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More than transformation to a photo critic’s eye

by Jeff Kingston

THE HISTORY OF JAPANESE PHOTOGRAPHY, edited and translated by John Junkerman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, 404 pp. $65 (cloth).

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, deserves kudos for sponsoring this superb slab of a book. This is certainly an impressively organized, thoughtful and comprehensive homage to many great Japanese photographers. The lavishly reproduced 206 images spanning 150 years evocatively capture the range and evolution of photography in Japan and eloquently amplify the seven scholarly essays.

Japanese photographic aesthetics are shown to reflect both changing international and local tastes and contexts. Indeed, the fascinating discussions of cultural context and influential individuals impart a greater appreciation for what is essentially Japanese and quintessentially universal in these photographs. International influences continually inspire new developments and genres, resonating in often fascinating ways among local artists. Here we come to understand shared lineages and distinctive visions.

Curator of photography Anne Tucker laments how the emphasis on the universal in photo criticism has been overdone: “artists of different nationalities may share aesthetic and topical concerns that override mere regional interests, [but] to minimize cultural differences needlessly diminishes the levels on which the work may be approached. For instance, while Yasumasa Morimura confronts issues of gender identity, celebrity, and art as a commodity, he also deals frequently with the complications of being an Asian man trying to relate to traditions of Western painting and Western standards of beauty.”

This volume powerfully documents and discusses cross-cultural influences and how they have been refracted through local prisms. As Tucker notes, “The aesthetic debates that ran though the twentieth century in Japanese photography mirror Japan’s simultaneous responsiveness and resistance to artistic movements in the West.”

We learn also about the politics of photography. For example, Hiroshi Hamaya, one of the superb documentary photographers of post-World War II Japan, left his photo agency during the war. He escaped from the pressures of propaganda magazines and censorship, finding refuge in Niigata where he focused on rural life. His books, “Yuki Guni” and “Ura Nihon,” were inspired by this exile. He became the first Japanese contributing photographer to Magnum Photos, the pre-eminent agency when photo-journalism was at its peak.

The politics in the world of photography and among critics is detailed here, but may be less than riveting for all but specialists. Such discussions, however, reveal a dynamic world and vital tradition where the meaning, purpose and function of content, technique and subject matter was, and is, continually challenged. Through these images, and in their margins and negatives, we can discern a social and intellectual history of Japan.

Some of the essayists are more learned than inspired in their assessments, but this is to quibble, as the photos are given pride of place and eloquently convey what is to be discerned. Many of these images will linger after only a single viewing, luring us back to dip again and again through this brimming treasure trove.

In his essay on “The Evolution of Postwar Photography,” photo-historian Kotaro Iizawa writes: “As ideas of the individual and society were torn asunder in the 1970s, photographic expression likewise was severely shaken. With the diversification of values, it became impossible to maintain a fixed, unwavering point of view, and no single ‘ideology’ or style could emerge to represent the era. Photographers followed their own individual approaches to explore the role of the photograph in connecting the self to the Other, and the self to the world.”

In perhaps the most intriguing essay, art curator Dana Friis-Hansen draws our attention to the contemporary focus on, “The tension between a tradition-oriented past and a globally focused future.” He points out that the younger generation of artists encounter, and are influenced by, the global art village quite differently than their forbears. They have had more sustained access and are better integrated in this world.

He writes, “the best artists of the time had their roots in Japan and their heads in a more global atmosphere.” In addition, he contends that the infrastructure of photography and the professionalization of its distribution as an artistic medium has flourished since the 1980s, creating a different and far more dynamic context for this genre: internationalization, growing individualism and technological advances are transforming photography. Significantly, this encompasses the emergence of women photographers, mapping of shifting social schemes, exploration of unfamiliar peripheries, assertion of new identities, shaping of new vocabularies and challenging of a male-dominated medium.

Reflecting the reality of Japan in general, where verities are quickly fading and the landscape of the once familiar is now nearly unrecognizable, Friis-Hansen concludes that the photo world is in turmoil. With dominant media mega-agencies like Corbis leading the race to the bottom, magazines cutting corners and the Internet and digital revolutions presenting new challenges, it is all too easy to grow morose about future prospects. Here we can thank the editor for an inspiring and powerful reminder of what excellent photography can be and why it manages to survive against the odds.