Japanese Postwar Photography

Librairie Benoît Forgeot, Paris, November 2005

I curated an exhibition of photographs by Hiroshi Hamaya, Shigeichi Nagano and Takeyoshi Tanuma entitled Japanese Postwar Photography, held at the Librairie Benoît Forgeot in Paris from 19–26 November 2005. We produced a small catalogue for the exhibition and I wrote an essay on the work of these three photographers.  

Here is the full text of the introduction:

On August 15, 1945 the Pacific War came to a sudden end following Japan’s surrender.  Japanese society was thrown into profound upheaval, not only due to the end of the militaristic era but also due to the American occupation.  The myth of the divinity of the emperor at the heart of the Japanese nation was replaced by America’s attempts to bring its brand of democracy to the country.  While the nation was brought into question by these many different forces, an overriding sense of freedom prevailed.

Shigeichi Nagano. Boy in front of his fishing village. Shimane peninsula, 1953.

Shigeichi Nagano. Boy in front of his fishing village. Shimane peninsula, 1953.

People wanted to move on from the horrors of war and concentrate on building a future for themselves and their families.  The desire to move forward was driven not only by a sense of relief that the war had finally ended, but also by this newfound sense of freedom.  Economic and physical reconstruction were essential but there was also a thirst for the knowledge that been quashed during the propaganda of the wartime years.  By stepping in to fill that void, magazine and newspaper journalism was to play an important part in the postwar revival. Magazines appeared everywhere: both those that had been forced to suspend publication by the ancien regime and new ones.  It was through this publishing boom that photography was to experience its postwar revival. 

Photojournalism had remained active during the war but as militarism intensified photographers were all herded into producing images for wartime propaganda.  Photographers dealt with these restrictions in different ways. For instance Hamaya Hiroshi worked for the magazine Front, but sought out subjects as far removed from official propaganda as possible.  When the war came to an end, photography became free again.  This freedom was accompanied by a massive demand for photography thanks to the publishing boom, which gave photographers a unique opportunity to show their work.  In this way magazines rapidly became the main platform for photography in the immediate postwar years; indeed they helped to launch many photographers’ careers.  In 1947 Nagano’s career began when Natori Yonosuke hired him as an editor for the newly launched magazine, Sun News Photos.  Shortly afterwards Tanuma Takeyoshi also joined the magazine as a photographer. 

The dominance of magazines as an outlet for photography had very important implications for the future.  Half a century later we can see one of its unfortunate side-effects: very few exhibition quality prints have survived from this vibrant photographic period.  Because most photographers’ work was being shown in magazines printed on low-quality ‘pulp’ paper they would tend to prepare very rough work prints.  This was compounded by the fact that, at that time, Japan had few art museums that had the experience or equipment necessary to handle photographic exhibitions. 

While the dominance of magazines may have left us with few surviving ‘vintage’ prints it nonetheless had the benefit of creating an extremely dynamic platform for debate on the role of photography in these turbulent years.  The many monthly photography prizes set up by magazines such as Sankei Camera and Camera Mainichi gave amateur photographers the chance to become central to this debate.  Perhaps the most important of these was Domon Ken’s column in Camera magazine.  In 1950 Domon was asked to judge readers’ submissions for a monthly photo contest.  It was in this context that one of the most important movements in postwar photography emerged: social realism.  Domon was the torch-bearer for the movement and famously advocated the “direct linkage between camera and subject” and the “absolutely pure snapshot, absolutely unstaged.”  Realism was in effect reaffirming the role of photography as documentation.  In the face of the atrocities of war and of the economic devastation of the Japanese nation, realism struck a chord as people felt the need to bear witness to the hardships that they saw. 

Hiroshi Hamaya. Men and women bathing together in a mountain spa. Aomori, 1957.

Hiroshi Hamaya. Men and women bathing together in a mountain spa. Aomori, 1957.

The realist movement thrived in the early 1950s but it rapidly began to reach its limitations.  As the movement was driven in large part by amateur photographers’ quest to directly observe social realities, the subject matter and the style of these photographs became increasingly restricted.  Other photographers, including Hamaya, began to contest the realist ‘doctrine’.  Hamaya believed that the most serious limitation of realism was that it didn’t allow a personal interpretation of reality.  In a speech given in September 1954, Domon himself recognised that realism had reached an impasse and that documentary photography needed to find a new path.

Photography had been driven by amateurs both before and after the war, however prewar photography was much more passive in its stance.  Postwar photographers had developed a framework of understanding fundamentally different from their predecessors: they felt a very strong personal sense of the reality surrounding them and wanted to project this back to the world.  As the leading photographic critic, John Szarkowski, noted, the images that they created acted “as a surrogate for experience itself.”

Postwar photographers were driven by a deep commitment to their times: through their work they tackled head-on the deep transformation of Japanese society.  For many of them photography had become a way of attempting to understand, or simply to process the extraordinary events going on around them.  Nagano’s work for the Dream Age series highlighted the social implications of the rapid economic growth that Japan was experiencing.  In addition to this activist quality many postwar photographers had developed a clear consciousness of themselves as ‘creators’ and fought to push the stylistic boundaries of photography so as to deepen the expressiveness of their work. 

By the late 1950s realism had given way to a new form of photography that has been referred to as personal documentary.  This new approach to documentary photography was crucial to the development of all three of the photographers in this catalogue.  Nagano was one of the most prolific photographers of the postwar years and his work for Iwanami Shashin Bunko took him all around Japan to document the different lives of the Japanese in the diverse environments around the country.  But he is perhaps most famous for his work in Tokyo.  Nagano once said of his photography, “for me, taking photographs in Tokyo means being committed to ‘now,’ the age in which I live.  My challenge is to show what I think and feel through photography.”  Tanuma also began his career as a photojournalist by shooting a personal subject: children in the Asakusa area of Tokyo where he had grown up.  Children were to become the major theme of Tanuma’s work , and he has described them as “a mirror which reflects society”.  Hamaya was also to find one of the most important themes of his work in the 1950s: “the relationship between people and their natural surroundings.”  With the Yukiguni (Snow Land) and Ura Nihon (Japan’s Back Coast) series, Hamaya created a photographic study that showed the strength of the Japanese people in the face of harsh natural conditions and the importance of rites and rituals in their daily lives.  

Takeyoshi Tanuma. Modern dress versus traditional dress at the Sanja Matsuri Festival. Asakusa, Tokyo, 1955.

Takeyoshi Tanuma. Modern dress versus traditional dress at the Sanja Matsuri Festival. Asakusa, Tokyo, 1955.

What remains so powerful about the work of these photographers is that they each have given us a deeply personal and committed vision of an extraordinary phase in Japan’s development.  Their images of the postwar years were taken at a time when the nation was faced with the question “What is Japan?”  These three photographers’ all engaged directly with this question and their work contributed to shaping a possible answer.  Their images provide us with a window onto the many facets of the Japanese nation during one of the most turbulent and dynamic periods of social change in modern history.  

By Marc Feustel

Japanese Postwar Photography , Installation view, Librairie Benoît Forgeot, Paris

Japanese Postwar Photography, Installation view, Librairie Benoît Forgeot, Paris