I heading off to Turkey by way of England on Thursday. I be out of the country for about a bit less than a year ( as long as a scholarship comes through). Nonetheless, living so close to college this is the first time that I’ve packed everything into a bag (2 actually).
I’m bringing along the following equipment:
5D Mk II
Sigma 50 2.8 DG EX Macro
Canon 35mm 1.4 L
Canon 70-200 4 L
Canon 24-70 2.8 L
A NTG-2 Rode Mic w/flash mount & external audio recorder
Canonet QL17 Rangefinder
I don’t think I’ll need any more equipment, it’s all exciting, I’ll be taking classes at a University and working for 2 news organizations, Globalpost.com and Hurriyet Daily News.
As a lover of all things Japanese, I had the pleasure of taking a course in Japanese Postmodernism during the Spring semester at Tufts University. I was given the opportunity to do research on the state of photography and postmodern applications to photography in Japan since World War II. In the next few posts I will be dividing my research to chronicle these photographers in order to create a brief history of Japanese Postmodern photographers that I find particularly interesting. The first of these musings is posted above.
While below is the full essay feel no obligation to read it on account that most of the information will be repeated in “bite-sized” posts
When discussing Japan, we often find that this country has two histories, one before and one after World War II, pre-atomic bombs and post-atomic bombs. These histories are in no way singular; they tend to intermingle, reshaped by time. Nevertheless it is important to underscore the effect World War II, the dropping of bombs upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and subsequent effect the reconstruction had upon the population and the country as a whole. In the period after World War II, Japan made incredible leaps and bounds towards modernization. Some have even argued that this process of modernization was essentially omitted, with the Japanese population reaching a newfound state of postmodernity. Whether or not this statement is in fact accurate, Japan has nonetheless attained some form of “postmodernity” within the past few decades. This process of transformation has most vividly been captured through the work of number of Japanese photographers. Many of these artists have responded to a culture that has reflects various aspects of postmodernity. In particular among many of the images produced we see an undercurrent of an inherent loss of meaning or what Walter Benjamin defines as the loss of “aura,” in his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Whether a response to the disintegration of tradition, or a general increase in consumerism, the production of these images has been shaped by and addresses striking conditions of postmodernity.
As we seek to explore postmodernity’s affect upon Japanese photographers, it is critical to categorize these artists within contextual groupings: post-war photographers of the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, independent internationals of the 80’s, and early 90’s, and contemporary artists of our generation. As we delve into the complex works of these photographers, we can see the increasingly powerful specter of postmodernity as time progresses. Perhaps inevitable, as we trace these periods, we see the escalating speed and influence of postmodernity, a trickle of such ideas within post-war photographers and later a deluge within contemporary artists.
To fully understand how postmodernity has shaped the works of photographers following World War II, it is important to recognize the context within which photography was set during the time. After the end of World War II, photography returned not only with familiar pre-war names including Watanabe Yoshio, Hamaya Hiroshi, Domon Ken, and Kimura Ihee, but also with a new generation of photographers. This previous generation of pre-war practitioners heavily shaped Japanese photography toward a documentary and subjective style. As Domon Ken wrote, one must, “eliminate even the slightest impurity of directorial artificially.” “The absolutely pure snapshot, absolutely unstaged,” (Domon, Tucker, 212) was the essence of this ideology. Domon preached a form of photography similar to the style of the impartial journalist in which the photographer merely responds by correctly controlling camera settings. Anne Tucker argues that this realism within Japanese photography “came into existence behind the forceful, charismatic personality of Domon Ken. But it is also true that the movement strongly reflected the desire of amateur photographers to directly confront the severe realities of the postwar period (Tucker, 212).”
In the late 1950’s small ripples occurred within the Japanese photographic community with the emergence of subjectivism. While this movement was understood as a style rather than an attitude, it was served to loosen techniques, photographers began to utilize, “abstracted fames, patterns created by close-ups and effects caused by camera movement (Tucker, 215).” It was not until the social turmoil and the emergence of the “Image Generation,” in which photography would undergo significant changes within Japan.
The “Image Generation,” a new cohort of young photographers who saw photography as Watanabe Tsuto argued as, “not merely the mechanical reproduction of reality itself but something independent that can be manipulated. (Tucker, 215).” This “Image Generation” would essentially break from earlier Japanese photographers leading the way for new experimentation with photography and a diversification of the art form.
One photographer of this “Image Generation” and member of Vivo, a collective of young photographers, was Hosoe Eikoh. Hosoe, a child who grew up surrounded by the atrocities and horrors of World War II, is best known for his psychologically charged images. In one of his series, Kamaitachi, photographed, Tatsumi Hajikata within his childhood village. Hajikata is recognized as the founder of the avant-garde dance movement Butoh, which attempted to reject the influx of foreign culture. In the series, Hajikata performs as the kamaitachi, a demon that haunts rice paddies and villages. While at first he acts as the “fool,” a doll to be played with, he later transforms into the kamaitachi attacking villagers and children.
