While not the case with older, revered visual artists like Hiroshige or Hokusai, books and exhibitions about Japanese photographers are a rare commodity, but precious when we have them because the country’s finest creative talents often exude a rarified aesthetic sensibility.
The Getty has chosen to explore and present a large selection of work by two men – Hiroshi Hamaya (1915-1999) and Kansuke Yamamoto (1914-1987) – who came of age during the brief Taisho era (1912-1926) and who matured during the decade that preceded, for Japan, the Greater East Asia War. However, both photographers were influenced by different subjects, by different notions of what the camera could be used for, and so their work developed along different lines. In other words, they provide a contrast, rather than complementing one another.
Growing up in Tokyo, Hamaya employed his camera as a documenting tool from an early age (whereas Yamamoto, as we will see, put it to use in furthering his sense of whimsy). In 1939, Hamaya was sent on assignment to what is known as Ura Nihon, this being the rural part of the country that faces away from the Pacific Ocean and towards the Sea of Japan. He took an interest in photographing the Lunar New Year’s events in the remote village of Tanihama. Two books resulted, Snow Country and Japan’s Back Coast, and they depict life and ritual in towns that seemingly hadn’t changed in centuries.
However, Hamaya seems to have stumbled upon the more politically-charged photojournalism we associate with Leonard Freed or W. Eugene Smith when he began to document the protests and clashes that greeted the announcement that Japan’s government had extended the United States-Japan Security Treaty of 1952. These confrontations between irate citizens and police occurred between May 19 and June 15, 1960. Quoted in the accompanying catalogue by Judith Keller, Wesley Sasaki-Uemura called this month-long demonstration “the most important postwar confrontation between democratic forces and traditional paternalism in Japanese politics.”
Hamaya’s photographs not only capture the essence of the disturbance in full swing, but also its softer side or sadder moments, which included the death of a young female student. These images were published, Keller writes, “in the form of a hastily made but impassioned paperback” as A Chronicle of Grief and Anger. The title says it all; there is a momentum and a spontaneity in these pictures that pulls in the viewer.
Although Hamaya was to become the first Asian photographer associated with Magnum Photos, the prestigious photojournalism agency founded in 1946 by Robert Capra, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others, he later changed gears and focused on depictions of nature, on portraits of noted artists and writers, and after the death of his wife in 1985 he published an exquisite portfolio of images he’d taken of her called Calendar Days (of Asa Hamaya).
Although the young Hamaya had dabbled in avant-garde photography, it was for him a passing phase, whereas Yamamoto – whose father, a pictorialist photographer and the owner of a photo supply store in Nagoya – was waylaid by the “Exhibition of Overseas Surrealist Works” that came through town in 1937. Works by the likes of Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Albert Renger-Petzsch effectively put the soft-focus of pictorialism to rest for many young artists, and Yamamoto from this point on wholeheartedly embraced the tenets of Dadaism and Surrealism.
As Amanda Maddox writes in the catalogue, “Although Surrealism arrived in Japan well after its inception in France, and Yamamoto was quite young when it was first introduced in his native land, he certainly inserted himself into its history and attempted a dialogue not only with his forebears in Europe but also with artists in Japan.”
Or, as Maddox notes several pages later, “Yamamoto’s talent was in establishing a deeper Surrealist vocabulary through the incorporation of known Surrealist imagery and themes, and expanding it by situating his work in the context of modern Japan.”
In the context of the times, though, this couldn’t have been easy. Shinko Shashin (new photography) had supplanted Geijutsu Shashin (art photography) after the “German International Traveling Exhibition” had stopped in Tokyo and Osaka in 1931, and numerous photographic magazines sprouted up across Japan. However, photographic innovation was stifled from the latter 1930s through much of the 1940s when the country was deeply immersed in war.
Yamamoto, undoubtedly, was able to integrate his cultural inheritance as a Japanese man into his artistic creations, but for a Westerner, even for one familiar with Surrealism, it is difficult to discern how he carried the art form into a new direction. I won’t say that his work is merely derivative of European Surrealism, but the similarities to specific art by Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, René Magritte and others are very close. What’s perhaps more likely is that Yamamoto’s work – disseminated over the years through magazines and exhibitions – has influenced a subsequent generation of Japanese photographers. This is mere conjecture, of course, but it’s also how ideas about art spread across cultures once they make landfall and find their initial proponents.
The works of these two artists – Hamaya and Yamamoto – sidestep the conventional, stereotypical views of Japan and open doors to reveal aspects of perception of which we previously may not have been aware.
Japan’s Modern Divide: the Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto is on view through August 25 in the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. Hours, Tuesday through Friday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free; parking $15. Call (310) 440-7300 or go to getty.edu.