The Love/Hate World of Shomei Tomatsu
Frank Van Riper on Photography

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.

Tomatsu's genius in these photos is twinning Cartier-Bresson's famed Decisive Moment with beautiful, if sometimes bizarre, composition to give us his unmistakable take on the momentous things he witnessed in his native land.

There is no way to sugar-coat an atomic bomb attack on cities -- we must live with the fact that we are the only nation to use a-bombs during wartime, and against civilians. And Tomatsu's work documenting the aftermath of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are chilling in their depiction of the human wreckage they created.

Yet, contradictingly -- surreally -- there is beauty here as well. In the unsettling image of a fused bottle turned into a stand-in for a roast suckling pig. Or in two disparate yet united photographs that combine terrible beauty with at least a glimmer of hope.

The first image, made in 1962 as part of a project to make the world more aware of the nuclear threat, shows a man named Senji Yamaguchi, his face all but obscured by deep shadow, but his throat and right ear in stark relief, a rough terrain of keloid scars peculiar to the blast and burn of nuclear weapons. The black and white image is part of a series of powerful photographs depicting the victims of the atomic attack.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, though, there is another image, made in 1998 in color, like much of Tomatsu's later work. It is a simple photograph of a man in a white shirt standing with his back to the camera on the deck of a ferry boat. He is leaning slightly, looking out at the water in a gesture that conveys serenity and gentleness.

There is no uniting information in the caption. One must look at the ruined right ear to find the connection over more than three decades.

Here again is Senji Yamaguchi and here, too, is Tomatsu talking back to us.

Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation, Corcoran Gallery of Art, through August 29th. 500 17th St. NW (Faragut North) Open every day except Tuesday, 10am-5pm and until 9pm on Thursday. Admission: $6.75 for adults; $4.75 for seniors; $3 for students with ID. Information: 202-639-1700,


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will once again teach his popular 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this fall and winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin September 22nd and February 15th respectively and run from 7pm to 10:30pm each week.

In addition, Frank will teach a one day, hands-on flash photography workshop, Saturday, October 1st, entitled "Flash Photography Demystified...or Flash is Your Friend (Honest.)"

In the documentary class students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the session. Students wishing to accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information on both the documentary course and flash workshop: 301-320-7757.

Frank's Picks

An occasional feature with Frank Van Riper's recommendations of current shows, exhibitions, etc. that are worthy of a look. They concentrate on -- though are not limited to -- photography and the visual arts.

Irving Penn: Platinum Prints, through October 2nd

So hugely talented in so many areas, Irving Penn remains modern photography's Renaissance Man, which is why viewing this sumptuous small show at the National Gallery of Art is like being limited to a delicious appetizer at a banquet.

Penn, still active at 88, began to master the maddeningly difficult platinum/palladium photographic printing process in the 1960s and reproduced many of his most famous black and white images in the generally supportable belief that platinum prints reveal more than traditional (and comparatively easier to make) gelatin silver prints.

Certainly, there are simply breathtaking photographic images here, in arguably their highest manifestation: an achingly beautiful (and somber) portrait of the humorist S.J. Perelman, a stark image of a young Tennessee Williams, a rich amalgam of tones, shadow and highlights in a 60s portrait of a gang of Hell's Angels.

Yet there also are prints that seem chalky and, if anything too dark and dense: compare two studio shots made in Cuzco, Peru, presumably at the same time in 1948 against the same background: Mother and Posing Daughter looks contrasty and stark; Mother and Sleeping Child, however, offers the incredible range of tones one associates with the platinum process.

Why the difference? Forget it, Jake, it's platinum.

I also question the notion that anything looks better in platinum. Check out Penn's great 1991 book Passage to compare some beautifully printed (and reproduced) silver prints with what is on the walls here. Sometimes it's a tough call as to which is better.

But that takes nothing away from the fact that the images themselves, in either incarnation, are superb.

For info:

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His current book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website 

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