Drake's in New York: Miwa Susuda’s Way of Seeing
Photography by Liam Goslett
Dashwood Books sits in the eye of downtown Manhattan’s thrum, a couple dozen steps off the Bowery on Bond Street and down a half-flight of stairs. Founded by David Strettell in 2005, Dashwood is a mecca for progressive photography. It is one of the most significant photobook stores in America—in the world, arguably. Its stock runs the gamut from signed copies of ultra-rare works priced in the four figures, to scrappy, five-dollar zines produced by local up-and-comers. It offers one of those rare retail experiences that crackles with the potential of the genuinely unexpected, and that’s just the way its manager, photobook consultant Miwa Susuda, likes it.
Susuda moved to New York from Japan over 20 years ago, in search of what so many others come to the city looking for: an exciting, unconventional life. She knew she wanted to work in the world of art and photography, and found herself at Dashwood by 2006. It is hard to imagine the place without her. She is a constant presence, providing curious shoppers pitch-perfect recommendations and chronicling the shop’s visitors with an almost-daily Instagram carousel featuring iPhone portraits she’s taken of her “favourite Dashwood friends.”
In addition to her managerial duties, Susuda runs her own publishing imprint, Session Press. It was founded in 2011 with the goal of introducing the Western world to Asian photographers. (She also works towards this aim as a writer, interviewing important American artists like Tyler Mitchell and John Edmonds for Japanese magazine IMA.) Susuda has published 11 books to date, and has shown a prescient eye time and again—for instance, Session was instrumental in expanding the late Ren Hang’s international audience.
Session’s most recent release is an expanded version of Joji Hashiguchi’s We Have No Place To Be: 1980-82, a collection of black-and-white photos of wayward youth captured in Tokyo, in the UK, in West Germany, and in New York. Three years passed between this release and its predecessor: Blue Period/Last Summer, a co-publication with Dashwood’s own imprint collecting stills from Nobuyoshi Araki’s seldom-seen films in a gorgeous edition designed by Geoff Han, who handles most Session releases.
(My personal favourite Session book: Mao Ishikawa’s Red Flower, the Women of Okinawa, documenting the lives of women working in bars frequented by American soldiers stationed in military bases on the island. Susuda tells me that it’s due for a second printing, recognising the fiftieth anniversary of Okinawa being returned to Japanese control following the American occupation following the Second World War.)
Next, Session will publish a book with Wing Shya, legendary Hong Kong photographer who is perhaps best known for his work with Wong-Kar Wai as a location photographer. Susuda hopes it will be released by year’s end. When it comes to production, Susuda preaches patience: “The process of making this book is a good example for explaining Session Press,” she tells me. “He sent us over 5,000 images and we have to choose maybe 300 for a 180-page book. I print them all out at Kinko’s, divide them by category such as still life, movie scenes, his snapshots, portraits, lay them on the floor and pair them all manually. I don't like to do this on the computer.” For Susuda, there are no shortcuts—you simply have to live with the imagery, let it speak to you.
Adam Wray: Tell me about your relationship and work with Dashwood.
Miwa Susuda: Dashwood has been an important homebase for me. I think it also serves as an important beacon for creatives around the world, who have long looked to New York as an influential epicenter for photography. At the turn of the 20th century, it was on Fifth Avenue where Stieglitz opened his gallery “291” and first introduced American audiences to new work from Europe. In the ’60s, Warhol’s Factory had its heyday. Although digital technology has flattened many aspects of life, I still feel a certain physicality and cultural magnetism in this city, as I’m reminded every day by the interesting people who arrive at Dashwood’s door from far and wide. That’s the power of somewhere like Dashwood—it’s one of those rare places where a diverse group of people can come together and discover something new. Sure, when you shop for books online, Amazon and Google will pipe up with a list of recommendations. But Dashwood offers something the algorithm can’t: spontaneity and the unexpected. I try to connect with people and show them something they’d never before considered, something they might not have found otherwise, something that broadens their minds. It's better—and honestly more fun—than AI.
AW: So, when you talk about Dashwood being like Andy Warhol's Factory, you mean that it's a place where people can come to meet likeminded individuals and shape and expand their tastes?
