National Gallery: Japanese photographs trace evolution of society

Kineo Kuwabara. In front of the Imperial Palace (the Day after the February 26 Incident), 1936. Printed 1985, gelatin silver print 30.2 × 45.5 cm. Courtesy Yokohama Museum of Art

An exhibition of Japanese photography at the National Gallery has almost as many stories as it does photographs, and some of those stories are horrendous. No surprise, really, considering the days seen in the images include two of the darkest in human history.

Hanran: 20th-Century Japanese Photography has more than 200 works by 27 Japanese photographers, and one very famous foreigner. The prints all came from the Yokohama Museum of Art, along with the museum’s Eriko Kimura, as guest curator.

The exhibition tracks the “Shōwa era,” or the reign of Emperor Hirohito from 1926 to 1989, during which the lives of the Japanese people changed dramatically, as did the photography, and the idea of what it is and what role it can serve in society. (A small example: before the Second World War it was illegal to photograph the Emperor, but after the war that changed, as demonstrated by Morooka Koji’s photograph of the Emperor and Empress exiting a car in 1947.)

Ryukichi Shibuya. Ginza Photomontage, gelatin silver print 18.1 × 30.1 cm. Courtesy Yokohama Museum of Art

The exhibition is arranged by decade, and in the first room, the 1930s, change is already evident in everyday life in Japan, as in Hamaya Hiroshi’s 1936 photo of two geisha on a Tokyo street, “one with Japanese hairstyle and the other with Western hairstyle.”

War loomed. In 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, and four years later the Japanese navy prodded fate when it attacked the United States on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Habour.

The focus quickly turns to the destruction of Tokyo by U.S. air strikes, and those two awful days in August, 1945, when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Tadahiko Hayashi. Female Air Defence Correspondents Standing in a Row, c. 1942, printed 1993. Gelatin silver print
32.4 × 20 cm. Courtesy Yokohama Museum of Art © Hayashi Tadahiko archives

The destruction was, at the time, beyond comprehension. Kimura Ihee’s photographs, captured eight or nine years later, show Nagasaki still in ruins. Hamaguchi Takashi captured a pile of skulls and other remains of atomic bomb victims discovered in 1952. A 1966 portrait of bomb survivor Ms. Fukuda Sumako shows her arms still bearing grevious wounds 21 years after the explosion.

Not all the victims were Japanese, Eriko Kimura says. One photograph shows a ragged portion of the inscribed post that marked the entrance to a community of Europeans in Nagasaki.

Despite the lingering effects of the attacks, Japan began to recover, and to change. There was a baby boom and a resurgent economy — and an emerging industry of realistic photographs of real, ordinary people.

Some of these photographs are surprising and delightful, such as Hayashi Tadahiko’s portrait of a female sumo wrestler, her naked breasts hanging, her face beaming. Her smile is almost as big as that of Mr. Onoda Hiroo, the legendary Japanese soldier who was photographed as he returned home from the Philippine jungle after having held his position until 1974, oblivious that the war had ever ended.

Other changes were less singular and more profound, and deeply ironic. Hamaguchi Takashi captured student protests in 1966 at Yokosuka Air Base, where Japanese police were protecting an American nuclear submarine. The viewer sees only the shield wall of police at what seems moment of portentous calm, as if both sides were about to charge.

The Western influence continues to be seen. Hamaya Hiroshi’s 1976 photograph of Ms. Cathy Kinoshita Chizuru in a doorway echoes the work of 1970s’ New York wunderkind artist Keith Haring.

Dozens more prints chart the growth of photography as journalism and as art, and as historical record of a nation and a people. Unique among them is Araki Nobuyoshi’s Photomania Diary ’91. It’s one of only two colour images in the exhibition — though, to be precise, the diary consists of hundreds of frames of the artist’s life, some black and white and some colour, arranged right to left as a narrative, and presented on a wall-mounted light box. Numerous spaces are blank, where images deemed obscene (those that showed genitals, the curator explains) were summarily removed by police when the work was first exhibited.

Osamu Kanemura. Keihin Machine Soul, 1996. Gelatin silver print, 48 × 58 cm. Courtesy Yokohama Museum of Art

What of the famous foreigner included in the exhibition? That’s Hungarian-born American Robert Capa, often hailed as the greatest war photographer. Capa toured Japan and took photographs in 1954, all of them of children and families, the curator says. One image shows a small boy on a train station platform, his eyes fixed down the track, waiting for the train, looking ahead to the future, a tiny, two-legged metaphor for the nation. A few weeks later, while photographing the war in Indochina, Capa stepped on a land mine and died.

Also on exhibit is a sampling of work from winners of the New Generation Photography Award, for Canadian artists aged 30 or younger, including Luther Konadu of Winnipeg, and Ethan Murphy and Zinnia Naqvi of Toronto.

Naqvi found a cache of photos of her grandmother wearing her grandfather’s clothes, and uses them to consider ideas of life and identity and gender after the partition of India in 1947. The original photos were tiny, but Naqvi englarged them, and included text of a conversation with her grandmother.

“But why did you try them on?”

“I really can’t remember. Maybe it was his idea, they are his clothes. Anyways it doesn’t matter. We were young and in love and just having a good time.”

Naqvi is, says Canadian Photography Institute associate curator Andrea Kunard, ambiguous about what is fiction and what is fact.

Luther Konadu has four photographs of friends in his studio, just hanging out, by the look of it. The friends look at the camera, or look away, from one frame to the next. Konadu creates “a kind of rhythym,” Kunard says, and, indeed, the slight variations of position and expression do create a kind of visual beat.

Murphy is originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and his photographs — arranged salon-style for a vacation album snapshots effect — were taken when he visited his home province. The photographs are of people, places, Atlantic cod and other traces of Newfoundland’s fortunes, and of the Murphy family’s own history. They’re reflections of having “discovered you have to rediscover your own birth place, that you have to renegotiate that journey,” Kunard says.

Murphy discovered, as we all eventually do, and as Thomas Wolfe indelibly put it in 1940, you can’t go home again.

Both exhibitions continue to March 22. For more information:

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.