The passing of the photo historian Kaneko Ryūichi on June 30, 2021 at seventy-three years old shocked the photography community in Japan. The fact that the news was initially reported on the website of the Taiwanese photography journal Voices of Photography is indicative of his international reputation. Anyone who pursued a career in the field of Japanese photography would have been encouraged to speak with Mr. Kaneko. He always had a welcoming attitude towards the young scholars and students visiting him, including myself. I met him for the first time eighteen years ago. I know of several photography scholars who were close to him and are probably much better suited to write about Mr. Kaneko’s life and his personality. Therefore, in this short essay, I will limit myself to focusing on his professional career and achievements.

Born in 1948, Kaneko was a long-time curator at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, previously known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography until 2016. The Tokyo Photographic Art Museum opened in Ebisu, Tokyo, in 1990. As one of the six public museums run by the foundation funded by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, it has played a central role in establishing photography not only as a genre of modern and contemporary art in Japan, but also as a subject of academic study. Photography has been a popular hobby among the Japanese people for almost a century. Thanks to the growing international presence of companies such as Nikon and Canon, after WWII the photography industry became a source of national pride. However, it was not until the 1990s that photographic art began to be taken seriously by public institutions. Together with the Yokohama Museum of Art and the Kawasaki City Museum, both of which opened in the late 1980s with photography departments, the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum led the institutionalization of photographic art in Japan. Kaneko started his involvement with the museum in 1987, while it was still in the planning stages, and he continued to work there until his retirement in 2014.[1]

Curatorship at a public museum was, however, only one of his many public faces. Kaneko was born into a family responsible for running a Buddhist temple in Yanaka, Tokyo, with a history of more than three hundred years. While working as a curator and teaching at a photography college as a lecturer, Kaneko helped at his father’s Buddhist services as a vice-priest and then became a chief-priest himself. He also inherited his father’s enthusiasm for photography when he was still a high school student, but his interest gradually shifted from taking photos to looking at photographs.[2] His interest led him to another face: a renowned collector of photobooks. According to an interview published in 2014, the number of photobooks and photography magazines he collected over the course of forty years is more than 20,000, if not 30,000.[3]

Kaneko was not the first person in Japan to choose to be a photography expert without becoming a professional photographer, even though a photography curator was hardly a profession in Japan before the 1990s. People who earned a living as a shashin hyōronka (photo critic) had existed since the 1950s. Their job was contributing articles to camera magazines or teaching at a photography department of an art college. Ina Nobuo (1898–1978), Kanamaru Shigene (1900–1977), Watanabe Tsutomu (1908–1978), Tanaka Masao (1912–1987), and Shigemori Kōen (1926–1992) are among the most prominent photo critics of the Showa period (1925-1989). When Kaneko met photographers of his generation who were running the Photo-Gallery Prism, situated in Shinjuku for a brief period between 1976 and 1977, photo critics constituted an important part of the Japanese photographic community.[4] As an heir to a Buddhist temple, Kaneko did not have to worry about his livelihood, but if he did, to aspire to be a professional photo critic was not necessarily an absurd idea.

What distinguished Kaneko from earlier generations of photo critics was his appreciation of photography as something that one can hold in one’s hand and touch its very surface. For Kaneko, a photograph was never merely an image, but a thing of substance. His sensibility to the “thingness” of photography was nurtured by his experiences in the 1970s and the early 1980s. When he was a student at a Buddhist university in the late 1960s, he had already acquired historically important photobooks such as William Klein’s New York (1956) and Hosoe Eikoh’s Man and Woman (1961), but “[his] understanding of photobooks totally changed” after he bought Robert Frank’s The Lines on My Hand (1972) directly from its editor Motomura Kazuhiko (1933–2014), who became “[his] mentor in collecting photobooks.”[5] Kaneko realized that a copy of a mass-produced photobook can have an artistic value as important as an original print. Before Kaneko noticed the importance of the photobook format, Japanese photographers already had a tendency to put more effort into publishing photobooks than making and exhibiting original prints. However, in Japan, no person other than Kaneko appreciated and collected photobooks with such conviction and enthusiasm.

His acquaintance with Ishihara Etsurō (1941–2016), an art dealer who in 1978 opened Zeit-Foto, the first commercial gallery specialized in photography in Japan, was also a decisive event in Kaneko’s career. In the hope of promoting the status of photography as a branch of the fine arts, Ishihara built the Tsukuba Museum of Photography 1985, a temporary museum in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, which was open for six months when Expo '85 was held in the same city. With the help of a group of young photo critics, including Kaneko, Hiraki Osamu (1949–2009), Itō Toshiharu (1953–), and Iizawa Kōtarō (1954–), the museum held an exhibition entitled Paris-New York-Tokyo in which canonical works from the history of photography were exhibited.

