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SFMOMA Exhibits Japanese Postwar Photography Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

9 November 2016

We were trying to get our bearings along the wall near the entrance to SFMOMA's Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now when Sandra S. Phillips, curator emerita of photography, politely offered to answer any questions we might have.

Japanese Photography. SFMOMA's exhibit covering the postwar period to the present day.

Where to begin?

There was a quite a puzzle just right behind us, though, so it wasn't long before we ran after her for some help.


There on the wall were four chromogenic prints by Miyako Ishiuchi of garments that had survived the bombing of Hiroshima to become "portraits of lost and precious relatives," according to the section notes. They were photographed just about 10 years ago, though. And they were hung in an unusual fashion.

Miyako Ishiuchi. Garments that survived Hiroshima.

A large print of a blue wrap was on the left with a large print of a girl's school uniform on the right. Between them were two small prints. On the left was a pair of slippers and on the right a pair of gloves.

But the puzzling thing was that the shoes were hung just a foot or so off the floor and the gloves just a bit above that.

Was that intentional?

Phillips confirmed that the prints had been hung according to the artist's instructions. In fact, she said, she had a drawing on her phone from the artist indicating how the were hung.

Sketch. Ishiuchi's sketch showing how to hang her Hiroshima prints.

It's a curious layout but it made the slippers, which would have been on the ground and seen from this perspective from above, seem inviting. And it made the gloves seem not so much to have survived as to have been put aside for us. Because they are in color, they do not seem like artifacts of war but articles of clothing.

These remnants of a Japan defeated in war do survive the war, though. They inhabited the postwar landscape, occupied by American forces. In fact, Phillips told us, Ishiuchi herself grew up on an American base where her mother was employed as a truck driver. As a young girl, she was always terrified of being raped, Phillips said.

Her black-and-white work is equally fascinating. Two images from a series titled Endless Night and another from Scars, showing radiation scars are hung in the same room as the Hiroshima prints.

Here she discusses her Hiroshima images and photographing scar tissue:


While we were discussing Ischiuchi, the American photographer and writer Leo Rubinfien arrived, took off his coat and dropped it on a bench, greeting his friend Phillips and introducing himself to the two or three members of the press listening to her.

Leo Rubinfien. Sleeves rolled up for an impromptu tour.

It didn't take him long to volunteer to give little tour of the exhibit.

He knew many of the photographers personally and was familiar with many of the works in the exhibition but he hadn't seen it yet. And he had one even more important connection.

He began by telling us about his friend Aki.


Akiyoshi Taniguchi had been his protege in New York years ago when Rubinfien was experimenting with color film.

As much as he loved photography, Taniguchi had a problem. He was the only heir to a 400-year-old temple in Japan.

His father, who had once fancied a career on the stage, had encouraged Taniguchi to travel to New York, to see the world before deciding if he would continue the family tradition by becoming a monk and running the temple.

In the end, Rubinfien said, Taniguchi returned to Japan, became a monk and took over the temple.

But the story doesn't end there.

Smitten with photography, Taniguchi started collecting American photographers. Rubinfien cajoled him into collecting Japanese photographers as well, since they were sitting right under his nose. So he did.

Years later, though, he thought differently of owning so many prints himself. So he donated his collection of about 500 Japanese images to SFMOMA. That, with promised works, makes SFMOMA's collection of Japanese photography the largest in the U.S. at 1,200 works. And it is from that collection the present exhibit was drawn.

Taniguchi subsequently opened Kurenboh, a very tiny Tokyo gallery, which is more of a meditation space where the white walls have no corners, Rubinfien explained.


Rubinfien told us the tsunami in Japan greatly disturbed Taniguchi, much as 9/11 affected many Americans. One of Rubinfien's more well-known projects involved photographing faces in the street after 9/11.

In recent discussion, he said his friend has been thinking about photography and Buddhism. "Photography is Buddhism!" he quoted him.

And, Rubinfien continued, there are several appealing aspects to that argument:

  • The present moment, captured by photography, is revered over the past or the future in Buddhism.
  • Buddhism emphasizes the sacredness of concrete detail much as photography captures it.
  • Buddhism also honors the ephemeral moment that photography tries to capture.

In danger of veering off into the abstract, Rubinfein quickly brought us back to the moment by pointing out the work of Shomei Tomatsu.


Photographing only after the war had ended, Shomei Tomatsu felt the full weight of Japan's defeat and occupation by the U.S. What was Japan now? What did it mean to be Japanese?

