Hiromi Tsuchida


1939, Minamiechizen, Fukui Prefecture

Portrait of artist sitting
Hiromi Tsuchida; courtesy Hiromi Tsuchida

The opening sequence of Zokushin: Gods of the Earth (1976), a photobook by Hiromi Tsuchida (b. 1939), shows a group of people picnicking in the woods above a rice paddy. As the already drunken farmers grow progressively more intoxicated, they roll around on the ground, joke with one another, and gesture at the photographer. The pictures are black and white, and in this sense, they belong to an established tradition of documentary photography in Japan. However, the playful streak that runs not just through this series, but through Tsuchida’s entire career, sets his work apart from that of his predecessors.

After working as a commercial photographer, from 1964 through 1966 Tsuchida studied at the Tokyo College of Photography in Hiyoshi, Yokohama, where he learned a conceptual approach to the medium from the noted critic Koen Shigemori. Zokushin was his first major series, published across several issues of the magazine Camera Mainichi before the pictures were collected in a book. The project was the result of his travels through Japan in the early to mid-1970s, as he sought out ways of life not yet homogenized by the capital flowing from urban centers. While some of the photographs were taken in Tokyo’s Asakusa district—“pleasure quarters” in days gone by—the bulk of them were made in more remote areas. Several pictures show the encroachment of the tourism industry, one of various factors that would eventually flatten the distinction between “urban” and “rural.” The object of Tsuchida’s attention, however, was not so much the scenery as it was the local cultures and people. Two of his photographs in Aomori Prefecture, for example, show a group of women in traditional dress and a singer in the midst of a performance. The images focus on the figures’ clothing and expressions; the singer’s face, in particular, projects controlled yet intense emotion.

Whereas in Zokushin Tsuchida dealt with people in rural areas soon to be swallowed up by urban ways of life, in his next major series, Counting Grains of Sand (1990), he trained his gaze firmly on the inhabitants of major cities. The book starts with snapshots of a few scattered individuals, but eventually more and more figures fill the frame, culminating in images of the crowd that gathered in front of the Imperial Palace after the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. Thousands of men and women are packed into each of the final photographs, revealing the wry meaning of the title: people are no more than grains of sand, infinitesimal parts of a vast collective. Tsuchida has also depicted cities with a view to history—he has made photographs in Hiroshima and Berlin since 1973 and 1983, respectively, often returning to the exact same spots to make new exposures years later.

Tsuchida extended Counting Grains of Sand in color in the 1990s and beyond, capturing crowds at popular tourist destinations throughout Japan. In these later works he used new technology in a somewhat cheeky way, inserting himself digitally into all of the pictures. This gives them an almost zany, Where’s Waldo? quality, and it seems to show that Tsuchida considers himself no better than, or different from, those he records on film. He has also experimented with digital techniques in other bodies of work—in 1988 he started photographing himself nearly every day, long before such projects became viral sensations, and in 2008 he made a time-lapse video from the images. In these ways Tsuchida continues to bring a sense of humor and playfulness to his examination of social phenomena.

— Daniel Abbe


Works in the Collection by Hiromi Tsuchida

Essays and Artist Talks

  • The end of the 1950s and the early years of the following decade marked an astonishingly rich transitional moment in the history of photography in both the United States and Japan. While a long tradition of photography existed in Japan before this period, the country’s relationship with the U.S. after World War II seems to have instigated a distinctive and wide-ranging reexamination of the medium—a reaction against classic photojournalism and prewar aestheticism in favor of more personal and expressive picture making. Several key exhibitions in the United States in the 1970s drew attention to these shifts, highlighting not only new currents in Japanese photography but also the important ties between Japanese photographers and the Americans who were looking at their work with interest. By the 1970s Japan had fully recovered from its postwar economic hardships and was experiencing a period of prosperity that would lead to the “bubble economy” of the 1980s. The abundance of the times and the lifting of restrictions on travel inspired a generation of young people to leave Japan and go abroad—often to the United States. Among them were photographers such as Eikoh Hosoe, who visited the U.S. frequently (he spoke fluent English, which was extremely useful); Ikko Narahara, who stayed in America for four years and studied with Diane Arbus; Ken Ohara, who has lived and worked in the U.S. since 1962; and Kikuji Kawada, Keizo Kitajima, and Takuma Nakahira, who traveled to Europe and mainland Asia. These excursions, often lasting years, were part of a larger surge of exploration of the U.S. and Europe by Japanese artists in many media. The issues that occupied Japanese photographers during this time and the ways they engaged with them were in some cases responses to The Family of Man, a landmark exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, that traveled to Japan in 1956.[1] The show included 503 photographs made in 68 countries—mainly journalistic works, presented with the intention of generating a sense of world community and of drawing attention to the dangers of waging war in the new atomic age (fig. 1). Edward Steichen, the charismatic director of MoMA’s photography department, asked for Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s help with the Japanese version of the show, having previously met the photographer and displayed his work at the museum. Ishimoto’s role, however, was ultimately minimal; instead he became a central figure in the transition of Japanese photography toward a new kind of expression.[2]
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  • Photography Now
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    September 12–December 20, 2009

    Drawn entirely from SFMOMA’s collection, Photography Now showcases pictures by nearly 30 contemporary artists working in China, Japan, and Korea. Documentary work from China depicts a shifting culture, in particular rapid urbanization and the effects of industrialization on society. Inspired by Robert Frank, Luo Dan journeyed from Shanghai to Tibet, making pictures that explore dramatic economic changes across China. In Japan, Rinko Kawauchi makes lyrical pictures that focus on the poetic details of daily life, and Yasumasa Morimura examines the nature of cultural identity through appropriation. Korean photographer Bohnchang Koo’s minimal photographs of ordinary architectural elements reflect upon the passage of time.

    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.

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