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2012, May 31
Japanese Photography and Its Reception Abroad

These are notes for a more detailed post, which outline how I’m thinking about Japanese photography at the moment.

1. Most Western photography audiences are primarily aware of Japanese photography through Provoke, and other groundbreaking photography publications (such as Kikuchi Kawada’s “Map”) of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

2. I’ve heard it said that Japanese photography is difficult to understand. I think this has to do with a broader idea of how Japan has perhaps, for Westerners, assumed the image of the most inaccessibly foreign place in the world.

3. Japanese photography audiences do not look at Provoke even 10% as much as Westerners. To put it plainly, Provoke is just not part of the conversation here.

4. Provoke came out of a political moment (1968, obvs) in which the student-led protest movement seemed capable of striking a blow against the government. This is important. (This movement was put down by the army at Sanrizuka, where students were trying to prevent the forcible construction of Narita airport on the land of farmers who had lived there for generations.)

5. Provoke had Takuma Nakahira producing both as a photographer and as a theorist. I’m only just now starting to try to dig in to his texts, so I won’t try to tell you exactly what they were about. He wrote quite a lot though, and was looking to critical theory of the time to inform his writing.

6. Over the last 10 years (15? 20? I can’t say for sure), Japan has developed a style of what I might call an unconscious photography. This really just means, shooting casually observed moments of everyday beauty. Araki is the patron saint of this type of photography, except that he’s taken it to a point where it’s gone way beyond anything aesthetic, and is doing a sort of cosmic dance with his own personality. (Can explain more later but I do mean this as a compliment.) Hiromix might represent the beginning of this kind of photography as a popular trend, and we shouldn’t forget that Araki bestowed his personal blessing upon her.

7. Forgetting Araki, the most perfectly crystallized example of this unconscious photography is Rinko Kawauchi, who, when at her best (Utatane and Illuminance), seems blessed with the ability to find staggering beauty in anything.

8. There is no political movement in present-day Japan. There is no meaningful context out of which photographs are being produced. There is no Nakahira-like photographer/theorist figure, not even close.

9. Kawauchi’s success abroad is a positive sign for younger Japanese photographers, because there is no need to grasp a particularly Japanese context in her work. This helps everyone: Kawauchi’s photos are providing hands-on training in how to view Japanese photography that’s not taken by men born before 1950.

10. 3/11 is a very, very different story. Precious few photographers have grasped this.

Tags (5)

Daido Moriyama, HIROMIX, Nobuyoshi Araki, Rinko Kawauchi, Takuma Nakahira

Comments (3)


Interesting set of propositions. I am wondering why so few conversations about Japanese photography discuss only the poles of either Provoke era photographers or the likes of Ms. Kawauchi and her stream of consciousness picture making. What about other photographers working today such as Toshio Shibata, Mikiko Hara, Naoya Hateyakama, Masao Yamamoto. In my opinion these photographers (and many others – Kiriko Shirobayashi, Yuichi Hibi, Risaku Suzuki, Ryuji Miyamoto) are producing much more interesting work than either of these poles of Japanese photography.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of Japanese photography, Moriyama, Araki and Kawauchi included, but it would be nice if the conversations were broadened a bit. I think contemporary photography in Japan as well as it’s history is more varied and nuanced than you suggest or are thinking about.

Dan’s note 1. Western photography audiences are also fed Sugimoto and Morimura.

DN2. The notion that [nation X’s] photography is difficult to understand is rather … difficult to understand. Even the Japanese photography that’s reached foreign shores has a fair variety; it can’t all seem obscure (or be obscurantist).

DN3. Do western audiences look at the Provoke stuff, or do they just make ritual mentions of it?

DN4. If this was a moment — and I suspect that it was instead the peak of something lasting a decade or so — then it also produced different material, such as that by Fukushima, Kitai and Suda.

DN6. This “unconscious photography” (not a bad name, that!) does seem to have been in the limelight for a long time. (Enough already!)

DN7. Kawauchi is a skilled commercial photographer. And so of course are many photographers of note. When I look at the (non-commercial) work of Takanashi or Killip, I don’t see the commercial (although I do sometimes sense commercially honed skills). When I look at Kawauchi’s (non-commercial) work, I see commercial photography.

DN9. Kawauchi’s success abroad is unsurprising.

I have slightly mixed feelings about Tatsuki’s “Tohoku”: I hope his interest in hunting and blood doesn’t lead to Hemingwayish poppycock; but that aside, I like it a lot. (Additionally, I bought his “Decotora” years ago, when I hadn’t heard of it or him.) The award to his “Tohoku” of the Kimura prize may show no more than that the jury decided that prettiness/whimsy shouldn’t be celebrated so soon after mass deaths (or even more simply, that it would be good if something related to Tōhoku got the prize). Nevertheless, the award to this book was to me a cheery sign in “the Japanese photography scene”, from which I normally have to select the atypical and rather overlooked.

I’ve obviously made some generalizations here about Western audiences. Dave, you are certainly an exception to the rule, though. Have you looked at the rest of this blog? I hope it will show that I’m not just talking about Provoke, Araki and Rinko.

MC, glad to hear that you are enjoying ‘Tohoku.’ Of course ’68 produced other work besides Provoke, I probably rate Kitai’s the highest, although I don’t know Fukushima.