Distinctiveness versus Universality: Reconsidering New Japanese Photography
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1. Japanese Photography Viewed Outside of Japan
It is no longer unusual for Japanese photographers to show their work outside of their country. Major art museums in the United States and Europe now organize solo exhibitions of established Japanese photographers such as Shomei Tomatsu (1930–2012), Daido Moriyama (1938–), and Nobuyoshi Araki (1940– ). Recent publications, including The History of Japanese Photography (2003), provide cultural and historical context for an English-language audience. As it becomes more accessible, Japanese photography becomes more and more international. The majority of Japanese photographers who emerged in 1960s, however, were apathetic about achieving international recognition. Until recently, this apathy distinguished the photography community from the artistic community of postwar Japan. Some of Japan’s most ambitious artists were dissatisfied with the marginality of that nation’s art scene. As a result, artists emigrated to destinations popular for contemporary art such as Paris (in the 1950s) and New York City. Compared to the diaspora of Japanese artists, Japanese photographers were more reluctant to leave (a notable exception is Hiroshi Sugimoto, who moved to the United Sates in the early 1970s). Japanese photographers anticipated an audience that would be exclusively Japanese, and most of these Japanese photographers were satisfied with the recognition they received within the Japanese photography community. Although communication was a challenge inherent to leaving Japan, it cannot be the only deterrent, as painters and sculptors moved to Paris and New York with limited experience in a foreign language.
The indifference of Japanese photographers to international exposure makes the role of mediators—curators, gallerists, and editors, for example—more critical for introducing a global audience to Japanese photography. Such is the case with New Japanese Photography, an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1974. As the first substantial opportunity to introduce Japanese photography to an international audience, the significance of this exhibition cannot be overstated. It was organized as a collaboration between two experts of photography in their own countries: John Szarkowski (1925–2007), then director of MoMA’s Department of Photography, and Shôji Yamagishi (1928–1979), editor of the photography magazine Camera Mainichi.
In this essay, I will discuss the creation of this collaborative exhibition and examine the reviews written by American and Japanese critics. Like any other exhibition, New Japanese Photography interpreted its subject in its own way. This article focuses on how New Japanese Photography presented the uniqueness of Japanese photography, and then how Japanese photography was received by American audiences. Just as it is difficult to notice one’s own mannerisms, many features of Japanese photography went unnoticed by the Japanese photography community. Thus, the aim here is not to criticize the inadequacies of the exhibition, but rather to demonstrate that some idiosyncrasies of the Japanese photographic tradition were made visible only once Japanese photography was seen and interpreted outside of its home country.
New Japanese Photography occupied MoMA’s main gallery space for special exhibitions on the first floor, from March 27 to May 19, 1974. The exhibition then toured eight venues in the United States and Canada. New Japanese Photography featured the work of fifteen male photographers who ranged in age from late twenties to mid-sixties: Ken Domon (1909–1990), Yasuhiro Ishimoto (1921–2012), Shômei Tomatsu (1930–2012), Kikuji Kawada (1933–), Masatoshi Naito (1938–), Tetsuya Ichimura (1930–), Hiromi Tsuchida (1939–), Masahisa Fukase (1934–2012), Ikko Narahara (also known as “Ikko”; 1931–), Eikoh Hosoe (1933–), Daido Moriyama (1938–), Ryoji Akiyama (1942–), Ken Ohara (1942–), Shigeru (later renamed Akihide) Tamura (1947–), and Bishin Jumonji (1947–). Each photographer was given his own discrete space, and displayed between four (Jumonji) and forty-two (Tomatsu) images. According to the exhibition’s checklist, the show comprised one hundred and eighty-seven photographs.
Although the exhibition was mounted in 1974, letters in MoMA’s archives indicate that Szarkowski’s interest in Japanese photography existed in 1965, at the latest. In September 1967, he received a letter from Ishimoto, a Japanese photographer who had studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago and whose work had been shown in the 1961 MoMA exhibition Diogenes with a Camera V. In his letter, Ishimoto writes that he sent photographs by Yutaka Takanashi and Kishin Shinoyama to Szarkowski, and he also requests that the publisher of Narahara’s photobook send Szarkowski a copy. This letter suggests that Szarkowski was familiar with emerging trends in Japanese photography of the time. In a letter dated May 1970, from the curator Wilder Green to Waldo Rasmussen, head of MoMA’s International Program, Green writes that MoMA “[had] for some time projected a JAPANESE PHOTOGRAPHY exhibition,” which would open in April 1971, and asks Rasmussen whether the International Council could subsidize Szarkowski’s research trip to Japan, which he originally planned for fall 1970. This exhibition was not the first show on Japanese contemporary art that MoMA organized. In 1966, the International Council of the museum sponsored The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture, a touring exhibition that included the work of forty-six Japanese painters and sculptors. MoMA also organized solo exhibitions of prints by Masuo Ikeda and Tadanori Yokoo, in 1965 and 1972, respectively.
Szarkowski’s research trip occurred in May 1971. On the fifth day of his two-week stay in Japan, Szarkowski was interviewed by Camera Mainichi, the nation’s leading photography magazine, for which Yamagishi, who would become the co-director of the exhibition, worked as an editor. In the interview, Szarkowski said the aim of his visit was to conduct research for an exhibition he was planning on Japanese photography. The interviewer notes that Szarkowski “works really energetically like an executive businessman in America,” and “looks through a pile of back numbers of Camera Mainichi and photobooks and rapidly reproduces the ones that are necessary for him.” Szarkowski mentioned Tomatsu, Hosoe, Narahara, and Ishimoto as among those who piqued his interest in Japanese photography. All of these men would later participate in New Japanese Photography. About Moriyama, Szarkowski said, “Although the work of Daido Moriyama is barely known in the United States, it is his work which gave me a more intense impression than any other I have seen in Japan.”
