|home :: blog :: archives :: book reviews :: links :: store|
Eyes of an Island
“What is Japan?”
This question has been at the core of the remarkable evolution of Japanese photography since nuclear devastation forever changed the country more than 50 years ago.
Perhaps more than any other, Japanese photography has consistently engaged with social and political realities, seeking new ways to contribute to modern Japan’s search for identity.
This brief overview of some of Japan’s leading photographers during the last 50 years shows that it is not possible to point to a single style of Japanese photography. Photographic approaches have varied widely, from Hamaya’s post-war humanist studies to Moriyama’s experiments with photography to convey the impact of personal experience.
|Eyes of an Island:
Japanese photography 1945-2007
essay by Marc Feustel
This question has been at the core of the remarkable evolution of Japanese photography over the past 50 years. While it would be a mistake to think of a single ‘Japanese’ photographic approach, one unifying factor has been the way in which these photographers have approached the crucial question of national identity. Perhaps more than any other, Japanese photography has consistently engaged with social and political realities, seeking new ways to contribute to modern Japan’s search for identity.
The dominance of books and magazines as an outlet for photography was compounded by the fact that few art museums had the experience or equipment necessary to handle photographic exhibitions, while the first gallery to deal exclusively with photographic prints did not appear until 1978. This had important implications for the development of Japanese photography. Most photographers worked exclusively for publications, creating series of images that were difficult to break down into individual shots. In the catalogue to New Japanese Photography (Museum of Modern Art, 1974), the first major survey of contemporary Japanese photography outside Japan, influential editor Shoji Yamagishi questioned whether it was possible to view images from these series in isolation. In addition, the focus on producing images exclusively for publication purposes meant that very few exhibition-quality prints survived from this vibrant photographic period.
Two important photographic currents surfaced in the immediate post-war years. The first, and most urgent, was driven by the need to bear witness to the destruction of war, in particular the devastation wrought by the atomic explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Where people struggled to comprehend events of such terrifying magnitude, photography was able to fulfil a role of documentation, capturing the reality of the devastation and its consequences. Shashin, the Japanese word for photography, translates literally as ‘truth copy’. In those post-war years people longed for ‘objective’ journalism after the wartime propaganda and photography was an essential tool in providing that ‘truth’. An important photo-realist movement emerged led by Ken Domon who advocated the “direct linkage between camera and subject” and the “absolutely pure snapshot, absolutely unstaged”. Realism struck a chord as photographers felt the need to record the hardships they witnessed.
At the same time, others were turning their attention towards another aspect of Japanese society. The combination of the surrender, the shattering of the myth of the emperor’s divinity, and the American occupation had thrown into question Japan’s national identity. Photographers sought an answer, turning to areas that seemed to reflect the true essence of the country. Hiroshi Hamaya’s two major documents of the 1940s and 1950s, Yukiguni (Snow Land) and Ura Nihon (Japan’s Back Coast), are two of the finest examples of these studies of the ‘traditional’ Japan that had remained largely unchanged for decades.
Hamaya’s images of the rural families of Aomori and Niigata show a remarkable strength and resilience in the face of harsh natural conditions. With these images the Tokyo-born photographer contributed to the search for a national identity with an optimistic portrait of the strength of the Japanese people and the importance of rites and rituals in their daily lives. These series distanced themselves from the prevalent photo-realist movement, echoing instead the French humanist photography of Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
While life on Japan’s back coast may have remained largely unchanged, much of the rest of the country was undergoing a rapid and radical transformation. By the early 1950s Japan had been thrust on to a path of rapid economic growth. This exacerbated the tensions between traditional life and the modern economic model imported by the American occupiers. Shigeichi Nagano’s photographs of office workers in Tokyo document the birth of the Japanese ‘salary man’ and illustrate the social transformations accompanying economic expansion. Many felt the breakneck pace of economic growth was damaging the social fabric of the nation, further fueling the debate over the identity of modern Japan.
