The broad historical narrative of Japan following the end of the WWII is well known. Comprehensive defeat, followed by rapid rebuilding, industrialisation and westernisation accompanied by the inevitable struggle to rebuild national pride and identity. The aim of this exhibition was to “reflect(s) on the turbulent period that followed the war, exhibiting over 100 black and white photographs by 11 leading Japanese photographers.” It cover the period from 1945 to around the late 60s ending just before the Provoke era photographers came to the fore (around 1968).
Given the degree of change that Japan saw in this period 100 photos and 11 photographers was always going to be rather “broad brush” but there were nonetheless some fascinating contrasts and a real sense of change was developed through the exhibition.
The exhibition was divided into 3 broad sections – the first covering the immediate aftermath of the war, the second the period of social modernisation and both characterised by photo-realism – fairly traditional documentary photography. The final section, in which a new national pride and identity emerges, shows Japanese photography emerging from its photographic realism phase into a more subjective medium.
The first section started, perhaps inevitably, with Hamaya’s “The Sun on the Day of Defeat” and has a whole selection of shots showing the desperate straits city dwellers in particular found themselves in in the years after the war. It was during this period that the influence of Ken Domon and his strict photo-realism really started to bite – such that the primary focus of Japanese photography throughout much of the decade after the war was straight photography. Oddly this also produced some startlingly enjoyable images such as Kimura’s beautiful portrait of a Young Woman in traditional dress and the almost impossibly cute “Dressed to go shopping” by Tanuma. Better versions of these can be found on the links. Kawada’s “The Map” is a subjective and powerful view of the scars left by the war, which, as the taped commentary available on the Open Eye website implies is photographically closer to the era of the third section, but content wise clearly belongs to a nation coming to terms with a major war.
The second section has more transitional imagery reflecting Japan’s search for its identity – including more work by Hamaya – one of my favourite photographers. Hamaya was the first Japanese photographer to join Magnum and spent much time photographing areas of Japan where tradition hung on. The classic example is probably Yukiguni which was not represented in this exhibition but many will have seen his “Woman planting rice”. Much of his work is more personal than contemporary social documentary work. He also photographed the student riots of the period – represented here by a “during and after” pair of shots showing something of the passions released during this period.
The final section has clearly moved away from Domon’s straight photography. Hosoe’s Barakei draws on traditional Japanese drama to produce works with a theatricality which some have argued was unknown to the west – while Tomatsu’s Hiroshima work is also well removed from the realist tradition relying on the symbolism of objects to create its narrative.
I don’t think it’s possible to leave this exhibition without a sense of the huge changes Japan has undergone, and the way that photography has adopted – perhaps even helped shape – the new national identity that resulted. And yet – almost like parentheses around the period - Hamaya’s opening shot reminds me of some of Moriyama’s Provoke work. Oddly, it was a pointer to the changes to come.