Asked about the difference between the works of Japanese and those of American photographers, Szarkowski answered:
The first thing I noticed was that Japanese photographers throw all their energies into publishing their works in magazines and printed matters in the form of reproduction. Photographers in the United States care more for original prints. The situations are different. Unlike in Japan, there exist a number of museums and galleries that regularly exhibit photographs as well as private collectors of photographic prints and a market for original prints. But I think that people in Japan should turn and give more attention to original prints than they do now.
This interview is one of the earliest instances in which the unique photobook culture of Japanese photography is mentioned in comparison with contemporary American photography, where original prints were valued more. Unfortunately, in this interview Szarkowski does not point out any other differences that he perceived between Japanese and American photography, offering us few other clues about his first impressions of works in Japan.
It is not clear when Szarkowski decided to appoint Yamagishi as a collaborator for his exhibition, but in a letter from April 1973, two years after Szarkowski’s visit to Japan, he writes to Yamagishi: “We have at last reached the point where we can begin real work on the Japanese show. The Museum will continue it [sic] efforts to find financial assistance for the show, but it has been agreed that I cannot delay further if the show, plus a publication, is to be finished less than a year from now.” In the same letter, Szarkowski mentions Tomatsu, Moriyama, Narahara, Haruo Tomiyama, Hosoe, Fukase, and Akiyama as potential participants in the exhibition, adding, “I think perhaps that the central figure of the exhibition will be Tomatsu.”
Yamagishi came to New York for the second time in July 1973. It was probably during this second visit that Szarkowski asked Yamagishi to work as the co-director of the exhibition; in the letter Szarkowski sent to him just after he left New York, Szarkowski thanks him for agreeing to collaborate on the exhibition. In the same letter, Szarkowski lists the fifteen photographers who eventually participate in the show. Thus, one can assume that the basic framework of the exhibition was determined in July 1973, when Yamagishi and Szarkowski had a chance to speak in person.
Szarkowski’s choice of Yamagishi was logical. At the time, Yamagishi was one of the most influential figures in the Japanese photographic community. Born in 1928, he joined The Mainichi Newspapers as a photographer in 1950. In 1958, he started working as an editor for Camera Mainichi, the monthly photography magazine published by the company. Its primary readership was advanced amateur hobbyists. In the mid-1960s, Yamagishi took control of the editorial direction of the magazine, and introduced works by emerging young photographers. Although Yamagishi is often described as an impresario of serious photographic expression in Japan, before he was approached by Szarkowski his taste was rather eclectic. Indeed, when Yamagishi became as an influential editor of photography, he was known for his appreciation of fashion photography. It is also true that Yamagishi was respected by many of the leading serious photographers, particularly by Moriyama, who often expressed his gratitude to Yamagishi for giving him the opportunity to publish his work early in his career.
3. The Outline of the Exhibition
In the exhibition, each of the fifteen photographers was given a separate space, with no overarching specific concept. Szarkowski often employed this style of exhibition for the group shows he organized at MoMA. In his well-known exhibition New Documents (1967), three participants (Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand) showed photographs whose subjects were not bound together under a strict thematic framework beyond that they were all considered to be “new documents.” About the half of the participants in New Japanese Photography (Domon, Ishimoto, Kawada, Fukase, Naito, Ohara, Tamura, and Jumonji) showed photographs from a single series, whereas the other participants showed collections of works that consisted of photographs culled from more than one series.
In a letter to Yamagishi dated July 11, 1973, Szarkowski wrote that he would decide on the installation design. As a result, it was in a style typical of his other exhibitions. Christopher Phillips describes how drastic the change in the installation design of photography exhibitions was at MoMA after Szarkowski succeeded Edward Steichen as director of the Department of Photography, in 1962:
Steichen’s hyperactive, chock-a-block displays metamorphose before one’s eyes into the cool white spaces of sparsely hung galleries. Mural-sized enlargements shrink to conventional proportions, and the eccentric clustering of photographs of wildly assorted dimensions gives way to an orderly march of prints of utterly uniform size.
For the installation of New Japanese Photography, Szarkowski adapted Japanese photographic work to the design he thought best for displaying all art photographs: each photograph was framed individually so that the viewer could contemplate it in the same manner as he or she might view a painting or a print (Figure 1). At that same time, Szarkowski’s concern for emphasizing the uniqueness of Japanese photography in the installation design can be found in an oblong frame in which four or five photographs are juxtaposed with narrow margins (Figure 2). This framing device is used for the sections by Tomatsu, Moriyama, and Kawada; in the case of the former two, the frames were tilted by about forty-five degrees and attached to the wall at a lower position than others in a way that is reminiscent of a bookrack. This manner of display was a compromise: it attempted to balance an idiosyncrasy of Japanese photography, specifically, its attachment to the book format, with Szarkowski’s advocacy for original prints.
It is important to note that the (ultimately oxymoronic) concept of original photographic prints barely existed in the Japanese community at that time. It was common for photographers to have exhibitions at small galleries run by camera manufactures such as Nikon and Konica, but the prints shown in the exhibitions were rarely accorded special value, in part because there was no commercial market dealing with photographic prints and few Japanese museums collected photography. It was also because, unlike American art photographers such as Ansel Adams, Japanese photographers, in general, did not embrace the idea that a photographer is able to express creative intention only through the production of personally handcrafted prints. It is no wonder, then, that the majority of the photographers participating in the exhibition entrusted the responsibility of preparing the prints to Yamagishi. As the correspondence between Szarkowski and Yamagishi suggests, except for the prints by Narahara, Hosoe, and Ohara, who lived in the United States or had already exhibited photographs in this country, Yamagishi commissioned a photographic laboratory in Tokyo to make the exhibition prints (the costs were paid by MoMA) and then ship them to New York.