In his 1975 photobook The Pencil of the Sun, Tomatsu answered, "If I were asked to characterize postwar Japanese history in one word, I would probably respond without any hesitation: Americanization."

A contemporary of Winogrand, his work, first in black and white and later in color composites, is social commentary.

It may seem odd to reference a Western photographer for guidance when you are seeking your own national identity, but as Phillips explained to us earlier, Japanese photographers were quite familiar with Western work. Magnum, in fact, exhibited in all the department stores.

And social commentary was right up their alley. It was an approach that appealed to Tomatsu.

He too shot artifacts of Hiroshima and talks about photographing victims of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki in this clip:

You can see this in his series Chewing Gum and Chocolate, both common gifts to Japanese children from the occupying army. It's also starking portrayed in Coca-Cola, a black and white image in which two-thirds of the frame on the left is occupied by the head of a screaming girl while beyond her in the last third of the frame we see a melting Coke bottle.

But social commentary wasn't the only strain in postwar Japanese photography.


Tomatsu's protege was Daido Moriyama, who also worked in black and white at that time.

Unlike Tomatsu, Moriyama concentrated on the private and personal. His work was prized by the postwar generation and dominated two generations of Japanese photographers.

Rubinfien mentioned one memorable work that showed just a table top with some very small items on it. When you looked more closely you could see they were nothing more than fingernail clippings.

Moriyama's work is well represented in the exhibition. In this clip he discusses the difference between his early analog work and later digital images:


The second room of the exhibit is devoted to what Rubinfien identified as a performance vein that runs through postwar Japanese photography.

Eikoh Hosoe. Kamaitachi #17 (1965).

You can clearly see this in the black-and-white images of Eikoh Hosoe's series of Kamaitachi or Japanese spirits and the strange things they cause to happen. There isn't a lot of mystery about what you see -- a performance in the countryside or a person in white face or a woman being pushed into a dark room off the street -- but the meme is clear.

In this clip, Hosoe talks (in English) about his work, some of which appears in the show, as well as what inspires him, including Kamaitachi:


In that same tradition, there are a handful of Yasumasa Morimura's amusing self portraits in the exhibit.

Yasumasa Morimura. An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo, Collar of Thorns (2001).

A preformance artist as well, he dresses (and undresses) himself as a uniformed band member, as Rembrandt (in a self-portrait, of course), as Rembrandt's mother, as a girl in tribute to Cindy Sherman and as Frida Kahlo.

His studies concentrated on Western painting, in fact, rather than Japanese art (which he later became familiar with). He has said he attempts in his photographs "to put forth a neither-male-nor-female, sexually ambiguous realm."

If you're not careful, though, you can very easily be taken in by his artfully composed images. A little closer study, though, reveals their deceit.

In this clip, he shows a video version of his art and answers a philosophical question about the possibility of art:


A third strand in postwar Japanese photography, Rubinfien pointed out, is represented by the work of Naoya Hatakeyama.

Naoya Hatakeyama. Camera.

Hatakeyama conceives precise, highly-defined projects and then goes about executing the plan.

There's one such project in the exhibit, titled Camera (1995-2009) in which 24 black-and-white prints are framed and hung in rows. We've seen them hung with different numbers of frames in each row, but this installation puts five in each of five rows.

The theme was, to be precise, the light cast by a table lamp in the corner of a hotel room. And each image is taken in a different hotel, and that hotel is identified in a letterpress caption pressed sharply into each mat.

It's a quite elegant presentation of what is a rather uninteresting photographic scene of a table lamp casting a circle of light on what is generally a tall ceiling.

The title, which also means "room" in Italian, is a play on words.


Rubinfien drew our attention next to the work of Masahisa Fukase, six of whose works appear in the exhibition. He was famous for his photobook made from a series of images called Ravens.

Masahisa Fukase. Three prints from the Ravens series.

The images were made after his divorce from the woman he had photographed every day for many years. He went away, finding nothing but crows wherever he went. He saw everything through teary eyes.

They are sad images. Softly focused if focused at all, stormy, a single light on in a house, a solitary figure walking away, crows on a fence.

He collected them his photobook Ravens which, as a metaphor of his pain, became a cultural landmark. Here's a slide show of those images:


Phillips mentioned that one of the more prominent ways Japanese photographers exhibited their work was through photobooks.

In the 1990s, younger female photographers took up the photobook. There are examples by Hiromix, a snapshot photographer, Yurie Nagashima, a punk rock photographer, Rinko Kawauchi and Lieko Shiga (who we discuss below).

