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A striking black and white photograph of a cloud over the sea is entitled “Untitled [Hateruma-jima, Okinawa], from the series The Pencil of the Sun,” 1971, by Shomei Tomatsu (b. 1930). The isolated cloud, distinct against an empty sky, casts its backlit reflection over a calm sea; the horizon tips down to the right. Everything is fine and at the same time, not fine at all.
Five decades of Shomei Tomatsu’s photography, comprising some 250 works in both color and black and white, are on view at Japan Society in a retrospective entitled Skin of the Nation. The exhibition was organized jointly by Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA, and Leo Rubenfein, a photographer and writer, in association with Japan Society. The exhibition venues include SFMOMA, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, and Japan Society here in New York. To be sure, Tomatsu has long been famous in Japan, and US exhibitions at MOMA in 1965 and 1974 have given him visibility in this country. He had significant exhibitions in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s as well. Skin of the Nation represents considerable effort on the part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to bring Tomatsu’s life work into focus now for audiences on the east and west coasts of the US. The catalog for the exhibition (published by SFMOMA in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004) is the first English language book to examine Tomatsu’s work in depth.
Japan Society’s galleries provide a serene environment in which to contemplate the range and complexity of Tomatsu’s photographs. He creates named series that are similar to photo essays, but an unusual feature of his practice is that he sometimes reprints negatives that are decades old, and even recycles images from existing series, to mix into a new series. Skin of the Nation has these characteristics of recontextualizing the old with the new. Section by section, it follows the main outlines of his entire career.
Tomatsu was just 15 when the A Bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the presence of the American military took root alongside civilian life. Modernization meant Americanization. This subject obsessed Tomatsu, and he made series after series that explored it from various angles. The people who survived the Bomb, himself among them, still had to live there, and photographic images became an important touchpoint for the collective psychic survival.
Early in his career, Tomatsu helped found an agency called Vivo, a group of young photographers who reached a broad public during the 1950s and 1960s by publishing their 35mm black and white images anonymously in magazines. Vivo’s members also exhibited their work in galleries as individual artists. Thus Tomatsu’s name and work came to be indelibly associated with postwar Japanese photography; for many years his images were created within Japan for a Japanese audience. After his initial engagement with the devastation and military occupation of post WWII Japan, he recorded impressions of counterculture as the country made an incredible recovery in the 1960s. He began to work in color while photographing southern Asian countries in the 1970s, and color has become an important part of his work since then.
The documentary style of Tomatsu’s immediate predecessor, Hiroshi Hamaya, was congruent with that of better known European exponents of the genre such as Cartier Bresson or William Kline. Tomatsu’s most famous successor, Daido Moriyami, is considered by Dr. Sandra Phillips to be the most significant Japanese photographer working today. Relative to these artists, Tomatsu’s singular piquancy regarding the mood of the nation and textures of life after WWII can be more clearly distinguished. He has never been a documentary photographer in the usual sense.
Tomatsu’s development as an artist came at a time when modernist aesthetics had found form and expression in the technology of photography. European avant garde movements reached Japan in the 1920s and 1930s through a combination of western teachers travelling to the east and eastern artists studying at the Bauhaus or in Paris. Tomatsu’s early attraction to Surrealism and Dada was offset by a Japanese teacher who suggested that he focus on the immediacy of his environment. Perhaps a surrealist photographer such as Brassai was behind this teacher’s advice, because Tomatsu pursued photography in a style that is indisputably modernist, often ‘straight’, yet which can put the real into highly stylized or archetypal form. He also draws upon traditional Japanese pictorial conventions and aspects of Kabuki theater that can be arresting in a photograph. “Apres-Guerre Prostitute, Nagoya” from 1958, printed in 2003, is one such image.
With greater subtlety, he juxtaposes the swift layer of real time with ancient tradition in a shot of an American soldier performing for fellow soldiers. Tomatsu, standing below stage level, frames the actor as if he were a Kabuki mime in an Ukiyo-e (“Floating World”) print. Wearing a woman’s wig and a house dress, it is as if this monstrous hybrid of the American military and old Japan had fused into a new, archetypal character on the stage of Japanese history. Tomatsu could visually infer a meaning that would be instantly recognized by Japanese citizens but (almost surely) opaque to the Americans. Today, the idea of cross-dressing in the military, even in a play, creates its own kind of wonder about a past era.
“Now I roam the earth, gliding as lightly as Styrofoam on the surface of the ocean. I have embarked on a nameless sea of chaos that is neither America or Japan.” – 1999
Perceiving himself at a new phase of his career after almost 50 years, Tomatsu’s long obsession with the US occupation of his country has shifted to a more diffuse malaise about the effects of globalism. The mental image of himself adrift on the sea, an enduring symbol of life and eternity in Japanese culture, is undercut by a tinge of irony – the artist as a bit of flotsam. Not just any flotsam, but a bit of American-produced packaging material designed to buffer products in transit.
In hindsight, Tomatsu’s postwar sensibility appears to be prescient of postmodernism. Far from being an objective observer, it was his very membership in Japanese society that gave him such insight into the split-screen ironies of the postwar situation, where two unwilling parties – the surviving population of Japan and the young American military community – were forcibly conjoined. There’s some logic to dating the symbiotic relationship between technology and culture that dominates life today from the day the A-bombs fell on Japan. Photographic technology changed dramatically during WWII, producing the 35mm SLR camera and industries to support a more widespread standardization and distribution of photographic products. It’s significant that Tomatsu’s activity as producer of images began at the crest of this wave. In his creative riposte to historical forces beyond his control, the vicissitudes of earthly life and destiny can be sensed no matter what the subject matter of the images. There is restraint in his satire as well as his sorrow, and cold comfort in Tomatsu’s sense of humor. His use of photography as a technology embedded in the postwar culture that spawned globalism springs from an uncompromising appreciation for human life and dignity.print