In 1978, looking back on the exhibition, Yamagishi wrote that he and Szarkowski “selected and organized work by the fifteen photographers together” after “a series of intensive discussions about the selections of photographers and photographs.” Based on the documents left to us, however, it is difficult to know any details about the choice of each photographer and each photograph.  Among the fifteen photographers, only the sections dedicated to Narahara and Ohara contained photographs that were taken outside of Japan. Some of the photographers showed works with subjects that are unequivocally connected to traditional Japanese culture: Domon on the Muro-ji Temple in Nara, Ishimoto on the stepping-stones of the Katsura Palace in Kyoto, and Tsuchida and Naito on the folk customs of regional areas. However, the connection the work of the other nine photographers had with Japanese culture was far from obvious other than that they were taken in Japan by Japanese nationals. This ambiguity made the explanations provided by Szarkowski and Yamagishi even more necessary for viewers hoping to understand the exhibition.
4. Interpretations Presented by the Organizers of the Exhibition
The separate introductions written by Szarkowski and Yamagishi illuminate how they perceived the exhibited work’s relationship to the nature of Japanese photography. Szarkowski begins his introduction this way: “The progressive homogenization of the world during the twentieth century has by now made the national art exhibition a device of greatly diminished utility.” Although he argues that a classification of “contemporary artistic expression” defined on the basis of national boundaries had become less useful, he also mentions that “most of the meanings of any picture reside in its relationships to countless other and earlier pictures—to tradition.” Here Szarkowski refers to the synchronic standardization of art prompted by globalization (though he does not use this term) and the diachronic genealogy embodied by the “tradition” of each regional art, and he claims that the former is gradually overwhelming the latter.
Szarkowski does not forget to add, however, that this is not always the case with photographic art: “As practiced by its most talented and original workers, photography is not the lingua franca of our age, but perhaps the most underground of all the arts. Thus it is still possible for exceptional local circumstances to produce special perspectives on the question of the medium’s possibilities.” Szarkowski maintains that the “underground” status of photographic art helped to keep alive the regional tradition. As Phillips has pointed out, Szarkowski, as well as Peter Galassi, his successor at MoMA, claimed that photographic art has had its own “tradition” and that this is manifested in the (supposedly Western) masterworks of art photography. Although he implies the existence of a tradition in Japanese photography, Szarkowski does not clarify what that tradition is. Instead, he writes:
The preceding paragraphs attempt to explain the possibly surprising but undeniable fact that there has arisen in recent years a distinctively Japanese photography. . . .
In retrospect it seems possible that the ferment in Japanese photography during the past two decades has been caused by three factors: the patent bankruptcy of the prewar tradition of photographic pictorialism, the national fascination with photography as a technique, and the stunning speed with which the character of Japanese life itself has been transformed.
Szarkowski emphasizes “the patent bankruptcy of the prewar tradition of photographic pictorialism,” and thereby implies that postwar Japanese photography is established on the negation of a tradition (apparently he was unaware of the Japanese photography of the 1930s that emerged under the influence of European modern photography and replaced pictorialism of the decade prior). Szarkowski then elaborates on the third factor:
All countries have changed greatly in the past quarter-century, but perhaps none has changed so radically or with such dizzying speed as Japan. . . . What should be pointed out here is simply that these issues are the substance of the photographs in this book. On their evidence, it would seem that photography is ideally suited to deal with the definition of such revolutionary change, because it is flexible, intuitive, autographic, fast, cheap, tentative, and perhaps, in some sense not yet understood, accurate.
The quality most central to recent Japanese photography is its concern for the description of immediate experience: most of these pictures impress us not as a comment on experience, or as a reconstruction of it into something more stable and lasting, but as an apparent surrogate for experience itself, put down with a surely intentional lack of reflection. In the visual arts, it would be difficult to name an artist who more closely approaches the ideals of automatic writing than Daidoh [sic] Moriyama.
According to Szarkowski’s view, what has shaped postwar photographic works made in Japan is not an internal chronological structure that runs through the history of Japanese photography—that is, what is known as a “tradition”—but rather the photographers’ response to contemporary Japanese society.
Szarkowski points out a “concern for the description of immediate experience” among recent works of Japanese photography. This remark is simultaneously accurate and misleading. Moriyama certainly shared this concern when he stated in 1970: “I aim for physical and sensory photographs which exclude the elements of concepts and words as far as possible.” However, this does not apply precisely to the work by the other fourteen photographers, let alone Tomatsu. Even if recent Japanese photography appeared to him to be made “with a surely intentional lack of reflection,” Szarkowski had nothing to say about how and why some Japanese photographers chose to employ this strategy. In his introduction, Szarkowski admits that “unlike Shoji Yamagishi, this writer is in no sense an expert on the history or meaning of this development [of postwar Japanese photography].”
Perhaps Szarkowski expected Yamagishi to explain the historical context of Japanese photography. In his introduction, however, Yamagishi hardly responded to this expectation. Rather, his main concern appears to be how to avoid associating the exhibit with a generalized concept of Japanese photography. Thus, Yamagishi made a deliberate decision not to explain what it is that makes, to use Szarkowski’s words, “a distinctively Japanese photography.” Instead, he emphasizes the universality of the work’s significance. The catalogue was bilingual; in the English version of his essay Yamagishi writes:
In this exhibition we have tried to answer the question: How does Japanese photography relate to the contemporary concerns of the entire photographic community? It was not our aim to present the many features indigenous to Japanese photography as seen through the eyes of the Western world.
