This past week I had the pleasure of hearing Yasufumi Nakamori, writer and curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX (as well as graduate alumnus of Cornell!) speak at the Johnson Museum. Although dense and referential to many photographers I’d never heard of, what I extracted the most clearly from his talk was a sense of the evolution of contemporary Japanese art against the backdrop of political and cultural upheaval.

Still reeling from the results of World War II — the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty being a tangible example of such — the Japanese population towards the end of the century was a distressed one, heavily influenced by American media and the political unrest that followed the era of fascism. Nakamori’s lecture concerned mostly the rise of gendai shashin, or contemporary photography, in Japan in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which emerged simultaneously with — or rather, consequently to — this distressed culture.

Throughout his lecture, Nakamori linked the shift of photographic culture in Japan to specific photographers in the era. One of the main shifts that Nakamori discusses is the shift of viewing photography as a documentary medium or an intermediary step between image-making and print (in magazines and the like) towards viewing photography as a self-reliant, collectible art form. (Interestingly, while the English word “photography” etymologically derives from Greek, translating to “drawing with light,” while the Japanese word shashin literally translates to “copying reality.” This distinction perhaps aids in articulating the divergent cultural attitudes photography as an art form versus as a documentary tool.) Congruent with this shift was a tendency amongst Japanese photographers to defy the generic “rules” of photography regarding composition, focus, subject, lighting, and so on: a tendency utilized both as a force driving photography towards artwork as well as an expression of general displeasure and defiance with the political status of Japan at the time. Nakamori cites Nakahira Takuma (b. 1938) as one of the photographers most actively involved in this cultural movement: one of the founding fathers of the art magazine “Provoke,” Takuma was influenced heavily by the Bauhaus movement and was considered one of the pivotal figures in transforming the traditional attitude of photography to a contemporary one.

Takuma Nakahira, For a Language to Come (1970) - reprint 2010
Nakahira Takuma, “For a Language to Come” (1970)

Having lived in Japan for a significant part of my childhood, the Nakamori lecture resonated with me, and helped me expand the recent cultural and political history of Japan to the context of the contemporary art world. Japanese culture has always seemed to me to be one that is assertively censored in a subtle and self-inflicted way. The contemporary climate of Japanese art seems to me to be reactionary to this aspect of the culture, very evidently influenced by the era and the events of media and pop culture infiltration into the art world that Nakamori discussed in part in his lecture. In this context, I thought of Takashi Murakami (b. 1962), whose prolific presence in Japanese pop culture reflect the sense of escapism and glorification of American culture in a boisterous and graphic way. I can’t imagine that Murakami was not heavily influenced by the development of gendai shashin — though I also cannot imagine that the Nakahira Takuma, Nomura Hitoshi, Wakae Kanji, or Tomatsu Shomei would have anticipated the extent to which their photography would later shape Japanese art.

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