A freedom that fostered richness

'Press Photographers' Story' surveys great Japanese photojournalism of the 20th century


Two exhibitions now showing at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography offer a fascinating contrast in photojournalism.

“Press Photographers’ Story,” in the second-floor gallery through July 5, brings together the works of five well-known Japanese news photographers who were active from the 1930s to the early ’70s. Meanwhile, two flights down in the basement gallery, “World Press Photo ’09” presents 200 startlingly contemporary press photographs from all over the world, the latest winners in an annual competition.

The current photographs are definitely more accessible, with their oversize format, vivid color and themes from recent nightly news shows. But the upstairs exhibition will reward the patient viewer, first and foremost by providing a historical context for Japanese news photography, but also by presenting understated images that are at times both beautiful and deeply moving.

“Press Photographers’ Story” presents more than 200 photographs, mostly by five photographers who worked for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper — Koyo Kageyama, Gen Otsuka, Senzo Yoshioka, Katsu Funayama and Keiichi Akimoto. In addition to images from the museum’s extensive collection, the exhibit includes a special selection from the newspaper’s archives of more than 100 war photographs. These were taken by staff photographers sent overseas to cover two conflicts, the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and the Vietnam War.

“Asahi Shimbun was the first paper in Japan to create an independent news photography division, which they did before 1930,” show curator Yoshiko Suzuki told The Japan Times in an interview. “Throughout the 1930s, newspapers expanded their use of photographers, in part to meet the demand for war coverage but also in response to the rise of magazine journalism.” In addition to a daily newspaper, Asahi Shimbun published several news magazines, including Asahi Camera and Asahi Graf, which relied heavily on photography to report the news.

“The company recruited very talented individuals like Kageyama, the first photographer on staff with a specialized education in photography, and then granted them a great deal of latitude, including permission to work for other publishers,” Suzuki explained. “Perhaps as a result of that freedom, these five photographers all exhibit an unusual richness of expression and a real eye for capturing the era in their work.”

Certainly the most poignant images in the exhibit are by Koyo Kageyama (1907-81), including a series on the brief life of his son Yoshihiko, who died at 5 of tubercular meningitis. Part of a larger series published in book form as “Imokko Yocchan no Issho” (“The Life of Little Yotchan”; 1948), the photographs follow the ordinary activities of a happy child, obviously cherished by his family, as he slips into illness and death. The shot of his body in a tiny casket is as understated as the rest of the series, yet fully conveys a bereaved father’s grief.

Next to this are several photographs taken of babies and children at the Elizabeth Sanders Home, an orphanage founded in 1948 to shelter mixed-race children born to Japanese mothers and Allied soldiers during the Occupation. It is a testament to Kageyama’s talent and empathy that, although the children appear happy and well cared for, the photographs nevertheless evoke great sadness. The photographer made it his life work to chronicle the growth of these children, and did a great deal to raise public sympathy and support for their plight.

Gen Otsuka (1912-92) joined Asahi Shimbun in 1934 with a strong background in photography — his father was a pioneer in the the field of photographic retouching, and with his father’s encouragement, he majored in photography at university. Among Otsuka’s works on exhibit are shots of professional boxers and wrestlers, as well as street scenes that beautifully capture the mood of Showa Era (1925-89) cities. There are also several artistic montages that incorporate sharp social commentary, and a photograph of Henri Cartier-Bresson in which the famous French photographer is dwarfed by an anonymous man in the foreground.

Perhaps the most beautiful images, although few in number, are by Katsu Funayama, the only one of the five who is still alive. Drafted in 1943, he survived the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines and returned to Japan, joining Asahi Shimbun in 1945. He did most of his work for Asahi Graf. His famous “Tokyo” series is characterized by acute angles and brilliant use of light and shadow.

Other highlights include portraits of famous people taken by Senzo Yoshioka (1916-2005), including an expressive closeup of stage designer Kisaku Itoh, and a quietly shocking series taken during the Vietnam War by Keiichi Akimoto (1930-79) that documents the 1965 death by firing squad of a student still in his teens. When published in Shukan Asahi and Asahi Graf, this series created a sensation. The presentation in Shukan Asahi was particularly powerful, because the photos were presented in reverse sequence, beginning with a shot of the scene after the body was removed.

This is news photography at its best: images with the power to impress even half a century after the events they describe.

“Press Photographers’ Story” is showing till July 5 (¥700) and “World Press Photo ’09” till Aug. 9 (¥500) at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 1-13-3 Mita, Meguro-ku (a 7-min. walk from the East Exit of JR Ebisu Station); open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thurs. & Fri. till 8 p.m.; closed Mon.). For more information call (03) 3280-0099 or visit www.syabi.com