1933, Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture
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
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