The Mix of Odd and Magical in Contemporary Japanese Photography

March 14, 2016

Exquisite, provocative, grim, raw, highly particular and unfairly neglected. These are some of the words used to describe Japanese photography, one of the most exciting and varied histories of the medium out there. Even as such, it remained unfamiliar to the Western audiences for most part of its existence, gaining real momentum and getting growing attention it deserves only in the past twenty five years. Not many countries can be proud of such unique aesthetics, shifting alongside historical and cultural developments, influencing photographers around the world and spanning all genres of the art form. From the 19th century images of samurai portraits and the Meiji Emperor to the crucial year of 1968 and the highlights of the 1990s, the evolution of Japanese photography is truly magnificent, donning the country and the world a handful of artists who have helped shape the medium into the exceptional form of expression that it is today.

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Felice Beato - Woman at Toilette, 1867-1868. The Italian photographer was one of the first Western photographer to visit and document Japan. He also practiced colouring his photographs. Image via

The Early History of Japanese Photography

The remarkable story of Japanese photography starts as early as 1854, some fifteen years after the medium’s very first image saw the light of day. Because of the ban on export and import during the Edo era, cameras count not reach Japan as freely, and the first one arrived with Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy, with whom the Japanese have signed the trade deal. They had already studied the daguerrotype, mastering the photographic process prior to the arrival of the equipment. The first popular genre was, as it often happened at the time, portraiture, which led to the opening of many studios in major cities, such as Ueno Hikoma’s photo studio in Nagasaki or Shimooka Renjo’s in Noge. As Japan shifted from Edo to Meiji era, photography saw a new stage of evolution as well, marked mostly by the portraits of Meiji Emperor.

The photographs produced at the turn of the century were mostly depicting the three wars Japan found itself in, but not just. Under the impact of the West, Japanese artists were interested in Pictorialism, a style heavily influenced by painting. This was further emphasised by the already adopted method of applying paint directly onto a photograph’s surface, which was in full swing by the 1880s. The wars also prompted an interest in photojournalism, where the aim was to propagandise the Japanese position in them. It all culminated with the launch of several magazines meant for both inside and outside Japan, such as Front and Nippon respectively, also serving as the stepping stone for many esteemed photographers. The idea of magazines as propaganda tool for change-seekers and photographers alike caught on, first with the founding of Camera Mainichi in 1954, the Vivo group in 1959, and then with the revolutionary Provoke magazine, in 1968.

The only three issues of Provoke Magazine had a profound effect upon Japanese use work site best in the 1970s and 80s. Image via arts photographer series
The only three issues of Provoke Magazine had a profound effect upon Japanese photography in the 1970s and 80s. Image via

The Importance of Provoke: Provocative Materials for Thought

Founded by photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Takuma Nakahira, critic Koji Taki and writer Takahiko Okada, Provoke was an experimental, small press photo magazine whose only three editions marked the definitive beginning of a new era for contemporary Japanese photo-making. It was “a platform for a new photographic expression that stood in opposition to the photography establishment”, aiming “to free [it] from subservience to the language of words.” Aside from images that went against the European-style straight commercial photography, it also included criticism, poetry and radical photographic theory. The visual style endorsed by Provoke, joined by the celebrated Daidō Moriyama in the second issue, was are-bure-boke, translated as “grainy/rough, blurry, out-of-focus”. It was through Provoke that Moriyama introduced his trademark shots and where Nobuyoshi Araki revealed his intimate snapshots of his honeymoon. Such aesthetics had a profound effect upon Japanese photography in the 1970s and 80s.

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Installation view of the exhibition New Japanese Photography at MoMA, New York, March 27 - May 19, 1974. Photo by: Katherine Keller, via

From 1968 On

Dubbed “year zero” in Japanese photography and art in general, the year 1968 was crucial, and not only because of Provoke magazine. A cultural evolution was underway in Japan, by that time a country revived from World War II, and artists were looking for new ways to convey the message. Their mission, their duty, became to reflect their society the best they can, and the camera appeared as the perfect tool. No more were the photographs strictly journalistic or served a purpose - rather, they were now treated as works of art. The city streets became a frequent sight in the photographs of the time, like in the works of Hitoshi Nomura, or the aforementioned Takuma Nakahira. Nakahira, together with Provoke colleague Koji Taki, also curated the seminal exhibition 100 Years: A History of Photographic Expression by the Japanese held that same year. It was an important one, to say the least: over 1,640 photographs culled from an extensive three-year research, succeeding in bringing the medium to the forefront of the country’s art scene - but also beyond.

The 1970s finally brought Japanese photography to the West, particularly to the United States and its two prominent institutions. In 1974, New Japanese Photography opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first extensive survey of the kind outside Japan. Curated by MoMA’s director of the Photography department John Szarkowski and Camera Mainichi editor and critic Shoji Yamagishi, the show consisted of 187 photographs taken by fifteen photographers between 1940 to 1973: among them, Shomei Tomatsu, Ken Domon, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Tetsuya Ichimura, Hiromi Tsuchida. Same curator, but a different location: in 1979, the International Center of Photography held Japan: A Self-Portrait, which showcased 19 artists focusing on post-war conflicts and concerns. The two shows did a great job in covering Japan’s photographic scene of the time, yet the interest of the West stalled until the 1990s anyway. In the meantime, individual photographers were the ones getting the most out of such situation.

