What provoked Japan’s contemporary photography?

by Mio Yamada

Special To The Japan Times

In 1968, as the world reeled from The Prague Spring, the turbulent union and student strikes in France, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Japan, like so many other nations, found itself in the midst of social unrest. Citizens questioned the West’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and as the nation’s close relationship with the United States became strained, public resentment of U.S. military bases spread. Antiwar and antibase protests compounded domestic political turmoil as students fought university reforms and corruption, locals protested the construction of Narita International Airport, and other regional struggles dotted the nation.

Given the social landscape of the time, “1968: Japanese Photography” could easily have been a dramatic journalistic documentation of postwar Japan’s social progress. Instead, however, it presents images of an almost contradictory composure as it charts the emergence of a new direction in photographic aesthetics.

In reaction to documentaries, propaganda, marketing and art, photographers sought to create images that simply reflected societal changes, not ones that served a purpose. As curator Kaneko Ryuichi explains in this exhibition’s catalog, Nishii Kazuo, an editor of Camera Mainichi, described it as “not commercial, not journalistic, not art, only that to which only the word ‘photograph’ could be applied.”

There were no rules regarding style, but a consistency in candidness, snapshot compositions and focus on the everyday prevailed. And though much of it was fueled by a rise in amateur photography, it was the likes of Yutaka Takanashi, Kishin Shinoyama, Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki who brought such aesthetics to fame.

“1968: Japanese Photography,” brings together images sourced from the outcome of three ’68 events seminal to the evolution of Japan’s modern photography: “A Century of Photography: History of Japanese Photographic Expression in the past 100 years,” the first historical exploration of the medium in a major exhibition; the launch of Provoke, a magazine described as “provocative materials for thought”; and the introduction of the term “konpora” (a redaction of “contemporary photo”) in Camera Mainichi magazine.

While the 100-year exhibition proposed that photography could be an art form in its own right, Provoke, founded by critic Koji Taki and photographers Takuma Nakahiro and Yutaka Takanashi, gave photographers an outlet to show experimental work. Though the publication only lasted until 1970, this was where Moriyama’s now-famous grainy and blurry shots received an audience and Araki revealed intimate snaps of his honeymoon. Camera Mainichi’s konpora photographs, meanwhile, emphasized the quotidian, publishing series such as Suzuki Kiyoshi’s “Roadside” travel pictures and Shigeo Gocho’s local street scenes in “Days.”

In their celebration of the commonplace and even banal, this exhibition’s photos, which span 1966 to 1974, appear to merely offer glimpses of ordinary life. But as prosaic as that may sound, the results were more profound than the photographers perhaps intended. In Takao Niikura’s “Safety Zone” series, for example, an acceptance of Japan’s Americanization is revealed in local fashion and activities. In Kazuo Kitai’s “Barricade,” a focus on the unattended belongings of student protesters alludes to their activities by drawing attention to their absence.

What Provoke called in its manifesto “fragments of reality,” and advocates of konpora described as an “immersion in everyday context,” resulted in a reflection of societal change that documentarians could not achieve — one that is both subtle and strong.

“1968: Japanese Photography” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till July 15; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.(Thu., Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥600. Closed Mon. www.syabi.com