To Look is Everything

IMA, Vol. 3, Spring 2013

My discovery of Japanese photography came through the images that were made during the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the work that was being made in Japan at that time is the reason that I became so interested in photography in the first place. Just as the country itself changed profoundly and irrevocably during those years, photography in Japan transformed from a relatively strict documentary practice into one of the most powerful and personal art forms. The 1950s, 60s and 70s were a golden age of photographic engagement they were not characterised by a single approach but the great works produced during these years shared a level of intensity and commitment that has seldom been reached since. In the text that he contributed to Japan: a self-portrait (2004), a photographic history of postwar Japan, the human geographer Keiichi Takeuchi wrote what he called "an elegy to a generation holding on for dear life, while being overtaken by the shadow of death." While many of the photographers of this generation are still alive and still working, with the deaths of Fukase, Ishimoto and Tomatsu in 2013, that shadow has grown ominously longer. Beyond the profound sadness of losing three genuine masters of this medium, their deaths beg the question of whether, as this generation passes, a certain kind of photography is also being lost, and what their legacy means in the context of photography as it is practiced today.

Although Fukase, Ishimoto and Tomatsu are all well-known in Japan, the visibility of their work overseas remains limited. Of the three artists, Ishimoto had the most direct relationship with the West: although he grew up on a farm in Kochi prefecture, he was born in San Francisco. His more profound experience of the West came after the war when he attended the Chicago Institute of Design, where he studied photography with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. This put Ishimoto in a truly unique position, as he received a European art education (the Institute was founded by László Moholy-Nagy and originally known as the New Bauhaus) in America, but never studied art in Japan. The photographer and scholar Minor White described him as a "visual bilinguist" referring to his use of Western photographic methods while retaining a Japanese sensibility.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto,  Katsura

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Katsura

Like many Japanese photographers of his generation, Ishimoto is probably still best known internationally for a book, Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture, published in 1960, a groundbreaking study of the Katsura Imperial Villa west of Kyoto with texts by the architects Kenzo Tange and Walter Gropius. Ishimoto's work was less extreme than Tomatsu or Fukase's, but was instead characterised by an extraordinary sensibility and refinement. When I interviewed him in 2009, it seemed to me that his unusual background had made him a loose cannon within the Japanese photographic community, from which he stood apart in many ways. He had a remarkably diverse career and was as involved with street photography as with photographing architecture and design, which at times made him hard to grasp. Remarkably, the book that perhaps best captures the diversity of Ishimoto's interests is also his first: published in 1958, Someday Somewhere combines formal graphic studies with street photography, interweaving images taken in both Tokyo and Chicago into a visual language of his own making.

Masahisa Fukase, Sendagaya, Tokyo, 1984

Masahisa Fukase, Sendagaya, Tokyo, 1984

Like Ishimoto, Masahisa Fukase is known almost exclusively in the West for a book, Karasu (Ravens), first published in 1986 and reprinted in 1991 and 2008. In 1976, Fukase's wife Yoko left him after thirteen years of marriage: Karasu is made up of photographs taken over the course of the following decade. He was devastated at the collapse of his marriage and became obsessed with the raven as a symbol of the darkness that enveloped him at that time. In his afterword to the book, the editor Akira Hasegawa writes: "Masahisa Fukase's work can be deemed to have reached its supreme height; it can also be said to have fallen to its greatest depth." The depth that Hasegawa refers to is the depth of the emotional trauma that Fukase conveys in these images. What makes the book so remarkable is its ability to project a deeply personal and harrowing interior journey onto the outside world with such universal resonance.

The book was recently selected by a panel of experts put together by the British Journal of Photography as the best photobook published in the previous 25 years. Although Karasu is unquestionably his masterpiece, Fukase was more than the photographer of darkness: he was first noticed in the early 1970s for his playful approach, quite at odds with the stark, gritty work that was so prevalent at the time. One of his last works, Bukubuku, consists of photos taken entirely in the bath. Sadly, Fukase's career was cut short by a 1992 accident from which he never recovered.