Interestingly, the Japanese counterpart of this passage, which is printed in the pages following the English text, is not identical. The following is my translation, which I have tried to make as literal as possible:
Even if these photographs turned out to demonstrate what Szarkowski calls “the emergence of [a distinctively] Japanese photography,” I did not intend to propose the idiosyncrasy of the Japanese style of photography, based on the contrast between the West and Japan. Rather, for me, it was a part of habitual work that seeks out the common significance of today’s photography, based on contemporary concerns and unrestricted ideas.
The difference between the English and Japanese versions is so great that one cannot assume that it is due to the carelessness of the translator. The translator’s name is not credited in the book, but the letters between Szarkowski and Yamagishi suggest that the English translation of Yamagishi’s text was prepared in Japan and that then Szarkowski asked Yamagishi to give him permission to further edit the text so it reads smoothly in English. In a letter dated December 17, 1973, Szarkowski wrote to Yamagishi: “The one passage where I am suggesting a change in meaning is where you quote me, in order to suggest more accurately what I thought I said.” 
The Japanese version reveals Yamagishi’s anxiety about the experience of Japanese photography by Western audiences. He feared that Japanese photography might be reduced to exotic images of a non-Western country, attractive not for commonalities but rather for strangeness and otherness. Instead of emphasizing the “the idiosyncrasy of the Japanese style of photography,” Yamagishi underlines its universality: “It has been our concern in this exhibition to discover whether or not the fruit contains seeds of universality.” Thus, he claims that each photographer’s work is related to the question “What is photography?”—an ontological question relevant to all practitioners and viewers of the medium. In the Japanese version, Yamagishi writes a passage that can be translated into English as follows:
For New Japanese Photography, what we selected were not photographs that lead [viewers of the exhibition] to a facile understanding of Japanese photography, in the form of the historical classification or genealogy, but those that serve as a material to enable one to come one step closer to this both old and new question [of “What is photography?”].
His suggestion that the exhibited work was trying to answer the question “What is photography?” is not elaborated in his short introduction. His failure to explain the specific character of Japanese photography, except that Japanese photographers are “not particularly interested in the quality of the finished print,” is in part because, unlike Szarkowski, Yamagishi was not an especially strong writer. But his emphasis on “universality” also came from his justifiable fear of producing a fixed image of Japanese photography, as well as awareness that the fifteen photographers had not necessarily made their works to be seen as Japanese photography. In other words, the photographers usually did not think about their works’ relationships to the concept of Japanese photography, although they were not always concerned about the question “What is photography?” either. Therefore, Yamagishi could do nothing but appeal to the universality of the work, implicitly disagreeing with Szarkowski’s suggestion that the exhibition showcases “a distinctively Japanese photography,” although this disagreement is somewhat obscured in the English version of the introductions.
Apart from the introductory texts, the exhibition catalogue offers its own interpretation of Japanese photography through the selection and sequencing of the photographs. Out of the one hundred and eighty-seven exhibited photographs, one hundred and one are reproduced in the catalogue. In the exhibition, Tomatsu and Moriyama were given more prominence, and the catalogue mostly repeats this format by assigning Tomatsu’s work ten spreads and Moriyama five, whereas the other thirteen photographers (except for Domon) were given fewer than five spreads. With Tomatsu’s Aftermath of a Typhoon, Nagoya on the cover, the catalogue begins with carefully composed photographs of Japanese antiquities taken with a large-format camera: Domon’s photographs of Buddhist statues and Ishimoto’s stepping-stones of the Katsura Palace. These images are succeeded by the works of Tomatsu and Kawada, which deal, in different ways, with the memory of the Second World War. This section is followed by Naito, Ichimura, Tsuchida, and Fukase, all of whom, according to Yamagishi, were “working on such atavistic subjects as traditional religion and the unsophistication and the eroticism of the Japanese.” After the pages devoted to Narahara and Hosoe, who were familiar with the American photography community, appear Moriyama’s fives spreads, which consist mostly of photographs from his 1968 photobook Japan Photo Theater and his 1972 photobook Hunter. The catalogue concludes with the works of the young emerging photographers Akiyama, Ohara, Tamura, and Jumonji.
Although the sequence illuminates the generational differences among the Japanese photographers, commonalities are also suggested through formal and thematic correspondences across divergent works. For example, a reader repeatedly finds close-up shots of a human body (or a human-shaped statue) without a face in the sections of Domon, Tomatsu, Ichimura, Hosoe, Moriyama, and Jumonji. It is as if a Buddhist statue metamorphosed into a victim of the atomic bomb, and then into a contemporary Japanese characterized by anonymity and featurelessness. In a similar way, Ishimoto’s downward views of stepping-stones in the Katsura Palace resonate with Tomatsu’s photographs of muddy ground and asphalt and Akiyama’s of a vast, garbage-strewn reclamation area in Tokyo Bay. These similarities produce an impression that, as a whole, the photographs by the fifteen artists address a common issue, specifically the “stunning speed with which the character of Japanese life itself has been transformed,” a feature Szarkowski suggests as the third factor creating “a distinctively Japanese photography.” We do not know whether Szarkowski and Yamagishi were conscious of these visual similarities in New Japanese Photography, but the similarities certainly influenced the ways in which American viewers experienced the exhibition.
