It is indisputable that Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012) was one of Japan’s most influential post-war photographers. Rising to prominence in the 1960s, the artist was commissioned by the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs to visit the devastated city of Nagasaki. He was tasked with documenting and recording the shattering effects that had been wreaked on the city and its inhabitants, who were attempting to rebuild and restart their lives just over a decade after the life-changing attack. Initially unsure of what to expect, his constant wanderings around the still-ruined city left Tomatsu profoundly affected by what he discovered. What ensued were many of his most famous photographs, including ‘Melted Bottle’, 1961, and the haunting image of a watch that had stopped at precisely 11:02 on August 9th 1945. These are poignant and powerfully emotional images that cannot help but move the viewer; the bottle has lost all resemblance to its original state, and has instead become an abstract signifier that has been likened to a hanging carcass of meat.
As one of Japan’s foremost photographers working in the 1960s, Tomatsu was initially regarded as a mentor for the controversial Provoke group. This relationship did not last however, and before long the younger members proceeded to rebel against him. Deeming his work rigidly stylised and too compliant with artistic conventions, their new mission was to transcend these traditional values — to rebel against photography itself. This is perhaps most evident in Daido Moriyama’s 1972 photobook, Farewell Photography, which the artist declared was part of his project to destroy the medium itself. The Provoke artists depicted a grittier, more chaotic image of post-war Japan, something that they did not associate with their former mentor. Yet, this is complicated when viewing images from Tomatsu’s Protest series, as well as ‘Untitled (Kadena, Okinawa)’, and ‘Untitled (Tokyo)’. Instead of radically diverging from the work of the Provoke artists, Tomatsu’s work appears inextricably connected to their own aims. This implies that he must have had a continual influence on these younger artists, despite their claims to the contrary. As Martin Parr has stated, “with the benefit of hindsight [Tomatsu] looks as radical as they were.” It has now become common practice to view Tomatsu as one of the pioneering artists connected to the Provoke group; he too was creating freely expressionistic images with unusual border cropping and odd camera angles. These were to become strong characteristics of Moriyama’s distinctive style, albeit by way of a definitive expansion from those initial influences.
Both Tomatsu and Moriyama were to become entangled in a complicated relationship with America, with the country’s influence being strongly felt in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s. As Tomatsu wrote in The Pencil of the Sun in 1975, “it was as if America seeped through the gaps in the wire fences surrounding the bases and, in time, soaked the entire country.” This infusion of American culture into Japanese tradition became a pervasive theme of his work. Creating a series of photographs that would eventually be entitled Chewing Gum and Chocolate, 1959, Tomatsu referenced the sweets that soldiers would offer to the children — offerings that were “sugary and addictive but ultimately lacking in nutritional value.” There was an uneasy love-hate relationship with America during this turbulent time.
Moriyama would also explore this connection, but he would approach it somewhat differently. The photographer himself cites his inspirations as including American authors, artists and photographers. However Moriyama too was looking to the breakdown of strict traditional Japanese values, as well as documenting the occupation of Japan with images of military bases such as his infamous ‘Stray Dog‘. Yet again Moriyama takes his influence from Tomatsu, but approaches it in a slightly different direction and in an alternative way.
Perhaps the most incisive influence that Tomatsu was to have on the next generation, however, was his concentration on the Japanese people themselves. Another iconic photograph taken by the artist was ‘Hibakusha Tsuyo Kataoka, Nagasaki’, 1961. An image of a woman who was badly burned in the atomic attacks, she is depicted in Tomatsu’s photograph, 16 years later and attempting to continue with her life. Tomatsu was not merely interested in taking an interesting photograph, but he wanted to imbue it with a symbolic and emotional charge. As the critic and curator, Leo Rubenstein has stated, “beneath the surface there was a grief so great that any overt expression of sympathy would have been an insult.” This is about the pain and expression of the individual subject, rather than the broader context of post-war Japan. Remarkable similarities can be discovered in the work of Moriyama in his beautiful yet melancholic ‘Untitled’, c.1972/2014, and also Nobuyoshi Araki’s devastating Sentimental Journey. The works of Tomatsu — and later those of Araki and Moriyama too — would all explore the shifts in Japanese culture through the figure of the individual; whether through painful memories, the deterioration of traditional values, or the ambivalent gaze of the subject.
Tomatsu’s images reveal a deeply personal record of Japan and its transformation in the post-war period. His work revolutionised Japanese photography and had a lasting impact on future generations of artists. Even Araki has acknowledged the eminent photographer’s staggering impact on Japanese photography, which can be read here in American Photo Magazine. It is clear that even artists who professed supposedly contrasting aims to Tomatsu’s photography were profoundly affected by his influence, and therefore his legacy cannot be disregarded. After all, he once stated that he approached the work in his photobook, Oh! Shinjuku “through the eyes of a stray dog.”