Photography in Japan

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In Japanese, the word for “photograph” is “shashin”. It is made up of two ideograms, “sha” meaning “to reproduce” or “reflect” and “shin” which means “truth.” The Greek etymology of the word “photograph” is to write (graphein) with light (photos). Therefore, in the Japanese mind, the process itself consists in capturing the truth, or the essence of the matter and “making a copy” of it on a surface. Consequently, the result will always contain a certain element of truth. Since the advent of photography, this way of seeing things has become commonplace throughout the world, but in very few languages is the concept expressed with such clarity. If we take as a premise the idea that Japanese photography is the fruit of a multitude of reactions, ranging from empathy to mistrust, to this process of “reproducing the truth,” it becomes easier to gain a better understanding of its astonishing diversity.

Consider Japanese photography as a whole and it becomes evident that a large number of artists tend to express feelings of incomprehension and ambiguity towards reality and the world rather than attempt to decrypt it and objectively analyze it. In his “Empire of Signs,” Roland Barthes remarked that Japanese culture gained its liberty by freeing itself from the meaning of the signs it contains. Up to a point, this can be said about photography. Photography is not a conclusion but a perpetual questioning. In that sense, Barthes got it right when he later compared photography to the art of Haiku in “La Chambre Claire.”

NAoko Kimura
Ihei KIMURA, Country Students, Akita, 1953 © Naoko Kimura, courtesy Zeit Foto Salon, Tokyo

With such diversity in their approach, Japanese photographers demonstrate that there is no such thing as the Truth, with a capital T. And all the while they continue to pose the fundamental question which is to know what photography is capable of reproducing and what eludes attempts at reproduction. For example, since the 1970s, Nobuyoshi Araki, one of Japan’s most eminent photographers, far from focussing on the antagonism between truth and fiction, has continuously tried to demonstrate, in every way possible, that photography is both truth and fiction. Similarly, Daido Moriyama, while subscribing to Warhol’s idea that a photograph is nothing more than a copy, also captures with delicate sensitivity the element of remembrance that inhabits photography. In the 1980s a number of photographers appeared, such as Naoya Hatakeyama, who saw their work as an attempt to analyze and understand the world. At the same time, the trend for “intimist” photography, such as that of Rinko Kawauchi who manages to capture beauty in daily life at its most ordinary, continues to endure in endless formal variations.

© Tomatsu Shomei
Tomatsu SHOMEI, Blood & Rose 2, Tokyo, 1969 © Tomatsu Shomei, courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery, London

One of the characteristics of Japanese photography is the role, increasingly important as time goes by, of printed matter. Whether generalist (magazines) or specialized (photography books), publications have been a vital vehicle for photographers and their work. In fact, no other country in the world boasts such a wealth of publications. This phenomenon is partly explained by the absence, to this day, of a network of galleries or a well-established market for photography. But it can also be attributed to the very particular history of reproduction processes in our country and the culture surrounding it. Specifically, the source can be traced back to the Edo era (1603 - 1867) with the development of unrivalled wood-block techniques, the beauty of the ukiyo-e prints and their immense popularity among the Japanese public.

In recent years, the work of a growing number of individual Japanese photographers has become known in the United States and Europe. But opportunities of presenting a panoramic vision of the history of Japanese photography in Europe are extremely rare. In this respect, the exhibition “New Japanese Photography,” held in New York in 1974 was a real precursor. It was the turn of the 21st Century that brought a more holistic approach to photography, and in this context the major retrospective entitled “The History of Japanese Photography” in 2003 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was a significant milestone. Ever since, there have been an increasing number of exhibitions and publications in the West. The 2008 edition of Paris Photo with Japan as country of honour therefore comes as the fruit of a long process of maturing.

Shoji UEDA
Shoji UEDA, Self Portrait with Gorilla Mask, 1975-1982, courtesy Howard Greenberg, New York

“Japanism” which subjugated Europe during the second half of the 19th Century was not a matter of passing fashion. Its influence is not only evident in Western art, in particular the impressionist school, but also in terms of lifestyle. The trend was set with the presence of a Japanese pavilion at the 1867 universal exhibition. Here we are in Paris, 141 years later, to present a comprehensive overview of Japanese photography on a scale unprecedented in France. It is my dearest wish that today more than ever, at a time of transition owing to the advent of digital technology, this event will not simply be perceived as “exotic.” It is my hope that it will be a stimulant to help us rediscover all the possibilities offered by the photographic medium and that it will serve as a boost to its creative energy.

General Presentation

Photography arrived in Japan in 1848, exactly nine years after its birth in France and the invention of the daguerreotype. Like many other non-Western countries, Japan became the “object” of images infused with exoticism. But there was a very rapid turn-around as the Japanese transformed themselves from “objects” into “subjects” capable of taking photographs. By 1862, Japanese photographers had established portrait studios in the port cities of Nagasaki and Yokohama, and the second half of the 19th Century saw the gradual development of the Japanese camera-making industry. The turn of the 20th Century brought increasing numbers of amateur photographers throughout the country. Though inspired by traditional Japanese aesthetics, “art photography” (including pictoralism) was still feeling its way.

