Kunihiro Takahashi, Gallerisit, Gallery TOSEI

The photographers I feature here—Satoru Watanabe, Tsuneo Yamashita, Manabu Someya, Emiko Nakajima, and Aki Tanaka—were all born in the 1960s; their careers date from the 1980s. To me their generation is of special interest. And the reason I think so is that I find something very unfortunate about the way the development of Japanese photography from 1960 onward is almost always described.

Here’s the usual story:

“The year 1968 saw the founding of the group Vivo by Eikoh Hosoe, Kikuji Kawada, Akira Tanno, Akira Sato, Ikko Narahara, and Shomei Tomatsu, among others. The same year, representative members of the following generation—including Takuma Nakahira, Daido Moriyama, Yutaka Takanashi, and Koji Taki—began publishing the three issues of the landmark magazine Provoke. A subset of Vivo and Provoke participants further established the Workshop School of Photography; joining their number was Nobuyoshi Araki . . .”

For whatever reason, that is how everyone (meaning critics and the like) explains the broad sweep of Japanese photography since 1960: as a progression from Vivo to Provoke, and from there on to the Hiromix era. True, that was one current, and the story has probably become so predominant because it seems so persuasive. Put succinctly, it’s one that’s easy to tell. But my question is whether it doesn’t leave out a great many other players, particularly those active between the Provoke and Hiromix years.

Briefly, here is my own assessment of Vivo, Provoke, and Hiromix. In the Vivo era photographers broke away from reportage toward expressionism; the members of Provoke, meanwhile, probed their relationship to postwar Japanese society, especially politics. Consciously and not, the two groups interacted as they both ventured beyond Japanese shores. The Hiromix style might be characterized as the “consumption” of images. She and her fellows commenced their creative careers at a total remove from preexisting tradition and photographic culture, technique, even theory.

Hiromix, Mika Ninagawa, and Yurie Nagashima received the prestigious Kimura Ihei Award in 2001. The following year the same prize was given to Rinko Kawauchi, whose style was in the same vein but of a different stamp. It was around this time that Japanese journals and critics alike began touting these artists’ works for their novel mode of expression. From Kawauchi onward, photographers of the type gained opportunities and momentum, and their ultrapersonal, self-confessional style bloomed and flourished in Japan. The whole phenomenon has been overrated to such an extent, though, that today we no longer have any idea how to break out of it. And now in the midst of this situation the style is beginning to gain a following in Europe as a new kind of Japonisme, which to me is very worrisome.

Changing the subject a little, I need to note that in and around the late-1980s economic bubble, photographers in Japan split into two categories, namely those who shifted toward the commercial end of the spectrum versus those who maintained their artistic bent: a polarization of the Japanese photographic world, one might call it. Of the commercial set, very few have produced works worth remembering. I should also stress that there were numerous photographers out there who worked independently of societies like the Nika Association or defined movements like Vivo and Provoke. Ihei Kimura is one; for more examples we can turn to others including Kiyoshi Suzuki, Shisei Kuwabara, Rikko Nakamura, Shoji Ueda, and Shinzo Hanabusa.

Recently international attention is finally starting to focus on 1970s Japanese photographers such as Kazuo Kitai, Hiromi Tsuchida, and Issei Suda. All three are notable in that they pursued their own artistic paths without associating themselves with existing trends. Fortunately for them, Japan at the time still offered plenty of forums for showing works. Many newspaper and magazine publishers owned photo-oriented journals, and numerous other periodicals specializing in photography were in print as well. Photographers energetically presented their output on these pages, and the prints and negatives preserved from the time are what are gaining renewed appreciation today.

By the 1980s, in contrast, photography magazines had all but died out, denying the opportunity for works to even be shown. Photographers since then have had no hope of leaving their efforts behind, unless they manage to organize a solo exhibition or publish a collection. Not only that, but illustrious names such as Hosoe, Kawada, Tanno, Nakahira, Moriyama, and Araki are still going strong, followed close behind by Kitai, Tsuchida, Suda, and the rest from the 1970s whose influence is now growing.

And so it is that 1980s Japanese photographers are in danger of being forgotten even before their work has had a chance to be known. This is especially true of the five I showcase here, since none of them belong to larger movements or organizations. Each has grappled with solitude and forged his or her own path through long history and experience. They know that to be solitary is the artist’s lot, that their works are for their own sake and their creative expression springs from their own selves as individuals.

All five possess different styles but share a common focus on documentary photography. In Japan they also tend to be dismissed as still “young,” although in reality they are already well past fifty. A curious thing, indeed! I have every belief that shedding light on their generation will contribute to enriching the Japanese photographic world as a whole.

( Translated by Chikako Imoto )

Gallery TOSEI website