Eikoh Hosoe


1933, Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture

Black and White photo of artist Eikoh Hosoe
Eikoh Hosoe; photo: Jean-Baptiste Huynh

The principal work of Eikoh Hosoe (b. 1933) engages directly with the vibrant, dynamic culture of postwar Japan. As the country emerged from poverty and formed an ambiguous relationship with the United States, people embraced radical rejections of convention such as those described in Yukio Mishima’s novel Forbidden Colors. Published in two parts, in 1951 and 1953, the book portrays the subversive and liberating gay society that flourished in Tokyo during this period, and it inspired a generation of avant-garde art makers in Japan. Hosoe is most frequently associated with an extended portrait series of Mishima himself, made at the writer’s invitation. The sequences of mannered pictures focusing on the author’s beautifully cultivated, semi-nude body have been considered Hosoe’s major contribution since they first appeared in book form in 1963, under the title Killed by Roses. Set against odd, hand-painted elements from Italian Renaissance paintings such as Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (ca. 1485), the deeply provocative portraits of Mishima in his lavish, neo-rococo home were manipulated with high contrast and often excessive grain. Theatrical, idiosyncratic, and powerful, the photographs remain unique to the medium. The series was revised with Mishima’s participation and renamed Ordeal by Roses at his request in 1970, just before his spectacular public suicide.

Hosoe’s early work also centered on dance—particularly butoh, an iconoclastic, antimodernist form developed by Tatsumi Hijikata in the 1960s. Imbued with a fierce psychological edge, these pictures highlight details of the dancers’ bodies in intimate yet theatrical settings, emphasizing differences in gender, age, and skin color. Perhaps his most distinctive series, and one free of obvious staging, is Kamaitachi, published in 1969. He created these works with Hijikata in northern Japan, where both were born before World War II. Hosoe photographed Hijikata as an embodied demon-spirit, neither evil nor beneficent—a “sickle-toothed weasel” who engages playfully in the outdoors, interrupting local farmers at work and dramatically and fiendishly abducting a woman, haunting children, and sprinting across gleaming rice fields with a baby. These strange encounters seem to reflect a dark, primordial Japan, as well as the tensions and anxieties of the period in which they were made. A lesser-known series, Simmon: A Private Landscape, produced in the 1970s but not published until 2012, follows a prominent cross-dresser who inhabits Tokyo in much the same way the spirit-Hijikata haunted the northern countryside. These pictures constitute some of Hosoe’s most original work.

Hosoe has devoted much of his career to fostering photography as an art form of supreme possibility. In 1959 he cofounded VIVO, a loose association of photographers that included Shomei Tomatsu, Kikuji Kawada, Ikko Narahara, and other important innovators in the medium. But perhaps his most singular gift to the development of photography in his country was the early network of ties he forged with photography communities abroad. Hosoe has had a relationship with American photography since the 1960s that is more intimate than that of any of his contemporaries. As a schoolboy making pictures in his father’s darkroom, he also studied English, and his first works were indebted to the style of Life magazine—one early project was a fictional photo-essay, An American Girl in Tokyo (1956), complete with captions. Life was easily available at the American Cultural Center in Tokyo, where Hosoe remembers seeing an exhibition of work by Edward Weston in 1953. His fluent English permitted him to develop relationships that would not have been possible otherwise: he first traveled to the United States in 1964 and met Nathan Lyons at the George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum), Rochester, New York. During subsequent visits Hosoe arranged for the museum to create a comprehensive exhibition of the history of photography drawn from its collection, Great Photographers of the World: Masterpieces from the George Eastman House Collection (1968), which toured Japan. By the following decade he was teaching workshops everywhere from France to Yosemite—often with American photographers such as Ansel Adams, Jack Welpott, and Judy Dater—and meeting significant figures in other media, such as the Spanish painter and sculptor Joan Miró. He continues to be an important teacher in Japan and has served as director of the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, Hokuto, since it opened in 1995, furthering his effort to support the photography of the next generation.