Of these three photographers, Tomatsu is probably the best known internationally, largely due to his 2004 retrospective exhibition Skin of the Nation, which was shown in the United States and in Europe. Of course, many of his books, such as 11:02 Nagasaki (1966) and Oo! Shinjuku (1969), also enjoy a high reputation. However, his relationship with the West was the most complicated: he described it as "a complex mixture of abhorrence and reverence." Tomatsu never travelled to Europe or to the United States, but his fascination with and revulsion to the Americanization of Japan led him to Okinawa and these US military-occupied islands eventually became his home.

Shomei Tomatsu,  Protest , 1969

Shomei Tomatsu, Protest, 1969

Tomatsu was one of the first photographers of the postwar generation to insist on a break with the photographic approaches of the past, a stance he argued as eloquently with his pen as with his camera. The great American curator John Szarkowski described his work as "an intuitive response to the experience of life itself" (New Japanese Photography, MoMA, 1974). The subjective documentary approach that he elaborated, where photography became a way of conveying the experience of the world rather than a tool for recording an abstract "objective truth", laid the foundations for the extreme photographic experiments of the Provoke group, which has since become the figurehead for Japanese photography in the West.

Although Ishimoto, Fukase and Tomatsu belonged to the same photographic generation, they each had very different and fiercely personal approaches. Perhaps their strongest shared trait was their desire to break with the photography of the past and to establish new visual vocabularies of their own. It is difficult, even foolish, to suggest that the postwar generation shared a common approach or philosophy, but I think these words by Tomatsu are enlightening. "Photographers do not cure like a doctor, defend like a lawyer, analyze like a scholar, offer support like a priest, amuse like a raconteur or intoxicate like a singer, they simply look. That is enough—no, that is all. For a photographer, to look is everything. That is why photographers must continue to look things through and through. Photographers should gaze at their subjects head on, their whole form becoming an eye as they face the world. To stake their everything on looking, that is to be a photographer" (The Pencil of the Sun, 1975). Rather than advocating a specific aesthetic or conceptual approach, the unrelenting commitment and engagement that is evident in these words is perhaps the foremost characteristic of the photography of this generation.

It is this quality, the intensity of the gaze, that has always fascinated me. As we consider the legacy of these artists, I wonder: is that intensity still possible in today's context? Although it is by no means homogenous, contemporary photographic practice in the West has become characterised by largely unemotional, conceptual approaches that wryly play with the notion of photography as documentation and its relationship with the real. Going back to Tomatsu's definition, it seems that photography has become as much about amusing, analysing or intoxicating as it has about looking. Rather than a tool with which to engage the world, photography seems to increasingly be used as a way of commenting on itself, on its own meaning and significance. Photography that aims to look at the world in a profoundly personal and serious way seems almost impossible today.

Shomei Tomatsu, Japan World Exposition, 1969

Shomei Tomatsu, Japan World Exposition, 1969

Of course it is only natural that photography has changed profoundly since the 1960s and 1970s. In his essay on postwar photography, the photographer Takashi Homma writes: "We are standing on a burned field—the earth extends far past the horizon—nothing can be seen beyond that." (Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers, 2006). Homma uses the metaphor of the burned field—referencing the landscapes of the immediate post-war years—as a way of acknowledging that the increasingly extreme photographic explorations of artists like Tomatsu, Daido Moriyama or Takuma Nakahira left almost no new avenues to explore. "As a generation, we have missed the boat." Not only did these artists push photography to and indeed beyond its limits, the context in which photographs are now made has fundamentally changed as well.

As cameras have become embedded in our cell phones, we have all become photographers, all the time. More significantly, we now consume more images than ever before. There are 140 billion photographs on Facebook, 6 billion on Flickr, 4 billion on Instagram at the time of writing; thousands of photographs are taken, shared and forgotten every second. It is difficult to translate the sincerity and unrelenting commitment evident in Tomatsu's words to the era of the Internet. In the age of the ever-rising sea of images where images flow past us at breakneck speed, how can a photographer invest the act of looking with such importance and dedication? How can a single image be charged with profound meaning when it is a just a drop in the ocean?

By Marc Feustel