult to penetrate. Maybe impossible to fully penetrate. I am given to understand that this wall is not an accident, that the Japanese people are not much interested in helping Westerners to understand their culture, their society. Also, Japan seems to have a lot of supremely weird stuff. This book isn't about the weird, but it is as much about the wall as it is about anything.

Dan Ryan spent a moderate amount of time in Tokyo, photographing largely in a couple of districts where there is a lot of homelessness and other, um, street character. He seems to have had 4 distinct visits, and spent a total of several months there, so he's been soaking in it for a while.

I'm going to talk about what I think the book is about, why it's good, why it's less good, and then wrap up with specific recommendations meant mainly for Dan but also to see what kinds of lessons I can draw for myself and, maybe, for my little cadre of readers.

Firstly, there's a hell of a lot of pictures of homeless guys. Many of the subjects (mostly men) seem OK with being photographed, but some are passed out or otherwise unable to consent, and a few are distinctly opposed to being shot. This would cause many of the prissier critics to declare the whole thing Extremely Problematic, but I am not one of those. Indeed, I applaud Dan for being willing to photograph that range of emotion and reaction, and I think he did an adequate job of honoring his subjects.

There is, I think, a fair bit of affection and empathy in these pictures. Dan does not belittle these people, nor does he merely mawkishly decry their plight. He is, in fact, struggling to grasp what he sees, struggling to understand his subjects as individuals across that barrier of culture, and across the barrier of language.

Sprinkling throughout is poetry, with a strong Beat vibe to it, in which Dan provides a voice for his subjects. It's imaginary, of course, he has no way of knowing what is going on inside the heads of his subjects, but he tries. He gives them a story, often a pretty great story, a story that honors them while recognizing their damage. These are not stories that would fit a western homeless man, at all, although they have some of the flavor. Nor, I dare say, do they represent anything other than a western imagining of a Japanese story. Still, the point is that Dan is trying, one by one, to make sense of his subjects. They are not merely placeholders, he sees them one by one, as individuals. Not knowing their stories, not being capable of knowing their stories, he makes stories for them.

I suppose one could say that Dan is simply using these people, or their images, as mere puppets in a fantasy of his own creation. I don't see it that way, because I think I perceive a struggle to understand. Dan is not, I think, merely spinning absurd fables about Inscrutable Easterners, he is in a peculiar way reaching out across the barrier that separates him from his subjects. It is more of a wish than anything else, but I believe the wish to be sincere, and that makes all the difference.

To my eye, this book is the photographer trying to penetrate the wall that separates him from his subjects. The wall of culture, of language, of socio-economic status. In some cases it's not even clear where the other fellow lands — is he homeless or just drunk? Rich? Poor? It's not always obvious. What is obvious is that the photographer and subject are at opposite poles, separated by an uncrossable gulf. A gulf which, despite its patent absoluteness, Dan nonetheless strives to bridge.

There is a property of photographs, and of collections of photographs, which I think of as life. It's not the same as good, or pretty, or even I-like-it, it is its own thing. The Düsseldorf school (the Bechers and all that) maybe epitomizes the opposite of life, but also everything Alec Soth or Gregory Crewdson make. Life isn't merely smiling people, or vibrant color, or action, although those things tend in the direction of this kind of life, this kind of vibrancy. It's a kind of emotional crackle.

Dan Ryan's photographs have a lot of life, and also, I like them.

The structure of the book is heavy on the two page spreads, and it will pay you to view it so. The first page stands alone (page 1) and then it's 2-3, 4-5, and so on. View them as spreads. Every spread is considered, and Dan makes superb use of pairs of photos taken moments apart. It is partly, but not entirely, this device which makes the book vibrant. Many spreads are like a little two or three frame animation. Sometimes the motion is subtle, other times it's abrupt, but there's always a little movement. Apart from this, though, somehow even the most passed-out dude in Tokyo looks somehow vibrant.

If you invest time in the book, you'll be rewarded. The only trouble really is that the payoff might not be proportional to your investment, which leads me to the first and most serious problem with the book: it's damn big.