Hosoe’s Kamaitach speaks on many levels about the Western transformation that had begun to occur in the period following the war. Hosoe’s choice of Hajikata is pivotal since the artist’s sole form of expression is the rejection of foreign ideologies through the re-expression of traditional Japanese dance styling. Hajikata’s principles pervade the images but it is the location in which the images are photographed that provides another layer of meaning. His pictures are located with in the villages to which he evacuated to during the Untied States firebombing of major Japanese cities. Not only do they bring up traumatic memories of World War II but represent a site of Japanese tradition. It is within the story of the Kamaitachi, an invisible animal with razor sharp teeth that cleanly slices appendages from its victims, that we understand Hosoe’s true message. The trauma, which takes place within the rice fields, an ancient symbol of Japan, becomes a metaphor for Westernization. The Kamaitachi is in fact the imperceptible hand of America that is responsible for cleaving away portions of Japanese tradition, “No one has every seen him. No one knows where or when he appears, only that he attacks people in the fields (Hosoe, 5).”
As we scan the thirty-seven prints of “Kamaitachi,” we see a cinematic and intensity of drama which had been previously unprecedented within Japan. Hajikata is wild as he leaps, bounds, and stalks through the villages. In Kamaitachi #17 we see the stunned faces of children as the dancer’s body flies through the air with his tattered kimono flaring behind him or in Kamaitachi #28, in which he hunts an unaware woman from the roof of a nearby house. While some fear his presence, in other images, the kamaitachi becomes the plaything, lover and amusement of the villagers. The villagers are seemingly unaware of his evil nature. Hosoe places this threatening menace under the villager’s noses by appealing to their curiosity, expecting the viewer to discover who this menace is for themselves. In whatever role Hajikata chooses to play, Hosoe’s images are colored by a unique tension, which unsettles the audience. The landscapes are characterized by menacing looming skies and the shadows are enhanced to rich blacks. In the final image of the series, Kamaitachi #37, a blurred Hajikata runs through the fields, a baby in one arm, the other grasping at the air. Hosoe leaves us questioning what the future has in store for traditional Japan.
Not only do we a stiff rejection of Westernization within Hosea’s essay, but also we can consider this work as the artist’s attempt to reassert meaning in a society that is loosing its own to a foreign power. As Hosoe recognizes the eroding of Japanese tradition, his images attempt to alter the viewer of this degradation.
By the late 1960’s and 1970’s the emergence of Provoke magazine signaled newfound diversification of photography within Japan, the formation of such groups led to new reflection on the relationship of self within society. While Eikoh Hosoe’s photographs cautioned of the influence of Westernization through dramatic performance, photographers such as Moriyama Daido, Hosoe’s assistant for three years, tackled such issues through a stunning showcase of city life. However Moriyama did not view this new influence with unwavering distain,
“The overload of American kitsch was regarded with fascination must as what he thought he founding the animating spirit of the Americans was to him strange, new, and liberating . . . Rather than perceiving Americanism as invasive or dehumanizing, Moriyama, unlike his older colleagues, had a more complex appreciation of the changes he witnessed (Phillips, 14-16).”
His style is grainy, dark, unfocused, skewed, and full of contrast, fitting to the subjects that he chooses to point his lens toward. Moriyama is best know for his book Stray Dog in which he captured the darker side of urban life and the price industrialization had up modernizing cities. Like his predecessor, Hosoe, Moriyama’s images have an unrelenting air of foreboding doom. However, unlike Hosoe, his work is gritty and raw, “It was Moriyama’s gift to infuse the commonplace, populist appreciation of what he found on the street with a foreboding energy, to fuse… conventional society and the powerful undercurrent of the forbidden – and do it in the language of the everyday.’ (Phillips, 10)
Additionally, unlike Hosea’s explicitly political work, “Moriyama is not an overtly political artists, not in the self-conscious sense of he mercury-poisoned residents of Minamata. Nor was Moriyama analytic and descriptive of the American presence in Japan, depicting the poisonous way the culture had insinuated itself into Japanese life, as Tōmatsu had (Phillips, 21).” Moriyama chooses not to comment but rather to wrap himself within the ever-changing society. He is as much susceptible to foreign influence as the subjects he captures.