The 1930s marked the beginning of a clear evolution towards modern photography. The change was brought about by a symbolic event: the creation, in 1932, of “Kôga” a publication whose title is made up of two ideograms meaning “light” (Ko) and “drawing” (ga). Abandoning the term “shashin” (and the implied search for truth in the photographic act) the main figures behind the publication, notably Yasuzô Nojima, Iwata Nakayama and in particular Ihei Kimura, proclaimed their will to embrace modernity through their work on light. Kimura, a master of the Leica, and often referred to as Japan’s Cartier-Bresson, played an unstinting role during the post-war period as the leader in the country’s photography circles. But even before the war, amateur photographers such as Nakaji Yasui or Osamu Shiihara had appeared, not only in Tokyo but also around Osaka, and were tremendously active in exploring the avant-garde.

Eikoh HOSOE, Ordeal by Roses #5, 1961-1970, courtesy Howard Greenberg, New York

With the desolation and chaos that followed Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, photoreportage, witness to the population’s desperate situation, dominated the scene for a number of years. But nevertheless, there were concurrent and completely independent efforts to seek out new forms of photographic expression. In this regard, the creation in 1959 in Tokyo by Shomei Tomatsu, Eikoh Hosoe, Ikko Narahara and Kikuji Kawada of the agency “VIVO” marked the birth of a new generation of photographers whose intent was to go beyond mere experimentation to establish a real practice. With a sharp, critical eye on reality, clear concepts, a real sense of composition and framing, coupled with heavy emphasis on the symbolic, this group exerted a tremendous influence on the generation that followed.

In the run-up to the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan was undergoing a period of tremendous economic growth, which provided fertile ground for the flourishing of Japanese photographers in the fields of photo-journalism and advertising. However, in the second half of the 1960s our country, along with many others, was gripped by the turmoil of opposition to the prevailing politics, economics and culture which took the form of student activism and violent protest against the Japanese-American Security Treaty. In 1968, the emblematic year of struggle, the first issue of “PROVOKE”, the publication whose evocative sub-title was “Incendiary Documentation for New Thinking,” sent shock waves through Japanese photographic circles. Members including Takuma Nakahira and Koji Taki, along with Daido Moriyama, who joined the publication for its second issue, embarked on a process of radical deconstruction of the rules and aesthetics of classical photography, whose styles were often called “Are, Bure, Boke,” (Rough, Blurred, Out of Focus).

In that same year, 1968, a group of young photographers began to be called “Konpora,” a Japanese-style contraction of the word “contemporary.” It was grounded in a trend defined by the 1966 exhibition at George Eastman House entitled “Contemporary Photographers:Towards a Social Landscape.” At first glance, the images produced by the “Konpora” group, marked by their neutrality, composition and focus on the insignificance of daily life, appear as the antithesis of those of the “PROVOKE” group. However, and despite the disparity in terms of inspiration, these works were all a reaction against the photographic methodologies that still dominated, as well as being a reflection of the prevailing ambiguity of the period. One of those known as “Konpora”, Yutaka Takanashi, was in fact simultaneously an active contributor to “ PROVOKE.”

In order to present their work to the public, photographers at the time had few options other than to go to specialized publications such as “Asahi Camera”, or “Camera Mainichi,” or else to galleries attached to Canon, Nikon or other leading manufacturers of photographic equipment. In a bid to overcome this, a number of young photographers decided in the 1970s to open galleries of their own. Starting in Tokyo, this initiative soon took root throughout the country. One venue, the “Image Shop Camp,” has remained legendary ever since owing to the activity of photographers such as Daido Moriyama and Keizo Kitajima.

Daido MORIYAMA, Poster (Nakano),1990-2003, courtesy Yoshi Gallery, New York

The first gallery specializing in the sale of photographic prints, “Zeit Foto Salon,” opened in 1978. But this was far from being a sufficient impetus to mobilize the domestic market, and to this day, the number of photographers under contract with galleries that are in a position to commercialize their work is singularly limited: most still exhibit with independent galleries or in spaces rented at their own expense. This remains one of the peculiar features of the Japanese photography scene.

Nevertheless, the “economic bubble” of the 1980s provided a favourable environment for Japanese photography, which underwent a period of deep transformation. In particular, a number of technological innovations (notably the AF lens and compact cameras) meant that photography became popular with the Japanese public as never before. Then in the 1990s, the young generation developed a real passion for photography, and in particular photography of a very personal nature. Around the year 1990 saw the opening of several photography museums throughout the country as well as the establishment of a system aimed at measuring the artistic and historic value of the medium. This is how, in spite of a frail market, Japanese photography has developed a physiognomy of its own, and has become institutionalized, while at the same time imposing itself as a mass phenomenon.

