After several decades photographing the Middle and Near East, India, and Tibet, and making some influential and popular photobooks (in Japan), Shinya Fujiwara went to the United States, where he spent seven months puttering around in an RV photographing, well, nearly everything that caught his fancy. There’s the desert, long stretches of empty dirt or asphalt road, tract homes, second hand shops, theme parks, all kinds of things.
Back home in Japan, as was his usual practice, he published American Roulette, which I only learned about thanks to David Campany’s The Open Road, which I almost wish I’d never heard about… Mr. Campany and his great book cost me quite a few dollars and added a handful of books to the shelf…
Fujiwara seems to be relatively unknown here in the US. I went hunting and found no online reviews of American Roulette in English, and very little about Fujiwara in English at all. Most everything I could find in google just links to bookstores somewhere, usually in Europe or Asia.
Martin Parr and Gerry Badger apparently mention the book in their The Photobook, vol. III. I don’t have any of the Parr/Badger books, but Le Plac’Art Photo quotes Parr and Badger on American Roulette for us:
It is very much in the Provoke tradition, but charts a classic US road trip, so might be described as Robert Frank meets Daido Moriyama, if that were not unfair to Fujiwara, who has made a book of real distinction, both photographically and in terms of bookcraft.Parr, Martin and Gerry Badger. The Photobook, vol. III. quoted in an ad for the book on Le Plac’Art Photo, retrieved from https://www.placartphoto.com/book/1343/american_roulette-shinya_fujiwara 12 March, 2021
One common thread in various bookstore blurbs, and in Parr & Badger, just is this “bookcraft:” there is a mix of glossy and matte, smooth and textured papers, grouped into three sections: the first is all monochrome, mostly black & white, with some toning (blue, sepia, etc.), on glossy paper; the center section is all glossy color, often undercut by photographs of television screens and photocopied slides; the final section begins with black & white on paper with a rough, almost newsprint texture, and ends with several toned monochrome images, again on glossy paper.
The book begins with an introduction (I think) on thick yellowy-gold paper, and ends with what seems to be a self-interview (Google Translate gives the signature line as “Ask Yourself in Shibuya, Tokyo”), on this same heavier, yellower paper; the sections of photographs end with text fragments on darker, rougher, tan paper.
A brief aside on Google Translate
After watching Alec Soth’s “Pictures & Words #3” video,* I downloaded the Google Translate app, and it’s helpful… sorta. Trying to read Japanese via the live camera in the app is not easy, as it translates on the fly, and so constantly changes. It’s probably useful for signs and all, but I pointed the app at a couple of pages, and the best screenshots I got look like this:
It’s better to take a photograph of the text, run it through the app’s ‘import’ function, and highlight the text you want translated. Google will then spit out a more legible, static (and copy/paste-able) text.
Back to American Roulette
Anyway. The text, while separate from the photographs, seems somewhat or partly integral to the book.** The notes at the end of each chapter give Fujiwara’s interpretation or thoughts or experience of the scene, along with some minimal data on materials (6×6, 4×5, 35; Tri-X pushed to 6400; Kodak EPR photo-copied; etc.), and really add something to the work, as all good text should. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book the first 8 or so times I looked at it before I thought to try a translation app, so the text isn’t completely integral, but it does at least add something.
The photography is really excellent and sorta varied throughout. There are luscious black & white, large format landscapes; hip shots on the street or at theme parks; throw-aways and Eggleston-esque Democratic shots; posed and candid portraits; alleys, backwaters, more modest landscapes; blurry shots from moving cars, sometimes at night. It’s sort of everything you could find on a road trip, starting in San Francisco, heading to New York via Salt Lake City, Omaha, Chicago (with a side trip to Green Bay), and Cleveland; then turning south, through Baltimore, Norfolk, VA, Jacksonville, down through Florida, making loops between Orlando, Miami, Tampa, Daytona, then heading west, through Mobile, New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, a side trip to Santa Fe, to Tucson, San Diego, a loop up to Las Vegas and through the desert, to LA and up Highway 1 back to San Francisco.
Quite the road trip… and in an RV… with small, medium, large format cameras and the ability to set up a tripod on the roof.
American Roulette is an incredible document, really, and it’s no wonder that copies start around $250 and just go up, if you can find them at all.*** Overall, I rate it 4.5 stars.
From the text I translated, I suspect that Fujiwara and I have some similar ideas about photography… that it’s similar to fishing; that sometimes I’d rather be participating rather than photographing, that sometimes I only pick up the camera later, that I don’t even think to take the photograph until its too late. The title of the self-interview that ends the book translates as “I didn’t have a camera when the Queen of Hearts threw a necklace,” and I think that just about says it all.
Of all the Road Trip books I now have, this may be the closest to something I dream of making and that I could actually see doing… There are errors in processing, errors in scanning, tests of film and techniques. Fujiwara has a much better handle on photography than do I, but I think we have a very similar sensibility, and it’s a joy to have a copy of this incredible book.
*If you’re not subscribed to Soth’s YouTube, do yourself a favor. And while you’re there, maybe subscribe to mine too: it’s almost all photobook unboxings, currently (as of March, 2021) 2-3 per week.
**I somehow resisted scanning and translating the whole thing, though I did translate the introduction and notes to the first section of photographs and if you have interest in the whole thing, reach out and maybe I’ll be convinced to do it and share the results in an update…
***I picked up this copy for an astonishingly low $60 from a dodgy-seeming Russian eBay account… I didn’t have many hopes given the seller’s rather low rating, but it arrived shockingly quickly and in better shape than the seller described. So trawl the ‘bay, or bookfinder and you might get lucky too. (And click that eBay link… as of 3/15, there are some copies there for $30 or $40, which is a bit suspect, but still… I’m tempted, and I already have a copy.)