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Think photography and its history, and it’s easy to recall iconic images of New York, Paris or London, cities whose buildings and street life have long served up compelling subjects for amateur and professional shutterbugs alike.
Eugène Atget’s Paris photographs, which he began producing in the late 1890s, captured for the ages a sense of that city’s enchanting ambiance, no matter how much abuse parts of its distinctive urban fabric would suffer in the 20th century.
Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott, William Klein and other notable photographers gave the world indelible visions of New York; for their cameras, the city’s slums, style-makers and skyscrapers provided a rich visual feast.
In East Asia, sprawling, dynamic, constantly changing Tokyo also has a long history as a seductive subject and muse for innovative camera artists, but that tradition and the remarkable, often unexpected images it has produced are still not so widely known in the West outside a relatively small but growing community of collectors, curators and photography buffs.
More recently, though, awareness of Japanese photographers outside their homeland has been given a big boost by events like Shashin: Photography from Japan, a talks-and-exhibitions series that took place a few months ago in New York, and, now, by Aperture’s summer 2015 issue, which is devoted to Tokyo and those Japanese photographers who have documented this megalopolis in all its complexity and monstrous-kooky charm. Also providing valuable background information for newcomers to this subject area are The PhotoBook Review (Aperture’s sister magazine), whose spring 2015 issue contained several Japan-related articles, and the book Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ‘70s, which is the essential guide to its subject in English.
That book, which was co-edited and co-authored by Ryūichi Kaneko and Ivan Vartanian, was published in 2009 by Aperture, the New York-based cultural-educational foundation that promotes photography appreciation through publishing and other programs. Its eponymous photo-quarterly, Aperture, which was first issued in 1952, is one of the most influential magazines of its kind. Kaneko and Vartanian are experts in the field of Japanese photography and the history of Japanese photography books, which are commonly known as “photobooks.” Tokyo-based Kaneko owns a collection of photography publications totaling some 20,000 items. Also based in Tokyo, Vartanian is an American curator and publisher, and the founder of Goliga Books, Inc. He was also the founder and served as the program director of the recent Shashin festival.
Michael Famighetti, Aperture’s editor, notes that the magazine aims to offer its readers “global narratives” about the history of photography. In 2014, for example, it published an issue that examined photography in, from and about the Brazilian city of São Paulo. Aperture’s latest, Tokyo-themed issue, for which Vartanian served as consulting editor, continues that kind of outward-looking, city-focused investigation.
A longtime Tokyo resident, Vartanian points out that, as a subject, the Japanese capital “is quite important for understanding photography from Japan,” as if to suggest that, as a major cultural and media hub, a lot of what has become known nationally and internationally in the field is showcased there. It may also be the case that, for many Japanese camera artists, the city remains an inevitable topic to be confronted or wrestled with.
Certainly in post-World War II Japanese photography, as in the art of that era, a sense can be felt of rawness, of searching for truth and affirmations of life among the rubble and the rebuilding, and of befuddlement in the face of — if not even some distaste for — an emerging technological-consumerist culture. What did it all mean?
Consider the boldness and range of the work of such classically modern and contemporary Japanese photographers as Shōmei Tōmatsu (1930-2012), who recorded the effects of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and whose grainy, impressionistic images would influence later generations of photo-makers; or Eikoh Hosoe (b. 1933), whose avant-garde compositions often abstract and eroticize the human body; or Masahisa Fukase (1934-2012), who documented the gruesome activity of an animal slaughterhouse and later shot pictures only of his wife, then finally focused on ravens. (Hosoe and Fukase’s works are featured in Another Language: Eight Japanese Photographers, an exhibition on view through August 30 at the “Rencontres Arles” festival in southern France.)
In New York, Russet Lederman, a teacher in the art criticism and writing MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, and her husband, Jeff Gutterman, are longtime collectors of Japanese photobooks. Lederman, who helped organize the Shashin festival, remembers when she and her husband first saw Japanese photographer Daidō Moriyama’s book, Japan: A Photo Theater (1968), in 2002.
She recalls that, in its “blurry and out-of-focus images […] there was a strong disregard for conventional technique and a rejection of the ‘beautiful print.’” She and Gutterman were struck by “the forceful nature of what could at times seem like random subject matter — chaotic street scenes, raw sexuality and a less-than-idealized Japanese society” that were not “the quiet and polite Japan of tourist photography.”
Lederman observes that “Moriyama’s images were a response to the contradictions inherent in Japanese society during the postwar period. Here was a Japan that had been defeated, then occupied by the American military and was now recovering at warp speed, and in which American ways were simultaneously emulated and reviled.”
Vartanian advises, “It’s important to avoid stereotyping and reducing the work of an artist to [a reflection of a notion of] a national identity.” Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics of the bodies of work of some of the best-known (outside Japan, that is) modern and contemporary Japanese photographers that probably have become familiar both at home and abroad.
For example, the high visibility in the art and style media in recent decades of such prolific photographers as Moriyama (b. 1938) and Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940) may have done a lot, for better or worse, to establish a sense among some foreign observers of a contemporary Japanese-photo “look” or “style”: grainy, impulsive-feeling shots of everything from vending machines to potted plants, along with endless images of street life and the city’s darker, seedier, kinkier sides (in Araki’s oeuvre, rope-bound, naked women are as common as cars or kitty cats).
Araki, who survived air raids as a child, has produced a voluminous body of work that, for all its no-limits effusiveness, may be seen as unabashedly life-affirming. Tokyo Love: Spring Fever 1994, a photobook he co-shot with the American photographer Nan Goldin, is filled with images of teenage girls. In it, he wrote, “I know that the minute you let go, death comes creeping up from behind.”
