Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 13, 2004
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, Tex., March 2–April 27, 2003; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, May 25–July 27, 2003

See Joel Smith’s review of this book

A photograph … is never simultaneous with the present. [It] is something which is absolutely gone and which we can do nothing about; it has the same meaning as death. It is the past holding onto the present. A photograph is a wordless memory, an abandoned structure built on layer upon layer of time stretching from the past to the present. (268)

—Miyamoto Ryūji, 1992

The History of Japanese Photography, the catalogue for an exhibition of the same title, abounds with memorable quotations. This Barthesian comment by the contemporary photographer Miyamoto Ryûji is one such example that indicates how Japanese photographers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have shared many of the visual and conceptual issues with their Western peers. This book is, in the words of the editor, “the first nuanced, thorough history of Japanese photography in a Western language” (2). Seven essays by Japanese and American art historians and curators address various issues surrounding Japanese photography from its inception to the present. All of the contributors successfully balance detailed information on sociocultural background and perceptive visual analyses. Complete with selected bibliography, chronology, photographers’ biographies, and glossary of major photographers’ groups and periodicals, this collection is the most comprehensive reference book on the subject that is currently available in English. However, what makes this groundbreaking catalogue truly a meaningful step in the studies of Japanese photography is the way in which the authors situate the work in the context of the international art scene without losing sight of its cultural specificity.

The introduction by Anne Wilkes Tucker of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, sets the tone. In her insightful review of the literature, she argues that the modernist approach to non-Western photography, most notably that of John Szarkowski, tends to focus solely on the universal issues shared by artists and audiences around the world and therefore could “minimize cultural differences” and “diminish the levels on which the work may be appreciated” (13). The viewpoint she represents here is no doubt one of the important guiding principles for all of the contributors in their explorations of how “the concerns of Japanese photographers developed since the 1850s” and how they “paralleled or diverged from those of the western tradition” (5, emphasis mine). The essays all address, in one way or another, the ways in which Japanese artists over the decades sought to reconcile the expressive and documentary potentials of photography—one of the challenges consistently faced by photographers around the world.

Following Tucker’s introduction is an essay by Kinoshita Naoyuki, who offers a wide range of detailed information on early Japanese photography that was previously unavailable in English. Particularly notable is his analysis of transformation in the role of photography—from a device used by Westerners to capture images of exotic Japan to the tool with which the Japanese forged their new self-image as a modernized nation-state. Japanese photographers’ representation of the self—be it the image of the individual, collective national identity, or the marginalized “Other” among themselves—is one of the many trenchant issues brought up in Kinoshita’s essay that is also revisited later in other contributors.

Three essays on early-twentieth-century photography by Kaneko Ryūichi and Joe Tanabe remedy the dearth of English-language information on this subject and therefore constitute what may be the highlight of the catalogue. Kaneko addresses in the first of his two articles the development of Pictorialism in Japan, which is known as geijutsu shashin (Art Photography), and compares its origins and characteristics to its European predecessor. At a first glance, the Japanese Pictorialists’ transition from the approximation of painting to the recognition of photography’s intrinsic visual characteristics may seem identical to the path followed by their European peers. Nonetheless, Kaneko’s investigations of subject matter, technique, and the nature of group affiliations reveal that the trajectory of development in Japanese Pictorialism was quite different from its Western counterpart. As he points out, even though later Art Photographers, especially Fukuhara Shinzō, became more sympathetic to modernist principles and tried to distance themselves from strictly Pictorialist aesthetics, the romanticism and lyricism that had characterized early Pictorialism continued to manifest itself in their work. This is one of the cases that highlights the inadequacy of applying terminologies of Western art-historical narrative to non-Western art.

Tanabe’s study of modernist photography of the 1930s, known in Japan as shinkō shashin (New Photography), sheds important light on the diversity of the movement and the impact of contemporary political currents. Although Japanese modernist photographers essentially sought to break away from Pictorialism in favor of the “mechanistic nature” of photography, Tanabe argues that a great deal of stylistic variations can be detected in the movement. Artists working in Kansai (Western Japan) tended to emphasize narrative content—an interest that would later blossom into Japanese Surrealist photography—while those working in or near Tokyo preferred to explore strictly formal qualities. Furthermore, another group of artists working at this time were inspired by social realism and produced photographs of life in urban slums—the internal “Other”—which became known as “beggar photography.”

Tanabe uncovers how this clash between formalism and narrative in New Photography became more ideologically charged as political situations became increasingly tense. As a result, a documentary-oriented approach, which was more amenable to propaganda use by the state, prospered. Tanabe also notes that objective realism and subjective presentation nevertheless tended to interpenetrate each other in Japanese wartime photography, sometimes even coexisting within the oeuvre of a single artist (149). For instance, during the early 1940s, some avant-garde and documentary photographers both found their ideal subject in Japanese folklore and traditional rural lifestyle, which, according to Tanabe, ultimately aided in the “construction of a nationalist mythology” (157).

