Shooting it with: Miwa Susuda, Session Press

Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting Miwa Susuda at New York’s Dashwood Books. I’d just popped in for a browse and she happened to be working there. We struck up a conversation and she managed to dig up (and sell me) a bunch of old Ari Marcopoulos zines I’d been looking for. During the course of our quick encounter, Miwa filled me in on Session Press, the publishing company she’s founded, which specialises in books of Japanese and Chinese photography. As a Japanese national living in the Big Apple, Miwa’s perfectly placed to discover and communicate with some of Asia’s best photographic talent, often doing so as they pass through the city for exhibitions, etc. Her role as a consultant at Dashwood (easily one of the best photography book stores in the whole wide world), pretty much instantly qualifies Miwa as an expert on the subject — although she’s pretty humble on that front. Anyway, we’ve been meaning to chat Session Press with Miwa for ages, and we finally got around to it this week. Having just published NEW LOVE, a monograph of Chinese photographer Ren Hang’s work, our timing couldn’t have been better, really. Check out Miwa’s take below.

Miwa, tell us about Session Press!

Session Press is a publisher based in New York City which aims to introduce contemporary works by both emerging and established Japanese and Chinese photographers. There are many reasons why I initiated the company but one big inspiration was definitely my boss (David Strettel) at Dashwood Books. While we had a morning meeting at the Noho Star, our favorite diner, near Dashwood about six years ago, David told me that I really had a unique position in photography and I should take advantage of that. That comment made me think hard about what I can do for Japanese and Chinese photographers and what I can provide to other people from my position at Dashwood, how I can best apply my background to my career and what my strengths and enjoyments as a book consultant at Dashwood are. I still clearly remember the conversation we made on that shining morning and I always feel grateful for having a boss like him.

Who’s involved? Is it just you on your lonesome?

I am only one person at Session Press (haha) but I don’t feel like I am on my own since many of my friends are always here for me when I get stuck and desperately need help. I feel especially lucky that I met my former co-worker, Betsy Clifton, at the beginning of my publishing business. There were, (still are), many hurdles to overcome and she has given me unconditional support and encouragement. Without her I bet I would have quit my journey a long time ago. Yes, I am very lucky that I am always surrounded by many great people but I sometimes wonder if my luck comes from myself since I really work hard and people recognize it and they want to help me. I feel like they are all my family in a way.

Momo Okabe - Bible
Momo Okabe – Bible

Was New York missing a publishing platform for that particular demographic of contemporary Japanese / Chinese artists and photographers?

I totally think so. There are many publishers outside of Japan but I believe none of them were actually operated by Japanese nationals. I felt that I could communicate better to Japanese and Chinese photographers since I am Asian and I could introduce their unique work in a way they most prefer. I thought that I would listen to them well as a publisher and sincerely make a book for them.  I’m from Japan so I can understand their unspoken communication well. Their communication is more mental than logical just like their photography, (of course, not all Japanese photography is mentally driven though).

Other than the Japanese / Chinese angle, does Session Press share similar values to Dashwood Books? What are those values?

My vision in photography is highly influenced by David, founder of Dashwood. So I really believe my values are very similar to his. But of course, we come from such a different background and I must have my own perspective and preference. I am self-taught about photography. I went to a graduate school in NYC but it was about Museum Studies and nothing about photography. So when I joined Dashwood in February 2006 I didn’t even know about Robert Frank or Walker Evans. I studied at home every single day, (I am still doing it), and tried to gain as much knowledge as I can. It has been more pleasure than pain to learn about photography since I always wanted to be a specialist in photo books. I still feel I am a beginner in the field (and I am) and enjoy absorbing new ideas and works from my boss, co-workers and all the loving clients at Dashwood Books.

I love the work that is real to photographers. Therefore, I want to see work that fully represents who he/she is. I don’t need to see beautiful work but I love work that challenges my mind. It is vague. But it might be my values in photography.

Generally how have you gone about choosing which artists you’d like to publish?

I trust my instinct. You can spend your entire life thinking carefully about what’s selling and what’s most appealing to the public through complicated formulas or statistics. But I don’t believe in that. The number always comes after the result and you never predict what you really feel excited about in the next moment from the number calculated a minute ago. Our minds are irrational and organic and I think my instinct is my most valuable asset for decision making.