5. The Reception of the Exhibition
It is easy to imagine that the American viewers of New Japanese Photography were unconvinced by Yamagishi’s claim that the photographs addressed such universal questions as “What is photography?” instead of demonstrating “a distinctively Japanese photography.” Interestingly, some reviewers considered the exhibited photographs to be so similar to American photography, especially to the kind advocated by MoMA and Szarkowski, that they lacked originality. A short review in the Village Voice denounced the exhibition, asserting that “this is a tepid rehash of the American style popular with MOMA.” In the same vein, Douglas Davis, a reviewer for Newsweek felt that the work in the exhibition was disappointingly derivative of “the ‘candid’ school” in recent American photography. Davis writes, “Much of this uneven show is blatantly imitative in both style and content.” Although not entirely critical of the exhibition, the photo critic A. D. Coleman mentions that “by remarkable coincidence, New Japanese photography looks almost exactly like the photography which has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for the past 10 years.” From today’s perspective, these comments might seem insensitive to cultural differences, but in fact at the time it was not unusual to think that artwork from Japan, especially works in a genre of Western origin, were an imitation of Western art. As Kiyoko Mitsuyama has suggested, reviewers for The New York Times took pains to find originality and cultural specificity in the mostly nonrepresentational work shown in The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture, a 1966 exhibition at MoMA.
Other reviews of the exhibition or the catalogue were more favorable, even though they were far from unanimous about which photographers were worthy of attention. In particular, critics were sharply divided on Moriyama: while D. R. Martin for The Minnesota Daily calls him “a genius,” Martin Levine for Newsday describes Moriyama as “merely melodramatic.” Some reviewers were surprised to find that the photographs in the exhibition did not conform to their preconceptions about Japan and Japanese art. Ruth Tager, who saw the touring exhibition in the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes, “These photographs effectively dispel any illusions one may still cherish of cherry blossoms in the spring and the quiet decorum of the tea drinking ceremony.” Similarly, Levine suggests, “The photographers active in Japan since the war have turned their backs on the cute, neat, polished, spare, and pretty—all the qualities of traditional art.” In a long review published in Artforum, the art critic Max Kozloff maintains, “It is odd, in a country noted for its national tidiness, its mania for order, and the simplicity of its surfaces, that they are so often portrayed here as covered over by welts, strewn with muck, grainy, or indescribably soiled.”
A common thread in the reviews of New Japanese Photography was that this rather unconventional image of Japan reflected the conflict between the traditional Japanese culture and the drastic Americanization of Japan after the Second World War. Kozloff suggests: “If hardly dominated by, the exhibition is redolent of, an American intrusion in postwar Japan. . . . The wounds of Japanese consciousness and abruptly its excitements, goaded problematically by America, become the sights through which we tour.” This view resonates with Szarkowski’s introductory words: they saw the work through the framework offered by Szarkowski.
At the same time, Kozloff doubts the objectivity of this framework by suggesting that Tokyo is not as nightmarish as it may seem in the images: “Tokyo is a city of over 11,000,000 people that last year had 1/9 as many as murders as New York. The fantasy of everything coming apart and mutating is a protean nightmare, but the reality which contains it is far more complex.” He came to this supposition after comparing Narahara’s Two Garbage Cans, Indian Village, New Mexico, with Akiyama’s Two Men Dumping Factory Waste onto a Junk Pile, Tokyo Bay. Kozloff wonders, “Is it a reflex they can’t resist that turns the pueblo into a Surrealist conceit, and the reclamation area into a cosmic vision?” In short, Kozloff suggests that what is represented in the photographs might be no more than a “fantasy” of the photographers. Tager refers to Narahara’s work taken in the United States to imply that exoticism might affect both how one takes photographs in a foreign country and how one looks at photographs taken in a foreign country: “One wonders if to the Japanese who sees them they represent exotica or are seen as mundane views. Most of them are.” These comments pose a critical question relevant to any photography exhibition organized under a national category: If New Japanese Photography is “distinctively Japanese,” is it because what the artists photograph is uniquely Japanese or because of how they photograph? If both factors matter, how can we separate the former from the latter? The photographs Narahara took in the United States serve as a starting point to pursue this question. These images occupied so small a part of the exhibition, however, in both quality and quantity, that they did not compel most viewers to reconsider Szarkowski’s hypothesis that there exists “a distinctively Japanese photography.”
Because most of the viewers of the exhibition were American, we have little in the way of Japanese critical perspective, all of which appeared in Camera Mainichi. In a roundtable held in New York just after the exhibition opened, in which Akiyama, Narahara, Ohara, Jumonji, Tamura, Tsuchida, and Fukase participated, Narahara expressed his dissatisfaction with the exhibition:
That show should be regarded as a work by the two directors Szarkowski and Yamagishi, and I think it speaks about the history of modern Japan of some time ago. . . . I acknowledge the two directors’ ability in arranging and contextualizing photographs. But, taking this conversely, I think it is done in a too well-mannered way. There can be another way of showing, where photographs are displayed in a freer and easier manner and what is Japan or what is Japanese photography oozes out from them.
Narahara expressed fear that works by the fifteen photographers would ultimately be reduced to an illustration of Japanese history and suggests, “Today’s photography asks a viewer to look at photographs themselves, without such a form imposed on them.”  Such a reaction from a participant of a group exhibition may not be unusual, as artists often reject a curator’s historical or artistic contextualization of their work. However, there were also factors specific to this exhibition that prevented American viewers from seeing the photographs as works by individual artists with different sensibilities.
