Japan A Self Portrait – Photographs 1945 – 1964

Copyright the photographers 2004 published by Editions Flammarion, Paris

It was my good fortune to meet up with Marc Feustel, consulting editor and photo-blogger (Eye Curious) in Paris last July to discuss photobooks, Japanese photography and a photobook that he conceptualized, developed and edited; Japan, A Self Portrait: Photographs 1945 – 1964.

  This was not the first survey of Japanese photographers published in English, with earlier editions published by Aperture and MOMA. This is a broad survey to examine the photographs and photographers who were active in the period after World War II up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

 The eleven Japanese photographers who in included this phototbook include Domon Ken (1909 – 1990), Hamaya Hiroshi (1915 – 1999), Hayashi Tadahiko (1918 – 1990), Hosoe Eikoh (b.1933), Ishimoto Yasuhiro (b.1921 SF, USA), Kawada Kikuji (b.1933), Kimura Ihee (Ihei) (1901 – 1974), Nagano Shigeichi (b.1925), Narahara Ikko (b.1931), Tanuma Takeyohsi (b.1929)  and Tomatsu Shomei (b.1930).

These eleven photographs are generally recognized as the creating the post-war photographic foundation for the subsequent generation of Japanese photographers, including those whose work encompass the Provoke and Kompura eras and the others who were active in the mid 1960’s, 1970’s into the 1980’s.

Very few of these photographers were familiar to me thirty years ago, perhaps with the exception of Eikoh Hosoe and his publications Man and Woman and Barakei (Ordeal by Roses) from which excerpts were published in the American photographic magazines. Even today, I may now recognize some of the photographs in this book, but only a few of the photographers have any name recognition. Understanding that gap in my awareness was the underlying reason that I was seeking out Feustel and subsequently this photobook.

I realize that there are many and varied barriers to obtaining and understanding the rich and complex photographic work being developed in Japan. The language is an obvious barrier, with few of the past and even current photobooks having English text. Second, in part due to the limited English text, few of the Japanese photobooks are distributed outside of Japan and as such have limited accessibility.

Third is the culture, the background story, of Japan, which is very much unlike the American/European culture. Thus my attempting to “read” a Japanese photograph or photobook will at best only obtain a glimpse of all of the potential meetings, as I am not looking for those visual clues that may be very significant to the Japanese photographer and subsequent Japanese reader. I have a feeling similar to that of Pico Iyer, who recently wrote that after living in Kyoto Japan for 22 years, he is still known as a gaijin (outsider) and “generally feel as if I’m stumbling through the city’s exquisite surfaces like a bull in an Imari china shop”. Likewise, I sympathize with Andrew Phelps that after an intense three weeks photographing in Niigata, Japan, his project was really “about responding visually to a place I don’t really understand”. Thus I embark on learning the visual clues and become more aware of the layers of potential meanings, of which this photobook is proving to provide an immeasurable assistance.

 This book itself is thick with black and white photographs, some have become highly acclaimed internationally and many are not very well known outside of Japan. The photographs by the eleven photographers are highly dispersed, as I have some difficulty drawing a comprehensive impression of any one of the photographers work. I am not sure that was the editor’s intent, but to instead to provide a complex intertwining of the photographer’s work which was being concurrently published at any one period. I think that the intent was to illustrate the potential interaction and yet diversity in the photographs being produced.  The photographs are sequenced somewhat randomly but in an overall progressive duration, from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1960’s.

 Most of the Japanese photographers of this period were working initially with magazines and newspapers creating singular photographs made on the streets and only later developing concepts and projects that would result in cohesive photobooks.

Hiraki Osam in his essay, states “..the photographers of the postwar era had a very different perception of photography to that of prewar photographers, instead becoming expressionists in their own right. In other words, theirs was an active rather than a passive stance. They accepted the world before their eyes as their own reality and attempted to interpret this though photography, projecting the result back to us in the form of a photograph….The greatest benefit reaped by postwar photography was that, whether consciously or subconsciously, the photographic act itself became fundamentally grounded in the photographer’s own self, or, to put it another way, in the sense of an individual’s own existence in the world.”

 During my conversation with Feustel, he did provide a nice insight on “reading” a Japanese photograph, that it helps “to look for the symbolic power of the detail and notice the focus on texture and the use of space”. Feustel has assisted me in curating the photographs in this article, choosing some important photographs from among the many and that he recommends spend time viewing and studying to help gain some insights on postwar Japanese photography.

 The essays are provided by Takeuchi Keiichi, Hiraki Osam and the Introduction is by Alain Sayag. There are three different editions of this book published, English, French and Japanese, my edition being the French version that I purchased last July in Paris, all of which are now out of print, but currently seem to be easily available on the secondary book market. If you have an interest in Japanese photography, I highly recommend acquiring this book.

