Reflecting on an special event held on a Sunday in the mid 1960s photographer Takao Niikura writes in the afterword of his book Dizzy Noon that:
“This was a chance to enter into the “other world” just for a day, a world surrounded by a two-meter, twenty centimeter tall barbed wire fence. I grasped my camera, together with seven or eight rolls of color film, which in those days was still something of a rarity, and set out.”
The world which Niikura was allowed to entered that spring day was the US Naval Air Facility Atsugi, an hour southwest of Tokyo. An airdrome built in 1938 to serve as base for fighter aircraft tasked with defending Tokyo from American bombers, it was on this runway that General Douglas MacArthur first set foot on Japanese mainland after the end of hostilities. While many Japanese photographers spent the post-war era exploring the shadow of Americanization that crept over their homeland through a foreign military presence, Niikura’s slim and charming collection eschews broad emotional depth to simply focus in on the cross cultural happenings of one particular afternoon; “Friendship Day”, the annual open house and Airshow held on base at Atsugi on May 9th, 1965.
The book opens up directly and literally from the base gate. With one arm on the wheel of his pale blue Volkswagen beetle an American man in aviator sunglasses looks out the window while an MP looks off into the background. The Japanese national flag billows above. Once inside we’re treated to a strange land- Niikura spends a frame of a pre-war wooden building- possibly barracks or an administration building. One wonders if the beginnings of the short lived “Atsugi Revolt” in the days following the Japanese surrender were planned in one of these buildings. As Niikura makes his way deeper into the facility we’re consistently shown his interest in the kitschy oriental decor he encounters. A “traditional” Japanese style bridge spans an small and quite empty concrete pond in a grassy spot near a parking lot. Over a pay phone hangs a large watercolor of the Great Buddha in Kamakura while a sailor, with cigarette in hand, waits behind his comrade. Vivid red Shinto tore gates appear here and there in the backgrounds.
While Shomei Tomatsu may have been ironic or even malicious in his representation of foreign servicemen, Niikura captures his Americans with a sense of bemusement. Here we a smartly dressed officer caught in awkward pose- a sandwich in one hand with a camera around his neck. Later we discover a pot-bellied Army Sargent squinting ahead while his jeep sits covered in young Japanese children. In between all the soldiers and aircraft and Jeeps and tanks Niikura keeps a steady lens on his countrymen. Japanese fathers with wives and children, all dressed in their Sunday best, cooly meander in and out of the frame. The youngest of the children obviously enjoy the chance to poke, prod, and climb on all the spotlessly clean military hardware. Little boys laugh as they sit on the wing of a jet trainer while on other pages young men snap photos with their Nikons. Visitors line up for a chance to walk through cargo plane. In one somewhat dark frame a very young brother and sister grasp the
“The message of this book is situated in the faces and bodies of the adult Japanese visitors in contrast to their American ‘guests’.”
propeller of a Boeing B-50, the upgraded version of the B-29, the very bomber which reduced much of urban Japan to smoldering ash twenty years before. Self assured, broad shouldered, and grinning, American men, women, and children drink 7-up and munch from bags of popcorn.
The message of this book is situated in the faces and bodies of the adult Japanese visitors in contrast to their American “guests”. Perhaps no image sums this up better than the one of a father interacting with an American pilot in his flight suit (“Rus” is written on his helmet). The pilot wields the leverage in the encounter with his index finger raised as to make a point. Certainly a language barrier was at work but the father, with his son’s arm hanging on his own, listens on with his hands drawn up before him. It’s by no means a confrontational scene but the contrast in confidence is marked by the body language shown. Page after page we see Japanese visitors with hands together, an expression of reservation? No one ever really looks comfortable, not when trying to order fifteen cent hamburgers at a window in English, and certainly not when partaking in a square dance with Americans in their Roy Rodgers Western Dress shirts. Younger Japanese women group together in threes and twos as they look apprehensively at the photographer. Indeed, the only young Japanese woman we find smiling is one arm in arm with her sailor boyfriend. Often we find Japanese men standing huddled together with arms crossed looking out at the spectacle before them. All the while brand new F-4 Phantoms, soon to see action in Vietnam, sit glistening off in the distance.
