Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Post War Japanese Photography - Rough, Blurred, out of Focus

Post War Japan marked a major shift in Japanese society. This included (re)defining Japan in the midst of reconstruction and heavy American presence. Young men who lived through the devastation and re-emergence of Japan began recording their surroundings with cameras and coined their approach, “Are, Bure, Boke“-style (rough, blurred, out of focus). Lasting mostly through the 60s and 70s, some of the more well-known images were published in the avant garde photography magazine, Provoke.

San Francisco Modern Art Museum has been collecting this important body of work since the 1970s. A compilation of their holdings appear in their current exhibit, The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography. Running through to December 20, 2009, this is a must see show!

From the first exhibit image of Moriyama Daido's "Stray Dog" (image above), you get a sense of the grittiness ahead. Indeed, these talented photographers managed to capture the every day in its rawest form. This is seen quite clearly with Yoshiyuki Kohei's "Park" series. Using infra-red, he took pictures of lovers and their voyeristic audience, including himself.
On the other spectrum of the long gaze appears the work of Hosoe Eikoh. His art comes from lighting and the ability to capture the split second the action takes place. "Kamaitachi #31" appears as an image seen behind the human eyes. We know it's fleeting but it is also all at once frozen for all time.

What I truly enjoy about this style of photography is its archival nature. Photographers like Shomei Tomatsu documented the heavy U.S. military presence three decades after occupation. The disdainful look on the soldiers face speaks to an unease experienced by both sides (image below).

With U.S. presence, the Provoke movement also showcased how the Japanese mimicked U.S. pop culture and in some ways making it their own. Watanabe Katsumi's image of three men in sharp suits, cigarettes in hand walking down the red light district mirrors the street life in the U.S. at the time (image below).

Getting the gritty images of Japanese life offers diversity and an alternative to the perfectly stylized images of geishas the west is accustomed to. This comes out in Moriyama's "Eros" series where he takes photos of women in the "love hotels" of Tokyo (image below). The out of focus images offer an erotic glimpse into the sexual practices of urbanites, greatly contradicting images of chaste Japanese ladies.

"Provoke Era" creations are awe inspiring. Aside from the rawness, the beauty of the photography is its archival nature. Photographers simply took a camera with them on their daily walks to capture their surroundings. Sometimes they shot photos while in motion, simulating how our eyes scan images in quick movements. See below Moriyama's city walk.

The success of any exhibit for me is if I feel like creating right as I get home. Though I already carry a point-and-shoot with me everywhere, serving as my own historian, I am now more confident that all my images, however imperfect, has value. So, the exhibit was a huge success for me. Don't miss it!


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