At age 15 in 1945, Shomei Tomatsu was working at an aircraft assembly plant in Nagoya. U.S. B-29s were bombing the industrial city so relentlessly that by the end of World War II, nine out of 10 of its buildings were destroyed — compared with five out of 10 in Tokyo.
Still, just months before the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Tomatsu paid no heed to the air-raid sirens that called out in the night. Instead of fleeing to an underground shelter, he would lie on his bed and adjust a large mirror in which he could watch the reflections of the B-29s roaring in. They were “a feast of metallic beauty” he would write later, “a pageant of light.”
Echoes of those nights of terrible beauty permeate the photographs Tomatsu would take in the process of becoming the preeminent chronicler of Japan’s postwar experience. No other photographer of his generation would look so long and so hard at the effects of destruction on a proud, broken and exhausted population.
“Skin of the Nation,” a retrospective exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has for almost a year now been introducing audiences in New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco to Tomatsu’s work. It is now on display at the Fotomuseum Winterthur outside of Zurich, Switzerland, where it will be shown through Nov. 19 before traveling to the Gallerie Rodolfinum, Prague.
“The past looms among all things in Tomatsu’s Japan,” writes photographer and essayist Leo Rubinfien in the exhibition’s catalog. “The landscape there is infested with memories.” He isn’t referring to Japanese society’s collective memory, which like most is notoriously untrustworthy and tortured, and perhaps not a little lazy. Rubinfien speaks instead of Tomatsu’s own particular way of seeing the world around him. Namely, his total inability to document the present without referring to the past.
When considering individual photographs, this important aspect of Tomatsu’s work is not always apparent, but “Skin of the Nation” reveals the fundamental tendencies and sensibilities that run throughout much of the photographer’s best works.
A black-and-white photograph of a group of young Japanese playing cards at the beach in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1961 is at first glance little more than a finely composed record of weekend relaxation. But seen in the context of the many images taken both before and after, it is a moving vision of the freedom and joy to which, after years of reconstruction, Japan had begun to feel it was again entitled.
Similarly, photographs of Shinjuku, which were published as a pictorial essay titled “Oh! Shinjuku” in the photography journal Mainichi in 1969, are one long rhapsody on the hope, desperation and both hedonistic and political abandon that defined that neighborhood as a character in the Japanese postwar drama. The war is everywhere in this work, but nowhere is it judged. It’s as if — as Donald Richie wrote of Mitsuo Yanagimachi, a contemporary filmmaker — “everything is shown but nothing is explained.”
Tomatsu has frequently spoken about how he has come to understand the war and its memory, perhaps most eloquently when he wrote, after working with survivors from Nagasaki: “What I saw in Nagasaki were not only the scars of war, but a never-ending postwar. I, who had thought of ruins only as the transmutation of cityscapes, learned that ruins lie within people as well.”
Tomatsu is rare among Japanese, belonging as he does to a relatively small portion of the population that was too young at the time of the conflict to really believe in it — yet too old to be able to ignore it. They form what Tomatsu once called the “beliefless generation,” stuck somewhere between the heavy burden of shame and guilt carried by those adults who had lived through and fought the war, and the ignorance and insouciance of those born after it who have only a vague notion of its costs.
The curators of “Skin of the Nation” chose to display Tomatsu’s pictures thematically rather than chronologically. As a result, it is easy to see a powerful consistency of vision, if not an outright unity, running through his focus on events, periods and ideas. These range from the human and material ruins of the A-bomb attack on Nagasaki that Tomatsu recorded for the Japan Council Against Hydrogen Bombs in 1960 — for which he is perhaps best known — to the sprawling U.S. military bases where Japan’s conquerors established strange homes away from home amid local populations, and a nation at large that harbored toward them feelings of both love and hate. There are, too, images of the southern Islands of Okinawa, where Tomatsu began to take color photographs for the first time, and where he captured a glimpse of what Japan might once have been — but which it most surely, perhaps tragically, is no longer.
Like many prominent 20th-century photographers, Tomatsu is largely preoccupied with the details of light, texture and space that combine in a single critical moment of suspended reality. His pictures have the unrehearsed and vulnerable quality of an instant captured despite itself, a quality that is easily recognized as sharing much with journalistic reportage. But they also reveal an obsessive focus on the symbolic power of people, things and places that are often presented without the narrative vision and preoccupation with relevance and clarity that mark the best journalistic images.
This has led some critics, most famously the photographer Yonosuke Natori, to attack Tomatsu’s work as not “respectful of reality,” and claim that it makes “no effort to be understood by others.”
But Tomatsu never claimed to be part of, or even partial to, the journalistic tradition that Natori felt he was betraying. He has argued in one form or another throughout his career that his work is not about offering explanations, but about asking questions, placing the viewer in a world “full of memories” that suggest meanings that are both apparent yet only tantalizingly suggested.
It is perhaps for this reason that Tomatsu’s work remains so fresh and compelling today. Though a member of the “beliefless generation,” even Tomatsu’s most serious work, like the photographs he took of the scarred survivors of the Nagasaki A-bomb attack, is never cynical nor brooding in a morass of self-serving nihilism. He is, too, never tempted by the absolute notions of good/evil or right/wrong that are all too often adopted as self-evident pieties by those who purport to defend the memory of the deformed and the departed.
Ever since he was a boy, watching bombers and the fiery destruction of Nagoya in his bedroom mirror, Tomatsu has understood, as Rubinfien puts it, “the importance and beauty of the almost.”
As “Skin of the Nation” makes clear, he has for almost as long managed to capture that beauty for us all on film.