Japanese photography is sometimes overlooked in the West, but, in the ’60 and ’70s in particular, it was one of the most profound artistic movements in the history of photography. During this period, Japanese photographers were recognized by their cultural reflections about identity and their high-contrast black and white imagery.
Though their work differed from one another, Japanese photographers pieced together a collective story of Japan, a nation which was grasping to rebuild its identity after suffering a traumatic defeat in WWII and subsequent U.S. occupation. The photographs they produced were vital, memorable contributions to the world of photography as a whole.
These are five iconic Japanese photographers whose distinct works helped to shape the pride of their nation:
Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012)
Shomei Tomatsu is considered one of the most influential photographers in Japan. Each photograph is a representation of his life and his subjects and illustrates his intimate style of documenting. Throughout his career, Tomatsu took an unusual approach to capturing his subjects, using long and double exposures, blur and a poetic sense of composition.
Tomatsu is recognized in particular for documenting the changing social landscape of post-war Japan. Works such as 11:02 Nagasaki focused on the lingering aftermath of the atomic bomb, 15 years after the drop. Tomatsu crafted a striking portrait of the city, consisting of cityscapes, portraits of survivors and still life, which reinforced the devastation of the bombing.
Chewing Gum and Chocolate documented the U.S. occupation of Japan and the nation’s assimilation of Western culture. These works reveal the impact of Americanization as he shot portraits of G.I.s, Native Americans and street scenes juxtaposed with Japanese culture.
Later, Tomatsu flew south and created a body of work comprised of beautiful scenes of daily life and cultural rituals of the islands of Okinawa, titled The Pencil of the Sun. The series included his first color works, showing life in Southeast Asia. The trip south transformed Tomatsu’s life and views on photography, and he switched to shooting in color for the remainder of his career.
Since his death in 2012, Tomatsu’s works continue to be released posthumously, and are photographs that have never been seen before. Thanks to his close friends and editors, we are now able to revisit his works and unravel the art of one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.
Eikoh Hosoe (1933-)
Photographer and filmmaker Eikoh Hosoe takes an unorthodox approach to photography. Unlike many of his peers at the time, he wasn’t interested in “documenting”; something he admitted he wasn’t very good at anyway. He felt that there were alternative ways to express his ideas and creativity.
Throughout his career, Hosoe became known for his use of high-contrast black and white imagery, using Japanese folklore and human expression as his subject matter. His photographs convey specific themes, and each individual series was made in collaboration with other artists.
Tastumi Hijikata, one of the key founders of Butoh, served as his muse, particularly for his series Kamaitachi, in which Hijikata portrayed a weasel demon that haunted the countryside. Hosoe’s nudes focused on the mysterious relationship between opposite sexes, and works like Man & Woman and Embrace portrayed theatrical scenes of tension and drama.
Perhaps Hosoe’s boldest work to date is his avant-garde nudes of the late author and playwright Yukio Mishima, in a series of male erotic images called Barakei (or, Ordeal by Roses.) Like Tomatsu, Hosoe used double exposure and blur to create surreal effects, and the series took place in Mishima’s house, which contained Western art and architecture.
A year after finishing the series, Mishima committed seppuku, a Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. Many believed that these photographs were a prelude to Mishima’s death, as they reflected the inner turmoil of his mind.
Hosoe has won numerous awards and continues to exhibit his work overseas.
Ihei Kimura (1901-1974)
Ihei Kimura is one of Japan’s most celebrated photographers. His interests lie in photographing “realism,” and he wasn’t interested in experimental imagery or photographing subjects to make grand statements, like some of his peers. He focused on capturing scenes of daily life, mostly throughout Japan, but also on his travels overseas while he was on assignments for magazines.
Kimura’s photographs are straightforward, yet they contain a certain whimsical charm. He captured the feel of cities he visited with ordinary scenes of daily life: people crossing the street and attending markets and festivals, and children playing in parks. He was motivated by both the everyday and the ephemeral.
Kimura encouraged young photographers to shoot from a documentary perspective. He received critical acclaim for his color photographs of Paris, a subject matter which wasn’t yet popular in those days, and was considered to be ahead of his time. Later in his career, he began photographing the Akita prefecture, capturing rural life in the north. In addition, he also shot portraits, particularly of writers in Tokyo.
After his death in 1974, The Ihei Kimura Awards were founded for emerging photographers, which are still active to this day. His work still regularly appears in Asahi Camera Magazine.
Daido Moriyama (1938-)
Daido Moryiama is one of the most famous and prolific photographers of Japan, known in particular for his black and white shots. Much of his work centers on the breakdown of cultural traditions in post-war Japan. Moriyama’s photography is instinctual, and he often compares his practice to that of a stray dog who wanders around aimlessly.
Influenced by William Klein’s photographic series of New York, Moriyama focused on various street scenes, using the are-burke-boke technique (grainy, shaky and out of focus.) His controversial body of work, called Farewell Photography, represents the zenith of the technique. The series contained images that were unrecognizable, and his book contained test prints that were grainy and completely out of focus, which would normally be discarded.
Moriyama did away with conventional photography standards, but unfortunately this caused a rut for him for many years. It wasn’t until the ’80s that Moriyama began to photograph again, and this time he’d given up his old technique in favor of more straightforward imagery. Armed with both a compact film and digital camera, he wandered throughout the streets of Tokyo and other major cities around the world.
Moriyama continues to release new projects in addition to reissuing books of his past works.
Nobuyoshi Araki (1940-)
Perhaps the most controversial of all Japanese photographers, Nobuyoshi Araki broke Japan’s societal norms with his imagery. He approaches photography as if it were a diary of his life, and he remains incredibly prolific, releasing several books per year in the form of still-life projects, nudes and portraiture.
Araki is well known for his project called Sentimental Journey, a series chronicling intimate moments in his marriage up until his wife’s passing. Araki captured their social gatherings, life at home and, sadly, his wife’s final days; transitioning the series from love to pain. Years later, Araki created a second Sentimental Journey series, documenting the death of the cat his wife had brought home many years earlier.
Kinbaku-bi—also known as the “beauty of tight binding”—is the Japanese art of erotic bondage, and it has fascinated Araki for decades.
In a series of erotic black and white and color photographs, Araki photographs his models, usually in geisha garments, and binds them with ropes. Sometimes his models hang from the ceiling, and each photographs varies in composition and tone. At times, the poses look painful, and the bodies contorted.
Araki has said of his work that he “can tie up women’s bodies, but [he] can’t tie up their hearts.”
This is just an introduction to the many Japanese photographers worth checking out, so stay tuned for more in this vein. Also, if you missed it, check out these 14 great artists to follow on Instagram.
- Words: David "Vades" Joseph