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Category: Ronin Gallery Blog

The Rise of Japanese Post-War Photography

Over the past decade, the influence of Japanese photography has swept the art market. At auction, early works continue to set record prices, while many museums are avidly developing and exhibiting their collections of Japanese photography. This thriving market focuses on post-war photographers, largely active between the late 1950s and the 1970s. The avant-garde group working during these years tore away from the dominant journalistic tradition of Japanese photography to create raw, subjective images of the world around them. Yasufumi Nakamori, curator at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, states that there was “a sort of tension between photography as document and photography as expression.”[1] The artists of this era fought for expression, seeking a new methodology and developing a radically fresh aesthetic. The majority of their photography was produced in a serial or photo book format. Monthly magazines, such as Asahi Camera and Camera Mainichii, provided a vital venue for these early photographers. The short-lived publication Provoke lends its title to the revered group of photographers who presented their work upon its pages. These artists created stark, gritty, and personal images of contemporary life. Today, collectors and dealers alike seek this Provoke-era aesthetic.

Since the 1970s, Japanese photography has claimed the spotlight in collections around the world: The Museum of Modern Art New York held a survey of the movement in New Japanese Photography in 1974, followed shortly by survey exhibitions at the Graz Municipal Art Museum in Austria (1976-7), Bologna’s Museum of Modern Art, (1978) and the International Center of Photography in New York (1979). During the 1990s, Japanese gallerists sensed the growing interest in postwar photography and began to track down artists of the Provoke movement. As they urged the artists to print new works, these gallerists lay the groundwork for the impending rush of Western collectors and dealers around 2000. In recent years, the number of exhibitions dedicated to Japanese photography has grown: The Museum of Modern Art San Francisco held The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography (2009), the Tate Modern in London has presented three exhibitions of Japanese Photography, most recently, Performing for the Camera (2016), and this past October, the Japan Society in New York opened For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography 1968-1979. With each major exhibition, the market for Japanese photography continues to flourish and evolve.

The collection Modern Masters of Photography: Japan presents prints from twelve of the most influential post-war photographers: Masahisa Fukase, Eikoh Hosoe, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Daido Moriyama, Shigeichi Nagano, Tadayuki Naito, Tokihiro Sato, Toshio Shibata, Issei Suda, Yoshihiko Ueda, Hiroshi Yamazaki. Each artist has donated a photograph that has special meaning to him or her for this project. Proceeds from this collection support grass roots sustainable development in developing countries. Ronin Gallery is proud to partner with Asia Initiatives to present this stunning collection.

[1] De Stefani, Lucia. "Witness the Historical Transformation of Japanese Photography." Time. Time, 18 Sept. 2015. Web. 05 June 2016.

Moriyama Daido, Stray Dog, Misawa 1971. Moriyama has used harsh contrasts in a grainy, raw, and deliberately unfocused manner for this photograph that has been published in several books and catalogues. He encountered this dog in 1971 on the streets of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, near a U.S. Air Force base.

Yamazaki Hiroshi, The Sun Is Longing for the Sea, 1978 (2005). Heliography is a technique named and invented by Joseph Nice-Lphore Nie-Lpce, who was one of the pioneers during the dawn of photography. Nie-Lpce's heliography is deeply connected to Yamazaki's images. The sea was a significant subject for Naito for capturing the changes in light. It took several years for Yamazaki to turn his interest in the variations of the light on the sea into a single work of art.

Ishimoto Yasuhiro,Joy of Colour, 2002. In this photograph, Ishimoto focuses on themes he explored throughout his career that convey the transitory essence of life, including clouds in constantly changing formations, fallen leaves soaked by the rain, and footprints melting in the snow.

Suda Issei, Ginzan Spa, Yamagata, August 26, 1976 from Fushikaden. This is part of Suda's early work that included stage performance photography for the Tenjo Sajiki Play Laboratory, an avant-garde theatrical troupe headed by the famous Shuji Terayama. Expressing the mysteries of everyday life is a theme Suda has pursued throughout his career. This photograph was published in Suda Issei: Japanese Photographers (Iwanami Shoten, 1976). Suda Issei, Ginzan Spa, Yamagata, August 26, 1976 from Fushikaden. Expressing the mysteries of everyday life is a theme Suda has pursued throughout his career.This photograph is part of Suda's early work that included stage performance photography for the Tenjo Sajiki Play Laboratory, an avant-garde theatrical troupe headed by the famous Shuji Terayama. This work was published in Suda Issei: Japanese Photographers (Iwanami Shoten, 1976).