In his review of the exhibition, the artist Masuo Ikeda, who had a solo exhibition of prints at MoMA and then lived on Long Island, New York, aptly suggests: “Among [American] viewers’ expectations for a photography exhibition [of Japanese photography] in a foreign country, there must be a desire to know a fragment of the reality of Japan, as well as an attitude to look at photographs taken by Japanese photographers as a work of art.” Ikeda criticizes the reality, or interpretation of the reality, represented in the photographs as too “negative” and “naked,” even if it was the result of the “critical spirits” of the photographers, mentioning that “to put it in an extreme way, in this exhibition one finds no beautiful face of the Japanese.”
Certainly, as Ikeda indicated, most viewers of the exhibition were unfamiliar not only with Japanese photography but also with Japan itself—its history, people, culture, and so on—and this lack of familiarity played an adverse role in the appreciation of the “photographs themselves” that Narahara had hoped would be possible. Lack of familiarity was not the only problem, however. The consideration of the photographs as somewhat transparent representations of Japan’s reality was not just an outcome of the viewers’ ignorance but also a characteristic inherent in the photographs themselves. This characteristic, in my view, is a factor that constitutes a distinctiveness of Japanese photography and its unique tradition. This is not a place to discuss the history of Japanese postwar photography in detail, but in the rest of this essay, I would like to examine how Japanese photographers’ relative indifference to personal style influenced the way in which New Japanese Photography was received in the United States.
6. Heterogeneous Styles and Anonymous Documents
In a review discussed above, Ikeda points out that the exhibition is dominated by “anti-commercial photographs” with which the photographers “imposed upon themselves an escape from the image of the commercial photographer.” He continues: “It probably meant a liberation from the norm according to which they enclosed the reality in a composition, and they must be rather interested in the parts which do not fit into a composition or ambiguous things which cannot become a composition.” But Ikeda also suggests that their attempts cannot help becoming “unnatural” because “as long as they are photographers with a clear concept, the more amateurishly they try to make their pictures, the more unnaturally, not naturally, they must shoot photographs in an unskilled way.” This is an important point overlooked by most American reviewers. A number of Japanese photographers in the late 1960s consciously made photographs that looked amateurish or unprofessional. Both bure boke (blurred and out of focus) and konpora (a term derived from the English word contemporary), two photographic trends in Japan that emerged in the late 1960s, employed this strategy. Although New Japanese Photography did not attempt to showcase these trends, they were nevertheless indirectly suggested in the exhibition; Moriyama was considered to be the central figure of bure boke whereas Akiyama’s work was sometimes associated with konpora.
To some American reviewers, this deliberate abandonment of conventional photographic skills appeared simply to demonstrate a lack of technique. For example, a reviewer for The Daily Californian writes: “Although the subject matter itself of the younger photographers is often more moving and even more shocking than that of the old photographers . . . any power it might have is ultimately diminished by the lack of attention to composition and technique.”  Although not specifically about New Japanese Photography, one writer appreciative of Japanese photography suggested as follows:
“To the Western eye which is steeped in traditional forms and ways of seeing that usually put a strong emphasis on elements like composition, design, and technical excellence, many of these photographs—and, naturally, those produced by the more avant-garde professionals like Fukase, Kahoh [sic], Daido Moriyama, and others—are not easy sometimes to really see and feel and appreciate right away.”
What perplexed the American viewers was not just the disregard for technique by Japanese photographers, but also their indifference to personal style. In his review cited above, Coleman maintained: “While Occidental photographers (and Western artists in general) tend towards monogamy in their relationship to personal style, Japanese photographers appear to feel free to change styles drastically, not only from essay to essay but often within a single piece of work.” In a similar vein, Kozloff pointed out the “high stylistic eclecticism” in the work of young Japanese photographers. Bewildered by Moriyama’s work, the photo critic Andy Grundberg could not resist suggesting: “Daidoh [sic] Moriyama . . . is considered the doyen of the current generation of young photographers, but from the selection here one might think he was four or five photographers—all members of a degraded camera club.” This reviewer was not familiar with Moriyama’s work, so it was surprising to him that the photographer who produced such a heterogeneous group of images was an influential figure in the Japanese photography community.
The comments of these reviewers about the style, or a lack of style, in the work included in the exhibition indicate an important characteristic of Japanese creative photography that distinguishes it from the Western counterpart and that was rarely noticed in the Japanese discourse on photography. Tomatsu’s section in New Japanese Photography exemplifies heterogeneity of photographic style. Whereas some photographs, such as Beer Bottle after the Atomic Bomb Explosion and Asphalt, Tokyo, depict objects with minute detail in a carefully arranged static composition, other photographs taken with a 35 mm handheld camera look more spontaneous. In the two photographs capturing an anti–Vietnam War protest in Shinjuku, spontaneous shooting is emphasized through blurred images. This contrast illustrates the fact that Tomatsu does not adhere to a single signature style but instead changes styles depending on the subject. Though not as conspicuous as Tomatsu, Moriyama, in his early photobooks, such as Japan Photo Theater (1968) and Hunter (1972), also mixed photographs that seem heterogeneous rather than uniform. In Moriyama’s case, a mixture of styles in a single photographic essay creates an impression of chaos and disorder. 
