The Love/Hate World of Shomei Tomatsu

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Friday, July 22, 2005; 11:05 AM

He was a boy when our bombs rained on his country, and the striking if dangerous image of warplanes roaring across the skies of his native Japan remained with him as he struggled with an unsettling postwar world of defeat and of American occupation.

As a 15-year-old in a fading, beaten, yet still fiercely proud empire, Shomei Tomatsu shared the fears of his fellow Japanese over what retribution the American occupiers would extract -- anxious for payback after Pearl Harbor and a brutal war in the Pacific. It was assumed that women and girls would be raped at will, and that citizens would be shot or be subjugated with impunity.

But in the aftermath of the two atomic bomb attacks that ended the war with Japan, the Americans brought chewing gum and democracy -- if also arrogance and the peculiarly American trait of seeming too big for their surroundings. What followed was an almost resigned acceptance of the Americans, that later blossomed into a slavish copying of things western and "progressive" -- that ultimately turned Tokyo into Manhattan squared and that brought Toyota and Sony to our shores.

Now 75 and still working, Shomei Tomatsu is arguably the most celebrated Japanese photographer of the postwar era. Yet "in some ways his work is almost unknown in this country," notes Philip Brookman, senior curator of photography and media arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. For one thing, Tomatsu has never been to the US -- never, in fact, ventured outside Japan. So it is largely for the first time that we are seeing the work of this great and complicated artist, in the Corcoran's just-opened and spectacular retrospective, which has traveled from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it originated.

Shomei Tomatsu, Brookman noted, "transformed the notion of documentary photography from more formal concerns...into a much more emotional image-making...He didn't simply settle into one style."

The latter, combined with Tomatsu's reluctance to travel abroad, may help explain his relative obscurity in the west. With rare exceptions (Picasso and his various "periods" being the best example) artists are more accessible to the public when they can be categorized. For example, with Cartier-Bresson we think of black and white photojournalism; Lucien Freud -- heavily brushworked nude portraits; Frank Stella -- brilliant color abstracts on canvas; Diane Arbus -- unflinching depictions of those on society's edge.

Tomatsu, like only a handful of other photographic masters, has been eloquent in several different forms of camera work. He told photographer and curator Leo Rubinfien (who also is a longtime friend) that one of the greatest influences on him was surrealism. And certainly in elements of all of his varied work, there appears the unusual, the bizarre, the surreal: unexpected juxtapositions of form and shadow that inform even his "straight" reportage, unusual angles that turn the mundane into the marvelous; not to mention an elegant and, if I may say, Asian sense of minimalist color and form that can turn even a monochromatic seascape into something wonderful.

One can see its beginnings in the early work during the Occupation, and later during the 60s on Okinawa, when Tomatsu's black and white journalistic instinct to document combined with a subject person's desire to interpret and, if you will, talk back to the still-intimidating if no longer outright dangerous American occupiers.

So there, for example, is a frankly weird picture of the bottom of a smiling GI's boot, seemingly about to come down on the Japanese photographer's head. The GI and his colleagues are all having a hell of a time, but what menace one may detect initially in the image must be tempered by the realization that the photo had to have been a collaboration between Tomatsu and the Americans.

Some joke, huh?

Still other images combine the elements of great street photography with beautifully printed black and white landscape. There also are photos that stand perception on its head. The American compounds, behind chain link and barbed wire on Okinawa and elsewhere, make it seem as if the Americans are under guard, are the prisoners. But, as Leo Rubinfien pointed out as the Corcoran show debuted, it was through the holes in these fences, "that democracy leaked out and eventually dyed the entire country..."

The great documentarians, like Cartier-Bresson, Don McCullin, David Burnett, Gianni Berengo Gardin and others, do more than simply arrive at places and shoot what is in front of their lens -- easy though it may be to say that this would be pure objective photojournalism. In fact, this would be like a reporter showing up at a war front or a revolution and simply noting the numbers of troops and casualties on each side.

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