In the following 45 years Niikura went on to become a professional photographer and in 2010 published Dizzy Noon through Tokyo-based publisher, Sokyusha. A rather well put together little photobook, it is slim, with thirty six color images printed on a firm paper stock. It fits perfectly in your hands, just slightly taller than it is wide. The effectively simple layout respects the integrity of his 35mm frames with vertical images siting at the edge of the pages and horizontal ones centered. The book concludes with a thoughtful closing from the photographer in Japanese and English.
While enjoyable, this is a somewhat a peculiar book to find an audience for. Perhaps it is too particular to that single day it pictures to make much sense outside of its context to an international audience. On the other hand, it is charming and often entertaining. Maybe the best audience would be the Americans appearing in these photographs. I’d like to think that through the internet someone stationed at Atsugi in the mid 1960’s will come across this article and buy a copy. After all these years, they’ll be able to see how they and their home away from home appeared through a Japanese lens. I think they’d be interested in what they find.
Photo-eye recently posted their annual “Best Books” feature, with a whole host of photographers and photo people submitting their top 10 books of 2009. Naturally I was interested to see what Japanese books made the grade, but was rather disappointed that on the whole so few Japanese books were chosen. This is I’m sure due in large part to a lack of access to books published here (but hey, Japan Exposures is here to help!), but I do wonder if the paucity of Japanese choices means the general feeling is that 2009 was a poor year for photography books from Japan.
The other Japanese photography books that made the various lists:
The Joy of Portraits, by Keizo Kitajima (John Gossage, Lesley A. Martin) — If you’re interested in acquiring this 13-pound, 2-volume set for a reasonable price, please get in touch; or you could content yourself with the catalog from Kitajima’s Tokyo retrospective from last Fall.
Portraits of Silence, by Hisashi Shimizu (Daniel Espeset) — Glad to see this moving book recognized.
Cui Cui, by Rinka Kawauchi (Tricia Gabriel) — Mind you this book was published in 2005, but who’s counting 😉
Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe (Sara Terry) — a 1969 book, but since this was republished in a trade edition in 2009 we won’t complain.
Binran, by Masato Seto (Michael Wolf) — technically from 2008.
Like I said, not much love as far as Japanese photography books goes.
Here are my very subjective choices for favorite books published in Japan last year:
Citizens, by Jun Abe (published January 11, 2009) If it weren’t for the “1979 – 1983” subtitle that very subtly accompanies this work from Jun Abe, there would be very little to belie the fact that these photos are 25 – 30 years old. And aside from that information, there is nothing else by way of context — but who needs it? You only need this book, and the hope that the maligned genre of street photography doesn’t get trampled by privacy pushers and the “right to my own likeness” brigade.
“Magazine Work” set, by Daido Moriyama (September, 2009) Many Daido Moriyama publications in 2009 (by my count there were at least 10 new Moriyama books relased in 2009, which is getting into prolific Araki territory). Of them all, I think that the two volumes of magazine work from the sixties and seventies, Nippon Gekijo and Nani ka e no tabi are particularly worthy additions to the Moriyama canon and essential to understanding his development as an artist. Honorable Moriyama mention for Northern, in some ways the most un-Moriyama book since the 2005 Takuno.
Tokyo Zenritsusengan, by Nobuyoshi Araki (October, 2009) 2009 was a very lean book year by Nobuyoshi Araki’s normal assembly line standards, and this book published toward the end of 2009 told us why — Araki was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 2008, which understandably limited his creative output. Maybe it’s the backstory working its magic, but this book for me feels more heartfelt and intimate than an Araki book has felt in some time. Bonus points for the slightly unconventional binding.
Yasuhiro Ishimoto “Multi-Exposure” (exhibition catalog, May, 2009) Nothing better than to visit a small, out of the way exhibition at some outlying university campus of one of your favorite photographers and find that they have accompanied said exhibition with a lovingly produced catalog that presents the work in a unique way and features contextual essays about said favorite photographer and said exhibition in English. This catalog of Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s multiple exposure collages produced by Musashino was such a catalog.