The lack of a coherent style observed in New Japanese Photography encouraged American viewers, unfamiliar with Japanese culture, to see the photographs as transparent reflections of Japanese society rather than as artistic objects crafted by these photographers. In the Western reception of those images, the photographers’ métier was diminished and, therefore, a viewer could contemplate a photographed subject without being forced to think about a photographer’s calculated intervention in the picture-making process. In fact, Szarkowski’s words in the catalogue text supported this view by suggesting an intuitive approach among young Japanese photographers. In the introductory note printed on the verso of the poster of the exhibition (which appears to be written based on the introductions in the catalogue), Szarkowski maintains that, in their work in which “intuition takes precedence over intellect . . . the ideal of perfect control, and the photographic aesthetic based on a sure anticipation of the final result, is sacrificed here for the sake of spontaneity and adventure.” Szarkowski’s dichotomy between intuition and intellect almost falls into the stereotypical view that non-Western cultures lack the rationality of the West. Szarkowski would never have imagined that the intuitive approach employed by Japanese photographers such as Moriyama was also a result of intellectual reflections on the nature of photography. And surely it was, as demonstrated by the abundance of critical discourse on bure boke photography in Japanese photography magazines at the time.
It is difficult to say how much New Japanese Photography influenced the development of Japanese photography after 1974. There is no evidence that the reception of the exhibition abroad encouraged Japanese photographers and critics to reflect on the distinctiveness of Japanese photography in the international context. As indicated earlier, most Japanese photographers were content with domestic recognition, and this condition did not seem to change immediately after the exhibition. However, Yamagishi’s collaboration with Szarkowski helped to bring firsthand knowledge of contemporary American photography to the Japanese audience. American photography had been influential for decades, but until then it was introduced mainly through imported publications. Yamagishi took advantage of the occasion not just to give Japanese photographers a chance to show their work in the United States, but also to introduce the latest trends in American photography to readers of his magazine. Among the American photographers whose works Yamagishi printed in Camera Mainichi after he met Szarkowski in 1971 are Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Lee Friedlander, and William Eggleston. He organized a solo exhibition of Arbus at a department store (a common place for art exhibitions at that time) in Tokyo in June 1973. The show was successful and Arbus’s idiosyncratic style of portraiture became quite influential in the Japanese photography community.
On the American side, New Japanese Photography continues to be an important source and reference for subsequent exhibitions on Japanese photography. One can assume that Szarkowski’s involvement provided a “guarantee” for the next generation of photography curators to work on this otherwise unfamiliar subject. Without New Japanese Photography, retrospective exhibitions on Moriyama and Tomatsu, which toured several museum venues in the United States in 1999–2001 and 2004–2006, respectively, would not have come to fruition. The manner in which Szarkowski and Yamagishi presented work of Japanese photography was far from perfect; the lack of sufficient historical and artistic background, especially, would be considered inappropriate in the present climate of the art world. However, it is the exhibit’s incompleteness that still makes New Japanese Photography a thought-provoking exhibition. It offers us a clue to reflect on not just the image of Japanese photography outside Japan but also the politics involved in artistic exchanges across different cultures.
Yoshiaki Kai earned a PhD in art history from the City University of New York and is an associate professor at the Faculty of Humanities, Niigata University, Japan. In 2010 he served as an assistant curator of the exhibition Suspending Time: Life-Photography-Death, which was curated by Geoffrey Batchen at the Izu Photo Museum in Shizuoka, Japan.
This essay is an extensively revised version of a chapter in my dissertation submitted to the City University of New York in 2012. The dissertation discussed the history of Japanese street photography taken with a handheld camera, known as sunappu (snap) or sunappu shotto (snapshot) in Japanese, although the term does not mean to imply the amateurishness or casualness of the word’s English-language counterpart. See Yoshiaki Kai, “Sunappu: A Genre of Japanese Photography, 1930–1980,” PhD diss., City University of New York, 2012. I would like to thank Koko Yamagishi for sharing her memories about her late husband, Shoji Yamagishi. My gratitude also goes to Geoffrey Batchen and Claire Bishop for their invaluable advice regarding my dissertation project.
Anne Wilkes Tucker, ed., The History of Japanese Photography (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). For another recent English-language book that surveys the history of Japanese photography, see Karen M. Fraser, Photography and Japan (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).
The itinerary of the touring exhibition was the Denver Art Museum (9/13–12/1/74), the St. Louis Art Museum (1/9–2/16/75), the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (3/10–4/27), the Winnipeg Art Gallery (6/12–7/20), the Krannert Art Museum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (9/1–10/12), the San Francisco Museum of Art (10/31–12/14), the Seattle Art Museum (1/8–2/16/76), and the Portland Art Museum in Oregon (3/16–4/18). Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #1057. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
In a letter that year to Yoshimasa Uchiyama, the president of Yashica, a camera-manufacturing company, Szarkowski writes: “I do indeed hope to be able to visit Japan in the next few years to study at close range the very interesting development of contemporary Japanese photography.” Letter from John Szarkowski to Yoshimasa Uchiyama, dated June 10, 1965. Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #1057. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
For Ishimoto’s activity after he returned to Japan, in 1953, see Yasufumi Nakamori, Picturing Modernism in Japanese Architecture: Photographs by Yasuhiro Ishimoto (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), especially pages 24–26.
Letter from Yasuhiro Ishimoto to Szarkowski, dated September 21, 1967. Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #1057. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Narahara’s book mentioned in the letter must be Yôroppa: Seishi shita jikan (Europe: Where time has stopped) (Tokyo: Kajima kenkyûjo shuppankai, 1967).
Hideko Yoshikawa, “Intabyû: Nyûyôku kindai bijutsukan shashin buchô jon shâkafusukî shi ni kiku” (Interview with Mr. John Szarkowski, Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York), Camera Mainichi (July 1971): 26–29.
