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Criticism

Exhibition Review: "For a New World to Come: Japanese Photography"

A. D. Coleman

Daido Moriyama (b. 1938), From Asahi Camera, 1969. Gelatin silver print, 7 3/8 x 10 1/2 in. Tokyo Polytechnic University, Shadai Gallery. © Daidō Moriyama / Courtesy of Tokyo Polytechnic University, Shadai Gallery and Taka Ishii Gallery

   The decades following World War II -- 1945-1975 -- remain the least examined and least understood phase in the history of photography. So we have to cherish projects that help to fill in the blanks, like the exhibition "For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979" and its accompanying monograph, currently at the Japan Society and New York University's Grey Art Gallery.
    In 1974 the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Photographs mounted the group show "New Japanese Photography," the only such survey undertaken during the 29-year tenure of John Szarkowski, and indeed (if you exclude Eugène Atget) the only time he turned his curatorial attention to photographers from outside the U.S. So, especially given the influence of MoMA, this show mattered. But it had drastic limitations. As I wrote in my April 7, 1974 review for the New York Times, summing up the overview proposed by the show,

New Japanese photography is exclusively black-and-white, entirely unconcerned with the investigation of straight color, manipulated color, applied color, and the technology of modern color press printing. New Japanese photography is only glancingly involved with the nude and with the explicitly erotic; it is rarely concerned with any exploration of the staged event. Multiple imagery, mixed-media imagery, collage and other photographic techniques are not a part of new Japanese photography. Though it sometimes refers, quite painfully, to World War II and the atomic holocaust, new Japanese photography is never anti-Western and certainly never directly political in intent. New Japanese photography is restricted almost exclusively to the boundaries of that territory we loosely label "documentary." Moreover, by remarkable coincidence, New Japanese photography looks almost exactly like the photography which has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for the past 10 years.  
All these, I believe, are undeniably logical inferences drawn from the exhibit and its accompanying catalogue. All these are also inaccurate at best and in most cases utterly false. This would be immediately apparent to anyone even superficially familiar with the Japanese magazines and photography annuals, the books which come from Japan, and the portfolios by Japanese photographers which have been published in European and American magazines. But this material has not been disseminated widely even among American photographers, much less among the general public. Thus it may not be easily visible at first glance that this show has been cut along the specific bias of a severely tailored curatorial esthetic.

Jirō Takamatsu, Photograph of Photograph (No. D–2401), 1972, gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by Bettie Cartwright and Michael A. Chesser in honor of Yasufumi Nakamori. © The Estate of Jirō Takamatsu, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates

    Two figures, Daido Moriyama and Sh mei Tomatsu, appear in both the MoMA survey and this one; otherwise, there's no overlap. So, four decades later, "For a New World to Come" proves my point. Not that it's the first project to do so. Over the intervening 41 years, photography from around the globe has circulated much more widely that it did at that time, via traveling exhibitions, books, periodicals, photo festivals, and (since 1995) via the internet. Specialists in photography and the medium's general audience know much more about Japanese photography than they did in 1974. No curator today could get away with presenting such a narrowcast slice of the activity within a given territory, at least not without a convincing rationale for its many exclusions and single-minded focus.
    "For a New World to Come" demonstrates that Japanese photographers and artists of that era mirrored in their work many of the concerns of their western counterparts. The severe limitations of the medium's flimsy communication system at the time suggests that they weren't parroting their U.S. and European peers, most of whose experiments received precious little critical attention even in their own countries and would thus have remained largely unknown to the Japanese. Think of these as parallel universes connected by a few wormholes through which bits and pieces leaked.
    The most significant influence of western work on the Japanese photo scene came from the books of Robert Frank (The Americans, 1959) and William Klein (New York, 1956; Rome, 1958; Moscow,1964; and, of course, Tokyo, also 1964). From these examples the Japanese took strategies of framing, small-camera handling, selective focus, surreptitious grab-shooting (Frank) and aggressive, confrontational engagement with the subjects (Klein), as applied to what Lee Friedlander dubbed the "social landscape." They absorbed Klein's use of high-contrast development and printing, along with his flair for dramatic layout on the page, and turned some of the consequences of the ways in which these two photographers worked into an esthetic they dubbed are-bure-boke ('grainy, blurry, out-of-focus"). They also embraced Frank's and Klein's use of the printed page as a primary vehicle for series, cycles, and suites of images -- important in a country with few traditional museum and gallery spaces available for the display of photographs. (Some very significant Japanese exhibitions of art and photography were held in department stores during that period and after.)

