Book Review

Unwrapping Japanese Photography
by Published on

Critics sometimes like to talk about unwrapping or un-packing a text or a work of art, peeling back layers of meaning and symbolism. The assumption is that the most interesting things are hidden inside. Sometimes the surface of the art, and even the packaging itself, is worth considering. That’s one of the many subtle points that the authors, critics, and curators who collaborated on The History of Japanese Photography are making.

The book is the catalog for a show that opened this spring at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, before moving to Cleveland. It includes more than 400 photographs bound together with essays by western and Japanese scholars, critics and curators, maps, timelines, biographies, and lists of important movements and publications. Among them are photographs of the marvelous frames, boxes, and scrolls that early Japanese photographers used to protect everything from ceremonial portraits of the Emperor to rogues gallery mug shots of convicts. The boxes are decorated with delicately carved inlays and calligraphic inscriptions. More recent photographers have packaged their work in books–everything from short-run fine art editions to cheaply photocopied chapbooks. Some of these images, too, are shown here as they were originally published, with pictures of the book’s cover and binding.

Encyclopedic compilations like The History of Japanese Photography are also a kind of package. The ribbon that wraps it all together is the notion that Japanese photography is an important and not very well-known part of the history of photography. The authors make an excellent case. I didn’t find any Japanese photographers listed in Beaumont Newhall’s classic The History of Photography–although the index mentions some Japanese cameras. Even a glance at these pages makes it clear that Japanese photographers have been doing world-class work since photography arrived on their shores in the 1850s.

There are photographs here that are breathtakingly beautiful and horrifically shocking, graphically interesting and emotionally charged. A few are all of these things in a single frame. The evolution of photography in Japan followed the familiar outlines of western photography–early portraits and touristy curiosities; records of technical and imperial achievements; the emergence of self-consciously “art” photography; and the subsequent entangling of art and reportage–but with details that reflect the unique and often turbulent course of Japanese history and culture of the last 150 years or so.

Most of these pictures are little known in the West. The same can be said for the photographers–even the few who have achieved a limited degree of recognition. For example, if we were to judge him by his books that are readily available in the States, we could say that Araki Nobuyoshi mainly juxtaposes pictures of naked ladies in bondage get-ups with close-ups of flowers. In Japan his most influential work is his book length photo-essays on intimate moments of his personal life. He photographed the beginning and ending of his marriage, starting with a book about his honeymoon in 1971 and ending with another about the death of his wife from cancer in 1990 and the period of grieving that followed. Some of the pictures are purely documentary snapshots, but others are recreations or extrapolations that are true without being real. As Anne Wilkes Tucker writes, “No Westerner can easily understand the shock these photographs…provoked in Japan because they revealed the intimate home life and personal emotional state of their subjects.”

The essays chronicle the economic, political, and cultural contexts in which Japanese photographs were made and viewed. They even touch on linguistics. The Japanese word for photography, “sashin,” means “a copy of truth,” and it was originally applied to a hyper-realist style of painting that nowadays we might label photo-realism. Photography arrived in Japan near the end of a 700-year period of military rule, during much of which the country was closed to most foreigners, except in a few trading ports. The authors provide detailed accounts of the forces that shaped photography in Japan, starting with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s squadron in 1853. Anne Wilkes Tucker’s introduction gives an excellent overview. Subsequent chapters are more comprehensive.

For casual readers, the extensive detail may be overwhelming (or tedious), but without an understanding of the cultural context and an elucidation of some of the projects, viewers will miss a lot in the pictures. On the simplest level, there are some images that non-Japanese viewers would just never get without Cliff Notes. One of the series in Yanagi Miwa’s contemporary “Elevator Girl” project shows young women dressed in the uniform of a well-known department store’s prestigious corps of elevator operators morphing into drops of blood. The red drops mimic the motif on the wrapping paper used at the store, we’re told. (Yanagi is part of the first generation of young women to pursue serious photography in Japan.)

The authors include wonderful quotes from essays in popular photography magazines written by amateurs passionately attempting to articulate the best, the true, the real meaning of photography. (Amateur photography magazines and photo clubs were full of important and adventurous art photographers in Japan well into the 1960s. Most of that kind of activity had petered out in the United States by the 1930s.) Throughout the book the interplay between competing strains of art photography is intriguing. There are documentary pictures done with a sculptor’s attention to texture and a painter’s eye for light that developed when “objectivist” photographers began borrowing from contemporaneous narrative movements. But sometimes even the most beautiful object comes with a story attached that can’t be ignored. No matter how lovely Tomatsu Shomei’s photograph is, a picture of a melted bottle is not just a picture of a melted bottle when the bottle was melted in an atomic bomb attack on a city full of people.

