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.
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. In the thirteen years between that presentation and Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, the museum held six more photography shows. 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.
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. Kanamaru adapted this terminology from the notion of “subjective photography” that had gained traction in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 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.
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.
As previously noted, Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography included work by four members of VIVO (see fig. 2), an independent photo agency that was founded in 1959 and dissolved in 1961. The group did not declare any specific objectives, but its members shared some common traits: they had begun their careers after the war, and they approached social topics from highly personal perspectives. They also attracted attention for their technical and artistic experimentation, such as their uses of extreme close-ups and intense contrast. It was for this reason that they were given the moniker eizo-ha—literally, “image group,” but expressive of something more akin to “image-oriented group” or “perfection of the picture plane–oriented group.” Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography also featured works by people who arrived on the scene after VIVO: Kichisaburo Anzai, Shinoyama, Takanashi, and Noriaki Yokosuka. Active in commercial photography, they were brought into the spotlight in the early 1960s by Shoji Yamagishi, the editor of the journal Camera Mainichi. Yamagishi reserved many of Camera Mainichi’s pages for these young artists, thereby creating a whole new current in the Japanese photography scene. Of the remaining two contributors, Nakamura represented a more orthodox, documentary style, while Haruo Tomiyama took a simultaneously journalistic and thematic approach to social issues in Linguistic Sense Today (1964–65), evoking two-character words in kanji that reflected the contemporary state of society, such as 「過密」 (overcrowding) and 「鑑賞」(appreciation). Imbued with a critical attitude and a good deal of irony, these pictures appeared as a series in photo journals and received wide recognition for their originality. Through this selection of participants, Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography both surveyed the trends of the preceding few years in Japanese photography and showcased emerging talents.
In the eight years between Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography and Fifteen Photographers Today, the National Museum of Modern Art did not mount any photography shows, but numerous developments transformed the field. The year 1968 saw the pivotal exhibition A Century of Japanese Photography and the emergence of the Provoke group. Of course, these milestones were related. A Century of Japanese Photography, organized by the Japan Professional Photographers Society, allowed photographers to express their own views about the history of the medium in Japan. Nakahira and Koji Taki were among the most influential members of the curatorial committee, and they built Provoke directly on the awareness and critical concerns that arose during the process of organizing the exhibition. The group’s dramatic are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, and out-of-focus) style, which developed in a spirit of criticism of the system and contemporary social conditions, deviated from established aesthetics and shifted the trajectory of the entire field. Its members included Takanashi, the poet and art critic Takahiko Okada, and Moriyama, who would join with the second issue of Provoke’s eponymous periodical, in which they published their literally provocative discourses and pictures. All of these figures would participate in Fifteen Photographers Today—Nakahira, Takanashi, and Moriyama as featured artists, and Taki and Okada as members of the selection committee.
Another key development during this period was the National Museum of Modern Art’s expansion and relocation. The institution’s original building had been constructed before the war as the headquarters for a film company. Despite renovations and substantial enlargements, the exhibition spaces remained constrained, limiting the museum’s ambitions. A solution came in 1969 with a move to a new building equipped with big, white cube–style galleries. Fifteen Photographers Today was the first photography exhibition held in these spaces, the scale of which influenced the dimensions of the works selected and the mode of presentation. The pictures in Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography varied in size, but they gravitated toward an average of eighteen by twenty-two inches. By contrast, Fifteen Photographers Today included prints measuring up to nearly ten feet on the long side. It also juxtaposed small and large-scale works, a more complex approach to installation.
Fifteen Photographers Today remains a fascinating landmark exhibition, with its bold embrace of the museum’s large new galleries and its inclusion of spectacular works by Provoke members. But how was it received in its own day? An unusually long exhibition review, extending over six pages, was featured in the September 1974 issue of the journal Asahi Camera. The review re-creates a conversation among anonymous members of the editorial board in which they both debate the philosophy behind presenting photography in a museum setting and introduce the participating artists. The text begins with the statement, “Photography is not art, photography is just photography—so some would say, which is curious. We believe it depends on the selection of the artists.” The review takes a favorable stance toward the works shown: photographs that seemed to disrupt the revered realm of fine art, threatening to blur the boundaries between the museum space and the society beyond it. The authors often refer to the journals or photobooks in which particular pictures previously appeared, reflecting their interest in the relationship between photographs that circulate in regular printed matter and those that are presented in exhibitions.
The exhibition’s selection committee shared this concern. For instance, the committee member Tsutomu Watanabe wrote in the catalogue: “Exhibitions may not be considered as a proper way of presenting photography. Photography has its own characteristics different from those of the other fine arts, that is, it has a close relation with actuality. Its nature is documentation, and these characteristics are likely to be distorted or lost at exhibitions. In other words, photography tends to become too artistic, therein imitating the other fine arts and forgetting all of its own good points.” It is clear from such discussions that, at the time, the extent of photography’s relationship with external reality was considered a fundamental problem. Nakahira, the driving force behind Provoke in theory as well as in practice, eventually became a leading voice in addressing this question.