Such closeness of two seemingly opposing tendencies in wartime photography is addressed once again by Kaneko in his second article, on the role of photography as a vehicle for social messages, including political propaganda. By the 1930s, most of the technological development for mass communication had been completed in Japan. The author investigates various graphic magazines newly founded during this time with diverse artistic and ideological goals, such as the Asahi Graph and the propaganda journals Nippon and Front. His examination of these graphic magazines clearly shows that, regardless of ideological content, they served as perfect venues for photographers to experiment with the expressive potential of the camera eye. In so doing, Kaneko reiterates Tanabe’s argument that the rise of New Photography marked the emergence of independent aesthetics for photography that centered on the assumption that the camera eye offered a unique vision essentially different from human vision. Kaneko shows that artists concerned with distinct types of photographic vision—realism and propaganda—wove their highly sophisticated visual messages from their observations of contemporary social issues. Kaneko is indeed correct in warning us against demonizing propaganda photography, insisting that our understanding of modern photography is not complete without investigating this neglected area (193). In this essay, Kaneko also considers some photographers, such as Yasui Nakaji, who worked outside the world of graphic magazines. Under no direct pressure to represent a specific political view, these artists produced exceptional works that depicted social reality in a candid manner. Their photographs also reveal a personal compassion for their subjects and a quest for self-identity as socially engaged individuals.

Iizawa Kōtarō’s survey of postwar photography up to the early 1980s also spotlights two different vectors during this time: documentary and expressive. He dissects the work and ideas of Domon Ken, the leading figure in Photo-Realism. Domon pursued “absolutely unstaged,” “absolutely pure snapshot[s]” (212). The photographer wrote:

We should pay attention to the screaming voice of the subject and simply operate the camera exactly according to its indications. When the camera is operated according to those indications, the direct connection between the camera and the subject appears before us. (211)

As Iizawa emphasizes, Domon’s ideal of realism was by no means a slavish mechanical copying of visual reality or subjugation of human vision to the camera eye. He explains that Domon’s goal was “a modern realism that properly exploits the social role of the photograph” with a “sharp critical and social sensitivity” (212).

Iizawa also addresses the other major current in postwar Japanese photography, which revolved around the pursuit of personal imagination. The goal of this school, first put forward by photographers who advocated “Subjective Photography” in the 1950s, was to recognize the photographer’s freedom to manipulate his or her image rather than confining him or her to a straight reproduction of visual reality or presentation of a narrative (216). Groups that arose in the 1960s, including the Eyes of Ten and Vivo, adopted similar concepts and, in essence, succeeded to the spirit and technique of prewar avant-garde photography. Iizawa’s explications of photographers active in the 1980s, such as Araki Nobuyoshi, Gochô Shigeo, and Fukase Masahisa, seem to suggest that these artists carved out a niche somewhere between Domon’s stoic realism and Subjective Photography’s emphasis on personal vision. Their work either offered more intimate visions of social reality or addressed explicitly personal subjects with intense introspection, anticipating the currents in Japanese photography of the 1990s and 2000s.

In an essay on contemporary photography, Dana Friis-Hansen marries a sophisticated critique of contemporary Japanese culture with his interpretations of the photographers’ responses to it. As he correctly points out, new senses of individualism and multiculturalism have arisen among young adults in Japan. They sometimes are generally uninterested in local community and national roots and may often feel a much stronger bond with strangers in other countries through electronic communication. Friis-Hansen uncovers how these situations in contemporary Japan are reflected in photography by addressing images that capture transformations in landscape, society, and the individual. Particularly intriguing are the author’s explorations of gender politics found in works by Yanagi Miwa, Hirakawa Moritoshi, Morimura Yasumasa, and a group of young female photographers who debuted in the 1990s with images collectively dubbed as “girl photography.”

If there are any shortcomings or weaknesses to this catalogue, they may be attributed to its pioneering status in the broader field of photography. For instance, the wealth of information provided in each essay is impressive, even a bit overwhelming at times. Although an encyclopedic approach is indeed necessary in a book that is the first of its kind, the very breadth of the articles can be somewhat disconcerting and tends to dilute the authors’ main arguments. Similarly, the overlap among articles may seem somewhat repetitious, but it adds emphasis to the points made in each article and benefits those who are unfamiliar with the subject. It is also rather regrettable, especially in view of the book’s usefulness as a reference source, that this catalogue does not give Japanese characters for artists’ names.

Notwithstanding these issues, this volume truly marks the arrival of a crucial new phase in the study of Japanese photography. Pioneering surveys on early Japanese photography have long been outdated. More sophisticated, in-depth studies have been published both in Japanese and English in the last two decades, but most of them have concentrated on the second half of the nineteenth century or contemporary times, leaving a gaping hole in between. Not only does The History of Japanese Photography rectify this inequity, but its critical reassessment of the field is long overdue. There has been a considerable disparity in methodologies employed in studies of early and later Japanese photography. Archival or historical research has been prevalent in investigations of early work—for perfectly legitimate reasons—while recent photography has elicited more thematic approaches, with greater bearings on larger issues such as gender, race, and power. Perhaps for the first time in English-language scholarship on Japanese photography, this book offers a comprehensive historical survey in which these two distinct methodologies are covered by all authors. It remains to be seen whether or not the bipolarity will be eradicated in the future, but it is certain that all of us in the field can benefit from the merging of documentation-based and theoretical approaches that is presented in this catalogue.

Mikiko Hirayama
Associate Professor; Art History Program; School of Art, College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning; University of Cincinnati