It was not the first occasion in which the Japanese public could see original prints of Western photography in an art gallery. Even before public art museums in Japan began to pay serious attention to the photographic medium in the 1990s, department stores regularly held photography exhibitions, including Shashin no genryū 1822-1906 (Naissance et développement de la photographie), a 1984 exhibition that showcased the collection of the Société Française de Photographie from France. Impressed with the quality of nineteenth-century vintage prints, Kaneko visited the exhibition several times "with a magnifying glass in hand."[6] However, the Tsukuba Museum of Photography 1985 was different from earlier photography exhibitions with its highly ambitious aim to change the position of photography among Japanese art institutions, even though it was a financial failure.[7]

To the catalogue of Paris-New York-Tokyo, Kaneko contributed an essay on pictorialism, a photographic movement that lasted from the late 19th to the early 20th century that aspired to make photography a legitimate art form by referencing Impressionist and Symbolist paintings. Around the same period, Kaneko joined the editorial team of Nihon shashin zenshū (The Complete History of Japanese Photography), a richly illustrated twelve-volume survey on the history of Japanese photography published by Shogakukan between 1985 and 1988. He wrote an essay on a group of pictorial photographers in Nagoya in the 1910s and ‘20s, a subject few people cared about at that time.[8] Pictorialism was then considered to be a debased movement that had been overcome by modern “straight photography.” In an act coinciding with the international re-evaluation of pictorialism (a monograph on Henry Peach Robinson by Margaret F. Harker was published in 1988), Kaneko devoted himself to unearthing works and documents of Japanese pictorial photography. Conducting research for Nihon shashin zenshū, Kaneko realized that even if he discovered rare original prints of pictorial photography in the houses of the surviving families, he could not find an adequate place to preserve the prints for posterity.[9] This awareness led him to his subsequent work at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, where he played a principal role in expanding the collection of the museum. During the more than twenty-five years at the museum, Kaneko organized numerous exhibitions, contributing to the re-evaluations of photographers and artists who were almost forgotten, such as Okanoue Toshiko and Horino Masao.

Kaneko’s activities were not limited to the museum. In the mid-2000s, together with Iizawa Kōtarō, he supervised the publication of facsimile editions of six important historical photobooks by publisher Kokushokankokai, including Fukuhara Shinzō’s Paris et la Seine (1922) and Koishi Kiyoshi’s Shoka shinkei (Early Summer Nerves) (1933). Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s, co-written with Ivan Vartanian, was published in 2009. Published in English, Japanese, and French, the book introduced the reader to more than forty photobooks made in the 1960s and ‘70s—the golden age of Japanese photobooks—with reproductions of several spreads from the books and commentaries written by Kaneko. His text epitomizes his approach to photography. It pays attention to the formats and printing techniques of photobooks and displays encyclopedic knowledge of the backgrounds from which the books were born. On the other hand, writings by Keneko, who was not trained as an art historian, tend to lack close analysis of each image. They also maintain a distance from theoretical reflections on the photographic medium, which one finds, for example, in the writings of Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes (both Sontag’s On Photography (1978) and Barthes’s La chambre claire (1980) were translated into Japanese by the mid-1980s, having significantly influenced Japanese writers on the topic of photography).

Kaneko liked to call himself a shashinshi-ka (photo historian), even though he never published a comprehensive history of Japanese photography or even a survey.[10] Perhaps, for him, the history of photography was not something that should be told with words, but rather presented—almost magically—with photographs themselves. Kaneko was a photography aficionado in a very real sense of the word. In an interview in 2015, he said, “Now I want to be a patoron (patron) of photography itself, rather than that of specific photographers.”[11] Even if his writings may not seem as intellectually intriguing as recent anglophone studies on the history of photography, one cannot deny his achievements in the field. Scholars of Japanese art and photography, including myself, owe a great deal to Kaneko’s lifelong efforts to preserve the works and primary documents of Japanese photographers and make them available for the next generation of scholars. In other words, we stand on the ground he prepared for us.


    1. Aota Yumi and Kobayashi An, eds, 1985/Shashin ga āto ni natta toki (1985/ When Photography Became Art) (Tokyo: Seikyūsha, 2014), 88.return to text

    2. Kaneko Ryūichi, “Introduction,” in Kaneko Ryūichi and Ivan Vartanian, Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and '70s (New York: Aperture, 2009), 7.return to text

    3. Aota and Kobayashi, eds, 1985/Shashin ga āto ni natta toki, 170.return to text

    4. For Kaneko’s involvement with Photo-Gallery Prism, see Kaneko Ryūichi, Shimao Shinzō, Nagai Hiroshi, eds., Independento fotogurafāzu in Japan 1976–1983 (Independent Photographers in Japan 1976–1983) (Tokyo: Tokyo Shoseki, 1989). return to text

    5. Kaneko Ryūichi, “Introduction,” 8.return to text

    6. Aota and Kobayashi, eds, 1985/Shashin ga āto ni natta toki, 48.return to text

    7. For more on the Tsukuba Museum of Photography 1985, see Aota and Kobayashi, eds, 1985/Shashin ga āto ni natta toki.return to text

    8. Kaneko Ryūichi, “Hidaka chōtarō to aiyū-shashin-kurabu (Hidaka Chōtarō and Aiyū Photography Club),” in Ozawa Takeshi, ed., Geijutsu shashin no keifu (The Heritage of Art Photography in Japan), Nihon shashin zenshū (The Complete History of Japanese Photography), Volume 2 (Tokyo: Shogakukan, 1986), 158-60.return to text

    9. Kaneko, “Hidaka chōtarō,” 48.return to text

    10. Kaneko, “Hidaka chōtarō,” 89.return to text

    11. Kaneko Ryūichi, “ ‘Shashinshū’ to wa nanzoya?: Sōryo shūshūka ni yoru zeitaku rekuchā (What is the ‘photobook’?: A luxurious lecture by a Buddhist monk-collector,”, March 26, 2015( to text