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Ban in Japan: Nudity Rules Anger U.S. Artists

November 24, 1988|DAVID COLKER | Times Staff Writer

Steven Arnold, a Los Angeles photographer who builds elaborate sets and costumes for the baroque fantasies he photographs, also has run afoul of Japanese customs over an overseas printing of two of his books. He believes the constant threat of censorship greatly effects what the world sees of his work.

'An Awful Situation'

"Jack Woody, who has done my books, likes to print in Japan and because of that, I know he edits out photographs that might be a problem," Arnold said. "It's an awful situation for an artist."

Because the book he is now planning makes heavy use of nudity, Arnold said he wants it printed in Europe or the United States, even if that might mean a loss in quality.

New York art book publisher Harry Abrams Inc. has had only a few problems, most notably with an early 1980s book, "Photo Discovery."

"We had a historical picture of an African woman that was taken in the 19th Century that they rejected," said Robert Morton, Abrams' special projects director. "It took a while but we finally convinced them that this was a historical piece of art, validated by time and they let it through."

At Abbeville Press in New York, Dana Cole, the production department head, recalled that a work on painter Thomas Wesselmann had several paintings rejected by Japanese censors; these were printed elsewhere, then added to the book with a special process when it was bound. "Because of that," Cole said, "we are careful to try and not place a book like that in Japan for printing."

Because the photos planned for Ritts' book were stylized, with models in shadowy light or covered by bits of material, Woody and Ritts believed they would not encounter customs problems.

". . . These images are so sculptural I didn't think about censorship," said Ritts, who made his name in celebrity and fashion photography and has gone on to work that falls more under the category of art photography.

Mural-Sized

In Hollywood, his exhibition has been highly successful. Gallery co-owner David Fahey said six of the seven available, mural-sized "Male Nude With Bubble" photos sold for $4,500 each. Several smaller editions of the image sold for $1,100.

Woody wanted the Ritts book--to be published in conjunction with the gallery show--printed at Toppan because the Japanese firm excels at the now rare gravure printing process, which he favors because it gives rich black tones to black-and-white photos.

"I was very upset when I found out that we could not use three of the photographs," Ritts said. "But it was too late to do anything about it. We had a commitment to the printer and a schedule to meet."

Ritts left out of the book two photos but was unwilling to lose "Male Nude With Bubble."

"I love that photograph," he said. "I did it one day in my studio when we were fooling around with a bubble maker I bought for $5 on the Venice boardwalk."

'Feeling and Imagery'

He arranged for the black spot to be silk-screened onto the image, which then was returned to the printer, he said, adding: "Obviously, I would have rather not done that. But I don't think it altered the feeling and imagery of the photograph. I don't believe it really compromised it."

There have been isolated incidents in recent years of custom regulators taking a more liberal attitude toward nudity. For the 1985 Tokyo International Film Festival, customs officials allowed several films with full nudity. But the next year they demanded that a BBC film based on the life of Franz Kafka be edited before it could be shown.

"I don't things are really changing," said Miyoshi, the Japanese literature professor. "The customary legal interpretation seems very strong and the people don't seem willing to make much of a fuss about it."

Ritts is willing to battle officials again. When his show closes in Hollywood, it will be packed and shipped to Tokyo for the Parco exhibition.

"We have a plan," Ritts said with a laugh. "I think we can get the photographs into the country legally, but also show them unaltered at the exhibition.

"I don't want to say how we will do this, but I think we just might get away with it."

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