— Sandra S. Phillips


Works in the Collection by Eikoh Hosoe

Essays and Artist Talks

  • The exhibitions Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography (July 15–August 21, 1966) and Fifteen Photographers Today (July 26–September 8, 1974), held at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, gathered recent works by artists who played indispensable roles in the development of Japanese photography after World War II.[1]

    They featured key representatives of the first generation of postwar photographers such as Eikoh Hosoe, Ikko Narahara, Akira Sato, and Shomei Tomatsu—all members of the VIVO group, which sought to renew photographic expression—as well as figures associated with the influential journal Provoke such as Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira, and Yutaka Takanashi. The earliest work, shown in Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, dated to 1962, while Fifteen Photographers Today included ongoing series published in journals through (and beyond) the year of the exhibition itself. The two presentations together thus highlighted the major trends of nearly fifteen years of Japanese photography—an era that is now regarded as one the most exciting periods for the medium in postwar Japan. In order to understand the significance of these exhibitions, one must first consider the backdrop. The National Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1952 in the Kyobashi area of Tokyo, mounted The Exhibition of Contemporary Photography—Japan and America one year after its establishment. As indicated by its title, the exhibition united some of the most significant Japanese postwar photography with American works, selected from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.[2] In the thirteen years between that presentation and Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, the museum held six more photography shows.[3] Many focused on Japanese photography specifically, and most centered on work from the postwar era. All of them prioritized the introduction of contemporary trends. In those days, the National Museum of Modern Art did not have a curator of photography. Instead, up through the time of Fifteen Photographers Today, it nominated curatorial committees of external specialists to determine the content of its photography exhibitions. The committee members were Japan’s most renowned photography critics and editors of leading photography journals—figures who, month by month, browsed the pages of publications dedicated to the art form and wrote critical essays and commentaries, both closely following and shaping current trends. Due to the curators’ broad insights into the field, their exhibitions provided well-balanced overviews of the medium during this period; one might call them straightforward expressions of the self-image of the Japanese photography scene, analyzing contemporary movements and highlighting their most representative works rather than addressing particular topics. Prime examples were the three Contemporary Photographs exhibitions of 1960, 1961, and 1963. Each of these nearly annual presentations featured pictures that had been published in magazines or exhibited the preceding year, offering a cross section of the most recent and outstanding developments in the field.[4]Three years after the cancellation of the Contemporary Photographs shows, the museum mounted Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, this time using a different curatorial framework. According to a text in the exhibition catalogue (fig. 1) by Shigene Kanamaru, a member of the selection committee, the participating photographers could be divided into two groups: those who started working from ideas or concepts, reflecting a “subjective” approach, and those who were more concerned with understanding the people, places, and things they depicted, reflecting an “objective” approach.[5] Kanamaru adapted this terminology from the notion of “subjective photography” that had gained traction in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[6] Thus, whereas the Contemporary Photographs exhibitions aimed to present comprehensive selections of the best work in all genres from a given year—from the purely artistic to photojournalism, advertisements, and scientific photography—Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography moved in a more narrowly defined direction, considering the trends of the past several years but highlighting only those deemed most deserving of broader attention.[7] The organizers of Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, and later Fifteen Photographers Today, also deliberately focused on a new generation. While the Contemporary Photographs exhibitions showcased pictures by photographers of a considerable age range, all of the participants in Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography began their careers after the war. With Yoshinobu Nakamura the oldest, at forty-one, and Kishin Shinoyama the youngest, at twenty-five, the group was quite young overall. This narrow age range would persist in Fifteen Photographers Today, where Masahisa Fukase was the oldest artist with work in the show, at forty, and Shigeru Tamura was the most junior, at twenty-seven. While all of the photographers had already received some degree of acclaim, they were still considered relatively young.
    read full essay

related exhibition

  • The Provoke Era
    related exhibition

    The Provoke Era

    Postwar Japanese Photography

    September 12–December 20, 2009

    The tumultuous period following World War II proved fertile ground for a generation of Japanese photographers who responded to societal upheaval by creating a new visual language dubbed “Are, Bure, Boke” — rough, blurred, and out of focus. Named for the magazine Provoke, which sought to break the rules of traditional photography, this exhibition traces how Japanese photographers responded to their country’s shifting social and political atmosphere. Though American audiences may be less familiar with photographers like Masahisa Fukase, Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama, and Shomei Tomatsu, SFMOMA has been actively acquiring the work of these internationally recognized artists since the 1970s. The works in the show all come from the SFMOMA collection, considered one of the preeminent holdings of Japanese photography in the United States.

    This exhibition is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and is generously supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.

    Go to Exhibition

Explore Other Artists

Please note that artwork locations are subject to change, and not all works are on view at all times. If you are planning a visit to SFMOMA to see a specific work of art, we suggest you contact us at collections@sfmoma.org to confirm it will be on view.

Only a portion of SFMOMA's collection is currently online, and the information presented here is subject to revision. Please contact us at collections@sfmoma.org to verify collection holdings and artwork information. If you are interested in receiving a high resolution image of an artwork for educational, scholarly, or publication purposes, please contact us at copyright@sfmoma.org.

This resource is for educational use and its contents may not be reproduced without permission. Please review our Terms of Use for more information.