The current show, ‘Fuji Paradigms: Visions of Mt. Fuji,’ at the Izu Photo Museum is in two parts. One is an amalgamation of images in varied formats that depict Mount Fuji as a national symbol, and the other is a tightly focused collection that documents the work of one man, Count Masanao Abe, who photographed Mount Fuji from the same spot for 18 years.

If the subject of either of these collections was only Mount Fuji, the exhibition would be extremely pedestrian. However, the diversity of formats in the first part, and the single-mindedness of the second raise so many interesting questions about photography, perception, nature and nationalism that “Fuji Paradigms: Visions of Mt. Fuji” is more than another variation of an overdone topic.

Apart from one outlying black-and-white print by the Taisho- and early Showa-Era amateur photographer Fukuhara Shinzo (“I didn’t know where else to put it,” one of the curators said), the exhibition opens with numerous examples of 19th-century “Yokohama shashin,” a style of photography first pioneered by Europeans whose studios were based in the treaty port, and whose aesthetic background was classical Western landscape painting and kitsch Victorian studio portraiture. This was enthusiastically taken up by Japanese photographers and moonlighting ukiyo-e craftsmen who hand-tinted the images. The resulting fairy-tale pictures were bound into elaborately decorated lacquered albums and became a profitable export business.

Known as “views” and “types,” the images of this quasi-anthropological form of landscape photography and posed shots of natives in traditional garb were a potent feature of Western colonial power around the world. Japan is notable for being probably the only country that actively appropriated this process and, intentionally or not, for promoting its own exoticization.

Yokohama shashin ran the gamut from the poetic and subtle, building on Mount Fuji’s reputation as a literary trope in classical literature, but also including the eye-wateringly absurd. One image, for example, shows a row of “coolies” doing chorus-line kicks with a painted Mount Fuji in the background.

The historical significance of Yokohama shashin has been reassessed in the last decade or so, and the mixture of constructed fantasy and high-quality photography is quite absorbing. As the exhibition transitions from the 19th to the 20th century, however, representations of Mount Fuji are conscripted into the service of a more strident national identity.

Going through the novelty of stereoscopy and the relatively prosaic medium of mass-produced black-and-white postcards, we get a sense of foreboding from a display of printed matter using Mount Fuji to promote Japan in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and for the 1940 Tokyo Olympic bid. Following this is a large selection of propaganda postcards showing the Japanese Army on manoeuvres at the base of Mount Fuji with Japanese war planes above it.

These are juxtaposed with U.S. propaganda images from after Japan’s surrender, one of the most striking being a magazine advert for Boeing with an aerial photograph of B-29s flying over Mount Fuji’s snow-covered caldera. Other images show U.S. Navy battleships anchored off the coast of Shizuoka, with the mountain in the background. Through retouching, the ships appear unusually dark — they were used in the Japanese media to symbolically identify the American occupation of 1945 with Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships of 1853. In fact, although the exhibition is nominally split into two parts, the curator intentionally embedded a commemoration of the end of World War II into the first section, this year being the 70th anniversary.

“Mount Fuji and Atmospheric Science: Masanao Abe’s Research,” the second part of the exhibition, showcases the research of guest curator Helmut Volter. In contrast to the overt cultural and ideological projection of the previous section, Volter focuses on the documentation of scientist Abe, who, between 1927 and 1941 photographed cloud formations over Mount Fuji from a self-financed observation station.

The display of large black-and-white prints, diagrams, books and time-lapse video is challenging on a number of levels. The images were never meant to be fine-art prints, and they may be unsatisfying if viewed as such. However, neither is it Volter’s intention to present a straightforward inventory of scientific research.

Rather, our attention is drawn to the single-mindedness of Abe’s endeavor as a kind of performance, underpinned with yearning and romanticism. Visually the exhibits are dispassionate, but they indicate a powerful desire nonetheless; in this case for knowing and understanding at an objective or absolute level. The ambiguous reason that Abe gave for quitting his project — “because of the war” — portends the radical change to our relationship with science after the use of Zyklon B and the atom bomb.

Taken together, the two sections of the exhibition are a subtle and engaging consideration not of Mount Fuji but of photography in general, and how it can be used to construct and support different realities. Of course, being in Izu, outside the museum there is a great view of the mountain itself. It’s quite spectacular, but you probably already know that.

“Fuji Paradigms: Visions of Mt. Fuji” at the Izu Photo Museum runs till July 5; open 10 a.m. — 5 p.m. (April-Aug. till 6 p.m.). ¥800. Closed Wed. www.izuphoto-museum.jp


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