A nuanced new photobook reflects on the impossibility of capturing Japan

A nuanced new photobook reflects on the impossibility of capturing Japan

Photographer Lucie Rox’s SIGNS is a sensitive take on an age-old dilemma

The title page of Marseilles-born, London-based photographer Lucie Rox’s new book, SIGNS, is bare except for a quote from literary theorist Roland Barthes’ 1970 meditation on Japan, Empire of Signs. Appropriate, given that Rox’s publication – a book collating around 30 photographs taken over the course of two weeks spent in Japan in late 2017 – draws in part on the ideas Barthes lays out in it.

‘The author has never, in any sense, photographed Japan,’ writes Barthes in the short text cited. ‘Rather, he has done the opposite. Japan has starred him with any number of “flashes”; or, better still, Japan has afforded him a situation of writing.’ This idea was poignant for Rox, who revisited Empire of Signs shortly before her own trip.

The cover of SIGNS, by Lucie Rox

‘I really liked the position that [Barthes] takes in the book, which is that he’s very conscious of being an occidental person in Japan,’ she explains. ‘Travelling there, you’re never going to be able to grasp the meaning of everything around you, You can’t attempt to “tell the story of Japan” – instead, his position is to analyse what he sees, and what that means for him.’

Rox’s own approach was, in some ways, similar. Though she hadn’t intended to create a body of work from her travels – from Tokyo to Kyoto and their environs, with some unexpected suburban gems in between – when she returned with a wealth of pictures, she felt inclined to recontextualise them within a physical object that might last a little longer than her fleeting memories. Grouped together in the book – which has been thoughtfully designed by art director Callum Walker, and published in a hand-numbered edition of 150 – it feels not like a reflection of the places visited, but rather of the photographer herself.

Unexpected quiet corners, gently flickering leafy shadows and slick and scruffy city streets complete with their pensive passers-by all feature. They, too, are ‘flashes’, captured with the same sensitivity and nuance that underpin Rox’s work for editorial and commercial clients. Her practice treads the fine line between soft, romantic imagery and its more sinister underbelly, but these photographs are imbued with a soothing sense of calm – perhaps it’s the warm hazy light that settles over everything?

There are questions within the series, too. ‘I love travelling, but I’m thinking about how we travel as westerners, and how we consume other cultures,’ Rox continues. ‘It’s a privileged position, to be able to travel to all these places so easily, and I think you have to be careful about what you take from them.’ In that respect, SIGNS is modest – being simply a reflection of a fortnight spent exploring a vast country that is opaque in its history, culture and ideas. And what’s more, both the book and its creator are happy in their attempts at understanding, and misunderstanding, what all those untold meanings might be. §

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