Shōmei Tomatsu (1930-2012), Protest 1 from the series Oh! Shinjuku, 1969, printed 1980. Gelatin silver print, 9 7/8 x 13 7/8in. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the S.I. Morris Photography Endowment and Morris Weiner, 2011.765. © Shōmei Tōmatsu – INTERFACE

    Japan had its own equivalent of what we here called "the counterculture," and much of this work qualifies as specifically political, coming out of and addressing the protest movements of that time. Other projects deal more broadly with the profound reconfiguration of Japanese society in the post-WWII era. Still others engage with questions about the related mediums of still photography and film themselves: the implications of lens-based imagery, the relationship between the subject matter and the photograph thereof, the effects of photography on individual and cultural memory. The photographers and artists represented here (no one back then used the term "photo-based art") created not just bookworks and extended spreads in photo and art magazines but photocopier pieces, projections, assemblages of vernacular imagery, pinhole photos, negative prints, installations, and performances -- as wide a range of ideas and forms as those involved with the medium elsewhere.
    For someone like myself, at that time observing activity within the medium and the expansion of its field of ideas mostly in their U.S. and western European manifestations, this is familiar ground. To find it traversed in Japan as well indicates that a certain irreverent, challenging attitude toward photography and the conventions that had governed it through 1945 bubbled up spontaneously in different parts of the world thereafter, a commonality of thought and consequent action meriting much more attention than it has received.
    Because the show only samples the oeuvres of those it includes, rather than single out individuals I commend it to you as a whole. I think that's how its curator intends it -- not so much an awarding of prizes for individual accomplishment as recognition of a multivocal, uncoordinated, yet collective push at the boundaries of the mediums under consideration, indigenously Japanese yet unquestionably related to what others were doing elsewhere at that moment.
    It makes me yearn for something even larger, impossible except perhaps as a web-based version of André Malraux's imaginary "museum without walls": someplace I could go to see this show and then move on to a comparable selection from North America, then South America, then western Europe, eastern Europe ... so as to observe, decade by decade, how the medium evolved, how those working with it understood its history and premises and field of ideas, absorbed and utilized the technological options available to them, grew on their own and interacted with their peers.
    Yasufumi Nakamori, Associate Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, curated "For a New World to Come," which tours under the auspices of MFAH. The show's two partnering New York venues have divided its contents roughly in half lengthwise, so to speak, so if you visit either one you will get a complementary version of the shared infrastructure. The half at the Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East) will close first, on December 5, so if this interests you get there soon. (Admission is free.) The Japan Society's section will run through January 10 at 333 E. 47th St.; admission is $12.
    An excellent, extensive monograph accompanies the exhibition as its catalog but goes far beyond that function, including as it does 13 essays and additional images (274 total) contextualizing the materials on view, with a list price of $75.00. It will become a central reference on its subject. Alas, though published in February 2015 it has already gone out of print; I'm told MFAH has no plans to reissue it. You can find copies for sale online, of course. Perhaps MFAH will consider releasing it as an ebook, to make it more widely available.


A. D. Coleman is an internationally known independent critic, historian, and curator of photography and photo-based art. His work has been translated into 21 languages and published in 31 countries. Coleman's widely read blog, Photocritic International, appears at photocritic.com.


© Copyright 2015 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, imageworld@nearbycafe.com.