Tokyo Y-Junctions, by Tadanori Yokoo (published October, 2009) When I came across famed graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo’s book of paintings Y-Junction (2006), which take as their subject the Y-shaped intersections of Tokyo, I found myself fascinated by the serial nature of the work, and how photographic the project felt — helped in part by Yokoo’s desision to pair each intersection painting with a collage of photo studies he had made of the same intersection. So it was curious to see that Yokoo decided to make a separate project of these intersections, but this time consisting only of photographs — surely overkill, no?. But the resulting mix of part “Tokyo Nobody” Masataka Nakano, Becher-like typology, and ephemera-collecting Kyoichi Tsusuki is really a quite wonderful portrait of vernacular Tokyo.
Shomei Tomatsu: Hues and Textures of Nagasaki (exhibition catalog, October, 2009) Unfortunately it seems a very long time since we were treated to a new Shomei Tomatsu book, and so one must content oneself with the Skin of the Nation book of a few years ago, or the omnibus-like catalogs that have accompanied various Tomatsu retrospectives in Japan over the past few years. This catalog from the Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum is everything you’d expect from a museum catalog — which basically means it does the job. But no matter. Any chance to catch up with what Japan’s greatest living photographer (IMHO, of course) has been doing in the “noughties” is one worth grabbing, and with over 309 color photos collected, it’s impossible to be disappointed, not the least because it proves that the near 80-year old Tomatsu is still at the top of his game.
Blue Period 1973-1979, by Akiyoshi Taniguchi (April, 2009) There seem to have been a lot of books published last year of work done in the past, but of those I’m not sure there were any that featured photographs taken by an artist when they were in their teens, besides this one. Akiyoshi Taniguchi — who later studied photography under Leo Rubinfien before becoming a Buddhist priest — shows that while he may have been a teenager, the photos he took evidenced a mature outlook and calm reflectiveness that no doubt have served him well in his current career.
Hana Dorobou, by Eikoh Hosoe (November, 2009) This lovely book by one of Japanese photography’s undisputed masters resurrected a project from the mid-60s that even Eikoh Hosoe himself had forgotten about. Hosoe took some dolls hand made by a famous lingerie designer, put them in decidedly un-doll-like situations, creating a book that can be enjoyed by parents and children alike — if the parent is not averse to dealing with the frank questions that surely will result. Beautifully printed too.
Over the last decade the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has established itself as one of the best American museums to see Japanese photography. Senior curator of photography Sandra Philips curated the first North American retrospectives for Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama. Continuing this focus, assistant curator Lisa Sutcliffe has two new exhibits at the museum, “The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography” and Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea.” “Provoke” offers a concise introduction to the generation of photographers that Tomatsu and Moriyama were a part of, while “Photography Now” shows how Japanese photography has become even more diverse in the last decade. Both exhibits run through December 20th.
Provoke is the magazine most often associated with the generation of photographers working in the 1960s and 1970s – even those that did not actually publish in the magazine. It is an example of a small, short-lived, but legendary publications, whose influence is still felt. Early editions had print runs of just 1,000. In 2001 Steidl published “Japanese Box“, featuring reprints of the magazine, but with a price of $2,000. More recently, a flickr tribute group named after the magazine has collected 4,000 images in the Provoke-style. The images are by photographers from around the world, many of whom have never seen the original publication.
When Americans picture Japan during its economic boom of the 1960s, it usually involves the optimistic marketing images from Datsun, Olympus and Sony. In stark contrast, these photographs with their are-bure-bokeh style refute the vision of a unified land made up of smoothly-functioning corporations and their employees. We see Tomatsu’s photographs of the Shinjuku riots, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s voyeuristic expeditions in Tokyo’s public parks and Hosoe’s well-known photograph of Yukio Mishima wrapped in a garden hose.
The “Provoke Era” exhibit is not large, with less than 100 photographs all from the SFMOMA’s collection, yet it manages to select a handful of works from each photographer. There are many well-known works, but also photographs only found in out-of-print books. The exhibit traces changes in style from the mid-1940’s, through the late 1970s and even the 1990s, using the 1995 Kobe earthquake to mark the end of the post-war era and the exhibit.