Aperture’s latest issue blasts the notion of a signature Japanese photo style as it examines just what “Tokyo” has meant to the photographers who have made it their own. “Is Tokyo even a city at all?” writes the Tokyo-based critic Noi Sawaragi. He notes that the National Capital Region’s agglomeration of 23 wards, numerous contiguous cities and even two island chains out in the Pacific Ocean “has no geographic center” and “no boundaries.”
Sawaragi also asserts that “[t]he history of Tokyo simply doesn’t exist,” since the city has been destroyed numerous times” — “after the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, after the 1945 [U.S.-led] air raids, [and] in the wake of the rampant consumerism of the late 1980s.”
That bit about the city not having a history might be something of a poetic stretch, but with a nod to its spirit, during postmodernist design’s heyday a few decades ago and at the height of Japan’s postwar economic boom, Western pomo mavens marveled at Tokyo architecture’s stylistic pastiches and the capital’s seamless blending of the traditional, the futuristic and the go-go now.
That sense of constant cacophony — but not chaos; Japan’s capital is a crowded but generally orderly place — seems to inform a lot of the Tokyo images Japanese photographers have produced over the years (see, again, the work of Moriyama and Araki). Many have captured the city’s quieter, more intimate moments and spaces, too, often with the kind of slap-in-the-face sense of existential awareness that comes with feeling like a tiny human fish in a vast urban sea.
In his essay in Aperture’s Tokyo issue, Vartanian looks back and explains how important certain specialty magazines and photobooks — as presentation platforms and artistic expressions in their own right — were in the promotion of art photography in Japan. He points out that, in the 1950s, affordable cameras became available and popular. Magazines like Asahi Camera and Camera Mainichi offered technical information about cameras but, he writes, they “also published some of the most important photography of postwar Japan,” showcasing the work of, among others, Tōmatsu, Kishin Shinoyama, Moriyama, Yutaka Takanashi and Issei Suda. Such magazines also introduced the work of famed foreign photographers.
In a 2008 interview that is transcribed in Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s, Moriyama says, “With photobooks and magazines, there is nothing beyond the printed matter. An actual photographic print creates one type of world that is totally different from the world that comes about from printed matter.”
Lederman notes that “Japan is [still] a print culture. All it takes is a walk through Tokyo’s Jinbōchō district [of new- and used-books shops] to realize this. In comparison, New York has so few bookstores, despite a now-booming American and Western photobook culture.” Lederman says she responds to Japanese photographers’ “raw expression of a world that lurks at the edges of the camera’s lens.”
In his Aperture essay, Vartanian notes that, in a year-long serialization in Asahi Camera in 1969 titled “Akushidento” (“Accident”), Moriyama “explored the questions: Does a photographer search for images that he has already envisioned in his mind’s eye? Or is the process of taking photographs an exploration of the universe and a means by which to engage something new?”
Yasufumi Nakamori is the associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where he organized the exhibition For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979. (It closed a few days ago but will be presented in a modified form in New York starting on September 11 at Japan Society and New York University’s Grey Art Gallery.)
In his own article in Aperture’s Tokyo issue, Nakamori refers to the student protests that took place in Japan in the late 1960s against the renewal of the 1952 U.S.-Japan security treaty and the forthcoming Expo ’70 world’s fair in Osaka, with its utopian-future theme, which they saw as a media-charming distraction from the political unrest.
Nakamori writes, “In the wake of these protests, Japanese artists began to search for new ways of portraying a rapidly changing world.” Some of them “sought to transcend their previous art practices — that is, painting and sculpture — and many turned to photography.” They wanted, Nakamori explains, to test “the limits of artistic form, particularly since they were aware of such international tendencies as Postminimalism and Conceptualism.” He cites, for example, Hitoshi Nomura, whose photo-based conceptualist works measured time in different ways, and Jiro Takamatsu, whose photographs of photographs from his family albums called attention to the status of photo prints as physical objects.
In looking at the work of many a contemporary Japanese photographer, is it worthwhile — or necessary — to keep in mind this history of their predecessors’ tradition-busting depictions of society in the postwar period, plus the formal-aesthetic influence of classic photobooks, plus a long-simmering malaise that has been felt in Japan since the collapse of the “bubble economy” at the beginning of the 1990s, plus a new sense of unease as China now looms large, and Japan re-examines its regional role, which the conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has taken steps to remilitarize?
Whatever such trends might add up to in terms of an artistic legacy or influence on art-making, as Aperture’s Tokyo issue makes clear, Japanese photography is as diverse and innovative as ever. Among other offerings, it also features Sōhei Nishino’s vast photocollage, Diorama Map Tokyo (2013-14); edgy, nocturnal images by Takuma Nakahira, who co-published the experimental, magazine-style photobook Provoke beginning in the late 1960s; and the work of Mayumi Hosokura, who shoots human nudes, crystals and other natural forms with pristine clarity. Of interest, too, are Naoya Hatakeyama’s eloquently plain, color-rich images. He focuses on Tokyo’s nondescript infrastructural architecture — roads, railings, walkways — with an eye for its easy-to-overlook, unwitting grandeur.
For readers who are unfamiliar with Japanese photography trends, Aperture’s Tokyo issue reveals its richness, diversity, audacity — and unpredictability. Editor Famighetti says, “It’s a single issue; it can only scratch the surface.” Still, he adds, in an era of Instagram and the ubiquitous, invincible selfie, “when images are circulating everywhere, often divorced from any context,” his publication’s goal, if not its obligation, “is to create a context and to discuss what’s happening today, and how that relates to the continuum of photography.”