Interestingly, Moriyama, Takanashi, and Nakahira’s contributions to Fifteen Photographers Today each belonged to the periods before, during, and after Provoke’s existence, respectively. The presentation of Moriyama’s Japan: A Photo Theater (fig. 3, listed in the exhibition catalogue in English as Nippon Theater) was based on a photobook published in the spring of 1968, before the group was established. Most of these photographs were taken between 1964 and 1966. Moriyama’s choice, in 1974, to submit works he had completed eight years prior—or even earlier—was possibly due to the extended creative crisis he experienced after publishing Farewell Photography in 1972, which had been a direct continuation of his radical work from the Provoke era. He would only be able to resolve this crisis in 1982, with his anthology Light and Shadow. Takanashi displayed a selection of photographs from his book Towards the City (fig. 4, listed in the exhibition catalogue in English as To the Cities), most of which had previously appeared in the Provoke journal. Thus, though Towards the City wasn’t published until 1974—five years after the magazine was discontinued—it represents Takanashi’s activity during the Provoke period. By contrast, Nakahira’s Overflow (fig. 5), which also dates to 1974, reflects the artist’s post-Provoke aesthetic. In February 1973 he had published an anthology of critical essays, Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary?, that reject the are-bure-boke style and outline a very different approach to photography, advocating a format similar to that of illustrations in scientific reference books. Subsequent series such as Overflow exemplified a wholly new type of work for Nakahira.
Fifteen Photographers Today thus documented tendencies in Japanese photography that peaked around 1968, with the emergence of Provoke, as well as the great changes in direction that followed. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that the April 1975 special issue of Asahi Camera, “Contemporary Photography ’75” (fig. 6), included a feature titled “Roundtable Discussion: The End of Modern Photography.” The editorial team’s introduction to this text states: “From around 1960 onward a variety of [new] photographic styles burst violently onto the scene, clearly telling of the fact that the previous era had come to an end. Daido Moriyama, who as recently as in 1972 published his Farewell Photography, was one of those who took the course of photography into their own hands. Photography would no longer remain an isolated domain in search of its elusive ‘artistic character.’ Photography would closely intertwine with society and absorb and process the ensuing experiences. We picked ‘the end of modern photography’ as a topic because what we want to think about is a ‘photography to come.’”
An event emblematic of the proposed “end of modern photography” was the passing of Ihei Kimura on May 31, 1974, about one and a half months before the opening of Fifteen Photographers Today. Kimura had been a leader of Japanese photography since before the war, and in 1976 Asahi Camera established the Kimura Ihei Award in memory of his achievements. Many of those who received the award would become highly influential in the field. The first recipient was Kazuo Kitai for his series To the Village, part of which appeared in Fifteen Photographers Today (under the English title Country Stores). This is one more way in which the exhibition provided insights into budding trends after the watershed of Provoke’s founding.
In closing, let us return to the idea that Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography and Fifteen Photographers Today, both organized by external specialists rather than museum curators, can be seen as “self-images” of the Japanese photography scene. In fact, they omitted some significant aspects of the field: contemporary artworks from the 1960s and 1970s that were not photographs in a traditional sense but nonetheless incorporated photographic media, such as Andy Warhol’s screenprints made from photos, which would be featured in “Contemporary Photography ’75.” There were remarkable artists using photographic media in similar ways in Japan as well. It may thus seem a bit strange that these two exhibitions did not include such work—especially the 1974 show, with its white cube setting. During this critical, transitional time—at the “end of modern photography”—the organizers may have intentionally omitted art like this from the field’s “self-image,” even though they were aware of it. Privileging the documentary style, they did not consider conceptual and alternative uses of the medium to be adequately mainstream. This would change with next major photography exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art after Fifteen Photographers Today. In Photography in Contemporary Art, held in 1983, the main emphasis would be exactly the type of photo-based contemporary art that had been excluded from the 1966 and 1974 presentations; moreover, it was the museum’s first photography show that was conceived not by external specialists but by its own curators. Yet the two earlier exhibitions would still prove to be major turning points, providing the foundations for Japanese photographic expression to become increasingly diversified.