One of the many things this exhibit does well is give a sense of the art of the photo book, something that is still a challenge for museum exhibits. “The Provoke Era” acknowledges the importance of books with with wall text and vitrines that display books (and magazines) in every gallery. Many of the prints on the wall have a work print quality, which they often were, with the book or magazine displayed in the vitrine being the end goal. There are exceptions, the most notable is “La Nuit” (1968), a series of photogravures by Provoke’s founding editor Takuma Nakahira. At this size and resolution, the are-bure-bokeh feels like it is being used precisely, with a specific intention.
Japan Exposures asked curator Lisa Sutcliffe a few questions about the exhibits.
Interview and review by Wayne Bremser for Japan Exposures
Japan Exposures: Many photographs in this exhibit respond to the detonation of nuclear bombs over civilian populations in Japan. Shomei Tomatsu carefully document the immediate aftermath, the burned objects and scarred human flesh. What influence did this event have in the work of the photographers that never directly confronted the subject?
Lisa Suttcliffe: The bomb was the single-most influential event on postwar Japanese society. Many of these photographers were children during the war and grew up in the tumultuous postwar atmosphere. Japanese national identity was deeply affected by the bomb and the defeat in the war. Some photographers made work that referenced the bomb symbolically – for example, Kikuji Kawada made photographs of veterans and relics of the war that created a memorial. These visual fragments represent the multiple layers of memory and history. The work of later photographers from Provoke, such as Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira, reflects the incendiary political atmosphere. Their dark urban scenes are punctuated by bright flashes of light that indirectly reference the immediacy and violence of the bomb.
JE: Moriyama, Araki, (and thanks in part to the SFMOMA exhibit) Tomatsu are now well-known in the US. Is there a photographer in the exhibit that you think deserves greater recognition?
LS: All of them! The whole generation of postwar photographers made interesting and revolutionary work that is enhanced by seeing them together. If I had to pick one it would be Masahisa Fukase, whose varied body of work is deeply haunting, melancholic, and beautiful. His best known work comes from Karasu (Ravens), published in 1986. In this series he travels throughout Japan making photographs that reveal his dark psychological mood after he was estranged from his wife. Our exhibition also offers a good chance to see rare photogravures made by Takuma Nakahira from his series “La nuit.” The richly dark prints are a dramatic, and unsettling examination of urban street culture. (And they are really stunning to see together at this size).
“ Japan had no culture of fine print photography in the 1960s and 1970s. ”
JE: While these photographers have different subject matter and styles, frequent book publishing was common in the group. You’ve included many books from the period, displayed in vitrines. Aperture’s recently released volume, Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70s is a good companion to the exhibit. Why was the photo book a primary medium for so many Japanese photographers? How do you think creating collections of work rapidly, publishing and then moving to the next book, shaped the work of these artists?
LS: You’re absolutely right. The Aperture volume is a fantastic reference for these revolutionary and prolific books. I love how it shows multiple page spreads from the selected books. As a country that popularized the woodblock print the print medium of books and magazines was a natural outlet. They’re really more like art objects than books. Japan had no culture of fine print photography in the 1960s and 1970s. Instead they published their work in books and magazines. The book as object was a vital aspect of this culture and the photographers had this in mind as they produced and sequenced their work. Moriyama and Nakahira sought to emphasize the format of the book and that certainly would have affected their artistic choices. Each picture is part of a whole series and they function together. There is less insistence on the single famous image.
In addition, Moriyama and others embraced Warhol’s philosophy of the consumer culture driven nature of photography. The concept of the photograph as a “copy” was an important part of their philosophy. Both Moriyama and Araki made books on Xerox machines. The fine art print was not the preferred end product for them. I had to show the books and it was a shame I couldn’t show more than one page from each. This is one of the most important aspects to the exhibition that I hope people understand.
JE: You’ve included many photographs of women by this group of male photographers, such as Hosoe’s “Man + Woman 6” and the four photographs from Moriyama’s “Hotel, Shiyuba.” How is the era’s view of women reflected in their photographs? How has the view and role of women in photography changed between the Provoke era and work seen in “Photography Now”?