Fukase Masahisa, Nayoro, 1977. Fukase's dramatic narrative, Ravens, effectively combines Eastern and Western approaches to photography. For a culture that is traditionally reluctant to expose emotion in public, the expressionistic character of Fukase's work was, in part, the result of the development of the generation that evolved after World War II. His emotionally charged Ravens series began with a chance to photograph a flock of crows on his native Hokkaido. Fukase deepens the sense of melancholy and loss as the photographs progress to produce a sequence of immensely humane and daring images that draw in many aspects of modern Japan. The pattern of black silhouettes in the sky resembles the brushstrokes in traditional Japanese sumi-e calligraphic painting.

Sato Tokihiro, Photo-Respiration Yura #340, 1998. The word photography, which dates back to the 1830s, literally means "writing with light." In this photograph Sato has embraced both the literal and popular meanings of the word. Using a large-format camera fitted with a neutral-density filter, Sato is able to walk around his subjects and create a long exposure image that explores ideas of time, space, and transience.

Nagano Shigeichi, Monk of Kita Kamakura, 1950. This photograph, shot during the American Occupation of Japan, shows an intersection and tension between Japan's traditions and progress in postwar Japan, symbolized by the waiting monk and the speeding train. The street signs in English reflect that period. This photograph was published in Shigeichi Nagano: Japanese Photographers (Iwanami Shoten, 1999).

Kawada Kikuji, Atomic Bomb Dome, Stain, Ceiling, Hiroshima. This photograph is part of a series that was published in the Map, in which Kawada captured, on high contrast monochrome film, scenes and symbols of places that were embedded with the memory of violence. This photograph of a stain from the ceiling of the Atomic Bomb Dome embodies a deeply critical message about the nature of nationalism and violence.

Ueda Yoshihiku, Hanna, Hands and Feet, 1998. For a culture traditionally reluctant to express emotion in public, Ueda delights us with an intimate scene. The baby in the image is one of Ueda's children. Ueda's mastery of printing techniques brings out the tactile qualities of the flesh and evokes strong family ties. Hanna, Hands and Feet first appeared in Photographs (Editions Treville, 2003).

Hosoe Eikoh, Kazuo Ohno Breathing in the Spirit of Shohaku Soga. Hosoe's visual language is mythical, theatrical, and evokes his memories. In 1959, young dancer Tatsumi Hijikata held a performance in a small theater in Tokyo, and Hosoe, who viewed the performance, was deeply impressed. The human body was to become Hosoe's contant preoccupation. Hijitaka achieved notoriety and subsequently became the founder of Butoh dance, together with Kazuo Ohno, the Butoh dancer featured in Hosoe;s image. At age 98, Ohno remains a solo artist of unparallel expression and depth. Hosoe appliies his mastery of printing techniques to these photogrpahic dramas. Phtography has granted him a language, and the human body has provided him with a subject. His works are held in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Art, Kyoto, Japan; Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, USA; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK; Museum of Modern Art, Paris, France; Centre de Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia; Art Institute of Chicago, USA; Hamburg Museum of Art, Hamburg, Germany; and Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo, Japan, amoung others.

Shibata Toshio, #189 Yunotani Village, Niigata Prefecture. Development pressures in Japan have caused the natural environment to be ravaged as concrete is sprayed down mountain slopes and hillsides. Since 1983, Shibata has photographed these sites. His elaborate compositions explore the juxtaposition between the finite Japanese landscape and the infinite ability of man to impose on that landscape. Shibata's works transform the reality of landscapes into images that are magical, mysterious, and altogether unique. This photograph was featured on the cover of Toshio Shibata/Quintessence of Japan: About the World, published by the Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany.

Naito Tadayuki, Blue Lotus. Naito has developed an entire series on blue lotus, which is a legendary sign of peace and hope for the spirit and mind. He wanted to express the intrinsically Japanese aesthetic of embodiment, abstraction, and a sense of rhythm as the focus of his creativity through this symbol. This photograph was published in Blue Lotus (Hyogensha Tokyo, 2005).