In his two 1972 books, Farewell Photography and Hunter (Kariudo), we begin to see Moriyama’s own personal reaction to these influences. Farewell Photography acts as experimental work, “a close-up of a dirty street, a blank wall, a reflection in a blank television screen, the end of a film roll (Phillips, 20). The images are produced in haste, technically scattered, marked by dust and scratches. Like his other images, the same despair looms over the work. In fact, we are made to feel that it is a commentary on nothingness, the inherent loss we sense from a lack of meaning. The images tell no story, often pushed to the point of abstraction. In Hunter, Moriyama once again returns to the city however the glass of his moving car separates him from his subjects. Phillips writes, “The photographer-hunter seems to be not so much spying on his subject as trying to locate the authentic experience, the “reality” of feeling behind the peeling billboards, the concrete block structures draped with telephone wires (Phillips, 21).” Moriyama searches for meaning in which to base his “reality,” finding that Japanese society of the 1970’s has begun to change in new incomprehensible way.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Japanese photography underwent major shifts due to greater international interaction and a newfound independence for artists. Photographers of the time turned their cameras toward a society that had lost a “common direction in national or foreign affairs, nor did they find much solace in nature or community (Tucker, 263).” This culture had instead found distraction in the consumption of mass produced goods and entertainment. Photography curator Komoto Shinji writes, “In compensation for the loss of hometowns, a general universal, fantasy has been created to preserve the unity in this community. Japanese postmodern culture has served especially in the realm of thought and philosophy, to draw together all of these scattered and floating contexts into a single transcendent context, the fantasy of consumption (Shinji, Introduction to Liquid Crystal Futures, 8).”
Homma Takashi’s series Tokyo Suburbia serves as a direct commentary upon such issues. In the work, Homma examines the pristine developments outside Tokyo built for upwardly mobile salarymen. His images are clean and vibrant chromogenic prints yet there is a peculiar silence, the reoccurring unsettling element we have seen in the work of Hosoe and Moriyama. In one of his images, we find ourselves surrounded by the green of an artificial park. While ideally this location has been “designed” for tranquility and calm, the trees are bent awkwardly, the path is crooked with grass beginning to creep over its boundary, and a small dog stares at the camera slightly off-center. Almost immediately we begin to see the faults in the atmosphere and Homma reminds of the falsity with the pristine white apartment buildings that sit in the background. We are given a sense that there is a lack of atmosphere; a certain “nothingness” to the images that is inescapable. In another image, Boy 2, Tokyo, Odaiba, we see Homma turn his camera toward a young boy who is engaged in video games. The subject seems completely engrossed in his distraction, so much so that he not even aware of Homma. The boy’s mouth is opened slightly connoting a sense of awe to his interaction. Homma chooses to shot the image with a particularly low aperture causing the background to blur and create a specific focus on the monitor. We are therefore instructed to understand that it is the world inside the monitor that is the most significant element of this image. All is not well in Homma’s world, surrounded by nothingness his subjects escape into consumer goods and media.
Michiko Kon tackles this theme of consumerism in her series of still lives from the late 1980’s. Kon works by arranging fish, vegetables, flowers, and other perishable goods into consumer items such as hats, handbags, high-heeled shoes, and even sneakers. In Salmon, Flatfish, HighHeel, a high-heeled shoe created from the skin and scales of a fish rests on an inky black surface. Below, a shimmering reflection of shoe resembles a fleeting fish beneath a layer of shallow water. Michiko states, “All my photos have to be beautiful, authentic, but can go to the edge of grotesqueness (Michiko, Tucker, 275).” While Michiko’s objects resemble consumer goods, they are always on the verge of decay, “threatening to rot, stink and attract flies (Tucker, 275).” Her images speak to the fleeting nature of these consumer goods, goods that threaten to become meaningless due to their transient nature.
While photographers of the 1980’s and 1990’s tackled issues of consumerism through critiques of a society, these critiques were located outside such sphere of influence. Most contemporary artists have embraced consumerism and post-modernity. Like Superflat artist, Takashi Murakami, postmodernity and the meaninglessness of consumer culture has become a framework for many contemporary artists.
Kaoru Izima, a former fashion photographer transitioned into contemporary art after he began to feel restricted by his industry. His work is colorful and the influences from contemporary Japanese fashion photography are particularly prevalent. In his series Landscapes with a Corpse, he displays ‘corpses’ of fashion models dressed in haute couture. These murder scenes are photographed in a sequence, first from a distance, in which the model blends with her surroundings, then moving closer until the final shot is dominated by shocking corpse. Usually within the first wide-angle shot we recognize an iconic building or construction, representative of the location.
While Kaoru’s images at first may please the eye, due to his utilization of fashion techniques, as we move closer to the victim, they become increasingly disturbing. Kaoru’s images therefore lull us in to a world that seems to be familiar and appealing but is in fact shocking and disturbing. Like society, the familiar and convenient seems pleasing but as we delve deeper, there looms an underlying horror.
Another contemporary photographer, Ninagawa Mika, works within the field of commercialization through her images that, “almost seem to have stepped out from the world of advertising, without the product or the message (Exley, Grosenick, Seeling 196).” Her work is filled with dazzling colors and kitsch aesthetic that seems to jump out of the photograph, seductive and exotic. Yet as much as they engage the viewer, there is in fact no “product” or “message.” The images are meaningless, just surface pleasure without any particular depth.