LS: I’m so glad you picked up on this. There are actually no female photographers in the entire Provoke exhibition. (There were a few female artists at this time, but they are not in the show). The attitude toward women reflects a “macho” point of view – women are portrayed as sexual objects, objects of desire, and are often seen engaging in the act of sexual intercourse with the photographer. It was a boys club – male artists, publishers, etc. Obviously, it is much different now. There are so many female photographers working in Japan and many of them are represented in Photography Now. The attitude toward women has changed as well, as it has throughout the world. I wanted to highlight this shifting attitude because it is reflected in the work.
JE: In the first gallery of Japanese photographs in “Photography Now” you offer some interesting comparisons. Younger photographers have a different photographic approach, while the Provoke photographers have changed their styles. A wonderful comparison is between Miyako Ishiuchi’s photos of her mother’s burn scars (not from the nuclear bomb) with Tomatsu’s. What are the major changes you are trying to illustrate with the selection in the Japanese gallery of the “Photography Now” exhibit?
LS: There is a very stark contrast between the postwar work and the contemporary gallery. The major change is that there are many varied aesthetic styles (color!), voices and themes. Many of the photographers working during the Provoke Era were united by a grainy, blurry, black and white graphic style and an urge to create a new visual language that challenged photographic conventions. The more recent work reveals artists working in diverse methods including color, black and white, and large format, and dealing with various issues such as the changing urban landscape, cultural identity and appropriation and poetic domestic daily details. There are also quite a few women, who nearly dominate the show. The work is driven toward a more personal vision. Rinko Kawauchi makes pictures of very poetic domestic moments. Miyako Ishiuchi carefully examines her mother, contrasting the texture of her scarred skin with the lacy undergarments which still hold her shape after her mother’s death. It is a no longer the desire to create a national memorial, but a personal one.
On current view at the Setagaya Art Museum is a wonderful photography exhibition entitled Japan: A Self Portrait, that uses the works of 11 photographers† to give us a view onto the incredibly important 20 year period following the end of World War II. The milestone events of this period are well known — the ending of the war via the atomic bombings, the American occupation, and the rapid rebuilding of the country and following economic recovery, including the citizens’ self-esteem, that culminated with the hosting of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But while these might form part of the structure of the exhibit, what’s really special about this particular exhibit are the details of how those years were lived — details that have manifested themselves in the 168 photographs that make up the show.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Paris-based curator and writer Marc Feustel, one of the driving forces behind Studio Equis, which has organized several important traveling exhibitions of Japanese photography in recent years. Feustel can also be found at the two blogs he maintains — eyecurious and Shashin etc. — which are essential stops for anyone interested in what’s going on with Japanese photography.
Japan Exposures recently asked Feustel via email to talk about the unique evolution of the current exhibition, how he himself got involved with photography, and his thoughts on how an exhibition of Japanese photography curated by a European might be received in Japan.
The following interview was conducted via email at the beginning of May.
Japan Exposures: Marc, anyone interested in Japanese photography and browsing the web will eventually come across your name, a true beacon in the Western cultural landscape. Could you give us a bit of personal background information about yourself and tell us how you came to be so involved with curating and writing about Japanese photography?
Marc Feustel: I am from a fairly international background: one part German, one part Australian, English by birth and Parisian by upbringing. To add to these layers I studied Economics and Politics in Dublin and then International Development in London. I don’t have an academic background in Art History but spent most of my time at university loitering around that department. My central interest has always been photography since I saw a William Klein show at the Maison Européene de la Photographie in Paris, about fifteen years ago. I began to focus specifically on Japan through the book that I authored on postwar Japanese photography, Japan: A Self-Portrait, Photographs 1945-1964. The book was published in 2004, in English and French by Flammarion and in Japanese by Iwanami Shoten.
“I think that there is a lot that contemporary photography can learn from the intensity of the engagement of these photographers with the society and the nation around them.”
JE: It was from this project that Studio Equis began, right?