Japanese photographers have constantly found new ways to treat traditional subjects. Early landscape photographs recall classical Japanese watercolors and woodcuts. In the 1920s, photographers like Ogawa Gesshu made gorgeous inky, pointillist bromoil prints of majestic gorges, rivers, and mountains. In the 1930s, the prints became sharper but the subjects were often similar: lyrical landscapes and gardens and seasonal themes, like Fukuhara Shinzo’s. By the 1980s, Hatakeyama Naoya’s photographs of the cement-lined remains of Tokyo’s rivers look more like someplace the Borg from Star Trek would live if they had better taste than anything that might inspire a haiku.

Many of the photographers featured in the book are working on ways to make sense of the new physical and cultural landscapes of Japan. A few have worked explicitly on questioning whether it’s possible to make sense of the world. In the 1980s Sugimoto Hiroshi traveled the world, photographing the ocean from places like Jamaica and Finland. In each picture, the sea is always dark gray, the sky is always light gray, and the horizon was always centered. (Only one of the photos is included in the book.) Any of the pictures could have been taken anywhere. In his essay, Dana Friis-Hansen quotes Sugimoto Hiroshi as saying, “The world of meaning, which enclosed me like a net, has become unraveled.”

Moriyama Daido made a more visceral (and less monotonous) attack on the limits of meaning in photography. In 1968 he joined the short-lived Provoke collective, a group of photographers and writers which aimed to “capture the shards of reality that existing language cannot possibly grasp, and to aggressively confront language and confront thought with a variety of data,” as they wrote in one of their manifestos. Moriyama photographed in gritty industrial areas and red-light districts, shooting blind from a speeding car or re-photographing newspapers and television shows. He made underexposed and blurry negatives, grainy, contrasty prints, and cheaply reproduced books.

t would have been nice if the editors had provided a broader sampling of some of the longer-form works that Japanese photographers have produced. Araki Noboyushi has produced more than 100 books, each with dozens of photographs. It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of that from a handful of images that fit in a compilation like this. Imagine trying to understand the films of Kurosawa by looking at a couple of stills from Yojimbo and a screening of Dreams or Ran on a small television. In my fantasy there would be facsimiles of more pages from more of these great books and more work from each of the photographers. But the fact that I want to see more isn’t so much a problem with the book as a symptom of the ill that the book is trying to treat.

After centuries of stability, the Japanese have been struggling to understand and to live with the consequences of their constantly changing culture and society over the course of the last 150 years. They’ve had to deal with militarism, terrorism, terrible economic and natural disasters, and the utter upheaval of their social systems. Friis-Hansen writes, “In fact, as domestic observers have pointed out, during the 1980s and 1990s the Japanese populace found little consensus or common direction in national or foreign affairs, nor did they find much solace from nature or community.” As cracks have appeared in the mythical, monolithic Japanese culture, photographers have always been at home among the fissures, not just documenting the fault lines, but running and jumping over them, diving down between the plates, sometimes chipping away at the edges, sometimes filling in the gaps. As Anne Wilkes Tucker points out, even the earliest Japanese photographers, who were making seemingly conservative pictures as part of the traditional feudal power structure, were embracing a new technology from a completely foreign culture.

Japan is a nation that’s been unified for 1,000 years, a civilization that’s been evolving for more than 2,000 years without cataclysmic change. The artisans who made the frames for those radical photographs worked in deeply conservative craft traditions. They would have had to serve long apprenticeships during which they would learn to use and respect the same tools and techniques that their forefathers had used for centuries. Even the cinema in Japan had an institutionalized system. Kurosawa had to start out making B-movies about wrestlers and swordsmen.

From the beginning, Japanese photographers have been transgressive almost by definition. They borrowed the basics from the western pioneers of photograph, and then proceeded to make up their own art from scratch. They were amateurs who wrote passionately about aesthetics in popular magazines and middle-class college students who bailed on careers in industrial design and decided to launch movements designed to provoke a whole new way of thinking about images, language, and reality. They published their own books, invented their own movements, and made–are still making–a body of images that document, lyricize, and help create the connections and relations that build a new culture. And that is a package worth unwrapping.

Jake Miller recently completed a train trip around the country. Now he can finally say he’s been to all the lower 48 states; Texas is still one of his favorites.