The black-and-white portraits of samurai taken by Everett Kennedy Brown appear as artifacts from the past, but they were photographed just two years ago. In 2015, the Japan-based photographer documented the annual festival of Sōma, Fukushima that honors the city’s samurai population, which has a 800-year-old history. Known as Soma Nomaoi, the summer event attracts crowds of visitors who watch hundreds of samurai, dressed in colorful armor, on horseback as they compete in races and recreate a historic battle. Over the course of just three days, Brown captured 44 skilled horsemen in their traditional armor, which was often passed down through generations, using the 19th-century wet collodion process.
The series, Japanese Samurai Fashion, was on view earlier this year at hpgrp Gallery and is now available in book form, published by the Tokyo-based publisher Akaaka. Although it seems to date from the past, its image represent a time capsule of today, showing the individuals of a community that has kept its treasured tradition alive despite changing times and unforeseeable obstacles. Although samurai today don’t fight as they once did, those in Soma still study practical skills such as horseback riding and learn the traditional code of honor and discipline.
Japanese Samurai Fashion came after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that led to the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Like countless others in the exclusion zone, many families of Soma fled from the highly radiated area. Those who stayed considered canceling Soma Nomaoi but decided to proceed with a downsized event.
“It was a chance for them to summon their samurai strength and reaffirm their samurai cultural tradition,” Brown told Hyperallergic. His photographs honor this resilience, presenting portraits of confident-looking older samurai and young trainees who survived the nuclear disaster and who, together, represent a tradition that still spans generations to this day. Brown had connected with the samurai at the invitation of Michitane Soma, the 34th head of the Soma warrior clan who oversaw the 2011 festival, and who was drawn to his favored use of wet-plate photography. Still, it took the American photographer two years to gain the community’s trust, during which he also learned more about the local samurai culture.
Although his subjects had to sit still for approximately 10-second exposures, the resulting images are crisp, revealing every detail of the different textiles and components of each costume. In return for their time, Brown gave each samurai a copy of the image printed on thin, fibrous washi paper, intended for them to hang on the walls of their homes, where many samurai already display photographs of their ancestors. This new portrait, Brown said, will look the oldest, and he hopes it will serve as a conversation starter that allows people to feel a sense of connection with their heritage.
“The purpose of this series is to stimulate dialogue within each family about their history in the local community and the history of the samurai tradition, but a dialogue that will continue for generations to come,” he said.
Other images included in the series more closely examine the elaborate patterns of the samurais’ clothing. As its title suggests, Brown viewed these textiles as fashion, noting that they feature a wide range of international motifs that stem from regions like China, India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and even East Africa. During Soma Nomaoi, he photographed these fabrics in color, honing in on their patterns and symbolic imagery, from carps to dragonflies. While his portraits were formal representations of the samurai, he digitally manipulated his textile studies, stitching them together so the final images are kaleidoscopic. These are dizzying visions, and some, with their colors greatly edited, are hardly recognizable as sections of samurai costume. The photographs resemble patterned textiles of Brown’s own creation; like his anachronistic portraits, they approach tradition from a fresh, unexpected perspective.
According to Brown, the population of samurai in Soma today is decreasing but remains present because of the young people who retain a strong interest and dedication to the tradition. His bold, contemporary reinterpretations of the samurai costume seem to capture that youthful energy, transforming the folds of clothing handed down across generations into animated forms, renewed for the 21st century.
Everett Kennedy Brown’s Japanese Samurai Fashion is available through AKAAKA.
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Beautiful pix! Reminds me of the Jidai Matsuri (Historical Epoch Festival ) in Kyoto, held every October, with costumed participants marching through town, representing important events in the city from various historical eras: samurai, peasants, princesses, priests , foot soldiers and so on.
Beautiful! Thank you ~~~*~~~
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