organized by Sandra S. Phillips of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and by LeoRubinfien
The Japan Society
333 East 47th Street
through Jan. 2, then travels to Washington,
San Francisco and Wintherthur, Switzerland
NYTimes - Published: October 25, 2004
ART REVIEW | SHOMEI TOMATSU
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
In Shomei Tomatsu's astonishing retrospective at the Japan Society, a man,
his back to the camera, peers from inside a ship out to sea. The picture is vaguely
amusing, or it is not, just as it is an obvious metaphor, or not, depending on how
you choose to look at it. Japan is a country isolated and protected by the sea at
the same time that the sea, bidden and unbidden, has carried the world to Japan's
The man in the photograph, whoever he is, looks as if he has suddenly noticed
something in the water, something out of the picture frame, either toward which he
is inclining or from which he is withdrawing - it's impossible to tell. "The sea," Mr.
Tomatsu once said, "is a phantom mother living deep inside of me. My sea is not
blue. It is dyed the color of blood. And it envelops me with the depth of its silence."
This exhibition should come as a revelation to many people. Japan's pre-eminent
photographer of the postwar era, Mr. Tomatsu is a master of a kind of redolent
ambiguity that speaks both to his subject, which is life in Japan, and also to the
nature of photography, which always shows tantalizingly more than it can explain.
As photographers like William Klein, Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank defined their
era in America, Mr. Tomatsu has defined his in Japan, but the work does something
more than that, too.
It is difficult to encapsulate. It is both capricious and severe. It is about the
aftereffects of war, which can be nearly imperceptible on the surface but which,
if you look more intently, can be seen to have made a wreckage of everything,
past and present.
The German writer W. G. Sebald titled a novel after the rings of Saturn, which look
orderly and elegant from far away but are in reality the detritus of some immense
catastrophe – shards from an act of violence that continue to drift endlessly through
Mr. Tomatsu's photographs are, in part, a visual equivalent: a requiem or lament for
what he perceives as a nation of the walking dead, still damaged by war, animated
by the corrupting but magnetic influence of Americanization.
Out of this he somehow manages to achieve beauty, a dispassionate beauty, which
is art's consolation. He has photographed American G.I.'s in drag, and a window
curtain lifted by a breeze, a stack of taxis in a junkyard, and a sticky flytrap in which
the flies form a pattern that is virtually abstract. He has shot pictures of asphalt
("pictures of nothing," Winogrand admiringly called them) and an image of a gardener's
boot, a bottle and other flotsam stuck in a swirl of silvery mud, like mercury, after a
When he photographed the neighborhood of Shinjuku during the 1960's, it was
Tokyo's newly seedy and bohemian mecca, "the specter of desire gone wild, which
can swallow everything," in Mr. Tomatsu's phrase. These are among his most immediate,
freewheeling works, but his images are often best if at first they don't register - if, as
with the man on the boat, they leave a space between seeing and knowing, which
history rushes in to fill. The boot in mud was shot in 1959 but at a glance looks as if it
might have belonged to a defeated soldier during the war. Its eloquence, aside from
the light and composition, derives from this hint of something larger, which we are
presumed to be able to detect for ourselves.
Declining to preach, the art maintains an attitude of remote skepticism, which, as
the photographer Leo Rubinfien notes in a remarkably perceptive essay for the show's
catalog, is how an honest man necessarily regards his times. From this sane vantage,
Mr. Tomatsu photographs cherry blossoms, and a Chindon, a street performer with a
powdered face (so close up so that you can count the pores on his face through the
makeup), and also a young woman in a red kimono posing before a bright green trash
bin beside an apartment tower.
Stripped of nostalgia, these remnants of traditional life in Japan, like visual haiku,
imply a vast legacy that these images make clear was never as ideal as some people
like to imagine, but that is nonetheless more precious now for being flawed and
disappearing. I said that Mr. Tomatsu is a photographer of life in Japan, but I might
have said that he is a photographer of the evanescence of that life.
He was born in Nagoya in 1930, a teenager during the war who ignored the air-raid
sirens because he wanted to watch B-29's (a "pageant of light," he said) against the
night sky. Like other cultivated artists of his generation, he looked back after the war
with contempt at the Japanese military state, but also disdained the Americanized
establishment that replaced it, and which provided him with the means and freedom
to express his contempt and disdain. This contradiction was never lost on him.
It is no surprise that he also became enamored of Surrealism and French New
Wave cinema. There's something both coldly Surreal and breezily New Wavish about
photographs like the one of two girls, dancers on a stage, shot from below at such an
oblique angle that one of them looks as if she is a giant stepping on an American flag
hanging on a building across the street.
Whimsy mixes with skepticism. Mr. Tomatsu is a skeptic even about his own
skepticism, which probably explains the passion that seeps into his most dry-eyed
pictures. When he went to shoot in Okinawa, expecting to find everything
Americanized, he discovered instead a premodern world just beyond the military
bases sending their lumbering B-52's to bomb Vietnam.
So he focused his camera on a disappearing Japan, which reminded him of his
childhood, which he had never loved. What resulted are luminous and magical
pictures, full of a kind of grave wonder at something suddenly retrieved from
He produced his best-known series of photographs during the early 1960's when
on assignment in Nagasaki to document the aftermath of the atomic bombing. With
a few exceptions, the pictures ingeniously avoid the easy device of recording physical
scars and capture something more complex. The city was rebuilding by then, erasing
its past; like the rest of Japan, it was inattentive to its victims, who received little
government aid and were ostracized and made to feel ashamed. Mr. Tomatsu had not
thought much about Nagasaki or the bombings before he went, which was typical.
What he captured was akin to silence. He chose to photograph mute relics from the
local atomic bomb museum - a beer bottle melted in the blast so that it resembled
a deformed fetus, a cracked watch stopped at precisely the moment the bomb
exploded (11:02 a.m.) and a statue of an angel with its face knocked off (from
Urakami Cathedral - Nagasaki had the largest Christian community in Japan). Most
starkly, he photographed a smoky factory at the spot where the bomb was dropped,
rebuilt against the jagged silhouette of a palm tree that cleaves the image, like a rip
"Sad, haggard facts," Mr. Rubinfien calls these pictures, which, he adds, "could not
be a dirge, because Nagasaki was being reborn as Tomatsu worked, but beneath the
surface there was grief so great that any overt expression of sympathy would be an
So in the end nothing is simple, Mr. Tomatsu shows, especially not if the project is
to capture a nation estranged from its past and in love with its estrangement,
resentful of Americanization, which it has also ecstatically embraced. How, if you are
clever and thoughtful, do you photograph such things except with a knowledge that
they are ultimately and essentially beyond the camera's purview? A camera may get
snippets and fleeting evidence of some larger truths, but the snippets suggest that
there probably is no national identity in the end, just fragments.
And yet you may sense from this show that the oblique tone and refusal to be
pinned down is a statement not just about Japanese identity but also about life
beyond Japan's shores as well. That man on the boat, it turns out, was a casualty
of the bombing in Nagasaki, whom Mr. Tomatsu has photographed before. You
can just see his deformed ear. He is gazing out at the sea as if sailing into the
future, leaving the echoing past behind him.
The world is stranger and more unfathomable the more closely you look, Mr.
Tomatsu reminds us.
So look harder.