MF: Yes, that’s right. During the research for the book, we were put in touch with Managing Editor of Illustrated Books at Iwanami Shoten, Tsuguo Tada. He was instrumental in introducing me to the photographers and obtaining their approvals for the project. After the success of the book we agreed to form a company to continue our involvement and to find other ways of introducing more Japanese photography in Europe and in the US. Studio Equis is myself, Tsuguo Tada and my mother, Helen Feustel. Our aim is to promote the work of the individual artists that we represent but also to find projects that promote a better understanding and closer relationships between Japanese and Western photographic circles. We are also involved in helping museums and collectors develop their collections of Japanese photography. Studio Equis is a three-man band so everyone does a bit of everything, however my main role is Artistic Director. I curate the exhibitions that we present, manage our publications and identify those photographers that we represent.
JE: The current exhibition at Setagaya — which we understand will also travel to Yamagata, Aichi, and the Kiyosato Museum†† — is based on the book Japan: A Self-Portrait, which was published in 2004. It’s interesting that this is an exhibit based on a book, when usually it is the other way around. Could you tell us more about the original book and how it came to become an exhibition.
MF: Yes, this exhibition has followed an unusual path. The book initially began as a stand-alone project, but over time we realised that it had the potential to make an interesting exhibition and (hopefully) one that presented these works in a new light. The book is both a study of the extraordinary transformation of Japanese society after the war, as well as a study of the incredibly dynamic evolution in the photography of the period. This was a period where Japan changed radically, and one where photography played a major part in documenting and processing the changes that were occuring. This idea formed the basis for the exhibition as well as the book and while many of the works from the book appear in the exhibition, I modified and expanded the selection of images to 168 prints in total, accompanied by first edition publications from the period. The exhibition was initially planned to first open in Europe, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, however because of changes in their photography department this was no longer possible. We then decided to collaborate with Tokyo’s Setagaya Art Museum to open the exhibition in Japan and then to travel it in Europe afterwards.
JE: Do you have any thoughts on how an exhibition curated (or co-curated) by a non-Japanese will be met by Japanese, or is that a non-issue? What would be different if this same material was being solely curated by a Japanese person?
MF: I think that the fact that I am a foreigner is a central feature of this exhibition. The eleven photographers in this show are all well-established artists in Japan with several decades worth of exhibitions and books to their names. However, many of them have been lesser known in Europe and the US and, even in Japan, have not often exhibited in a group context. When I began this project, I wanted to try and bring a fresh look to the photography of this period. As an outsider, I didn’t have to contend with the context of the Japanese photographic canon and I made my selection from a different perspective than a Japanese curator would. Of course many ‘key’ images are present in the show, but I have also often been told that my selection is ‘surprising’ or ‘unusual’, which I think is a good thing in this context. As an outsider in Japan you can allow yourself a certain number of choices that maybe would be more difficult for a Japanese curator who is very aware of established photographic relationships and reputations.
However, I think that it is very unlikely that there will be a consistent ‘Japanese’ reaction. Already in the first week I was very interested to see how differently different generations reacted to these images. For the older generation, this exhibition is a more emotional experience, one which is tied to their memories of the era. For younger generations there tends to be more of a reaction to the photographic developments of the time and a sense of surprise at how modern these photographs are. My hope is that this exhibition will succeed in presenting these works in a new light and to highlight just what a crucial period this was in the artistic development of photography in Japan.
JE: The time period of the exhibit is 1945 – 1964, a time of intense rebuilding leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. But I’m curious about another Japanese fascination or obsession — that of the “Showa Boom” of recent years, which has manifested itself in countless photo books and exhibits. What do you think is behind this nostalgia for the “Showa” years [The years 1926–1989 in Japanese history, corresponding to the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) — Ed.], and how do you see your book/exhibit in the context of that nostalgia?
