Situated in a unique position within the sphere of photographic practices worldwide, Japanese artistic photography has been the focus of intense international attention of late. Here, in brief and perhaps insufficient in content to give it justice, I would like to articulate the key characteristics and important phases of the history of Japanese photography. Crucial to its history and significance, this art form has been defined by the country’s geographical and political conditions: the facts that Japan is located in the Far East and was never colonized by any Western country.
Photography in Japan developed more or less as it did in the West, with certain chronological gaps and delays. Introduced in the form of daguerreotypes in the 1840s, at the end of the Edo period, it initially remained only in experimental form amongst some researchers. Actual photographic practice began with the wet collodion process; with which Japanese people began to experience photography from both sides: “capturing” and “being captured.” After the Meiji Restoration (1868), riding the tide of the country’s so-called “civilization and enlightenment,” photography became fully integrated with life and society. Influenced by England, photography as an artistic expression was fully established in the 1880s. In parallel to its development in Western Europe, modern photographic practices in Japan, based on photography’s materiality and the camera itself, had been explored since the late 1920’s, and had generated internationally prominent works. There followed a blossoming of avant-garde photography inuenced by Surrealism, and reportage photography linked to journalism. However, by the late 1930’s, due to the rise of militarism, diverse modern photography practices had converged into the form of propaganda on behalf of national policies.
In 1945, as the Pacific War ended with the country’s defeat, a new era began with the American occupation. Postwar Japan emerged from the ruins of many of its big cities, which had been devastated and burnt down by air raids. In 1950, the first peak of Japanese postwar photography was reached with the photo-realism movement, involving a wide range of amateur photographers led by Ken Domon and Ihei Kimura, who had been engaged with wartime propaganda as press photographers. Reflecting their remorse towards the fact that photographs were used only as propaganda during the war, the movement’s attitude of looking directly at social realities cast a decisive inuence on photographers of the time. For these photographers importance was placed on the fact that photographs be printed in large amounts and circulated widely throughout the society, as opposed to the act of creating unique prints and exhibiting them as artistically signicant. The Photo Realists of this era aimed to break ties with the obsolete framework of artistic photography. This radical way of conceiving the image delivered a unique and extraordinary development of photographic works through the pages of camera magazines and photo books, which would later be inherited by, and highly evident in, the photography of the 1970s. It is also of note that this is the reason most vintage prints from the 1950s to the 1970s were created only as original plates for publications.
Mr. Steichen characterizes the Japanese photographs as the most important contribution by a single country in recent years. Though not imitative of traditional Japanese art forms, he says there is a similar regard for subtle balance, delicate mood and fine craftsmanship. These pictures demonstrate that this country, long noted for its camera and lens, can also use these instruments to make beautiful photographs.
Excerpt from the Museum of Modern Art, New York press release announcing the exhibition Photographs from the Museum Collection, November 26, 1958
In contrast to the social documentary practice of photography is a traditional genre of Japanese literature called Shishosetsu (private novels), also known as Watakushi-shosetsu (I-Novel). It lies in the raw depiction of the author’s mental struggle in their daily, private life. Through his self-published photo book Sentimental Journey (1971), which consists of snapshots of his own honeymoon, the legendary photographer Nobuyoshi Araki claimed that the essence of photography lies in the documentation of one’s life, revealing the potential of “private photography,” which radically challenged what had been considered as important: the aspect of society in photography. While linked to the tradition of Shishosetsu, Araki’s attitude shook the foundation of the framework called “photography,” as established by modern photographic practices through his purely personal and private gaze. Evident as well in the photographic practice of Masahisa Fukase, also known as an “incurable egoist,” and who worked in varying visual ways, are the series that captures his everyday life with his wife Yoko as well as his relentless pursuit of ravens as an absolute symbol of his own self. This attitude was a key inheritance for subsequent photographers such as Miyako Ishiuchi, who emerged in the 1970s, who used the self to expand the potentials of “photography,” rather than as a way to retreat into the private self.