The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has collected and exhibited modernist art expression from Japan for most of its history but has devoted special focus to Japanese photography from the 1960s to the present, making it an essential element of its program.1 In 1975 the museum presented New Japanese Photography, organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York the previous year. This exhibition marked the first international recognition of the important and unique work being made by photographers in Japan. Inspired by the show, Van Deren Coke, director of photography at SFMOMA from 1979 to 1987, corresponded with its co-curator Shoji Yamagishi, editor of the Tokyo-based photography magazine Camera Mainichi. In response, he received a group of original photographs from the magazine, including Daido Moriyama’s Misawa (1971), as gifts. In 1980 Coke donated these works to SFMOMA, where they formed the basis of the Japanese photography collection.2

In 1999 SFMOMA presented Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog, the artist’s first major show outside Japan. A retrospective of the work of Shomei Tomatsu followed in 2004, and by 2009 the museum’s holdings of Japanese photography had become substantial enough to support two presentations, The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography and Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea. In 2012 the museum showed Naoya Hatakeyama’s Natural Stories and received the first part of a gift of more than four hundred photographs from the Kurenboh Collection from Tokyo. This gift has immeasurably deepened the museum’s holdings in this area: it includes outstanding additions by leading practitioners who came of age in the decades after the war and, as important, has brought new breadth to the representation of younger artists. In 2016, with the museum’s opening following its major expansion, the exhibition Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now celebrated the importance of the Kurenboh gift as well as donations of other major works. It demonstrated the institution’s full commitment to photography from Japan, representing established photographers such as Tomatsu, Moriyama, and their contemporaries in depth, while pointing to the diversity and vitality of more recent work.

Photography was practiced in Japan shortly after the medium’s invention in Europe. The first daguerreotype camera was imported in 1848, and a significant commercial presence soon developed. By the early twentieth century a vibrant amateur community arose, and Japanese Pictorialism earned international respect. Most important, however, was the period after World War II, when Japan developed a distinctive and innovative photographic culture that continues to thrive. The country’s postwar constitution, drafted and adopted under Allied occupation, forbade the existence of its military forces, and therefore industry turned in part to nonmilitary uses of optics, chemistry, and technology. Photography was a beneficiary, and industrial leaders directed their attention toward the amateur market. In turn, popular photography magazines became widely available as monthly supplements in the country’s national newspapers, especially Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun. These magazines supported many of the great talents of the field, photographers who were not journalists but used the medium for its particular expressive effect, among them Tomatsu, Moriyama, and Eikoh Hosoe. Since photography was not a widely acknowledged form of art expression, the photographic culture that arose was based not on fine prints, but on the presentation of work sequentially in publications. The seminal photographers of this moment focused on the production of photobooks, many of which came directly from their magazine work, and which have since been acknowledged as achievements of high aesthetic distinction.

By the 1960s the United States was escalating its military presence in Asia and using its bases in Japan to deploy forces in Vietnam. To Tomatsu, the Americans represented a foreign power poisoning the indigenous culture. For Moriyama, they were more ambiguous: besides the sense of danger they inspired, the Americans also brought a new sense of freedom and energy. Other photographers, such as Hosoe, essentially rejected the American presence in their work. Seeking out the mythological culture of the countryside, Hosoe found a quality of “essential” Japaneseness and a kind of indigenous modernism. He also photographed his friend Yukio Mishima, the radical conservative and novelist, in an extended, choreographed series. The American presence was a potent subject for Miyako Ishiuchi, a photographer of the next generation, who grew up in Yokosuka, a base city, where she felt endangered as a young woman and later returned to photograph the military population as a challenge and a confrontation to her remembered anxieties. She continues to address the history of U.S. engagement in her country, seen now in elegiac pictures of clothing found in Hiroshima following the atomic bombing.

Despite the country’s lack of abundant natural resources, Japan experienced spectacular growth in the postwar period due to the efficient manufacturing of high-quality products, sold competitively to the West. By the mid-1980s, however, its “economic miracle” suddenly collapsed, and by the early 1990s the country’s once-soaring stock and real estate prices had declined precipitously, initiating a period known as the “lost decades.” Both the vigorous growth and the recession have figured in work by Japanese photographers, including the depictions of perilous urban caverns by Osamu Kanemura in the 1990s and the destabilized visions of land observed from the sea by Asako Narahashi of the same period. The work of the philosopher-artist Naoya Hatakeyama, the most widely recognized figure in Japanese photography of his generation, comprises a meditation on the relationship of the works of humans and nature in Japan and elsewhere, and more recently on the reverberations of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which devastated his northern hometown. During the late 1990s and early 2000s Japan witnessed the rise of many notable women photographers, especially Rinko Kawauchi and the younger Lieko Shiga. Photographers have also increasingly directed attention to life in Tokyo and other metropolitan centers, where the great majority of the population now lives. Pictures that emphasize the confusing or unnatural landscape of city streets or the special culture found there are abundant. There is also a corresponding focus on the Japanese countryside as the source of national culture and identity, now progressively depopulated and inhabited mainly by the elderly.

In recent years work from Japan has become central in the international photography field, with increased attention being paid both to prominent figures of the postwar period and to younger Japanese artists. This publication focuses on a selection of artists whose work has been key to the evolution of photographic practice in Japan and is represented in depth in this museum’s collection. It brings together new and newly published writings, reprinted texts, and video interviews, together with illustrated pages devoted to individual collection works. We thank Glen S. and Sakie T. Fukushima for their early support of this project, which we hope will serve as a useful resource for researchers and enthusiasts of Japanese photography worldwide.


  1. Photography was also included in early presentations of Japanese modernist design and art at the museum. For instance, the 1955 exhibition Japanese Architecture and the Japanese Tradition included photographs by Yasuhiro Ishimoto. The museum was committed to acquiring modern Japanese painting, sculpture, and graphic arts from the 1930s to the 1970s.
  2. The museum also acquired the work of Japanese artists who lived in the United States and were thus then known to the international photography community. Pictures by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Kenro Izu, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, among others, all came into the museum’s collection between 1979 and 1984.
cite as: , “Introduction,” Focus on Japanese Photography, November 2017.San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/publication/focus-japanese-photography/introduction
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Sandra S. Phillips

Sandra S. Phillips

Sandra S. Phillips is curator emerita of photography at SFMOMA.
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Essays and Artist Talks

Primary Sources

Selected Primary Source Materials on Photography in Japan, 1950s–1980s

As Japan shifted to a consumer economy after World War II, its large newspaper companies began producing mass-market photography magazines. Such publications were important vehicles for circulating and supporting the new kind of photography that was emerging at the time—work that evinced a unique, indigenous, and highly expressive style, an often-unacknowledged art form unto itself. Principal among these magazines were the monthly Camera Mainichi, supported by Mainichi Shimbun (Daily News), and Asahi Camera, supported by the Asahi company (now Asahi Shimbun Shuppan). Camera Mainichi and Asahi Camera printed not only new and distinctive work by the generation of Japanese photographers then coming to maturity, notably Shomei Tomatsu, Daido Moriyama, and Eikoh Hosoe, but also pictures and critiques of pictures from Europe and the United States. Many pages were devoted to amateur work in the medium, with tips for taking better family photographs joining genuine criticism and discussions of major exhibitions and catalogues from overseas. There were also smaller, more personal magazines in circulation such as Miyako Ishiuchi and Asako Narahashi’s Main, which featured their work and experiences as experimental women photographers in Japan. This selection of articles and catalogue essays from the late 1950s through the 1980s exemplifies contemporary discourse about Japanese photography and its ties to the international photography community.