Rarly in "The History of Japanese Photography," an important and unprecedented survey at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, there's an extraordinary image in which a painted figure peeks around a hand-painted photograph of a Japanese man in traditional samurai dress. He holds a pointer to the photograph, as if to draw attention to some aspect of costume, and seems to be smirking. Titled Man with topknot and foreigner and attributed to Yokoyama Matsusaburo, the image is undated, but we can surmise circa 1880 from Yokoyama's bio. This is barely a decade into the Meiji Restoration, Japan's reunification after centuries of clannish wars and civil turmoil. The samurai in the photograph isn't a samurai, for such class distinctions had been abolished, and the foreigner might stand for the wider world that Japan found itself thrust into midway through the 19th century. It's a self-reflexive image, the understanding of one's self in the presence of the Other. But who's Yokoyama's Other? The foreigner? Or the young Japanese man in the traditional garb of an outlawed social class?
Possibly no culture has adopted a new (nonviolent) technology as rapidly as the Japanese did photography. The first daguerreotype set was imported in 1848, and true photography arrived with Commodore Matthew Perry's second mission to Japan in 1854; by the early 1860s, most major cities in Japan had commercial portraiture studios (the amusing Collage of Babies, from 1893, advertises Esaki Reiji's skill with these notoriously temperamental subjects). The Meiji government also quickly recognized the potential of photography to foster a sense of identity among its citizens, as well as for recording the rush of development as Japan hurried to catch up with the West.
But traditions remained. The gallery containing photos of generators, railroads and the development of the northern island of Hokkaido (Japan's version of the American West) also houses Nagasaki Harbor (ca. 1872), three hand-tinted albumen photographs from a panorama attributed to Uchida Kuichi that display the charm and serenity of a traditional Japanese landscape. The epic Panorama of Tokyo, taken from the roof of the Nikolai Cathedral, under construction, with a photograph of the construction of the Russian Orthodox cathedral (1890), by Tanaka Takeshi with William K. Burton, is nearby; the title says it all, but what's remarkable is that the panorama is displayed on a rolled scroll, traditionally used for narrative subjects. And Tomashige Rihei's Famous Places of Kumamoto (1903) contains only 20 images -- waterfalls, islands, castles, gardens -- but recalls Hiroshige's One Hundred Views of Edo.
In 1904, the first art photography society was formed, and in this exhibition, the transition from practical science to art is marked by a beautiful, finely detailed photograph of Mount Fuji by Kurokawa Suizan. For the next 30 years, moody, atmospheric photos of landscapes and rustic peoples, like Ogawa Gesshu's Doro Gorge (1927), in which a man pilots logs down a river, coexist with more formal studies of nature, such as Fukuhara Roso's Wisteria (1937).
During the 1930s, modernism came to Japanese photography and ushered in, to borrow Frederick Karl's phrase, the sovereignty of the artist. Formalism came to dominate the work of this decade, whether in the uncanny compositions of surrealism, the unsettling juxtapositions of montage or the "pure" formalism of portraiture. Modernity and its anxieties became the subject, as in Furukawa Narutoshi's Montage (1931), wherein two men are dwarfed by buildings, water towers and smokestacks reeling at vertiginous angles. And Hanawa Gingo's indescribable Complex Imagination (ca. 1938), an assemblage of photographs, canvas, newspaper, wood and metal and plastic objects, would be at home in any surrealist exhibit.
In this survey, the war and postwar years are seen as a period when photographers turned their gaze outward again. The dominant image in this section is a panorama of Hiroshima, taken in September 1945 by Hayashi Shigeo (and, after viewing this devastation, you may want to retrace your steps and revisit that panorama of Nagasaki from 75 years earlier). Postwar photography again becomes self-reflexively preoccupied, concerned with what it means to be Japanese in relation to this larger world that has now come to stay. There are images of hope, such as Domon Ken's 1957 photo of a horribly scarred couple, victims of Hiroshima, laughing with their small child. There are more problematic images, by Tokiwa Toyoko, of prostitutes in clinics and with American servicemen. And then, like a balm, there are the beautifully austere studies of traditional Japanese architecture by Watanabe Yoshio.
From the 1980s on, the survey moves into more familiar territory, as Japanese photography has found an enthusiastic audience outside the archipelago in recent decades. In the last galleries, you'll find a number of the usual suspects: Araki Nobuyoshi, Moriyama Daido, Sugimoto Hiroshi, Morimura Yasumasa. But the self-reflexive dialogue continues in Yanagi Miwa's series about elevator girls (who are awarded their jobs in department stores based on their youth and attractiveness), in Morimura's appropriation of Western artistic and popular cultural icons, and in Hatakeyama Naoya's haunting pictures of urban riverbanks and underground tunnels.
With this exhibition, curators Anne Wilkes Tucker, Dana Friis-Hansen, Kaneko Ryuichi and Takeba Joe have charted the extraordinary journey of a culture through development, war, occupation and peacetime, from the preindustrial to the postindustrial. The sumptuous catalog will be the standard text on the subject for at least a couple of decades. And the exhibit itself is not to be missed.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events