By Douglas Stockdale

3 thoughts on “Japan A Self Portrait – Photographs 1945 – 1964

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  1. Good piece. I’d like to question one point, however. You say “The language is an obvious barrier, with few of the past and even current photobooks having English text.” Actually many do.

    Why should people outside Japan be expected to be interested in photography in Japan? After all, following a good start under Yamagishi in the late 70s (note his “Japan: A Self-Portrait” of 1979, of course unrelated to the book you’re discussing), books for non-Japanese consumption that introduce contemporary Japanese photographers have been few and in general pretty dismal. For example, anyone looking at the recent catalogue of “Heavy Light” (ICP) could be excused for thinking that, photographically, Japan was a curiously uninteresting part of the world — though with two or three standouts, who make the book worth its current remaindered price of $11 or so.

  2. Peter, thanks for the nice feedback and good questions.

    Perhaps more photobooks are being published now in Japan have some English, but the general consensus of those who visit Japan and are very actively looking at the available photobooks, still agree with my position that the photobooks that include English text is a vast minority. The reason I hear most often is that English text might be a nice option if the photobooks were being sold outside of Japan, but the Japan photobook market is so good, that most books published can be sold within Japan and export is not really needed. I will admit, I do not have any hard data to support this, but only what some have told me and what I have read.

    For me, the value of this book lies in the collective work of a generation of Japanese photographers that the Japanese photo-community regard as having a big influence on the subseqent generations. Similar to my interest in the collective work of any group of photographers who had an impact on another generation as to attempt to understanding the evolution of concepts and methods; whether they are the Photo-Sessionist, f/64, 1930’s FSA, Provoke, New Topographics, etc

  3. Doug, yes, this “Self-Portrait” is a very worthwhile book and shows fine work. It’s one of a very small number of must-have surveys with English commentary of Japanese photography. It’s a great pity that the work within it was so little known outside Japan when it was new. I wish there were a sequel bringing the story up to 1985 or so.

    Probably the single “mustest-have” survey in English of Japanese photography is “The History of Japanese Photography” http://www.theglobalist.com/storyid.aspx?StoryId=4113 . It’s in roughly chronological order, and for me the last chapter is a huge let-down. Symptomatic is the double-page spread devoted to one photo by somebody whose thing is to have somebody (himself? a friend?) walk around the scenes he photographs with lights. And his work is far from the least interesting in that chapter (which, luckily, amounts to a small percentage of the book). Five years on from that book (2003), and north American readers may infer that “Heavy Light” (2008) shows the state of the art. Well, the best of what’s in “Heavy Light” is fine indeed (I have all of Kikai’s books), but on average it’s no better than humdrum. If this did represent the best in Japanese photography in 2008, you could discount Japan. But luckily it didn’t.

    The photographers in the book you review are Domon Ken, Hamaya Hiroshi, Hayashi Tadahiko, Hosoe Eikoh, Ishimoto Yasuhiro, Kawada Kikuji, Kimura Ihee (Ihei), Nagano Shigeichi, Narahara Ikko, Tanuma Takeyoshi and Tōmatsu Shōmei. Among these, Hosoe, Ishimoto and Tōmatsu are I believe available from US publishers. I don’t have the stamina to go through all of them now, but I’ll concede that Kimura is in general poorly served in English, but look for “Ihei Kimura: The Man with the Camera” (plenty of English explanation), and note that his Parr-and-Badger “award winning” book on Paris has been republished with ample English text (though sadly at an ample price). Nagano’s “Magazine Work 60s” has English text, as does his volume (a retrospective) in the “Hysteric” series. The books in Nagano’s “distant gaze” series of later (and excellent) work — “Tōi shisen: 1980–1989 Tokyo”; “Tōkyō kōjitsu”; “Distant Gaze”; “Distant Gaze: Dark Blossom of Winter” — have little or no English, but then they have little or no Japanese: his photography here either will appeal to you or it won’t, but it requires no text. All but the first of these four are available easily and inexpensively. Hayashi produced all (or almost all) of his work early on, and this early work is excellently reproduced, with full explanation in English as well as Japanese, in the catalogue for a 1993 exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography that’s easy to pick up cheaply. (Its cover seems designed to be besmirched by fingerprints. If these bother you, cover it.) A number of these books are stocked by or available through http://www.japanexposures.com/ (disclosure: I know both the people who run this website/shop, although not well). Moving on to the Provoke generation, note Takanashi’s “Field Notes of Light” retrospective: full of information in English (although mediocre print quality). Et cetera.

    In the last month or so, I’ve bought four Japanese photo books: Hara Mikiko (untitled, in the Hysteric series); Fujita Mitsuru, “Zaisyo”; Dodo Shunji, “Osaka”; Takiura Hideo, “Tokyo Products”. I don’t have the first of these at hand but I think it has minimal English in addition to minimal Japanese. The second has no English whatever (which is a great pity). The third is fully bilingual. Each caption (placename, year, month) in the fourth is in Japanese only but the other texts in it are in both Japanese and English.

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