There are two good reasons to see the exhibition on the short-lived photography magazine Koga, now on at the Tokyo Photographic Art (TOP) Museum. One is that it is full of powerful images that will linger in the memory despite their relative simplicity. The other is that, as the story of art continues to develop beyond the confines of paintings and sculptures by dead white men, the inventiveness and distinct character of the avant-garde photography in Koga deserves greater exposure for what it can tell us about Japanese visual culture of the 1930s.
Until the 1920s, fine art photography was dominated by the idea that in order to be taken seriously, it should be reminiscent of oil painting. Photography’s ability to record the outside world with clarity and detail, the attributes that made it novel and unique, were considered too literal for a medium of artistic expression.
The German movements of the neue sachlichkeit (new objectivity), neues sehen (new vision), which arose in the mid- and late ’20s respectively, both embraced the mechanical nature of photography and led to an ebullient outbreak of experimentation. Collage, photomontage, abstraction, solarization and generally making the everyday uncanny arose in a spirit of social criticism and desire to expand the limits of human perception.
Though the focus of the TOP Museum’s exhibition is on Japanese modernism, it opens with the works of a number of European innovators, including Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer of the Bauhaus school, whose work contributed to the rise of the shinkō shashin (new photog raphy) movement in Japan in 1930.
Pictorial photography had beforehand attempted to distract attention from the technological quality of the art form with romantic compositions and emphasis on the labor of hand-printing. Shinkō shashin took up the cause of exploring the potential of photography as a medium fit for modern times.
Unless new research reveals otherwise, this exhibition is a reminder that Japan took to avant-garde photography with an enthusiasm that was matched by few other countries at the time. Historically recognized individuals in Russia, France, Germany and the U.S. have been credited with developing particular tropes of modernist photography. However, the degree to which amateur photo clubs, study groups and magazines in Japan pursued and developed avant-garde photographic practice, often to stunningly inventive effect, is far from adequately acknowledged in the international art scene or English-language scholarship.
Many of the most memorable images in the exhibition may not display radically novel techniques, but make their impact through the serendipitous combination of composition, intent, timing and beautiful printing. Yasuzo Nojima’s 1931 bromoil print “Woman,” for example, is conventionally pictorial, with a sepia coloration and soft, textured surface from an oil-based ink layer. But in terms of showing a slightly disinterested moga (a contraction of “modern” and “girl”) dressed in a swimsuit with chevron design and a short haircut, it is thoroughly modern. Kansuke Yamamoto’s surrealist photographs, of a singlet hanging on a chest of numbered drawers, and crumpled fedora with a rune-like triangle of thread over it, also don’t sound like they would be that interesting, but they have a haunting aura.
Koga only ran from 1932 to 1933, and the final section of the exhibition shows how the inter-war experimentation of photographers and designers was subsequently used to promote imperialism through magazines such as the undeniably beautiful Nippon and Front. Explorations of the subconscious, the absurd and the grotesque were dropped in these more “wholesome” publications, though the development of dynamic editorial photography mixed with photomontage fitted the optimism and confidence of Japan at the start of the Pacific War.
“The Magazine and the New Photography: Koga and Japanese Modernism” at TOP Museum runs until May 6; ¥700. For more information, visit topmuseum.jp/e/contents/index.html.