The Japanese Shōwa period, coinciding with the reign of Emperor Hirohito from 1926 to 1989, is noted as one of Japan’s most tumultuous and transformative eras. Over these many decades Japan went from a militaristic empire to a conquered, occupied nation – one that had experienced first-hand the horrors of atomic warfare. After WWII, it crawled out of the embers of defeat to metamorphose into a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse. This rebirth opened Japan to a deluge of foreign ideas and influences.
Against this backdrop many Japanese photographers would emerge to document the profound changes in their nation with bare, raw realism. Others pushed the boundaries of long held societal norms and taboos.
I’ve taken on the daunting task of picking just five photographers from this long period. These five Shōwa era masters of light exemplify the blistering pace of life that was challenging the very foundations of the nation. They propelled Japanese photography down new pathways.
Daido Moriyama (1938- )
For me, photography is not a means by which to create beautiful art, but a unique way of encountering genuine reality. – Daido Moriyama
After serving as an assistant to the influential photographer, Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama would seek to interpret reality with a camera in his own distinctive style. Now referred to as the Godfather of Japanese street photography, Daido Moriyama’s work is characterized by dark, gritty, moody, images that attack traditional conventions of composition, focus and form. Uncompromisingly unpolished and raw, his style was best showcased in his book, Farewell Photography (Sashin yo Sayonara) published in 1972. His photographs mirrored his personal desire to break free from the confines of a highly structured society and commercial photography.
Still active, he has gone on to produce well over one hundred photography books and has had gallery showings all over the world. He has made the Shibuya district of Tokyo the primary location for his street photography, and his work has influenced a generation of street photographers worldwide.
Nobuyoshi Araki (1940-)
Only artist without talent try to shock people. – Nobuyoshi Arak
A career that has spanned more than five decades, Nobuyoshi Araki, is one of Japan’s (and the world’s) most prolific photographers – he has produced over five hundred photography books. To some, he is a genius, to others a pariah. A complex and nuanced artist, his portfolio includes eroticism, still lifes, landscapes, celebrity portraits and intimate voyeuristic pictures of his personal life.
Controversial and provocative, his erotic depictions of bound women featuring the form of Japanese rope binding called kinbaku-bi has been labeled as misogynistic and pornographic by some critiques. While others hail it as cutting-edge fine art.
Themes of life and death permeate much of his work. Sentimental Journey and later Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey is perhaps his most poignant and celebrated series of images. He visually chronicles his honeymoon, marriage, and the subsequent death from ovarian cancer of his wife, Yoko. Sentimental Journey exemplifies the duality of the man and his work.
Toyoko Tokiwa (1930 – )
Toyoko Tokiwa picked up a camera at a time when men dominated photography in a highly patriarchal society. Her early subject matter focused on the lives of the prostitutes in the red-light district, and their interactions with the American military in Yokohama.
Driven partially by her disdain for prostitution and her initial animosity towards the US military because of the loss of her father in an American bombing raid, her candid pictures in her photography book Dangerous Fruitless Flowers (Kiken na Adabana) captures the sorrow and joy of these marginalized women.
Her lens also documented the scores of women joining the workforce to help reshape Japan. Her camera was a sympathetic instrument used to give testament to the lives of numerous Japanese women suddenly thrust into finding their place in post-war Japan.
Ken Domon (1909 – 1990)
If it is not realistic, it is not photography. – Ken Domon
Ken Domon is called the master of Japanese realism. He is widely known for his unflinching photographs of the survivors of Hiroshima which he documented twelve years after the bomb was dropped. For many Japanese, his jarring photos of the deformities, burns and mangled bodies due to the atomic bomb blast and the aftereffects of radiation were too unsettling. He was heavily criticized in many corners of the country at the time. However, he was not a detached observer of the subjects of his camera, stating in an interview that the plight of many of his subjects would bring him to tears.
A series of strokes would eventually confine him to a wheelchair and his photography ventured more into a spiritual and a cultural direction. He would spend the remainder of his life photographing Buddhist temples and statues around his cherished land . This culminated in his major work of several decades entitled, Old Temple Pilgrimage ( Koji junrei)
He would donate all 70,000 pieces of his life’s work to his hometown of Sakata in Yamagata prefecture. There, in 1983, a museum was established and dedicated solely to him and his photography.
Akira Sato (1930 – 2002)
While a student of Economics at Yokohama National University, Sato would become obsessed with the images of Western fashion and photographic magazines. Soon after graduation, he became a freelance photographer. Within a few years, he would specialize in fashion photography. In time, he became one of Japan’s most influential fashion photographers of the 1960s and ’70s. His photos were often published in SO-EN, Japan’s oldest and leading women’s fashion magazine.
His style is described as sophisticated and avant-garde, known for his edgy and stylistic close up black and white portraits of models. He blended fashion, portraiture, East and West into his own distinctive look. He would later utilize color, photographing models during his visits to Europe. His most notable collection of work is entitled, Woman, published in 1971.
Throughout the Shōwa period, Japan was a nation in transition. It was trying to hold to its long-held traditions while attempting to purge painful memories of its past, all while forging ahead to an uncertain future. These photographers (and many more not listed here) were witness to their country’s most tumultuous history. In this chaotic cauldron of creativity they would document, experiment and push the frontiers of photography, adding their own unique perspectives. They have gone on to influence countless photographers in their native land and now the rest of the world.
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