Japan: A Self-Portrait, Photographs 1945–1964 

Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo, 2009 / Ken Domon Museum, Sakata, 2009 / Aichi Museum of Art, Nagoya, 2009 / Niigata Museum of Modern Art, Niigata, 2010 / Kiyosato MoPA, Kiyosato, 2010

Based on the book Japan: A Self-Portrait, Photographs 1945–1964, I curated an exhibition with the same name which opened at the Setagaya Art Museum in May 2009 and traveled to several other venues in Japan. 

Japan: A Self-Portrait reveals the changing face of life in Japan from the end of the Pacific War in 1945 to the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 through photographs by eleven of Japan’s leading post-war photographers Ken Domon, Hiroshi Hamaya, Tadahiko Hayashi, Eikoh Hosoe, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Ihee Kimura, Shigeichi Nagano, Ikko Narahara, Takeyoshi Tanuma, and Shomei Tomatsu.

By observing the role of photography in the evolution of post-war Japan, this exhibition shows how photography was able to play a crucial role in the search for the nation’s new identity. The works of these photographers are an extraordinary document of the birth of a new Japan and of a new photographic generation whose dynamism and creativity laid the foundations for modern Japanese photography. 

Hiroshi Hamaya. The sun on the day of defeat. Takada, Niigata, 1945.

Hiroshi Hamaya. The sun on the day of defeat. Takada, Niigata, 1945.

I wrote the essay Staring at the Sun for the exhibition catalogue. Here is an extract:

Japanese photography had gone through a remarkable renaissance and reinvigoration during the 1950s and early 1960s. The dynamism of photography in postwar Japan was part of a larger artistic boom encompassing film, dance, theatre, literature and other art forms. Certain photographers began experimenting with these other mediums in their search for new photographic approaches. In 1964, Hosoe, Nagano and Tomatsu all joined the film crew for Kon Ichikawa’s film on the Tokyo Olympics, Tokyo Olympiad.

The photographer that was the most active at the crossroads between these different art forms was Eikoh Hosoe. Throughout his career Hosoe’s work has been characterised by collaboration with figures from other artistic disciplines, from the novelist Yukio Mushima to the Butoh dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. During the 1960s Hosoe convinced Mishima and Hijikata to collaborate with him on two of the most powerful photographic publications of the era, Barakei (Killed by Roses, 1963) and Kamaitachi (1969). In both of these series established a close collaboration with these artists, creating strange intensely personal worlds around each of them.

Eikoh Hosoe.  Barakei  #32, 1961.

Eikoh Hosoe. Barakei #32, 1961.

(...) The works presented in this exhibition are a reflection of the complexity of modern Japanese identity. This postwar period was characterised by seismic changes in all areas of the economy and of society. Many of these changes were extremely abrupt and threw wide open the question of what was becoming of Japanese identity. In the catalogue to the 1974 exhibition New Japanese Photography, John Szarkowski remarked that, “it would seem that photography is ideally suited to deal with the definition of such revolutionary change.” During the postwar years Japanese photography went through one of the most effervescent periods in its history. Although the artists presented in this exhibition have radically different and sometimes opposing photographic approaches, they are united by their unwavering desire to grapple with the fundamental question, “What is Japan?”

By Marc Feustel

Installation view, Setagaya Art Museum

Installation view, Setagaya Art Museum

Installation view, Setagaya Art Museum

Installation view, Setagaya Art Museum

Installation view, Setagaya Art Museum

Installation view, Setagaya Art Museum