MF: As I don’t live in Japan, I don’t feel the ‘Showa boom’ that intensely, but I think the nostalgia for this period is understandable. Since the 1989 financial collapse Japan has been left somewhat adrift, and a new direction hasn’t really been forged for the nation. For a country where there was a strong sense of the group and the collective, many of these collective institutions (the family, religion) are being eroded by more materialistic and individualistic aspirations. Within that context, I think people are nostalgic for the postwar years, as the end of an extremely difficult period of several years of conflict and one when there was a real collective sense of a brighter future. That nostalgia is probably exacerbated by the fact that for the younger generations in Japan, the future seems very precarious and uncertain.
In terms of Japan: A Self-Portrait, as a European in his thirties, nostalgia was not a strong motivating factor for me. While the show may be linked to the current Showa fascination, I don’t think that it presents an overly romanticised image of these years. In my view, while these works portray a sense of positivity and optimism and perhaps sometimes describe a simpler ‘traditional’ life, they also highlight the extraordinary hardships of the time and the negative consequences of the social changes during these years. Whether driven by nostalgia or not, in purely photographic terms, I think that there is a lot that contemporary photography can learn from the intensity of the engagement of these photographers with the society and the nation around them.
JE: If you were going to curate a similar “self-portrait” exhibit of Japan during the “Heisei” years (say the last 10-20 years), at this point in time, how would that exhibit look?
MF: That is a very good question… maybe I should take you up on that idea! I think an exhibition on contemporary Japan would be a very different animal. It would be an interesting challenge, particularly as there would not be the benefit of hindsight that I had for Japan: A Self-Portrait. A few names spring to mind: Miyako Ishiuchi, Osamu Kanemura, Hiroh Kikai, Tomoko Sawada, Yutaka Takanashi, Hiromi Tsuchida, Miwa Yanagi and of course Araki and Moriyama, but that list would take a long time to refine. Happily you would see a much more significant number of female photographers, who have carved out an important place for themselves in the contemporary Japanese photographic landscape. I think that this landscape has become increasingly fragmented, with fewer groups such as Vivo or Provoke, and therefore it is perhaps harder to identify coherent photographic movements. Visually the exhibition would of course be dramatically different, particularly as the changes that have occurred over the last two decades in Japan do not have the visual drama of the postwar years and as photographers today have a radically different visual vocabulary. Also photography today inhabits a very different space than it did during the postwar years, where it was a crucial source of ‘information’.
In terms of approach, you would see far less visceral images that display the engagement of the photographer with the subject. Contemporary photographers tend to have a more detached, sometimes deliberately cold and distant approach and many more works deal with major societal issues through the prism of personal identity and the ordinariness of the everyday. Overall, I think that a contemporary self-portrait of Japan would leave viewers with a very different impression, one which is less dramatic and perhaps more uneasy and uncertain, but one which certainly confirms the richness of the Japanese photographic landscape. •
† The 11 photographers are Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Ihei Kimura, Takeyoshi Tanuma, Shomei Tomatsu, Ken Domon, Shigeichi Nagano, Ikko Narahara, Hiroshi Hamaya, Tadahiko Hayashi, and Eikoh Hosoe.
†† The dates of these other showings in Japan are as follows:
August 27 – October 28, 2009
Domon Ken Photography Museum, Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture
November 6 – December 13, 2009
Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya
June 5 – August 31, 2010
Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, Yamanashi Prefecture
Japan Exposures Reader Giveaway
For those unable to see Japan: A Self Portrait for themselves, we are excited to offer to a single Japan Exposures reader a copy of the official exhibition catalog. This hardcover catalog measures 18cm by 25cm, features an introductory essay by Feustel (in both Japanese and English), and all 168 photographs included in the exhibition (captioned, also in both Japanese and English).
Simply answer the question below by 15 June 2009 and we will randomly draw the winner from all correct entries. (Please note that the book will be sent via Economy Air, which normally takes two weeks and is uninsured and not traceable).
Visit anywhere in Japan that shows even a hint of autumnal color this Fall, and you’ll probably see as many photographers as fallen leaves. The Japanese call this kouyou (literally red leaves or yellow leaves) and along with the cherry blossoms of Spring, it is the time when the cameras — everything from Mark II DLSRs to camera cellphones — are guaranteed to come out. So, it is no surprise that Japan’s autumnal colors dominate both of the major photo monthlies this November.
