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Book Review: Japan's Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto


Book Review Japan's Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto By Hiroshi Hamaya & Kansuke Yamamoto Reviewed by Colin Pantall Japan's Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto, looks at the expressive and objective sides of Japanese photography through the work of two photographers whose best work predates the better known work of Japanese photographers of the 1960s and 70s. The text of the book tells us that both Hamaya and Yamamoto emerged from the 'new photography' of 1930s Japan. Heavily influenced by experimental European photography, Hamaya wrote that "The possibilities of photography and its future were dazzling to me… I was stimulated by László Moholy-Nagy's various experiments and creations at the Bauhaus, and I imagined a surrealistic world through André Breton's poems."

Japan's Modern Divide: The Photographs of 
Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto.
J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.
 
Japan's Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Japan's Modern Divide
Photographs by Hiroshi Hamaya & Kansuke Yamamoto.

Edited by Judith Keller & Amanda Maddox, with contributions by Kotaro Iizawa, Ryuichi Kaneko and Jonathan Reynolds.
J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013. Hardbound. 224 pp., illustrated throughout, 11-1/4x9-3/4".

Japan's Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto, looks at the expressive and objective sides of Japanese photography through the work of two photographers whose best work predates the better known work of Japanese photographers of the 1960s and 70s.

The text of the book tells us that both Hamaya and Yamamoto emerged from the 'new photography' of 1930s Japan. Heavily influenced by experimental European photography, Hamaya wrote that "The possibilities of photography and its future were dazzling to me… I was stimulated by László Moholy-Nagy's various experiments and creations at the Bauhaus, and I imagined a surrealistic world through André Breton's poems."

Though influenced by practices such as photomontage, photograms and print modification, Hamaya did not dig too deeply into experimental photography. The same cannot be said for Yamamoto who saw and was influenced by the work of Man Ray, Hans Bellmer and Max Ernst. The first half of the book focuses on the work of Hiroshi Hamaya and it starts with his most famous picture, Singing as They Go, Drive Away Birds, his stunning image of children walking across a snowy field at night. The foreground is lit by Hamaya's flash as the children march in single file across the middle of the frame. In the darkened background there is a single house, its roof covered in snow, and looping out from the central path is a ring of footprints that leaves then rejoins the path.

Japan's Modern Divide, by Hiroshi Hamaya & Kansuke Yamamoto. Published by J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.

Singing as They Go encompasses Hamaya's fascination with traditional rural Japan and formed part of a project called Snow Country. Then the war intervened, and instead of photographing the Japanese countryside, Hamaya found himself manipulating pictures of battlefield tanks for Front Magazine. Trips to submarine bases, Japanese occupied China and airfields intoxicated Hamaya, but his disillusionment (which wasn't total) with the Japanese propaganda machine caused him to leave the magazine after only one year.

Japan's Modern Divide, by Hiroshi Hamaya & Kansuke Yamamoto. Published by J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.

Hamaya continued to photograph Japanese customs and traditions, with climate and landscape looming large. His book Yukiguni (Snow Country) featured his pictures of rural Japan in Winter. These are images rich in a hardy nostalgia. Children Singing in a Snow Cave shows five cherubic children singing by candlelight under the guidance of an adult. It is rich with life, but a consolation rather than a comfort in tone. Celebratory Rice Cakes in the Morning, New Year's Ritual is a shot from above of a family eating rice cakes on tatami mats. Again, the mood is one of something that is engrained rather than the celebration that is suggested in the title.

There are pictures of bathhouses, rice planting and festivals, and more photojournalistic images of the growing protests against the occupying American forces. 'Take your bases & your U-2 too' reads one banner, but before things can get too directly political, the second part of the book starts and we're straight into the work of Kansuke Yamamoto.

Japan's Modern Divide, by Hiroshi Hamaya & Kansuke Yamamoto. Published by J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.

Illuminating essays explain that Yamamoto became a member of the Dokuritsu (Independent) Group of photographers, a group with a manifesto that in 1931 stated, "…we must stop creating photography in pursuit of Pictorialism as in the past… photography must be a complete reproduction of an image drawn uninhibitedly by each artist's individuality."

Yamamoto remained true to his avant-garde principles even after the war when a more photojournalist approach dominated. These avant-garde principles are apparent in images that become increasingly sophisticated with time. Pictures featuring eyeballs and eroticised close ups of fruit are mixed with constructivist shadow-scapes and cut-up collages. Magritte-influenced birdcages feature heavily and so do mixed positive and negative images. Stapled Flesh, 1949 takes up the Man Ray mantle but instead of a violin on the woman's back, it's a line of industrial strength staples. Madame Q, a bleached out portrait of Yamamoto's wife, her hair streaming above her disembodied head is a development of Man Ray's La tete. Body modification comes to the fore when a delicate, ivory-hued nude is mutilated by a series of bolts and then Yamamoto moves on. By 1970, it's Richard Hamilton type collages.

Japan's Modern Divide, by Hiroshi Hamaya & Kansuke Yamamoto. Published by J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.

The range of references Yamamoto makes in his pictures is broad and rich, his work is not simple pastiche but has a voice of its own, a voice that was politically and culturally aware.

Japan's Modern Divide is a beautiful book with beautiful images and informative, accessible essays on the work of both Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto. It is an old-school catalogue that is a welcome addition to any collection and is highly recommended as both a valuable resource on the history of Japanese photography and the development of photographic movements in the decades preceding and following the Second World War.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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