In search of a new Japan
In 1957 the critic Tatsuo Fukushima formed the seminal group Junin-no-Me (Eyes of Ten) bringing together ten of the most exciting young photographers of the time, including Eikoh Hosoe and Shomei Tomatsu. Although short-lived, this group encompassed a wide variety of photographic styles, but all shared a fascination with the growing Western influence in Japan and an increasing affirmation of a new approach to documentary photography. With the subsequent creation of the photographic agency Vivo, a new movement of personal or subjective documentary was crystallising.
Like Hamaya in the 1950s, Tsuchida was also to embark on a personal quest to discover Japan. In the late 1960s he began a photographic study of the ‘ordinary people’ of Japan and their relationship with traditional festivals and rituals, in particular spirituality and religion. The series that emerged, Zokushin (Gods of the Earth), revealed a different side of Japan from Hamaya’s Yukiguni or Ura Nihon. Rather than presenting an idealised portrait of ‘traditional’ folklore, Zokushin instead revealed the often bizarre reality of tradition and rituals in modern Japan, through Tsuchida’s humorous gaze.
The dynamism of photography in post-war Japan was part of a larger artistic boom encompassing film, dance, theatre, literature and other art forms. Certain photographers began experimenting with these other mediums in their search for new photographic styles. Perhaps the most active photographer at the crossroads of these different art forms was Eikoh Hosoe, who began making a name for himself in the late 1950s. Hosoe embarked on what was to become one of the most important collaborations of his career with Tatsumi Hijikata, one of the founders of Butoh dance, after seeing one of Hijikata’s highly controversial performances in Tokyo. The two joined forces on a series in the remote region of their birthplace, Tohoku.
Also a study of Japanese traditions, Kamaitachi focused more specifically on a legendary demon that had fascinated Hosoe as a child. The kamaitachi (literally sickle-weasel) is said to haunt the rice paddies and villages of northern Japan. However, the series was radically different from Hamaya or Tsuchida’s work, integrating elements of dance, theatre and documentary into an intensely cinematic work that aimed to recreate and dramatise Hosoe’s childhood memories.
By the late 1960s the tensions linked to the American occupation and to the disruptive effects of Japan’s rapid economic growth had begun to boil over. Student riots broke out across Tokyo and clashes with police became frequent. Tomatsu captured the chaotic energy of the time with his iconic 1969 image of a lone protester hurling a missile at an invisible enemy. He had begun adapting his photographic technique to intensify the portrayal of his own experience of the events he was capturing on film. The intentional blur and high contrast heighten the sense of energy and of violence in this photograph.
Tomatsu’s experiments with photography as a vehicle for experience were later picked up by Daido Moriyama, who had been greatly influenced by Tomatsu when working as Hosoe’s assistant at the photographic agency Vivo. Moriyama was later to use some of the older photographer’s ideas, radicalising them and extending them towards different objectives. Tomatsu had experimented with subjective documentary and the ability of a photograph to convey his experience of the subject. Moriyama pushed this idea much further: for him photography became entirely about personal experience. With his infamous Shashin yo sayonara (Farewell, Photography, 1972) Moriyama sought to use photography purely as a means of conveying his experience of a single day in Tokyo. By distorting the images and their sequence during both shooting and development processes, Moriyama made one of the twentieth century’s most extreme statements about photography. This document, alongside the seminal Provoke magazine co-edited by Moriyama, captures the deep existential crisis faced by Japan in the late 1960s.
Moriyama was also to extend Tomatsu’s work in studying the ‘clash’ of Japan and its traditions with the realities of American occupation. However, whereas Tomatsu’s gaze was intensely and consistently critical of the occupiers, Moriyama did not share this judgment. An avid fan of Western photography (William Klein) and literature (Albert Camus and Jack Kerouac), Moriyama was part of a generation of photographers who embraced the growing foreign influence in Japan. He avowedly borrowed the photographic techniques used by Klein in New York, New York and applied them to his hometown of Tokyo. In Karyudo (A Hunter, 1972), he took Tomatsu’s images of the American presence further by prowling the alleyways surrounding American military bases, capturing images like a hunter chasing prey. Following these two series in 1972, Moriyama was to leave photography for almost ten years, during which time a new generation of photographers was coming of age in a very different Japan.