Katsuhiro Saiki - For The Sake Of Future Days
Katsuhiro Saiki – For The Sake Of Future Days

How are you distributing the work?

For US bookstores, Dashwood Books is a solo distributor, for European bookstores, Session Press plays a role. For Japan, Mr. Atsushi Hamanaka at twelvebooks has worked with us for a long time. We appreciate his effort to introduce our publications to Japanese people. Ms. Mutsuko Ota, editor in chief of IMA Magazine, has helped organize many important events at their store and they really enforce Japanese photography culture. Their presence in photography is undeniable and we owe them a lot.

There’s so much love for independent printing presses and publishers at the moment. What’s the scene like out in New York right now? Are you responding to it, or just happy doing your own thing?

I might be appreciating this trend like everybody else, but to be honest, I really don’t pay attention to what the other people are doing. Of course I acknowledge it and learn from it but I don’t really change any course of action based on what the other people are doing.

Ren Hang has seen a lot of shine recently. When were you first aware of his work?

Two years ago when my boss bought his unique self published book, Nude, on his business trip to Tokyo. He told me that he was a rising star from China and I have been strongly attracted to his work since then.

Did you approach him about the NEW LOVE book, or vice versa?

When David showed me his Nude book two years ago as I mentioned, I immediately contacted him via e-mail. We got along pretty well just for a few e-mails, and we talked about making a poetry-illustration-photobook at one point. Then we both got too busy for something else and communication got lost for a long time. Then on one afternoon in Feb 2015, Ren came to Dashwood Books and we were both excited about this accidental encounter. It was a magical moment. Then, I visited his gallery opening at Capricious in the Lower East Side and re-initiated our conversation about publishing. We decided to make a book for his upcoming show in Tokyo. I still remember that I felt very ‘right’ and excited about everything. There was of course some hard times during production, but I always recall how I felt that day and believe what I initially went for. You can always give up something in the middle by making a reasonable excuse and you can choose a less troubled life. I’d rather choose a challenging path since you never explore more than what you’ve got unless you face and deal with a tough issue. Struggling can look miserable to other people perhaps, (they might laugh at you), but I really think that it is vital to struggle and look miserable when you want to achieve something new.

Ren Hang - New Love
Ren Hang – New Love

Were you both fairly in-sync with what you wanted to include in the monograph? Was it simply a case of including the imagery from the NEW LOVE exhibition?

I had an idea but at the end, I had Ren and his partner, Huang Jiaqi, do all the image editing. I tend to rely on photographers, especially when they have a strong idea for design, image editing or anything. You can always make your book perfect by inviting an A-class designer or editor. But I believe that being perfect is super boring and a photo book (monograph by a photographer) is not about an ultra perfect looking book. Sensibility can be imperfect and fragile. So, I think most important is listening to ideas by artists. I am glad that Ren truly knows what he wants and I respect that. I truly love his new book, NEW LOVE. His careless and straightforward demeanour is apparent throughout the pages and I am grateful that Alex Lin designed the book — I adore his application for the title design, cover treatment and all the other production details. Simple but playful and pure. Just like Ren. Alex really understands Ren’s idea very well.

Your next publication will be Daisuke Yokota’s Taratine — can you tell us anything about that?!

I truly want Daisuke to express what he can address through his photo book. He has published many books before but I find less voice from him and want to see what he has in mind more clearly. I consider that Daisuke is one of the most important contemporary Japanese photographers, and as a publisher it will be important to help locate him in the history of Japanese photography. In other words, I want to compare his work with his previous masters in Japan. One of the most important traditions in Japanese photography is a portrait or nude pictures of photographers’ female partners. Araki published Sentimental Journey and Yoko My Love and Fukase made Ravens and Yoko as odes to their women. So I asked Daisuke to write an essay for his mother and girlfriend. He is such a great writer. Even his text doesn’t really talk about his admiration to his women but beautifully suggests nuance for love and female warmth between the lines. My designer, Geoff Han, creatively worked on the layout and applies his aesthetics in the book perfectly. I won’t say more at this point, but I am very excited about his new book with us. It has taken more than three years since I first met Daisuke and developed this idea with him. This is our collaboration and I am very grateful to work with him.