Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 11, 2003
Anne Wilkes Tucker, Dana Friis-Hansen, Kaneko Ryuichi, and Takeba Joe The History of Japanese Photography Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2003. 432 pp.; 356 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300099258)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, TX, March 2–April 27, 2003; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, May 25–July 27, 2003

See Mikiko Hirayama’s review of this book

From its beginnings, photography has been the agent of an international dialogue of its own making. It has enacted and exemplified tensions between local cultures and wider historical energies: those of colonialist assimilation and resistance, of commercial engagement, of transcultural communication. Study of the medium leads quickly and irresistibly to international issues. Therefore few approaches to it have proven as prone to schematic rigidity as surveys of what might be called—to adopt the wishful old Stalinist phrase for realizing “socialism” within national borders—Photography in One Country. Whether extrapolated to fill out a broader region (Scandinavia) or continent (Africa), or kept within the tidy boundaries of one nation-state, the geographically delimited approach risks flattening regional variance rather than linking it to broader perspectives on the medium. Like a harried tour guide, the national history of photography finds itself obligated to explain both too much and too little about the peculiarities of its subject, and frequently the result is thin explanation of briefly glimpsed sights. However intriguing those sights may be (and the exhibition catalogue under review brings fine reproductions of remarkable works into the English-language literature), a national history seldom unites its highlights with a more defined argument than that photography’s evolution in the country was affected by technology (imported and exported), by social and economic developments characteristic of modernity (serfdom’s end; industrialization; urbanization; democratic reform), and by the local variables of world history: Colonizer or colonized? Axis or ally? Economic success story or perpetual international borrower?

Just as conventions of format make even a remarkable family’s photo album look much like the Jones’s next door, the nation-based history tends to tell a generic narrative with strangely familiar landmarks. A foresighted entrepreneur markets plates and chemicals to his countrymen; fin-de-siècle amateurs handcraft exquisite prints evincing nostalgia for a premodern world; the leading newspapers begin publishing a rotogravure supplement, rendering public memory photographic; thereafter, serial calamities yield documents of human suffering; and today, the offspring of the postwar middle class bid fair to put their country on a worldwide map of the fine arts.

The reader of The History of Japanese Photography is compelled to question each term in the book’s title. Instead of a “history,” the text is what more typically comes in team-assembled survey catalogues: a series of responsible if uninspiring essays—six of them, by Kaneko Ryūichi (who contributes two), Dana Friis-Hansen, Takeba Joe, Iizawa Kōtarō, and Kinoshita Naoyuki. Arranged in chronological sequence by general period of focus, these essays recite the disparate issues conventionally associated with each successive era. Plates are interspersed among them; extensive back matter follows. A casualty of this distributive approach is any sense of overall structure, of key continuities and evolutions over time, of coherent argument—in short, of history rather than chronicle.

What, then, are relative merits of chronicling “Japanese” photography? For this project, the term appears to mean work by Japanese-born photographers. It could as profitably have been construed to mean photography as practiced and marketed in Japan, or photography culturally traceable to Japan. The road taken encompasses overseas portions of key careers, such as those of Nakayama Iwata, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, but it bypasses deeply influential Japan-based bodies of work by foreign visitors from Felice Beato to William Klein. Just as regrettably, it overlooks the work of the ethnically Japanese, largely nissei (second-generation American) early modern-art photographers of the western United States. Their influence upon and curatorial sponsorship of Edward Weston in the 1920s is one narrative of “Japanese photography” that deserves attention some other time.

Given the chosen version of “Japanese,” what should be meant by “photography?” What native judgments and conflicts have shaped the Japanese canon as it comes down to us? What are its vernacular inclusions and exclusions? What unique or not unique political and gender biases have molded it as a self-perpetuating system of published imagery? How have its definitions of eros, news value, and historical relevance been modulated by the pressures of censorship and resistance? (No snapshots of the rape of Nanking here, though the Japanese army, like the German one, presumably included reckless shutterbugs.) In short, what unique considerations frame “photography” in Japan, and what critical issues should scholarship hope to see raised by its localized study?