The passage of time
Ryuji Miyamoto started his career as an architectural photographer, an ironic beginning as he was to become known for his series focusing on the destruction of architecture. In Architectural Apocalypse, he documented the destruction of public buildings as Japan’s economic growth led to a total modernisation of its cities. His images capture the violent effects of Japan’s economic success on its cityscapes. Having grown up amid the devastation of post-war Tokyo, Miyamoto was struck by the new form of ruins he saw emerging in the city 40 years later. These were different, those of a city in the flux of regeneration, a city consuming itself, without the permanence of ancient ruins or even those of the post-war era. His images capture specific hidden moments of transition, revealing the destructive effects of Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ and the subsequent transformation of urban spaces.
Where Miyamoto’s images capture ephemeral moments in the life of a contemporary city, Hiroshi Sugimoto achieves a unique sense of permanence with his seascapes. The series was born of Sugimoto’s interest in pushing photography beyond freezing a single moment in time, attempting instead to capture the passage of time itself. These contemplative images follow a strict structure, balancing sea and sky in equal measure, somehow succeeding in capturing the motion of the water. They illustrate Sugimoto’s simple idea that “what is truly beautiful is something that has withstood the test of time”. With the series Cardboard Houses and Kowloon Walled City, Miyamoto shed light on specific groups marginalised from the economic success of the 1980s. Cardboard Houses is a study of the temporary shelters built by Tokyo’s homeless community. While Miyamoto was focusing on the socially excluded, highlighting a problem that had often been overlooked, his work was a far cry from Domon’s social realist photographs of the post-war years. Miyamoto’s photographs do not reveal the inhabitants of these temporary structures, instead portraying the constant adaptation of cardboard shelters to a rapidly changing urban landscape. Through the distance and detachment of these photographs, Miyamoto in a way achieves a greater objectivity than his predecessor, one of the leading proponents of realism.
While Miyamoto focused his camera on urban spaces, Toshio Shibata was closely studying the transformation of Japan’s rural landscapes. Not invested with any overt political or social commentary, Shibata’s images are intricate visual studies of the epic scale of man’s enterprise and its interaction with nature. His abstract images of rural Japan find a certain beauty and harmony, while also revealing the underlying tensions in this unnatural pairing. They show how the effects of economic growth extend beyond the cities throughout the country and fundamentally alter the Japanese natural landscape.
The internationalisation and explosion of consumption in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s not only altered the country’s physical landscapes but also fundamentally transformed its human geography. Japan’s strong sense of community and of family began to erode. This phenomenon formed the basis for Tsuchida’s study of the changing nature of the Japanese crowd, New – Counting Grains of Sand, begun in the 1980s. When the Emperor died in 1989, the crowds that gathered to mourn his passing convinced Tsuchida that he had seen the “crowd to end all crowds” and that his series had come to a natural end. However, during the 1990s he began to notice a different structure and dynamic to crowds across Japan, no longer formed by a large coherent mass of people, but rather by a network of small groups that kept a certain distance from each other. His startling colour work is a powerful commentary on the results of Japan’s transition to a global consumerist society, highlighting not only the fragmentation of its social structures but also the artificial nature of its material aspirations.
This brief overview of some of Japan’s leading photographers during the last 50 years shows that it is not possible to point to a single style of Japanese photography. Photographic approaches have varied widely, from Hamaya’s post-war humanist studies to Moriyama’s experiments with photography to convey the impact of personal experience. What binds them is their common engagement with the question of a Japanese identity in the tumultuous years since the end of World War II. In their search to answer, or even to reframe this dilemma, photographers have in turn questioned the role of their art and consistently pushed the medium to new ground. The results of their photographic explorations not only give us a rich insight into a nation often difficult to apprehend for outsiders, but also are a fascinating and complex study of the transformation of a society.
About the author
© 2007 Lens Culture and individual contributors. All rights reserved.