Long Exposure: Conversation with Curator Eriko Kimura
Japan’s post-war period was a time of immense change and social upheaval. The exhibition Hanran. 20th-Century Japanese Photography plunges visitors into the story of a country undergoing turbulent political and cultural renewal. It is perhaps not surprising that the title Hanran, which means “overflow” in Japanese, reflects an effervescence which, although sometimes suppressed, inspired new generations of photographers.
Exhibition curator Eriko Kimura, Curator of the Yokohama Museum of Art, invites visitors to get an unparalleled look at more than 200 works from the 20th century. The CPI team took advantage of her visit to Canada to learn more about the stories behind these photographs, from a present-day perspective.
CPI Staff: Can you tell us about your curatorial practice, and how you approach photography and other mediums?
Eriko Kimura: In Japan, many museum curators work with collections. Personally, I am a contemporary art curator, but I also do some collection management. Our museum [the Yokohama Museum of Art] is dedicated to modern and contemporary art.
Because half of the collection is photography, I work on photography and contemporary art exhibitions. These days, many contemporary artists are interested in research-based exhibitions that include historical materials and address the concerns that affect our daily lives. This is a good reason for curators to work with both historical and contemporary art issues.
CPI: Which photograph(s) or section in the exhibition do you most want visitors to see?
EK: Nakahira Takuma and Ishiuchi Miyako are two artists, both active since the late 1960s, whose works visitors should not miss.
Ishiuchi Miyako is a female photographer who was influenced by Nakahira Takuma. She was given the Hasselblad Photography Award few years ago. Now in her early seventies, she is still working and is an important figure in photography in Japan.
In the series on view in the exhibition, she shoots the city of Yokosuka, located next to Yokohama. It is a port city with a large U.S. military base, which still exists. She grew up there, and spent her youth looking at what was going on in the city near the U.S. base. Many people worked for the base, but there were also people who protested against it. She had complex feelings about the situation in Yokosuka, which symbolizes post-war history and the political situation of Japan.
Nakahira Takuma was a little older, and passed away recently. The male figure in this photo [part of a series] is Nakahira himself. He was an important figure in Japanese contemporary photography, and a mentor to photographers in the 1960s and 1970s. As an editor, he published a photography magazine called Provoke. Copies of the magazine from the National Gallery’s Archives can be seen in the final vitrine of the exhibition.
His photography is not straightforward: he does not use a tripod, and shoots on the fly, resulting in images that are angled or in movement, and sometimes out of focus. But he became famous for that kind of rough image. Many young photographers and members of the public were fascinated by these types of blurry images.
CPI: Could you tell us a bit more about Provoke?
EK: From 1968 to 1969, several photographers came together to publish this photographic magazine, under Nakahira Takuma as editor-in-chief. Although it folded after only three issues, it had a big influence not only on photographers, but also on editors, graphic designers, and intellectuals. It was very experimental, because there is almost no text, except for poetry and the photographers’ statements.
Provoke’s photography differed from photojournalism and documentary images — it was totally artistic. It became a landmark, a publication of its time. There was a big movement involving the making of photobooks in Japan after the war. Many photographers still publish photobooks now, and I think Japan has more graphic, photography and camera magazines than many other countries. So, this is very special!
CPI: Is there an image that you feel exemplifies hanran [overflow], the theme of the exhibition?
EK: I think it would have to be the main visual of the exhibition [In the Red-light District, Yoshiwara, 1954]. She’s an unknown woman working in Tokyo’s red-light district. This is something we never would have seen before the war. After the Second World War, the mentality of Japanese people was totally changed. It became more acceptable to shoot the reality of life and ordinary everyday people.
When I first organized this exhibition in Japan, I focused on selecting images of women and children, because Japan is a slightly male-dominated society, and was so even in the 20th century. So it’s good to show how women, children and older people lived during that period.
An unknown woman in the red-light district was not a historically important figure at the time. But the photographer went into those areas and photographed ordinary women. Also, she is a working woman living by her own means. Because this is after the war, she might be the widow of a soldier, and she represents a post-war reality for ordinary women, who had a really hard time.
Photographically, the angle, the light and shade, her artistic appearance, are very solid and beautiful. It’s a very strong image. She is not shy about who she is.
CPI: What does the exhibition tell us about the relation between aesthetics and history or politics?
EK: The Japanese are very keen on visual forms of expression. People like to see photographs — and like to take photographs, as well — so Japanese photography is quite diverse. There are many different aspects to photography in Japan, but in this exhibition, we are more focused on photojournalistic styles and snapshots of ordinary life, with some fine-art photography as well.
Photojournalists were not terribly important in Japan until the 1940s. Until then, journalists primarily used prints and drawings. By the late 1930s or early 1940s, however, there were more photography magazines, and more photographs in newspapers than illustrations. Early on, photography was a method or technique used to capture important figures or the landscape — things of importance to the government and the establishment, but not necessarily to photographers.
During the 20th century, however, many photographers developed their own forms of expression. As photography became more about the photographer’s view of the world, artistic photography became one of the arts.
Some rarely seen images from during the Second World War can be viewed in the section of the exhibition called The Shadows of War. Among them are images influenced by Russian and German Constructivism, and artist Aleksandr Rodchenko.
The images were all shot in the early 1940s, making them good examples of how German and Russian photography influenced Japan. But they are also about the totalitarian regime of Japan at the time, which was a reprehensible moment in the history of photography.
Sometimes people will say, “This image is beautiful.” The women are in a straight line, and the angled composition is effective. But we have to also think about the historical backdrop of the time. Photography combines an image with the meaning of what’s in or behind the scenes — it’s something to think about with all of these photographs.
Works by Nakahira Takuma, Ishiuchi Miyako — along with more than twenty other photographers from the collection of the Yokohama Museum of Art — are on view in Hanran: 20th-Century Japanese Photography until March 22, 2020, in the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada.