Shomei Tomatsu, Provoke Movement Photographer, Dies at 82
JANUARY 07, 2013
Photographer Shomei Tomatsu, one of Japan's most influential post-war photographers and a prominent figure in the Provoke Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, died December 14 from complications of pneumonia, his London gallerist has confirmed. He was 82 years old.
"We have lost one of the world's truly great photographers. Shomei Tomatsu refused to compromise on every level and was a photographer's photographer," says gallerist Michael Hoppen, who adds that Tomatsu had been fighting cancer for some time. "[He was] brilliant and visionary. His work remains as a living testament to his talent."
Tomatsu, along with photographers Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira and Koji Taki, was part of a movement that rejected the quiet, formal conventions of a previous generation of Japanese photographers for a more radical approach that reflected the influence of American popular culture after World War II.
"We photographers must use our own eyes to grasp fragments of reality far beyond the reach of pre-existing language," Taki wrote in a manifesto for the movement. The result was impressionistic photography that was disorderly and even jarring in style and content, but also poetic.
In broad terms, Tomatsu's subject was all of post-war Japan, but he focused on the experience of individual people, photographing them in public and private, along with evidence of their presence--often in the form of objects such as shoes abandoned in the streets. He famously photographed a series of objects that survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, such as a watch that stopped at the exact moment of the bombing, stirring a collective memory that had been largely suppressed.
Tomatsu's work was the subject of a 2006 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA says on its Web site that Tomatsu considered the US occupation of Japan after 1945 "a defining event in his life and his art. He spent years studying the Americans and the spread of their culture into Japanese life." One of his best-known bodies of work, called "Chewing Gum and Chocolate," was a collection of images he shot over a period of several years on the periphery of US Army bases. The series reflected his ambivalence about the US occupation of Japan.
He also photographed bohemian culture for a series he called "Eros, Tokyo," and a series called "Protest, Tokyo," about youth culture of the 1960s. In the 1970s, he published a book called "Pencil of the Sun," a collection of work about a pocket of pre-modern Japanese culture in Okinawa. Later in his career, he turned his camera on Japan's economic boom, while continuing to photograph western cultural influences in his native country.
Tomatsu was born in 1930 in Nagoya, Japan. According to a 2010 story about his work in The Guardian, he was "famously reclusive" and never ventured outside Japan. More about his career, including examples of his work, is available on SFMOMA's Web site.
|Shomei Tomatsu, "Sisters, Tsukudajima, Tokyo," 1955.|
|Tokyo exhibit at the MoMA. Tomatsu Shomei. Protest, Tokyo. 1969.|
|Shomei Tomatsu. "Card Game, Zushi, Kanagawa, 1964.|
|Eros, Tokyo, 1969|
|Hibakusha (bomb victim) Tsuyo Kataoka, Nagasaki, 1961|
|Prostitute, Nagoya, 1958|
|Shomei Tomatsu - Street Entertainers (From the series: Chindon) Tokyo, 1961|
|Shomei Tomatsu / Boy and the Sea / Tokyo, 1960|
Shomei Tomatsu exhibition
It is interesting to have a look at the Western reception of Japanese photography in the last three decades. After a few initial exhibitions on Japanese photography in the 1970s and early 1980s – like the first and seminal show New Japanese Photography at the MOMA 1974 – the Western audience lost interest in this exceptionally productive period of time and in Japanese photography in generally. It took almost a decade that the interest in Japanese photography revitalized, but this time the interest focussed on contemporary Japanese photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki (first solo show in the West 1992), Hiroshi Sugimoto or Toshio Shibata.
Historical Japanese only came into view again at the end 1990s with the world tour of the Daido Moriyama exhibition, produced 1999 by Sandra Phillips at the SFMOMA, and in 2004 with the exhibition “The History of Japanese Photography” by Anne Tucker at the Museum of Fine Art Houston.Ann Tucker’s catalogue will be the reference publication on Japanese photography for many years to come. This kind of meandering reception of Japanese photography led to the surprising result that “the most important figure in Japanese postwar photography” is still much less known as the photographers who developed their work with or against him. Of course this photographer – who had been labeled the “godfather” of Japanese photography by an artist I met in Tokyo recently – is Shomei Tomatsu.
Born in Aichi, Nagoya in 1930. 1954-56 Photographer at the Iawanami Shashin Bunko publishing house together with Nagano Shigeichi. Participated in the “Eyes of Ten” exhibitions, 1957-59. In 1959, founded photographic agency VIVO together with Kikuji Kawada, Akira Sato, Akira Tanno, Ikko Narahara and Eikoh Hosoe. In the same year, he began to take photographs at the US military bases all over Japan and also the effects of a typhoon that destroyed his mother’s house. Commissioned to work on a book about the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki, together with Domon Ken. 1972-1976 lived in Okinawa. 1974 Founded the “Workshop Photography School”, Tokyo, together with Nobuyoshi Araki, Masahisa Fukase, Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama and Noriaki Yokosuka. 1995 Awarded the Purple Ribbon Medal by the Japanese government.
1974 New Japanese Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York
1979 Japan: A Self-Portrait., International Center of Photography, New York
1984 Shomei Tomatsu: Japan 1952-1981, Forum Stadtpark, Graz
1985 Black Sun: The Eyes of Four, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford
1992 Sakura + Plastics, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
1996 Traces: 50 years of Tomatsu’s works, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo
2000 How You Look at It: Photographs of the Twentieth Century, Sprengel Museum Hannover
2004 Interface. Shomei Tomatsu, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto
2006 Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
2006 Aichi Mandala: Early Works of Tomatsu Shomei, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya
2007 Tokyo Mandala, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo
- Shomei Tomatsu, Ken Domon, et al: Hiroshima-Nagasaki Document. Tokyo 1961
- 11:02 Nagasaki. Tokyo 1966
- Nippon. Tokyo 1967
- Salaam Aleikum. Tokyo 1968
- Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa. Tokyo 1969
- Oh! Shinjuku. Tokyo 1969
- Après-Guerre. Tokyo 1971
- I Am a King. Tokyo 1972
- The Pencil of the Sun. Tokyo 1972
- Kingdom of Mud. Tokyo 1978
- Ruinous Garden. Tokyo 1987
- Sakura, Sakura, Sakura. Osaka 1990
- Tomatsu Shomei 1951-60. Tokyo 2000
- Shomei Tomatsu. Skin of the Nation. San Francisco 2004