An analog photograph and a digital photograph cannot be compared. It is because their images are completely different. I like to call the photographic image of the digital camera an “optical picture.” It is not easy to recognise that an analog photograph and a digital photograph are completely different images.
The above words and the photo are those of Haruo Tomiyama, another lucky find at my local library who always seem to be able to surprise with photo books. But maybe it is also just me making an extra effort looking at Japanese books right now and learning from this country’s visual artists. This book is called Our Day and features the photos of a series of the same name conceived in 1964 by the Asahi Journal.
When first flicking through the book, I was a bit mystified by the titles of the pictures, such as Overcrowding, Independence, Fixation or Allowance. It is suggested in the good foreword of the book, that Tomiyama is a socially critical photographer, but since most of the time is rather difficult to associate the content of the pictures with the titles, one feels a bit left out like when being confronted with a very long series of inside jokes. Later, in the epilogue it is revealed that the words were made up combinations of a series of Japanese characters (Chinese of you want to be really precise) by established writers and the like, and the intention was to parody society using those expressions. For me, this is a rather risky way of starting out, and there is a discreet underlying sense of disconnection due to the permanent fear of not getting the joke. Strangely I found this rather distracting from the photographs. Page for page one wonders whether one can decipher the next Sphinx-like riddle and I had a hard time focussing on the images first time round.
“It is not easy to recognise that an analog photograph and a digital photograph are completely different images.”
Looking at the photos, however, there is some really exquisite material featured in the book, a witness to the great timing and general mastery of the craft that Tomiyama is capable of. On his website you can run a commentated slide show of some of the featured images. There are many pictures that are a joy to look at many times over, and given enough sensitivity on part of the viewer, the critical or tongue-in-cheek message will reach its destination without the repeated imaginary subtitle these are critical photos from and about Japan. In other circumstances of life in Japan I learnt that while the Japanese don’t like directness and are masters of subtlety, they just often need seem to need obviousness. This may be one of those occasions.
I think there is a strong need for portraying Japan in the way it is being done here. In my opinion the population of this country seems to be accepting to suffer too many disadvantages all too willingly in exchange for the well-being of the Japanese collective or the elite classes. Examples are crowded and often outdated housing, ruined landscapes and cityscapes, and a completely hopeless work-life-balance resulting in a drastically inferior quality of life when compared to other industrial nations. Photographs like Tomiyama’s can help bringing these conditions into our consciousness, provided there is an audience out there that wants or at least is ready to hear it. This is doubtful and could explain the cynic undertone that I feel I have detected here.
Could Tomiyama be an outsider? Some anecdotal stories in the preface of the book about his biography seem to indicate that this is the case. It is emphasised as a virtue, but as we all know, there is a delicate line to tread between the detached outsider (that we also often are as non-Japanese) and the uncritical and immersed insider. Pronouncing the outside view may make you more relevant and to the point elsewhere, but may alienate the subject of criticism back home where it is most needed. I am not saying this is the case here, and I am certainly not the one to judge, it is merely and observation and lesson for at least myself.