MS: Absolutely, customers talk to each other all the time. Although they entered as strangers off the street, people bump into each other when browsing the shelves, start swapping information about photography, and leave as friends. Also, Dashwood is different from other bookstores in that we don’t simply pander to what’s popular. David selects books that surprise people. He doesn’t care about a photographer’s name value or how many followers they have on Instagram. He cares about the content of the work and, most importantly, trusts his gut instincts about photography. I respect his vision and integrity when it comes to curating quality over quantity.
AW: If I see something at Dashwood, I'm more likely to really look at it and think, “Okay, what is interesting about this work? Why is this work here?”
MS: A hundred percent. That’s what drew me to Dashwood in the first place. I wanted to be a photobook consultant to real people. Even though plenty of information is available online, there’s still something uniquely compelling about a physical print. For me, photography lives in print, whether on a gallery wall or in book form. Call me biased, but I think photobooks are the best window into a photographer’s mind. The more convenient digital technology makes the world, the more precious physical photobooks become. There’s value in craftsmanship and doing things the hard way. Trust me, making a photobook isn’t easy. It's a true passion project that requires so much time and effort with little expectation of financial profit. For example, I usually take two or three years to make a book. In some cases, it’s even taken four or five years from conception to completion. But I’ve found that efficiency is the enemy of creativity, and there’s something to be gained from letting ideas percolate. At the end of the day, publishing is also about the people. It takes time to understand the photographer’s vision and gain mutual trust, just like any other good relationship.
AW: What motivated you to begin publishing with Session Press?
MS: I really wanted to support small voices with a focus on emerging artists, such as Daisuke Yokota and Momo Okabe. But I have also sought to introduce emerging themes, so to speak. A theme does not necessarily have to be recent to be new. For example, Session Press has also showcased historical works by Araki, Mao Ishikawa, and Daido Moriyama—the latter in a forthcoming collection of ’80s images being co-published with David—because I felt they presented a relevant cutting-edge theme and offered a fresh perspective on these masters’ oeuvres. So, that’s another kind of emergence. Although Session has primarily focused on Japanese photographers, I also published two books by Ren Hang, and hope to introduce more Chinese photography going forward. Actually, my next project is with Wing Shya. I am keen on supporting Asian photographers through Session as a creative bridge across sometimes turbulent geopolitical waters. There are many talented photographers in the East, and I would like to help bring more of their work to the West.
AW: We still certainly need cultural bridges to help introduce us to different ways of seeing. Between America and Japan, do you find that there is a difference in the way that imagery is interpreted?
Japanese photographers come from a very different intellectual climate than their peers in the U.S., where everything revolves around the artist statement. American photographers are taught to engage with the larger sociopolitical condition—there’s much more emphasis on big abstract concepts and the ideological zeitgeist here than in Japan. I think there’s a lot of pressure right now in the U.S. for artists to align their thinking with this zeitgeist, as well as a heightened desire to receive approval from their communities and society. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know, I just feel that things are more forced now. There’s a lot of pressure in the air and less appreciation of unbridled creativity. It makes me question whether their motivation, their impetus for creation, is genuine. I prefer artists who are a little more rebellious, a little more punk. I like artists who grapple with society on their own terms, challenging the status quo with a creativity that is motivated by raw emotion.
In Japan, there’s less of a cultural emphasis on the articulation of a “reason.” In Japanese grammar, we wouldn’t typically say, “I think X,Y,Z…” but rather, “X,Y,Z… I think.” As the artist statement is an afterthought in Japan, spontaneous snapshot photography is more popular. Photography starts from an external condition outside the mind. Perhaps that’s why Araki or Moriyama are able to capture such stunning cityscapes. The mind is secondary to the immediacy of the scene unfolding before our eyes.
Granted, artists can and should play many roles. Society needs those talented artists who can provoke new ways of seeing our world and engaging with what’s real. Tyler Mitchell’s vision of Black utopia comes to mind as a fresh, sensitive new approach to a difficult theme that has been grappled with by many photographers before him. I think his work is a beautiful and important example of how artists can inspire and open our eyes to provide a new perspective on the past.
