It is interesting to have a look at the Western reception of Japanese photography in the last three decades. After a few initial exhibitions on Japanese photography in the 1970s and early 1980s – like the first and seminal show New Japanese Photography at the MOMA 1974 – the Western audience lost interest in this exceptionally productive period of time and in Japanese photography in general. It took almost a decade that the interest in Japanese photography revitalized, but this time the interest focussed on contemporary Japanese photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki (first solo show in the West 1992), Hiroshi Sugimoto or Toshio Shibata.
Historical Japanese only came into view again at the end 1990s with the world tour of the Daido Moriyama exhibition, produced 1999 by Sandra Phillips at the SFMOMA, and in 2004 with the exhibition “The History of Japanese Photography” by Anne Tucker at the Museum of Fine Art Houston. Ann Tucker’s catalogue will be the reference publication on Japanese photography for many years to come. This kind of meandering reception of Japanese photography led to the surprising result that “the most important figure in Japanese postwar photography” is still much less known as the photographers who developed their work with or against him. Of course this photographer – who had been labelled the “godfather” of Japanese photography by an artist I met in Tokyo recently – is Shomei Tomatsu.
Recently I had the pleasure to initiate the first solo exhibition of Shomei Tomatsu in Germany, which is currently on show at Galerie Priska Pasquer.
Shomei Tomatsu at Galerie Priska Pasquer Cologne
Exhibition: March 13 – April 17, 2010
Tomatsu’s photographs are examining, in an absolutely personal and unique vision, the changes in Japanese society since the 1950s. They provide a candid look at the aftereffects of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the influence of American military and popular culture, and the impact of the post-1960s economic boom in Japan. The exhibition will show a selection of works from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
A self-taught photographer, Shomei Tomatsu went freelance in 1956. In the years that followed, he took part in the pioneering “Eyes of Ten” exhibitions and in 1959 he was one of the co-founders of photographic agency VIVO, which is seen as the ‘epicentre’ of Japanese post-war photography. Other VIVO members included Ikko Narahara and Eikoh Hosoe, both of whom were the subject of individual exhibitions by Galerie Priska Pasquer (Eikoh Hosoe in 2002, Ikko Narahara in 2009/2010).
Shomei Tomatsu’s imagery is noted for its varied and complex nature. His style ranges from works leaning towards classical street photography, symbolically charged objects, abstract (urban) views to dynamic, expressive compositions. Depending on the subject matter, the artist constantly expanded his visual grammar, creating pictures that walk a tightrope between the concrete and the abstract and between fascination and repulsion, while remaining timeless.
A central theme in Tomatsu’s photographic work is the effects of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here, he portrays survivors and documents objects from the Atom Bomb Museum. Among the works featured in the exhibition is “Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation, and Fire, Nagasaki, 1961”. This photo, which calls to mind a melted body part, is described by Leon Rubinfien as “possibly the single strongest image of his career” (Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of a Nation, p. 27).
Another theme that has been explored by Tomatsu for more than a decade is the influence of the US occupying forces and of American culture on Japanese society. The “Chewing Gum and Chocolate” series, which was taken near the US military bases, thrives on the ambivalent experience of the Americans as overbearing victors who also brought a new culture to Japan.
However, Tomatsu’s photography deals not only with the unfamiliar but also with the familiar, such as the tension relating to rural traditions and Japan’s journey to urban modernity since the 1950s. In “Flood and Japanese” (1959), Tomatsu demonstrated the effects of floods, in “Protest” the student demonstrations in Tokyo, and in “The Pencil of the Sun” the dwindling popular culture in Okinawa, the group of islands in the south of Japan.
Born in Aichi, Nagoya in 1930. 1954-56 Photographer at the Iawanami Shashin Bunko publishing house together with Nagano Shigeichi. Participated in the “Eyes of Ten” exhibitions, 1957-59. In 1959, founded photographic agency VIVO together with Kikuji Kawada, Akira Sato, Akira Tanno, Ikko Narahara and Eikoh Hosoe. In the same year, he began to take photographs at the US military bases all over Japan and also the effects of a typhoon that destroyed his mother’s house. Commissioned to work on a book about the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki, together with Domon Ken. 1972-1976 lived in Okinawa. 1974 Founded the “Workshop Photography School”, Tokyo, together with Nobuyoshi Araki, Masahisa Fukase, Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama and Noriaki Yokosuka. 1995 Awarded the Purple Ribbon Medal by the Japanese government.
1974 New Japanese Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York
1979 Japan: A Self-Portrait., International Center of Photography, New York
1984 Shomei Tomatsu: Japan 1952-1981, Forum Stadtpark, Graz
1985 Black Sun: The Eyes of Four, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford
1992 Sakura + Plastics, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
1996 Traces: 50 years of Tomatsu’s works, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo
2000 How You Look at It: Photographs of the Twentieth Century, Sprengel Museum Hannover
2004 Interface. Shomei Tomatsu, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto
2006 Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
2006 Aichi Mandala: Early Works of Tomatsu Shomei, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya
2007 Tokyo Mandala, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo
– Shomei Tomatsu, Ken Domon, et al: Hiroshima-Nagasaki Document. Tokyo 1961
– 11:02 Nagasaki. Tokyo 1966
– Nippon. Tokyo 1967
– Salaam Aleikum. Tokyo 1968
– Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa. Tokyo 1969
– Oh! Shinjuku. Tokyo 1969
– Après-Guerre. Tokyo 1971
– I Am a King. Tokyo 1972
– The Pencil of the Sun. Tokyo 1972
– Kingdom of Mud. Tokyo 1978
– Ruinous Garden. Tokyo 1987
– Sakura, Sakura, Sakura. Osaka 1990
– Tomatsu Shomei 1951-60. Tokyo 2000
– Shomei Tomatsu. Skin of the Nation. San Francisco 2004
photos © Shomei Tomatsu