Japan’s Knowing Shutterbug

An atomic bomb survivor chronicles a nation’s unraveling, and rebirth

A black and white photograph of a cloud over the sea, from the series “The Pencil of the Sun” (1971) by the Japanese photographer Shomei Tomatsu, born in 1930, is a striking image, not the least because of its prescience. The isolated cloud, distinct against an empty sky, casts its backlit reflection over a calm sea; the horizon tips down to the right. Everything is fine and at the same time, not fine at all.

Five decades of Shomei Tomatsu’s photography, comprising some 250 works in both color and black and white, are on view at the Japan Society in a retrospective entitled “Skin of the Nation.” The exhibition was organized jointly by Dr. Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), and Leo Rubenfein, a photographer and writer, in association with the Japan Society. The exhibition venues also include The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, and the Japan Society here in New York.

To be sure, Tomatsu has long been famous in Japan, and exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1965 and 1974 have given him visibility in the U.S. He had significant exhibitions in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s as well. “Skin of the Nation” represents considerable effort on the part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to bring Tomatsu’s life work into focus now for audiences across the U.S. The exhibition’s catalog is the first book in English to examine Tomatsu’s work.

Japan Society’s galleries provide a serene environment in which to contemplate the range and complexity of Tomatsu’s photographs, displayed in named series that are similar to photo essays. An unusual feature of Tomatsu’s practice is that he sometimes reprints negatives that are decades old, and even recycles images from existing series, to mix into a new series. “Skin of the Nation” does just this, casting the old with the new, resulting in a section by section retrospective that follows the main outlines of Tomatsu’s career.

Tomatsu was fifteen when the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the American military presence took root amongst civilian life. Modernization meant Americanization. This subject obsessed Tomatsu, and he made series after series that explored the cultural shift from various angles. The people who survived the bombs, including himself, still had to live in occupied Japan, and photographic images became an important touch point for his countrmen’s collective psychic survival.

Early in his career, Tomatsu helped found an agency called Vivo, a group of young photographers who reached a broad public during the 1950s and 1960s by anonymously publishing their 35mm black and white images in magazines. Vivo’s members also exhibited their work in galleries as individual artists. Thus Tomatsu’s name and work came to be indelibly associated with postwar Japanese photography; for many years his images were created within Japan for a Japanese audience. After his initial experiences with the devastation and military occupation, he recorded impressions of counterculture as the country made an incredible recovery in the 1960s. He began to work in color while photographing southern Asian countries in the 1970s, and color has become an important part of his work ever since.

The documentary style of Tomatsu’s immediate predecessor, Hiroshi Hamaya, was congruent with that of better-known European exponents of the genre such as Cartier Bresson or William Kline. Dr. Phillips considers Tomatsu’s most famous successor, Daido Moriyami, to be the most significant Japanese photographer working today. Relative to these artists, Tomatsu’s singular piquancy regarding the postwar mood of the nation can be more clearly distinguished.

Tomatsu’s development as an artist came at a time when modernist aesthetics had found form and expression in photography’s technical advances. European avant-garde movements reached Japan in the 1920s and ’30s via Western visitors and returning Japanese artists who studyied at the Bauhaus or in Paris. A Japanese teacher who suggested that he focus on the immediacy of his environment offset Tomatsu’s early attraction to Surrealism and Dadaism. Perhaps a surrealist photographer such as Brassai was behind this teacher’s advice, because Tomatsu pursued photography in a style that is indisputably modernist. He also drew upon traditional Japanese pictorial conventions and aspects of Kabuki theater that produce arresting photographs, such as “Apres-Guerre Prostitute, Nagoya” from 1958, printed in 2003.

With greater subtlety, he juxtaposes real time with ancient tradition in a shot of an American soldier acting in a performance for fellow soldiers. Wearing a woman’s wig and a housedress, the actor was photographed from below stage level at a moment when he looks vacantly into space. Tomatsu seems to announce the advent of a new, archetypal character on the stage of Japanese history; it is as if this monstrous hybrid persona of the American military has fused with an old Japanese dramatic tradition. Where Tomatsu perceived symbolic iconography, the American soldiers saw only an actor, and would most likely not get the reference to Kabuki even if they ever saw the picture. Today, the idea of cross-dressing in the military, even in a play, creates its own kind of wonder about a past era.

“Now I roam the earth, gliding as lightly as Styrofoam on the surface of the ocean. I have embarked on a nameless sea of chaos that is neither America or Japan,” said the photographer in 1999. Perceiving himself at a new phase of his career after almost 50 years, Tomatsu’s long obsession with the U.S. occupation of his country had shifted to a more diffused examination of the effects of globalism. The mental image of himself adrift on the sea, an enduring symbol of life and eternity in Japanese culture, is undercut by a tinge of irony—the artist as a bit of flotsam. Not just any flotsam, but a bit of American-produced packaging material designed to protect.

In hindsight, Tomatsu’s postwar sensibility appears to be prescient of post-modernism. Far from being an objective observer, it was his very membership in Japanese society that gave him such insight into the split-screen ironies of the postwar situation, where two unwilling parties—the surviving population of Japan and the young American military community—were forcibly conjoined. There’s some logic to dating the symbiotic relationship between technology and culture that dominates Japanese life today to the dropping of the A-bombs.

Photographic technology changed dramatically during World War II, producing the 35mm SLR camera and industries to support a more general standardization of photographic products. It’s significant that Tomatsu’s activity as a producer of images began at the crest of this wave. In his creative riposte to historical forces beyond his control, the vicissitudes of earthly life and destiny can be sensed no matter what the subject matter of the images. There is restraint in his satire as well as his sorrow, and cold comfort in Tomatsu’s sense of humor. His use of photography as a technology embedded in postwar culture, and now world culture, springs from an uncompromising appreciation for human life and dignity.

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