Photobooks. A popular exhibition method.

Photobooks. Takashi Arai's are among the best known.

There are several glass cases throughout the exhibit showing such photobooks but, unfortunately, you can't see much more than a cover and an inside spread.

Still they are part of the collection and, presumably, available for inspection.

Meanwhile, here's Phillips talking about Provoke, a quarterly magazine published between 1968 and 1969, seeking "to free photography from subservience to the language of words" that reflected an anti-establishment position as Japan experienced rapid economic growth:


We thanked Rubinfien for the tour. He'd sparked our interest these photographers by introducing them to us. Telling their stories. Explaining what they were after. Making them intelligible.

We went back through the exhibit again, taking photos as notes for our review.

Takashi Arai

Two of the strangest artifacts in the exhibit are daguerreotypes by Takashi Arai. Both are around a corner in the first room.

Takashi Arai. Misako's Hibaku Piano (2012).

They seem to be mirrors until you stand in front of them, casting a shadow that reveals the image.

A mirror with a memory.

On the right is A Maquette for a Monument for Global Hawk (2014), which depicts a surveillance plane on the runway.

On the left (and shown here) is Misako's Hibaku Piano (2012) from the series Exposed in a Hundred Suns. The piano was bombed and exposed to radiation during the Hiroshima atomic bombing in 1945. It's a haunting image, there and not there, silent as it is invisible and yet a powerful statement.

Arai effectively uses the daguerreotype to portray the impact of radiation in these difficult pieces. Our image shown here on the left was nearly impossible to photograph but you should be able to make out the piano in the center despite -- and because of -- the reflections.

Here he talks about the process both from a technical and artistic perspective:

Takuma Nakahira

There are five very large black-and-white prints by Takuma Nakahira of big city night life from the series La Nuit (The Night). They're from a private collection.

Takuma Nakahira. La Nuit series.

They do not seem carefully composed but haphazard. What you might see as you stumble, late at night, on your way home from a bar. The fender of an expensive sports car, the other side of the street blocked by the side of a truck. The bright lights revealing nothing.

Nakahira was an important contributor to Provoke as well.

This video sends a few moments with him, talking about Provoke, other Japanese photographers and following him on a shoot:

Lieko Shiga

Lieko Shiga is represented by five color prints, which Rubinfien classified as "weird" and the exhibit section notes call "the stuff of dreams." She works in northern Japan on the coast, creating images that seem mythic and hallucinatory.

Lieko Shiga. Tomlinson FC, from the series Lilly (2005).

In Mother's Gentle Hands (2009), for example, an older woman sits in a darkened room, a spotlight on her, her hands clasped in front of her -- but on top of another pair of hands clasped below them.

In our photo of that print, we are reflected in the glass as a silhouette surrounding the woman, making it even stranger.

Here she talks about two photos from her series Canary:

Hiroshi Sugimoto

There are three black-and-white prints by Hiroshi Sugimoto in the exhibit and we liked all three by this photographer who studied in Los Angeles and has lived in New York.

Hiroshi Sugimoto. Canton Palace, Ohio (1980).

Canton Palace, Ohio (1980) depicts an empty theater, its stage brightly lit. Gemsbok (1980) shows what seems to be a diorama of zoo creatures. And Fidel Castro (1999) is Sugimoto himself dressed as Castro for an official portrait.

This clip was filmed in his New York studio, where he recalled his student days studying Hegel, Kant and Marx in Tokyo, encountering Zen Buddhism in California and his interest in the history of Modernism:

Akiko Tobu

We also enjoyed the three color prints by Akikio Tobu, all title with variants of the name The Hotel Upstairs (1999).

The one we particularly liked shows a hand holding up a photo, of which you see the back, which is written on, and because the image is backlit, you also see the image of the photo itself in reverse.


If it were up to us, every ticket to Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now would include a tour with Phillips and Rubinfien. We've highlighted a few of the photographers whose work stood out for us just to get you started and there are more on the SFMOMA site.

The exhibit is so rich it's more of an adventure than a show. You become intrigued by an artist, research their story and return to their work. As you do, you get dusted with history and turned on to a different culture.

Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now is on view through March 12, 2017 in the new Pritzker Center for Photography. And it will give you plenty to think about, whether it's the American occupation of Japan, the use of a daguerreotype to mirror memory, crows as a symbol of personal sorrow, or ... well, where to stop?

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