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Daido Moriyama is one of the artists with multiple photobooks of his works. The International Center of Photography owns many of them, and their experts like to emphasise their importance

Photobooks: A Must-Have

In the MoMA exhibition catalog, John Szarkowski stated that photobooks were Japanese photographers’ first (and only) choice for promoting their work - because of the aesthetics, sure, but also because there were no exhibition venues or a stable marketplace. While today things have improved when it comes to museum and galleries showing the medium's examples (there are many more of them, both local and foreign), the market is still quite weak. It seems that photobooks are as popular as ever; for many artists, they represent the final format of their portfolio and a (self-)affordable, existing platform to showcase their work to a broader public - a much more practical marketing than an exhibition in a gallery. With this in mind, for collectors it might be of interest to know that it is very common, if not almost mandatory, to come across a book of photographs by a Japanese artist than an exhibition list.

Nobuyoshi Araki - Untitled (Eros Diary), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern, New York. © Nobuyoshi Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki - Untitled (Eros Diary), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern, New York. © Nobuyoshi Araki

Contemporary Photographers Marking the 20th Century

The distinct style of Japanese photographic art is mostly due to its freedom, the positive lack of any schools or trends, even the absence of a strong art market. Interestingly enough, the names that stood out in such environment are still relevant today. Among them, there’s certainly Nobuyoshi Araki, famous for his erotic imagery that is often called pornographic for its strong visual impact and scenery of bondage, involving nude female models. Daidō Moriyama’s images depicting the breakdown of traditional values in post-war Japan are still as relevant as ever, but also his voyeuristic documentations of the dynamic city life, soaked in high contrasts. For Hiroshi Sugimoto, it is still all about time, its passing and influence, as well as the conflict between life and death. We can hardly imagine Japanese photographic art without his remarkably poetic black and white Theatres, Seascapes and Dioramas, for instance. Same could be said for the psychologically charged pictures evoking death, erotic obsession and irrationality, taken by Eikoh Hosoe.

A playlist of videos citing the importance of photographers who live and work in Japan

The Inspired and Inspiring Generations

With such impressive line-up of artists to take note from, new generations of Japanese photographers arose to the challenge of establishing a force to be reckoned with on a global scale. The works of Hisai Hara, Izima Kaoru, Yasumasa Morimura and Hiroshi Nonami make up a great part of this landscape. The decades following the 1980s also gave way to more women photo makers, who continue to leave significant mark. Among them, there’s Rinko Kawauchi, whose career started in the early 1990s and has introduced us to a series of serene, poetic ordinary moments of everyday life. Mika Ninagawa works predominately in saturated colors and floral imagery that she creates for the fashion industry, giving a modern view of Japan, and Tomoko Sawada plays with the notions of identity and the position of an individual within contemporary society. We shall certainly not forget the contributions of Takehito Miyatake and his extraordinary landscapes, Yuji Hamada and his Primal Mountain photographs, the domestic captions of Motoyuki Daifu, the minimalist approach of Yosuke Yajima, or the claustrophobic art of Haruhiko Kawaguchi. In turn, their artistry will subsequently set base for the up-and-coming army of photographers, ready to capture their country’s beautiful culture in even more original ways.

   Editors’ Tip: The History of Japanese Photography

Written by Anne Tucker and Kotaro Iizawa, this seminal book from 2003 gives a comprehensive account of the medium in Japan from its beginnings in the mid 19th century to the early 21st century, designed to reveal to English-speaking audiences the importance and beauty of this art form. Illustrated essays discuss the medium's evolution and aesthetic shifts in relation to the nation's historical and cultural developments; the interaction of Japanese photographers with Western photographers; the link between the medium and other Japanese art forms; and photo making as a record and catalyst of change. The work also emphasizes the ways it has influenced and been influenced by the country's culture and society.

Featured images in slider: Yasumasa Morimura - Daughter of Art History, Theater A, 1989. Image via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Takuma Nakahira - For a Language to Come, 1970. Image via; Shomei Tomatsu - Chindonya, Tokyo, 1961. Image via howtoseewithoutcamera.tumblr; Yasuhiro Ishimoto, image via moderndesigninterior; Kikuji Kawada - Helio-Spot; Helicopter, Tokyo, 1990, image via tumblr; Hiroshi Sugimoto - Time Exposed: #367 Black Sea, image via Paddle8; Hiroshi Sugimoto - U.A. Walker Theatre, New York, 1978, image via wordpress; Daido Moriyama - Hippie Crime 1970. image via wordpress; Eikoh Hosoe - Man and Woman #33, 1970, image via blogspot; Izima Kaoru - Ua wears toga, # 373, image via mutualart; Hiroshi Nonami, images via blogspot; Mika Ninagawa, image via; Takehito Miyatake, image via bantmag. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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