I’m not sure what prompted me to buy Rinko Kawauchi‘s Illuminance. From the packaging, I suspect I bought it from Target, but I can’t find the receipt or any record of the purchase, and the sources that usually drive (or drove) my photobook acquisition strategy were silent on it in the weeks and months before I filmed the unboxing.

Anyway. However I happened to pick it up, I’m glad I did…


Illuminance is Kawauchi’s twelfth book, and her first to be published outside of Japan. That it’s the twelfth indicates a photographer who knows what they’re doing; that it’s the first outside of Japan is largely insignificant, except it means I could get a first edition copy from Target 8 years after publication,* and probably for cheap…

Kawauchi culled the photographs for Illuminance from 15 years of her archive. Rather than being a retrospective, it’s more of a way of working. It’s like Aperture came to Kawauchi, offered her a book, they talked some and came up with an idea or theme, and Kawauchi then went off, mined her archive, and maybe worked with some people to edit and sequence and all that.

Many reviewers and commenters talk about the pairings: some are obvious, others are more suggestive and dramatic. A head of dark hair and a sinkhole in a desert landscape; a length of ash and the burning orange tip of a cigarette, and a bag full of live goldfish; raindrops on a transparent umbrella and a half dozen sheep(?) eyeballs spilled out of a bag. There’s some surrealism here, but it’s more of the personal iconography bent than the razorblade and eyeball variety, and I dig it. I may not get what it all means to Kawauchi, but I can see that there’s something there.

Many of the images feature lens errors—flare, ghosting, veiling—many are wildly overexposed as if shot without accounting for the flash. Without knowing anything of Kawauchi’s other work, I don’t know of this is usual, part of her style, or if these were all in a “pretty” file and she took the opportunity to use them…

And so many of the pictures just are beautiful. Completely and utterly so. They’re almost all about light, pictures of light, pictures that give off or radiate or contain light, light and color. Some are gaspingly, achingly beautiful. Some are beautiful because of the light and color, and despite the subject. All the light and color and clear-blue-sky-ness of the pictures somehow manages to be right in line with what Japanese photography has been, a sort of point on the line that runs right through Provoke and Moriyama and Araki and Hiromix and ends up at “pretty!” and I wish I had more of her work to examine… come to think of it, I do!

(Kawauchi contributed a volume to One Day, “Fundamental Cycles,” images produced on a train journey from Shiga to Tokyo. These images 3:2 instead of square, are far less curated than those in Illuminance, but there are similarities: a focus on details, a butterfly on a flower, dew drops on petals; an interest in blur, lens flare, glare, etc. I prefer Illuminance to be honest, and probably should save up for a bit and pick up another monograph or two: she has some more recent work available.)


Overall, I rate Illuminance a strong 4.5 stars.

You can still get first edition (I think) copies of Illuminance direct from Aperture, and Bookfinder has it from various publishers (Aperture in the US, Kehrer in Europe, and others elsewhere) for prices ranging from $40 to an absolutely astonishing $1325.26… that’s crazy. smh. It’s a winner, though, for sure.

*Illuminance was published in 2011, and I bought this copy in 2019.

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