Art Works Blog

Shomei Tomatsu & Tokyo’s New Avant-Garde

While relatively unknown to the American public, the recent passing of Shomei Tomatsu left the photography world grieving. The January 2013 obituary from The Guardian for Tomatsu called him one of “the most influential Japanese photographer[s] of the postwar era.”

Tomatsu grew up as witness to the devastation of World War II and the aftermath of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan in 1945. A self-taught photographer, Tomatsu focused on Nagasaki in the 1960s to document the impact of the bombs and the realities of living in a war-torn country. Tomatsu described what he found as “not only the scars of war, but a never-ending postwar. I, who had thought of ruins only as the transmutation of the cityscape, learned that ruins lie within people as well.”

Unlike the Japanese photographers before him, Tomatsu abandoned a traditional photojournalistic method. Instead, he elevated representational photography to a symbolic and expressive medium, which he used to document a significant time period of creative, cultural, and economic growth for postwar Japan. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently hosted a special multimedia exhibition, Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, which looks at the city’s artistic community as Japan emerged from it’s war-torn past. Tomatsu’s photography is featured in the show and lends its own narrative to the exhibition’s story of  “artistic crossings, collaborations, and, at times, conflicts, with the city as an incubator.”

We spoke with MoMA associate curator, Doryun Chong, about the development of the exhibition, the specific Tomatsu photographs included in the show, and the artistic shift away from photographic realism in capturing images of postwar Japan.

NEA: Tell us about the exhibition’s pieces and the Tomatsu work that is included.

DORYUN CHONG: The show includes one of Tomatsu’s famous photographs of an atomic bomb victim, an almost extreme close-up photo of a woman with a disfigured face. We call it Christian with Keloidal Scars from 1961. We have a couple of photos from 1969 of protests in Tokyo which show very blurry [images] with extreme contrast of light and shadow. We also have photos that Tomatsu took of local politicians from 1957 and there's an image called the Physic Medium from Aomori in Northern Prefecture from 1959. There are also several photographs from his Americanization series, one of which shows young people lounging in a beach resort at Zushi, playing a card game, from 1964. The exhibition includes quite a range [of Tomatsu’s work.]

NEA: Can you explain how the photography fits into the exhibition?

CHONG: The artists in the exhibition who are primarily known as photographers, including Tomatsu of course, as well as Daido Moriyama, Eikoh Hosoe, Kikuji Kawada, and others, are included in a separate section [of the exhibition], at the very end of it. The show is a widely multi-medium, multi-disciplinary exhibition. It has a lot of paintings and sculptures, as well as quite a number of drawings and prints, installations---there's even a little bit of architecture and graphic design, plus video. It covers all the visual arts mediums. I thought a good deal about how to integrate photography. In the end, I decided that while many of these photographers collaborated with either mutual artists or cultural producers, they also developed their own field, as their own independent and industry. All of the exhibition’s photographic works are shown in a very dense hanging at the end of the show; all of them are black-and-white. This view shows all the images of the different photographers, and really gives you almost a kaleidoscopic snapshot of Tokyo and Japan, high and low, traditional and foreign. In the end, I thought there would be much more impact by having them all concentrated in one area.

NEA: How does Tomatsu's style and his work relate to what other Japanese artists were doing at the time?

CHONG: Among the photographers, Tomatsu is one of the most collaborative. Most of the photographers at this time were moving away from straightforward realism. I think this is maybe the generation that pushed that idea. Trying to show converse relationships between photography and realism while still being very interested in what was happening in their real surroundings. This really moves forward with the generation that immediately follows, and a photography group often known as the Provoke Group---the most famous photographer being Daido Maoriyama. There was a very active discourse, mainly among the photographers but also filmmakers, about the question of documentary and what the relationship between documentary and reality should be. This fundamental and collective element of film, whether it is photographic film or moving image film---the capturing of reality---was a motor that drove the wide range of experimentation that has to do with the texture and the surface and materiality of film that really comes alive during this time.

NEA: What sparked the idea to mount Tokyo: A New Avant-Garde?

CHONG: Tokyo between the mid-1950s and 1970s is clearly a productive time period and place that still remains understudied. This, in some ways, is of sufficient reasons in and of itself. But also, the field of Japanese art history has been growing in general in the museum world and in the scholarly world. In the last few years, there have been many exhibitions about post-war Japan. A lot of people are interested in why many museums and major galleries are suddenly taking an interest in Japanese art, and I often tell them this is actually an on-going trend that stretches back to the 1990s. There have been very significant exhibitions, both survey shows or more focused shows by mediums or artists, and now there is a groundswell of interest and awareness that Japan has produced very significant modern and contemporary art, especially in the latter half of the 20th century. Any museum in the U.S. that covers modern or contemporary art cannot ignore that aspect.

The third [factor in organizing the show] is that any curator organizing an exhibition tries to match or marry his or her personal interests with what the museum is interested in, what the museum requires. So in that sense, I did some research on MoMA's history of engagement with Japan and found it is a long and diverse one. There have been some major exhibitions, going back to the 1960s. For instance, there was a major show called The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture that toured different venues in North America. There was also truly a landmark exhibition in 1974 called New Japanese Photography, and it encompassed all the people and practitioners working on photography in Japan at the time. This was also a very important event for MoMA because a huge amount of our collection of Japanese photography came out of that show. Having done a kind of archeological research on MoMA's history with Japan, it also became very clear that now we're at a time of maturing scholarship and broader interest---not only scholarly but also the public's interest in this field. That became the impetus for organizing a much more focused, in-depth kind of exhibition.

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