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Fascinating Japanese Photography

Maison Européenne de la Photographie’s exhibition Moriyama–Tōmatsu: Tokyo, in Paris, brings together two great Japanese figures, to be discovered also in a catalogue published for the occasion.
Kabuki: Villain in Shibaraku, 1964 © Shomei Tomatsu – INTERFACE

Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tōmatsu had envisaged this project together, but the death of the latter in 2012 had cut it short. By devoting an entire level to each photographer, Simon Baker, director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, chose contiguity over confrontation. The publication accompanying the exhibition was designed with the same idea in mind: it consists of three slip-cased volumes, the third containing the texts, including some translated for the first time.

Creating two exhibitions has the advantage of homing in on the career of each photographer, even if their work is seen only through the prism of Tokyo. This theme is all the more relevant that, in France, Moriyama (b. 1938) is better known, thanks to two exhibitions at the Fondation Cartier in 2003 and 2016, while Shomei Tōmatsu (1930–2012) is only being discovered. 

Shomei Tōmatsu: From document to fiction

Coca-Cola, Shinjuku, 1969 © Shomei Tomatsu – INTERFACE

The chronological journey through Shomei Tōmatsu’s oeuvre covers 140 images chosen with the help of his widow, and it begins with his early works, dated 1954. Although he had just earned a degree in economics, that year Shomei Tōmatsu became a photographer at a publishing house in the Japanese capital. Throughout his student years, he had been a member of his university’s photo club.

Since the MEP presentation is focused on Tokyo, it does not include Nagasaki 11:02 (1960–66), a series named after the photo of a wristwatch stopped at the exact time of the impact of the atomic bomb and found near the site of the explosion. These poignant images of war scars combine portraits of survivors and still lifes of burned objects, including the famous timepiece. It is impossible not to mention this work, as it says much about Shomei Tōmatsu: “The burden I carry is not the memories of the conflict but a shadow of the war. … A shadow heavy with the ravages of war, the shame of defeat, and the famine that followed,” Tōmatsu wrote in 1987.

Protest, 1969 © Shomei Tomatsu – INTERFACE

In 1959, Shomei Tōmatsu founded the VIVO agency with Eikō Hosoe and Ikkō Narahara, two other giants of Japanese photography. Tōmatsu thought of the medium as testimony. While invariably attached to reality, he gradually abandoned the purely documentary aspect of photography. Thus, in the series Chewing Gum & Chocolate, begun in 1958, he looked at Japan’s transformation tied to the American presence in the country. Although some images are descriptive and could be classified as humanistic, the blurred movement and bold framing already demonstrate Tōmatsu’s desire to comment on reality. This is also true of his photographs of student protests in the 1960s: lyricism often triumphs over informative value.

Fumiko Miyatani, Mask Artist, 1971 © Shomei Tomatsu – INTERFACE

In Asphalt (1960), Tōmatsu surprises us by pointing his lens to the ground to capture “the skin of the city,” made up of garbage and “lost” objects, and adopting “the viewpoint of a stray dog,” as he put it in 1976. But Oh Shinjuku! (1969) must be his most captivating series: He gets up close to his subjects and captures the effervescence of this changing district of Tokyo that celebrates taboo-free night life. Some photos have explicit titles like the Eros and Protest sequences. A free spirit, Shomei Tōmatsu tried his hand at color photography in the 1960s, long before it had become current. Far from spoiling the unusual, unsettling atmosphere of his photographs, the muted, or on the contrary, garish colors lend the images an air of mystery. A bard of the present moment, Shomei Tōmatsu thought that even if photography is not the truth, it has the ability to preserve singular moments: “Reality is not reproduced but revived, as fiction on film or paper,” he wrote in 1999.

Eros, 1969 © Shomei Tomatsu – INTERFACE

Daidō Moriyama: Tokyo’s eternal flâneur 

“For me, as a photographer, everything goes back to Tomatsu. … My photographs are imbued through and through with my admiration for him.” This is what Daidō Moriyama said about Shomei Tōmatsu, eight years his senior. The two men met in the early 1960s when Moriyama arrived in Tokyo to join the group VIVO. In 1968–69, he also participated in the avant-garde magazine Provoke, which set out to reflect on photography as a language.

Untitled, from the series « Searching Journeys #8 », 1971 © Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation. Courtesy of Akio Nagasawa Gallery

The affinity with Tōmatsu is clear, especially in the way Moriyama fragments reality and works with closeups and blurs, sometimes to the point of abstraction. But he also claims other influences: William Klein, to start with. After New York and Rome, the American photographer explored the Japanese capital in the early 1960s. Daidō Moriyama discovered him in 1964, the year the book Tokyo came out, but he had to wait until 1980 to meet him. From a formal point of view, parallels are numerous, especially in Moriyama’s use of deep, dusky blacks and his closeness to his subjects. As a direct result of this approach, Moriyama’s images are often blurred, suggesting a shifting, dreamlike reality. 

Untitled, from the series « Provoke », 1969 © Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation. Courtesy of Akio Nagasawa Gallery

It must be said that when he photographs cities, on foot or from his car, Daidō Moriyama is not looking for technical mastery. On the contrary, he welcomes randomness, chance, and improvisation, taking his images on the fly, without framing or composition. For what he wants is to obtain is “a personal point of view on the world and humanity, fundamental emotions that [he] has carried inside [him] for a long time,” as he explained in a 1970 text entitled “Subjective Snapshots.”

Untitled, from the series « Pretty Woman », 2017 © Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation. Courtesy of Akio Nagasawa Gallery

Moriyama is interested in other cities, too, notably New York, but Tokyo holds a special place in his career. He has been photographing it obsessively, compulsively for over sixty years. Unconventional at the moment of shooting, his creative process is no less original during editing, applied to over 300 self-published works to date. Each of Moriyama’s books is a compilation of images handpicked as he prepares an exhibition. And when it comes to presentation, Moriyama is again a pioneer. Although a fan of traditional prints, he also explores other avenues, notably silkscreen printing on canvas. In addition to William Klein, Moriyama often cites Andy Warhol as a major reference. The large black-and-white silkscreens presented at the MEP are impressive because of their brilliant blacks and because they add relief to the images. Another equally spectacular choice is the installation.

Untitled, from the series « Tights in Shimotakaido », 1987 © Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation. Courtesy of Akio Nagasawa Gallery
Water Flower, from the series « Lettre à Saint Loup », 1990 © Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation. Courtesy of Akio Nagasawa Gallery

The last room devoted to Shinjuku — Moriyama’s favorite district in Tokyo — combines color wallpapers of his images and framed prints. The result is very effective: the viewer moves from one work to the next just as one would walk along a street from one storefront to the next. Moriyama firmly believes that “photography is the only medium that allows us to reproduce reality in all its purity.” Strangely enough, to achieve this, he doesn’t proceed by elimination but rather through an overabundance of images.

Catalogue Moriyama – Tomatsu
Bilingual French and English
MEP / Akio Nagasawa, 
Pp 240, €35
More information here.

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