Two photographers in a state of play

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

In an intriguing double-header, two of photography’s more colorful characters are exhibited together at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, providing an interesting glimpse of the art form as play. Shoji Ueda (1913-2000) is probably best known for his surreal, sometimes comic images of figures amid the sand dunes of Tottori Prefecture, while Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986), an amateur from a privileged background, has left to posterity ordinary situations made curious through his childlike gaze.

While both photographers are now recognized as being major figures in the history of photography, Ueda and Lartigue have, in part, been paired due to their self-professed “amateurism.” Both started photography young, but while Lartigue was an autodidact who was ostensibly more interested in painting as a serious art form, Ueda had professional training in Tokyo and worked as a commercial photographer. Resistant to having his skills subsumed into the war effort, Ueda stopped taking photos after 1941, and when he returned to photography in the postwar period his quirky playfulness was at odds with the current of social realism, fiercely promoted by Ken Domon.

By the 1950s, however, Ueda’s eclectic mixture of Dali-esque desert landscapes, nudes, bowler-hatted men and mischievous and unusual compositions was receiving positive attention both in Japan and abroad, especially in France, where in 1996 he was awarded the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres.

Lartigue, on the other hand, did not achieve widespread recognition for his photography until he was in his late 60s. The most retold version of his story is that he was an unknown prodigy, whose huge collection of personal snapshots of speeding cars, fashionable women of the Belle Époque and swimmers caught in mid-air were “discovered” by the esteemed New York MoMA photography curator John Szarkowski. It is an appealing narrative, considered a fabrication in some research, that seems to resonate with the quality of youthful joy many of Lartigue’s images have, and promotes the idea of the photographer as a blithe amateur, unconcerned with the demands and fashions of the art market.

Despite living through two world wars and the Nazi occupation of his home country, Lartigue avoided photographing what he thought would be depressing subjects, and this lacuna is also an interesting connection between the two photographers, though the context and motivation for such avoidance are quite different.

In an interview at the end of his career Ueda noted that the dunes of Tottori had been off limits during the war, as they were used for military exercises. His contemporaries may have seen his work as lacking social relevance, but it is also possible to see Ueda’s return to the area that became such an integral part of his work as reclaiming a small part of Japan for the artistic and emotional freedom of prewar ero-guro-nansensu, the spirit of “erotic, grotesque, nonsense” that flourished before the deadly serious era of ultra-nationalism. In this sense, the two photographers are quite distinct; Lartigue excitedly snatched at life as it flew past while Ueda created a space of dreams outside of time.

“Ueda Shoji & Jacques Henri Lartigue: Play with Photography” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, runs till Jan. 26; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu. till 8 p.m.). ¥700. Closed Mon. www.syabi.com