AW: What drew you to New York originally?
MS: Even as a teenager, I was precociously aware that life was short. “YOLO,” as the teens say now. Around age 15, I remember taking stock of my future prospects. I looked at my parents, my friends, my friends’ parents, and noted that 99% of Japanese women became housewives. Even now, the glass ceiling is very low for women in Japan. The only options I saw were to struggle in a dead-end career or get married, stay at home, and raise kids. I craved a very adventurous life, a life that not many Japanese women had. I wanted a life in the arts. The arts inspire a dynamic emotional impact beyond the cool logic of philosophy or other more academic disciplines. Plus, art is accessible to all-comers, regardless of age, gender, and nationality. A 2-year-old and an 80-year-old alike can immediately understand and be moved by art.
Many people try to stay in their comfort zones, surrounded by a community that loves and accepts them for being a fellow insider. Ever since I was young, I’ve sought out discomfort. Early on, I found that being in an environment where everyone loves me, understands me, accepts me 100% means there’s no growth, and that initial comfort of belonging soon becomes suffocating. I’ve always felt coasting to conversely be more tiresome than hard work. The path of least resistance doesn’t make me happy; without running into a few obstacles, how can any of us learn the true contours of our identity?
I learn more about myself by proactively confronting foreign, uncomfortable, and challenging situations—including those prejudices we expats all too often encounter in our adoptive lands. Even in the melting pot that is NYC, I do still bristle at the occasional snide remark about my appearance or ethnicity. Although anger and inferiority complexes are potent fuel for creative fire, after many years, I’ve come to realize that they are not a very healthy way to be creative. Anger is such a negative energy. It can be a catalyst, but is not a very sustainable stimulus. Especially in this era when tensions run high, I try to introspect and simply focus on doing the best that I can. “YOLO.”
AW: You told me it takes a couple years to publish a book—how does the process begin? How do you decide what your next project is going to be?
MS: When I’m choosing a project, I set aside my imprint’s agenda, and my larger mission to become a bridge between East and West. I honestly just choose work that I feel strongly about—the Session Press lineup is purely a selection of my personal favorite photography. I sincerely believe in the work and want to share its beauty. My tastes do tend to the documentary, as you can see from my books with Mao Ishikawa, Joji Hashiguchi, and Momo Okabe. Work that is personal and from the heart first, rather than the head.
AW: You mentioned you were attracted to art more than philosophy—you actually studied philosophy, didn't you?
It’s true, I did read my fair share of Eastern philosophy and Buddhism in high school. To be honest, I found Buddhism to be a bit depressing at the time. Although it’s grown on me now—I think it’s something you appreciate more with age—when I was a teenager, I thought that Eastern ideals were too preoccupied with the future at the expense of the present. Delayed gratification, you could say. At university, I studied Western philosophy, because it seemed more hopeful than Buddhism. Besides, philosophy is the foundation of all disciplines, and I reasoned I could go anywhere if I had a solid footing in it. I wrote about Kantian aesthetics for my graduate thesis. Kant puts beauty as the highest achievement of human beings, rather than reasoning or logic. He held up understanding art as the highest beauty, as art is beyond logic. It's almost like believing in God. In art and religion, truth is given or forgiven. In philosophy, truth is the object of eternal quest and questioning.
AW: You mentioned the immediacy of art, which is interesting to consider in the context of Kant’s conception of beauty. Have you always felt a particular connection with photography? Have you always felt able to recognize beauty in a photograph right away?
MS: I’ve loved photography since I was small. I first encountered it through fashion—my mother used Clé de Peau, which was owned by Shiseido—and in the ’80s their ads featured top models from the West, like Christy Turlington. They were beautiful images, but my understanding of photobooks and good photography was still growing. Even when I started at Dashwood, it was limited. I’ve obviously handled a lot of books since then, but I’m still learning, for sure. I’m not dead yet! I hope to still be growing in new niches of vulnerability and discomfort even into my 60s, 70s, and 80s. Over a decade has passed since I launched Session Press, but each project brings new challenges. I like being a perpetual learner and being reminded that the world is of course much bigger than my small little self. I wouldn’t want it any other way.