Now, putting together a 241 page book at all is an astonishing feat of endurance, especially at this level of quality. The text is pretty good, I didn't notice any typos at all in my reading, which speaks to either a lot of proofreading or supernatural typing skill. The pictures are well laid out, the spreads are good. There's just too damn many of them, the book feels "loose" and it should be "tight."

If it were mine, I'd try hard to chop it down to half its present size. Drop all but the very best writing and pictures. None of the material is outright poor, but there is definitely better stuff and worse stuff, and there's no reason to keep anything but the best. There's plenty of excellent material to tell the story, here, and to fill out a very solid book.

I might do something about page 51 versus page 93, in which we see essentially the same still life, except someone's crushed the cigarette pack and moved the fish skeleton, which makes one wonder.

The typography, honestly, is a shitshow. I don't like the font, I don't like the margins, I don't like the text design.

I would select two fonts, one for poetry and one for running text, or at least italicize the poetry (see page 47, for instance.) I would ditch the indentation on the running text, which looks like hell. I would justify the running text, and leave poetry ragged, use wider margins, and almost certainly smaller font sizes (unless the intended trim size is quite small, that text is going to look enormous and chubby on the printed page.) There's got to be something done with headings, you can't just run in "Introduction" and "Afterword" in the same text size and font.

The fact that text is sometimes the full width of a page, under or over a horizontal, and sometimes a narrow column, beside a vertical, I find awkward. Nice fat margins on those full-width pages to compress the text to a narrower column might be helpful, but there are probably other solutions.

Personally, I'd use a serif font, but I am a known anti-sans bigot.

I am not in love with the way pictures on the same page are run run up against one another. Full bleed to the edges, sure, but run a little space between them on the page, please. It's visually confusing, as often as not.

The Afterword should probably be rolled into the front-matter, I think it provides important scene-setting information.

The front-matter needs work, there should probably be a blank page or two in there, and the book desperately needs a title page, or even a title page spread. There are a few places in the interior where a blank page would not be amiss, to separate one theme from the next. The spreads are so strong that when you run across two facing pages that have no connection, it's jarring.

Download it, people! Enjoy it! It's not perfect, but it's good!


  1. Thank you for respecting and sharing this.

  2. Thank you for your excellent review. I think it spot on.

  3. This is a worthy book (worthy of being published even), and one of your best reviews! Your maverick approach is starting to coalesce into something powerful (wishy-washy academic wannabe photo-critters take note).

    The book has some problems, but the author states the whys and wherefores pretty clearly and convincingly -- especially about his personal struggles during its eight years of gestation (maybe that part is only on the web page and should be in the book too, if it isn't).

    The focus on homeless subjects is somewhat problematic, probably some editing could help (as you point out in your review).

    The typography is disarmingly poor: it forms part of a coherent whole, so it can be accepted on that basis. I've certainly seen far worse from the self-publishing crowd. Full disclosure: I haven't read the text yet except a few brief captions, and maybe it will begin to grate.

    The toning and high contrast of the photographs is more problematic, and (I suspect) damaging to the original captures. The intention is apparently to impose a consistent 'look,' but it is derivative of a certain school of Japanese photography, superfluous and distracting. Bottom line: it does nothing for the pictures.

    I will be looking more closely at this book.

    1. "I've certainly seen far worse from the self-publishing crowd."

      God yes. As a solo-effort self-pub book this thing is basically an astounding tour de force.

  4. Thank you for bringing this mammoth book to light. I'm not competent to comment about its layout but the photographs certainly look honest and authentic, even if sometimes overworked in editing. Altogether, worth the effort of going through...
    Kudos to Dan for putting it together. I wish it brings him some recognition.

  5. Someone on Twitter who shall be unnamed by me has opined that folks in Japan hate to have their photographs taken, based on... some ass who returned from there with a black eye and a broken camera, probably?

    I wonder if you could put this assertion to Dan, or induce him to swing by these here comments with a response?