While contemporary photographers such as Kaoru and Ninagawa utilize the commercialized world as an influence to create their works, this style does not wholly command the contemporary world of Japanese photography. Artists such as Yasumura Taskashi continue to work outside commercialism in order to critique symptoms of postmodernity. In his work Domestic Scandals Yasumura returns to his childhood home where he photographs various commercial objects such as a plunger, a telephone, a stapler, or glass ashtray. Traditional Japanese decorations and object have been replaced by or are juxtaposed with modern plastic and mass-produced goods. The images are well lit, precise, and color-saturated. While the objects seem to lack any “scandal”, like many other photographers that we have viewed, the images are eerie and peculiar. In fact the objects are the scandal, “they document the slow erosion of traditional Japanese ways of living, the global triumph of the trappings of Western middle-class lifestyle and its promises of modernity and convenience (Jaeggi, 85).” The objects and backgrounds are too clean and perfect, they blend together into one, “he (Yasumura) calmly and coolly predicts a future when everything will be mass-produced, and tradition and modernity will have become mere exchangeable surface style all over the globe (Jaeggi, 85).”
Yasumura’s images are deceptively simple in their exploration of the erosion of meaning and tradition; this is their brilliance. We can break down his message into two distinct subjects, first objects and then backgrounds. The objects that Yasumura photographs are so awkwardly placed, so out of context, that is impossible to glean any information of what purpose they might serve to the residents of the house. We are made to feel that they exist to be functionless. Even the humans that he chooses to photograph in a father and a man serve no purpose. They are mere objects within Yasumura’s world, devoid of meaning. As Akihito Yasumi writes, “they make us feel if they existed according to their own logic, in a world without humans and out of touch with any functions related to humans (Yasumi, 86).”
While the objects serve a vital role in Yasumura’s images, the texts of the backgrounds are equally important players. Yasumura has returned to his family home to capture his images. The home and the act of coming home has becomes particular significant within Japanese culture, “a place to be remembered after temporal and spatial separation (Kuraishi, 87).” However in Yasumura’s images his house has been invaded by the artificial colors and styles of these contemporary goods. The house is no longer a place of importance, “redefining the basic tone of everyday life (Kuraishi, 89).”
In his classic book, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin argues,
“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence (Benjamin, 219).”
In essence, he argues that through mechanical reproduction, a process occurs in which the product is detached from it traditional significance, in so as to become merely a surface to be interpreted, detaching from its meaning. It is within our postmodern society we have seen this process constantly consuming meaning.
As we explore Japanese society after World War II, we can clearly see photographers from every generation reacting to this process. From the post-war generation artists such as Hosoe and Moriyama recognize this transformation as a symptom of Westernization and seek to capture this development in distinct manner: Hosoe through traditional reassertion and Moriyama through tentative embrace. As Westernization and in turn consumerism took hold leading to the degradation of Japanese tradition, photographers of the 80’s, and 90’s, such as Homma Takashi and Kon Michiko, explored this new society. Homma critiqued the apparently pacified suburban lives of the Tokyo workforce while Kon explored the artificiality of consumerism. The most contemporary photographers from Japan such as Izima Kaoru and Mika Ninagawa have unlike their predecessors begun to embrace a consumer society filled with empty signs through their work in fashion photography. However, this trend is not alone and their remains photographers such as Taskashi Yasumura who choose to pursue a stiff critique of a society in which symbols and signs have become hollow.
In conclusion, since the introduction of Westernization to Japan, we have seen the degradation of Japanese tradition and rise of consumerism as a replacement for that loss. While photography as a medium may in fact be part of this process, artists since the war have successfully and intensely captured this transformation within their images. In turn they has let us questions what the future holds for a society in which intrinsic meaning has begun to simply disappear.
Eikoh Hosoe ; with an essay by Mark Holborn. New York: Aperture, Robert Hale, 1999.
Grosenick, Uta, and Thomas Seeling, eds. Photo Art. New York: Aperture, 2008.
Hosoe, Eikō. Eikoh Hosoe photographs 1960-1980. Rochester, N.Y: Dark Sun P, 1982.
Jaeggi, Martin, Akihito Yasumi, and Shino Kuraishi. Domestic Scandals: Takashi
Yasumura. Tokyo: Osiris Co., Ltd., 2005.
Kohmoto, Shinji, Graeme Murray, and Yuko Hasegawa. Liquid Crystal Futures
Contemporary Japanese Photography. London: Graeme Murray, 1995.
Phillips, Sandra S. Daido Moriyama stray dog. San Francisco, Calif: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Distributed Art, 1999.
“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 03 May. 2009
Tucker, Anne. History of Japanese Photography. New Haven: Yale UP in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2003.