In the March 1971 issue of Camera Mainichi, Hosoe, who was already showing his work in the United States, suggested this difference. Hosoe was one of the Japanese photographers to emphasize the importance of original prints. See Eikoh Hosoe, “Môhitotsu no shashin e no ashigatame: Korekusyon no igi to sekai no genjô” (Preparation for another photographic value: Significances of collecting photographs and the current international situation), Camera Mainichi (March 1971): 26–30.
Szarkowski wrote: “The detailing of the exhibition installation will be designed by me here, in keeping with the general structure and sequence that we have agreed on.” Letter from Szarkowski to Yamagishi, dated July 11, 1973. Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #1057. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
Christopher Phillips, “The Judgment Seat of Photography,” October 22 (Fall 1982), reprinted in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989), 34.
For a brief summary on the status of original prints in Japanese photography, see Yuri Mitsuda, “Shashin no arika: Hosoe eikoh originaru purinto to minigurafu” (Where photography is: Original prints and minigraphs by Eikoh Hosoe), in Shashin ‘geijutsu’ to no kaimenni: Shashin shi 1910 nendai – 70 nendai (Photography at the interface with “art”: The history of photography from the 1910s to the 1970s) (Tokyo: Seikyusha, 2006), 277–93. Zeit-Foto Salon, the first commercial gallery in Japan devoted to art photography, opened in 1978.
In a letter dated July 11, 1973, Szarkowski writes to Yamagishi: “Except in the case of those photographers who regularly make their own prints for exhibition, all prints will be made by the Doi Company in Tokyo, and you will have authority to accept or reject the prints. I understand that you will welcome the advice of the photographers in this matter, when it is available.” Letter from Szarkowski to Yamagishi, dated July 11, 1973. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. It is not clear from the documents whether the prints were made from the negatives the photographers lent to Yamagishi or reproduced from the prints made by the photographers themselves. The prints ended up in MoMA’s collection.
The Exhibition File of New Japanese Photography at MoMA Archives holds folders in which contact prints of the work of each photographer are pasted, a method used by Szarkowski, it seems, to decide which shots to use. As he said later, Ishimoto opposed Szarkowski’s selection, insisting that it consist of one single series, Katsura. See Akiko Moriyama, Ishimoto yasuhiro: Shashin to iu shikô (Yasuhiro Ishimoto: Photography as thoughts) (Tokyo: Musashino Art University Press, 2010), 234–35.
[F. McD.], “Photography,” Village Voice, 11 April 1974. A photocopy of this review, like others I will cite below, is held in the archives of MoMA. Curatorial Exhibition Files, Exh. #1057. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
Kiyoko Mitsuyama, Umi o wataru nihongendaibijutsu: Ôbei ni okeru tenrankaishi 1945–1995 (Japanese contemporary art across the sea: A history of exhibitions in the West, 1945–95) (Tokyo: Keisoshobo, 2009), 60–82. Hiroko Ikegami’s study demonstrated that even William S. Lieberman, the curator of The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture, was not convinced of the quality of Japanese modern art. See Hiroko Ikegami, “Posuto konfurikuto no nichibei bijutsu kôryû: Jon dî rokkuferâ sansei no yakuwari o chûshin ni”(Post-WWII US-Japan art exchange and the cultural diplomacy of John D. Rockefeller III), Conflict Studies in the Humanities, Volume 3 (March 2011), 41-59.
Ken Sato, Ryoji Akiyama, Ikko [Narahara] et al., “Genchi zadankai: Futari no sekônin ga nyûyôku no domannaka ni ie o tateta” (A roundtable on location: Two constructors built a Japanese-style house in the middle of New York), Camera Mainichi (June 1974): 103.
For brief English-language explanations on these movements, see Kotaro Iizawa, “The Evolution of Postwar Japanese Photography,” translated by John Junkerman, in Tucker, ed., The History of Japanese Photography, 220–25.
Defining the “style” in the photographic image is not always easy, but here I use this term on the most basic level: that is, formal characteristics of a photograph determined by the choice of the format of the camera, focal length of the lens, finishing of the prints, and the way in which the photographer composes the subject in the rectangular frame.
It is important to note, however, that from the late 1970s, Moriyama tried to give more stylistic coherence to the photographs printed in a single photobook, as is evident from his 1982 book Hikari to kage (Light and shadow). This move can be interpreted as an attempt to endow his authorial trace with his photographs. To use Coleman’s words cited above, Moriyama tried to establish “monogamy in [his] relationship to personal style” in the period he, as is often said, remained in a slump as a photographer. I have discussed elsewhere Moriyama’s 1980s work and its relationships to his writings. See Yoshiaki Kai, “Daido Moriyama,” in Mark Durden, ed., Fifty Key Writers on Photography (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 171–75.
As the historian John W. Dower has suggested, this view on the Japanese was widespread during the Second World War: “It was the sine qua non of virtually all Western commentaries that the Japanese did not think as other peoples did, and were certainly not guided by ‘reason’ or ‘logic’ in the Western sense. They were often said to ‘feel’ rather than think, or to think with their ‘whole being’ rather than just their brains.” John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 106.
In 1979, shortly before his untimely death, Yamagishi organized another exhibition of contemporary Japanese photography in New York. Japan: A Self-Portrait, at the International Center of Photography, comprised works by nineteen photographers, including Nobuyoshi Araki. For the catalogue of the exhibition, see Shoji Yamagishi, ed., Japan: A Self-Portrait (New York: International Center of Photography, 1979).
Sandra Phillips and Alexandra Munroe, Daidô Moriyama: Stray Dog (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1999); Leo Rubinfien, Sandra Phillips, and John W. Dower, Shômei Tômatsu: Skin of the Nation (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2004).