Timon Screech’s The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan: The Lens within the Heart (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996) looks at the centuries before Commodore Perry’s arrival and finds the Japanese absorbed in the moral and ideological implications of technology-aided analytic vision. Screech argues that fascination with mediated sight was manifested not only in the debates of Enlightenment-informed scholars of Rangaku (“Dutch,” i.e., Western, learning), but also through visual entertainments and spectacles, high, low, and middling. A “history of Japanese photography” that adopted Screech’s perspective as prologue and model—in place of the tired notion of Edo Japan’s “isolation,” and the camera as part of that isolation’s undoing—would pave the way for critical, comparative, and microhistorical perspectives. Ultimately, the nonspecialist wants to know what happened to photography in Japan, and through photography in Japan, that was like and unlike what happened elsewhere. It is fair to ask how helpful this History of Japanese Photography will be for those attempting to introduce the topic into broader art-historical scholarship.

The book’s apparatus, copious but ill-coordinated, will both aid and detract. The checklist breaks 207 entries into six sections that correspond to the catalogue’s essays. Finding an object on the list therefore means recalling to which category of photography (early, artistic, modernist, realist/propagandistic, postwar, or contemporary/“individualist”) it has been assigned. Within each checklist section, works are ordered—not helpfully—by installation placement in the show, rather than alphabetically, syllabically, or by date. Checklist numbers do not appear in the book’s plate captions, nor plate or page numbers in the checklist entries—noisome omissions in such an unwieldy and organizationally elaborate volume. In generous appendices, 109 artists, 52 associations, and 51 periodicals are individually profiled. The decision not to provide Kanji (Chinese characters) for these entry heads makes for clean page design, friendly to the English-only eye, but at the same time it undercuts the book’s potential efficacy in bridging the persistent research gap that divides Asianist, modernist, and photohistorical specialists, who might have found here the linchpin of a common literature.

More troubling is a lack of either argumentation or illustrations intended to position the works in the show in a broader scholarly context. In place of the book’s flatly chronological basis, essays structured around thematic topics and issues might have been more helpful in giving sense to such a large body of imagery for new viewers. (Comprehensiveness aside, the specific topographies of Japanese history, photography, and photohistorical method alike are better reflected by the combined chronological and thematic approaches taken in a twelve-volume omnibus, Nihon Shashin Zenshū (“The Complete History of Japanese Photography” [Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1985]). Despite impressive factual accumulations and gorgeous plates, nowhere is a visual case made for the distinctiveness, or for the ordinariness, of Japanese photography, either in its own social setting or in international perspective: no comparisons are marshaled from among Japanese prints, paintings, or graphic design, no parallels tested against foreign photographic work. Such alignments and contrasts need making, not by other scholars someday but here, as an integral part of establishing what is being shown and why.

Kurokawa Suizan’s photograph of a rustic wanderer in a misty forest from ca. 1906 (106), for example, would seem to point back to Andô Hiroshige’s “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō” (first series 1833–34) and other popular road-themed ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Closer to its own time, Kurokawa’s image recalls Beato’s photographic views of the same subject, sold to Japanese and foreign markets from the 1860s onward. A still more compelling precedent: Peter Henry Emerson’s East Anglian marsh workers of the 1880s. Both Kurokawa and Emerson ennobled peasants and the land through images that are modern in method yet antimodernist in sentiment. Emerson’s pictures had appeared in a three-artist show sent to Japan by the London Camera Club in 1893 (104); later, Kurokawa might well have seen them as book plates. Influence? Parallel activity born of separate traditions? Stepping back to consider the deep aesthetic influence of Japonisme on Emerson’s generation (and straight on, through photography’s pictorialist-modernist evolution in the early twentieth century), one wonders to what extent Japan was in fact at work in Emerson: shades of Hiroshige on the Norfolk Broads. In vain, one longs to get off the onrushing tour bus and explore such continuities—which in this case speak to photography’s role in a modern trade in tourist imagery, East and West, that preceded its birth.

For a later example, an ideological kinship arguably unites Domon Ken’s exquisite close-ups of Buddhist sculpture and Ansel Adams’s contemporaneous views of the High Sierra: icons, in their respective postwar settings, of national identity as a tangibly ancient presence. Domon and Adams each earned great fame through picture books that conjured an essentialized image of nationhood, at once comforting and exotic—offered not for foreign but for native consumption. The two might reward comparison, in fact, as leading exemplars of travel photography at another distinct moment, when the photographic monograph arose as a busy era’s replacement for time-intensive travel and the genuine acquaintance it permits with art, land, and the past, in their “originals.” The creators of this admirably produced volume, for their part, would have brought the reader further inside their subject by reaching out to venture more analysis and comparison across periods, media, and genres of image making, as well as across the geographic divide that can assume only a portion of the blame if Japanese photography remains an island apart.

Joel Smith
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College