During this period, a number of photographers came to the fore with series that stand at the crossroads between art and photography, resting on very precise concepts. They can be roughly divided into two groups: one uses photography as a preferred means of approaching the world from an intellectual stand-point; the other works with this medium to access the imaginary and transcend time and space.

In the first group is Naoya Hatakeyama, who works using a wide variety of angles to comment on the evolution of the urban landscape; Toshio Shibata reveals the sculptural beauty of dams and other anonymous public works; Ryuji Miyamoto captures the remnants of civilization in decomposing objects and structures and Taiji Matsue uses aerial photography to highlight the topography of specific locations.

In the second group, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work can be seen as a critical comment on history and temporality while Yuki Onodera, who has published very diverse series of images, can be said to have freed the imagination and rendered it weightless. Identity, the body and sexuality – all fundamental human questions – are among the themes that dominate Japanese photography. This is certainly true of Miyako Ishiuchi, a pioneer among Japan’s female photographers. For the past thirty years, she has consistently worked on the effects of the passage of time on both clothing and human skin. Ryudai Takano delves into ordinary daily existence to bring to light hidden manifestations of sexual ambiguity or eroticism. By superimposing multiple portraits of members of a given group of people, Ken Kitano attempts to identify the parameters of what constitutes individuality, what makes me “me.” Meanwhile, Tomoko Sawada dresses up and transforms herself into a multitude of different personae in order to question the plurality of our identity. Finally, Asako Narahashi immerses herself in the waters of oceans and lakes to blur the image of stability we bestow upon the world, and in so doing, reveals its ephemeral and fragile qualities.

Taiji MATSUE, Chi 0254, 2002 © Taiji Matsue, courtesy Taro Nasu, Tokyo

It is difficult to assign a single stylistic label to the work of all these photographers. However,above and beyond their visual and intellectual contributions, most have the capacity to shake and put into question our convictions and prejudices on a wide variety of issues. At a time when the notions of “limits” and “values” are the subject of never-ending debate in our world, it is not surprising that these works command a great deal of interest. This is no doubt what gives particular substance to Japan’s invitation as country of honour at Paris Photo this year.

The “Statement” section for Paris Photo 2008

In 1989, the world celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of photography. It was a time of unequalled prosperity in Japan and it was around this year that a number of cultural institutions opened in the country, dedicated for a certain part to photography: first came the Kawasaki City Museum, then the Yokohama Museum of Art which opened a photography “department”, and finally the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. At the same time, the immense popularity of the compact camera with the general public led to a real “boom” among the country’s youth. Several events aimed at young people were created, in particular two large competitions: “New Cosmos of Photography” and “Hitotsuboten.” Until then, the driving force behind photography had been specialized magazines and corporate galleries,and these new events gave young people the opportunity to show their work. Another factor was the increasing number of galleries dedicated to photography which allowed experimental talent to blossom and free itself from classic constraints and conventions.

Asako NARAHASHI, Momochi from the Series Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water, 2003, courtesy Rose Gallery, Santa Monica

It is in this context, and over the past decade that young photographers emerged whose work is presented by not only the galleries in the Statement section, but also by others throughout the fair. Far from being confined to the criteria of what constitutes “great art,” these works explore all the possibilities offered by the photographic medium, which is seen as one among many other vehicles of creative expression.

For example, Mika Ninagawa, whose work is extremely popular among Japanese youth, does not rest on an established sense of aesthetic. The values she draws upon belong to a “sub-culture”, and it is from there that she creates her own very personal world, characterized by a palette of very bright colours. The theatrical quality of her work has been further reinforced in her most recent creations – films that are inspired by the Manga. Midori Komatsubara also finds inspiration in Manga comics, and specifically the sub-genre that deals with love between young boys: she captures the ambiguity inhabiting the bodies of young women as they hover between fascination and fantasy. Addressing the abjection of her own desires, Yumiko Utsu uses carefully arranged objects in kitsch images in which she manages to reveal elements specific to Japanese youth culture - cruelty and infantilism. Meanwhile, Masayuki Shioda moves effortlessly from one activity to another, collaborating with the music industry as well as with youth culture magazines.

By the second half of the 1990s, this young generation had gradually established itself with work that stood at the crossroads between pure photography and other forms of artistic expression. A lot of work appeared in colour at this time and was chiefly concerned with expressing the feeling of instability that came with the bursting of the economic bubble and a prevailing sense that normal daily existence was somehow under threat.

This vision of the world, which looks as though it is seen through spectacles for the short-sighted, is particularly acute in the images of Rinko Kawauchi. Infused with soft subtle light, they seem heartwarming at first glance. But they also exude an underlying sense of threat. She and Mika Ninagawa both strive to capture what is universal in people and things with a very close observation of the finest details of the immediate environment. Meanwhile, Nobuo Asada goes into the ocean to take his photographs with the intention of positioning himself as the live example of the inevitable interaction between the “photographer subject” and the “photographed object.”

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