Translated from the Japanese by Jens Bartel
- The following works were shown in Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, as listed in the exhibition catalogue: Kichisaburo Anzai, Work (1962–66); Akira Sato, New York (1963–64); Kishin Shinoyama, Monomaniac études (1964) and Flesh of Passion (1965); Yutaka Takanashi, You Look Tired (1964) and Tokyoite (1966); Shomei Tomatsu, Kabuki (1964) and Hotel (1965–66); Haruo Tomiyama, Linguistic Sense Today (1964–65); Yoshinobu Nakamura, People of the Setouchi (1964–65); Ikko Narahara, Europe—Suspended Hour (1962–65); Eikoh Hosoe, Japanese Costume (1963–64); and Noriaki Yokosuka, Work (1965–66). The selection committee comprised Nobuo Ina, Shigene Kanamaru, and Tsutomu Watanabe. The following works were shown in Fifteen Photographers Today, as listed in the exhibition catalogue: Nobuyoshi Araki, Photograph (1974); Kazuo Kitai, Country Stores (1974); Hajime Sawatari, Girl Alice (1973); Shinoyama, Fine Day (1974); Takanashi, To the Cities (1966–74); Shigeru Tamura, EREHWON (1967–73); Masatoshi Naito, Heta Village, Sanri-zuka (1973); Takuma Nakahira, Overflow (1974); Takao Niikura, Safety Zone (1964–72); Shoko Hashimoto, Blind Female Strolling Singers (1972–73); Masahisa Fukase, Yoko (1973–74); Daido Moriyama, Nippon Theater (1968); Shin Yanagisawa, Winter (1973); Shuji Yamada, Landscape (Nippon Village 1969–1974) (1969–74); and Katsumi Watanabe, People in Shinjuku (1967–74). The selection committee comprised Takahiko Okada, Kineo Kuwabara, Koji Taki, and Tsutomu Watanabe. Fifteen Photographers Today was originally planned to close September 1, 1974, but its run was extended one week due to a change in the scheduling of the following exhibition.
- The American part of the exhibition was overseen by the director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, Edward Steichen.
- For more information about these early photography exhibitions, see my essay, “Tokyo Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan in okeru shashinten 1953–1974: Kako no tenrankai ga shisasuru koto / Photography and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1953–1974: A Review of Exhibitions of the Past,” in Tokyo Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan to shashin, 1953–1995 / Photography and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1953–1995, exh. cat. (Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1995), 8–13.
- These exhibitions are Contemporary Photographs 1959 (January 5–24, 1960; 59 artists), Contemporary Photographs 1960 (January 5–February 5, 1961; 51 artists), and Contemporary Photographs 1961–1962 (January 5–25, 1963; 51 artists, including six featured artists: Keiichiro Goto, Hisae Imai, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Ihei Kimura, Narahara, and Tomatsu). There was no exhibition in 1962 due to the construction of an extension on the museum building that year. Instead, works from both 1961 and 1962 were shown in 1963.
- Shigene Kanamaru, “Konnichi no shashin: Jikan to kukan / Photography of Today—Time and Space,” in Gendai shashin no 10-nin / Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, exh. cat. (Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1966), 1–2. Kanamaru describes the works by Anzai, Hosoe, Narahara, Sato, and Yokosuka as subjective and those by Nakamura, Shinoyama, Takanashi, Tomiyama, and Tomatsu as objective.
- The term subjective photography (Subjektive Fotographie) was first used by the German photographer Otto Steinert in the early 1950s. During this period Steinert organized the touring International Exhibition of Subjective Photography, to which works by Japanese artists were added when it was shown at the Nihonbashi Takashimaya department store, Tokyo, in 1956. The Japan Subjective Photography League was founded the same year. In 1958 Fuji Photo Salon (now Fujifilm Photo Salon), Tokyo, presented Japan Subjective Photography Exhibition, which included works by Ishimoto and Narahara.
- This concept nonetheless probably had its origins in Contemporary Photographs 1961–1962, for which six artists were specifically approached to contribute work. See note 4.
- In hindsight, it may seem odd that pictures by Kikuji Kawada, who had published his anthology of early works, The Map, the year before, and who was also a VIVO member, were not included in the exhibition. This may have been because selections from The Map had already been published in photo journals and had been shown in Contemporary Photographs 1961–1962. Similarly, Hosoe’s Ordeal by Roses, which had been published as a book in 1963 under the title Killed by Roses and had been featured in the same Contemporary Photographs exhibition, was also not included. The committee opted instead to show Hosoe’s Japanese Costume, a more recent work.
- Yamagishi had included both series shown by Takanashi in Camera Mainichi. Tokyoite appeared as an unusually long, thirty-six-page feature in the January 1966 issue, demonstrating Yamagishi’s bold editorial style at that time.
- “Shashinten hachinen-buri no ‘Konnichi no shashinka’-ten Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan Jugonin no shashinka,” Asahi Camera 59, no. 11 (September 1974): 74–79.
- Tsutomu Watanabe, “‘15-nin no shashinka’-ten o megutte / Introduction,” in 15-nin no shashinka / Fifteen Photographers Today, exh. cat. (Tokyo: National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1974), 6.
- See also my essay, “Yutaka Takanashi, Towards the City,” in For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979, ed. Yasufumi Nakamori and Allison Pappas (Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2015), 74–79.
- For an analysis of Nakahira’s Overflow as a gaze on urban spaces, see Franz K. Prichard, “Toshi hanran no zukan: Nakahira Takuma no shashinteki shiko to jissen / An Illustrated Dictionary of Urban Overflows: Takuma Nakahira’s Photographic Thought and Practice,” in Takuma Nakahira: Overflow, by Takuma Nakahira (Tokyo: Case Publishing, 2018), n.p.
- “Zadankai: Kindai Shashin no Shuen,” in “Contemporary Photography ’75,” special issue, Asahi Camera 4 (April 1975): 5.