In 1854, Japan was an isolated country of fiefdoms, headed by a 12-year-old shogun. Samurai defended their lords' land with swords and rusty pistols, and Western ideas trickled in through Nagasaki, a port open only to the Dutch and Portuguese.
Everything changed when Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his armada sailed into Nagasaki harbor that year. Using gunboat diplomacy, Perry negotiated a treaty that opened Japan to the West after 250 years of seclusion. He brought with him artist and photographer Eliphalet Brown Jr., who created the first photographs of the exotic land -- and who introduced the camera to the Japanese. The technology would be used to document the country's dizzying metamorphosis from feudal society to economic superpower.
Today, Japan is famous for Fuji film, Nikons, and camera-toting tourists, but much of its photography is unknown in the West. World surveys of the medium tend to ignore Japan's accomplishments, perhaps because of the language barrier and past political tensions. A groundbreaking exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, The History of Japanese Photography, is the first comprehensive Western survey of Japan's 150-year love affair with the camera. Organized by Houston's Museum of Fine Arts and the Japan Society, the show features 180 items by 110 artists. More than 60 institutions loaned photos, books, albums, and scrolls. The Herculean effort took eight years and the work of four curators to complete. Its glossy 400-page catalogue is the first Western text to chronicle this history.
A bittersweet document of Westernization, the collection highlights the battle between traditional Japanese culture and imported modernity. The evolution of Japanese photography itself seems to replicate its Western counterpart -- but with a time lag. The Japanese begin with portraits and landscape, then move to Pictorialism (photos that mimic paintings), documentary photography, and Surrealism. A heated debate develops between straight photographers, who say photos should document reality, and art photographers, who use lenses and darkroom manipulation to transform reality into artistic creations. Meanwhile, photography is employed to sell products and ideas, just as it is in the West. Sadly, the luscious hand-tinted photos that sold soy sauce and imported soaps are omitted in favor of state-sponsored propaganda photography that advertised the ferocious warmongers of Imperialist Japan. The show's curators argue that scholars must explore how Japan's cultural and artistic traditions informed its photography, as well as how Japanese photography influenced its Western counterpart.
The earliest images are delicate and rare. An 1854 daguerreotype by Brown depicts a feudal lord and his samurai. (Daguerreotypes, invented in 1839, are nonreproducible images created on sheets of metal.) "Portrait of Shimazu Nariakira" (1857) is the only extant daguerreotype in the world attributed to a Japanese photographer. Another revolutionary work is Shima Kakoku's pre-1870 self-portrait, which shows him grinning and holding a fan and pumpkin. Subjects rarely smiled in photos until decades later, when the photographic process became less time-consuming.
Umesaka Ori's undated "Bamboo Forest" is the most beautiful and distinctively Japanese work in the show. Enveloped in mist, the forest's branches fade into the background, while leaves in the foreground seem to flutter in a gentle breeze. More a delicate ink-wash painting than a photo, "Bamboo Forest" is a Pictorialist masterpiece that effectively marries Japanese art with the new medium.
Among the strangest works produced were staged "customs and costumes" pictures made for the 19th-century foreign market. Hand-painted in candy colors, they depict merchants, umbrella makers, and women dressed as geisha. The curators selected the best examples of this genre, including Kusakabe Kimbe's lovely portrait, "Japanese Woman Wearing a Kimono" (1880), and opted to exclude more grotesque depictions of homely, dirty prostitutes in cheap kimonos.
The show's pre-WWII documentary photography provides a tour of imperialist wars in Russia, China, and Manchuria, as well as regions struck by tidal waves and earthquakes. Other examples from the era mimic the well-known works of Western masters. "Woman" (1931) imitates Picasso's famous portrait of a seated Gertrude Stein; another photo imitates Van Gogh's self-portrait with a pipe. An untitled work from 1931, an iris with a dew-dropped stamen, evokes Edward Weston's sensuous seashells and bell peppers. Surrealism's pipes, checkerboards, eyes, and floating clocks are ubiquitous.
During WWII, photographers transformed tragedy into images of terrible beauty. Tomatsu Shomei's "Beer Bottle After the Atomic Explosion" looks like a skinned animal carcass hanging from its legs. Equally haunting is "Panorama of Nagasaki," a lifeless post-bomb landscape. Curators omitted one of the war's most chilling images: the charred bodies of a mother and child after a 1945 Tokyo air raid. It's replaced by the wrenching yet optimistic "Mr. and Mrs. Kotani: Two Who Have Suffered From the Bomb," a 1957 shot of a couple who, despite their disfigured faces, smile from ear to ear as they hold up their healthy baby, a symbol of hope and continuity.
The exhibit's final room, featuring well-known contemporary photographers, is an explosion of light and color. For 20 years, Morimura Yasumasa has been restaging famous works of Western art history by putting his own image in them. In the enormous 1989 "Portrait (Nine Faces)," he used computer graphics to blend photos of himself in a reproduction of Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp." In this eerie re-creation, Morimura becomes the doctor, his students, and the cadaver; a tacky gold frame dampens the image's creepiness and transforms it into campy spectacle. Sugimoto Hiroshi's work, in contrast, deals with concepts of time, change, and stillness. The hypnotizing video "Accelerated Buddha" presents a million images of Buddha in five minutes. Each screen of images is shown at a faster and faster pace, until the screen becomes a pulsating sea of Buddhas -- and then turns black.
The art museum's exhibit reveals how the evolution of Japanese photography also parallels another trend: the rise of an international style of art. Rather than create a distinctively Japanese form, these photographers work in a global village of artists that teems with fresh ideas. But after more than a century of practice, the Japanese are no longer just remastering the classics -- they're making the hits.
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