For me, Asahi wins this month’s head to head competition with Nippon. (Last month I would probably give the nod to Nippon if you’re keeping score at home.)
Asahi starts off the kouyou fest by bringing out some “heavy hitters” from Japan’s photographic past, in a special series they call kouyou yuuyuu or serene autumn leaves, which features one or two photos each from Shotaro Akiyama, Ken Domon, Shinzo Maeda and others. Some of these are known as primarily landscape photographers, but others like Domon are not. Nevertheless, given the over-saturation of this type of photography in Japan, it is hard to appreciate the individual craft of any of them — they all unfortunately turn into nice scenery.
Fortunately, it is not all autumn leaves in this month’s Asahi. Miyako Ishiguchi, who has an exhibition at the Meguro Museum of Art in Tokyo from November 15 – January 11, 2009, is featured with a few works each from her Yokosuka and Hiroshima projects (the exhibition is the same). Ishiuchi grew up in Yokosuka, the site of one of the U.S. military’s bases, and her work shot there goes back to the mid to late 70s, while the Hiroshima material (released as a small book this year) is a recent project, focusing mainly on the remnants of clothing that were worn by people when the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima. The clothing is lit from behind in a way that poignantly shows the tattered, ripped apart nature of the clothing and the lives of the people who were wearing it.
Among contemporary female photographers working today in Japan, it’s hard to think of two more contrasting styles than Ishiuchi’s and that of Mika Ninagawa, whose work is presented next in the magazine. Ninagawa will have her first career retrospective exhibition starting this month at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. The exhibition will run from November 1 to December 28 before going to various other cities in Japan for all of 2009.
Eiji Ina has a new book coming out in December from Nazraeli Press entitled Emperor of Japan and 12 images from this work are presented in this month’s issue, along with an interview with Ina. Ina has taken 8×10 photos of all 124 of the extant Imperial burial sites in Japan, and according to the photographer, was influenced by the Typologies of the Becher’s while working on this project.
Veteran photographer Shomei Tomatsu has been living and/or working in Okinawa for over 40 years, and some of his work done there is currently being shown in a “collaborative” co-exhibition with Yasuo Higa at the Canon Gallery in Tokyo (until December 16). Higa is someone I’m not familiar with but it’s clear his main focus is on documenting the unique customs and rituals of the Ryukyu Islands. Tomatsu has also done work similar to this (notably in his book Hikaru Kaze: Okinawa, 1979), but here (judging by what’s presented in the magazine) the work focuses on his “chocolate and chewing gum” work that will be familiar to those who were able to see the Skin of a Nation exhibit that traveled in the US and Europe in 2006-7. In addition to the sampling of work, there is also a short interview with Tomatsu, who is now in his late 70s and who reveals among other things that he recently upgraded his Canon Kiss Digital to a 40D, claiming that the “high amateur” camera is in keeping with his current “amateur” status.
Unfortunately, this month’s Nippon Camera is on the whole rather disappointing compared to its breathren.
Shinichiro Kobayashi, who as the photographer behind Deathtopia and many other similar books has established himself as the leading practitioner if not the founder of the ever-popular “Ruins” or “Urban Exploration” genre of photography, has recently issued a book of rather different work entitled Umihito: 1977 – 1988. The book consists of photographs taken in black and white along Japan’s beaches and coastal areas during the years in question, and a few pages worth of these are in this month’s Nippon Camera. Unfortunately for me, while the photographs are admittedly nice to look at and Kobayashi is certainly a very proficient photographer, the book comes with a healthy dose of saccharined nostalgia that ultimately is not very different from the Ruin books.
Russell Scott Peagler is an American living in Japan, and his work shot in Tibet is given a few pages. Given to blown out Tri-X that would make many a Japanese photographer proud, the work was unfortunately just okay for me. Judging from his modest Flickr stream, clearly the magazine didn’t pick the best representations of his work.
Lastly, Kazuo Kitai has a few pages for his “Out walking with my Leica” series, and this time he visits the printing company in Nagano that did the printing for his latest book of photographs shot in Germany, The Journey Into 1920s German Expressionism.
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