NOBUYOSHI ARAKI, from “Subway Love,” 1963–72, gelatin silver print, 32 × 40.5 cm. Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre and The Japan Foundation.

Gazing at the Contemporary World: Japanese Photography from the 1970s to the Present

Hong Kong Arts Centre
Hong Kong

“Gazing at the Contemporary World: Japanese Photography from the 1970s to the Present,” a travelling exhibition organized by the Japan Foundation, has been on the road since 2006, and it is easy to discern the reasons for its success. The exhibition catalogues an overview of photographic expression that emerged in Japan during a remarkable time in its modern history. It is the hope of the exhibition that through "these photographers’ unique views of society and landscape, viewers will gain a better understanding of the myriad changes that took place in Japan between the period of rapid economic growth [in the 1950s and ’60s] and the early 21st century.” The exhibition approaches this objective through a selection of 76 works from 23 different Japanese photographers, including Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki.

A collection of Daido Moriyama’s famed, grainy black-and-white city shots opens “Gazing at the Contemporary World,” spread across the two floors of the Pao Galleries at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Moriyama, known for his avant-garde experimentation in photography, which was the antithesis to his American and European counterparts’ works, used his photos to highlight his belief of the disintegration of traditional values in post-war Japan, in a style that was distinctly his own. By singling out Moriyama’s photography in the exhibition’s first room, curator Rei Masuda assuredly declares that the world we will be gazing at in this show is one that is undoubtedly and uniquely Japanese. 

The rapid urbanization and equally vibrant street life during this great period of change in modern Japan is reflected fittingly in the first section of the exhibition, entitled “A Changing Society.” It focuses on human beings, their role in society and their daily life. Here, Tokyo’s contemporary nightlife and their accompanying subcultures are preoccupations that seem to run deep in the photographic works on display, especially in that of Nobuyoshi Araki and George Hashiguchi. Masuda has chosen to present Araki’s “Subway Love” series (1963–72), taken from an early time in the photographer’s life when he was commuting to work everyday, while working for the advertising agency Dentsu. The subtle eroticism hinted in his images, such as the close-up of a woman’s skirt from behind or a solitary woman in an empty subway carriage, tells of an underlying theme which would later expand into the highly erotic style for which Araki is so prolifically known today. Hashiguchi, too, expands on this street culture, depicting different types of people in Japanese society, who are purposely made to look like squatting street urchins—whether they be schoolboys or restaurant waitresses. The insistent grittiness of these photos, taken in the 1980s, suggest the burgeoning sexual and rebellious undertones of Tokyo’s seemingly stringent, clinical society. 

HIROMI TSUCHIDA, Oiso 1981, from the series “Counting Grains of Sand,” 1981, gelatin silver print, 32.6 × 49.1 cm. Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre and The Japan Foundation.

Another theme that is striking is the deeply personal chemistry felt between the photographers and their subjects, whether it be Hiromi Tsuchida’s intense documentation of thousands of everyday citizens in public spaces in his now iconic series “Counting Grains of Sand” (1976–89), or Hiroh Kikai’s connection with people he met outside the Sensoji temple, whom he proceeded to photograph in his portrait series “Persona” (1973–2003 ). Masuda suggests that these photographers “have made a serious search in something existing in this ordinariness,” and it surely seems so, as both series highlight the artists’ individualized experiences of it—a reality in accordance with, but also in contrary to, the rapidly changing post-war Japan.

RYUJI MIYAMOTOSannomiya, Chuo-ku, from the series “KOBE 1995 After the Earthquake,” 1995, 90 × 71.5 cm. Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre and The Japan Foundation.

The second section of the exhibition, entitled “Changing Landscapes,” fittingly offers a contrast to the figure-heavy first section, and turns the attention to urban and suburban scenery. The photos displayed here, ranging from the gentrifying suburbs to dilapidated or demolished buildings, present each photographer’s unique viewpoint of the inexorable change they have felt in post-war Japan. Photographer Norio Kobayashi states, “What is necessary is not to turn one’s eyes away from this boring everyday life, but to keep confronting it and looking at it. I believe there is no other way.” This notion pertains not only to Kobayashi’s works but also to that of Takashi Homma, particularly relating to both photographers’ depiction of Japanese suburbia. In Kobayashi’s “Japanese Landscapes: Suburbs of Tokyo” (1983–86) and Homma’s “TOKYO SUBURBIA” (1995–98), the suburbs—instead of being portrayed as vacuous or devoid of culture—collectively emanate a sense of anticipatory primordiality, perhaps indicative of the artists’ optimism for a new start outside of Tokyo’s concrete jungle.

This contrasts markedly to the haunting works of artists such as Ryuji Miyamoto and Kikuji Kawada, which capture the atmosphere of a time when Japan experienced dramatic and unfortunate transformations in recent history. Kawada’s “The Last Cosmology” (1979–97) is unavoidably dark, influenced perhaps by the lingering post-war despondency, and seems to ominously foreshadow future disasters, such as the great Hanshin earthquake depicted in Ryuji Miyamoto’s series “KOBE 1995 After the Earthquake” (1995). Miyamoto’s photographs capture the devastation of Kobe, but also the overall climate of despair in Japan at the time, with the deadly Subway Sarin incident in Tokyo to soon follow, which revitalized and instilled fear into the public—a sense that should have disappeared with the end of World War II. 

Masuda claims that it is “apparent that the photographers who shot these photographs have honestly confronted the present age.” From wandering around the Pao Galleries, it is evident that the breadth of artists and the scope of their subjects support this statement, and almost overwhelmingly so. The photographers and their works not only allow us to gaze at their view of contemporary Japanese society, which has changed so drastically since that late 1960s, but rather propel us to confront this world face on.

TAKASHI HOMMA, from the series “TOKYO SUBURBIA,” 1995–98, C-print, 46.5 × 56.5 cm. Courtesy Hong Kong Arts Centre and The Japan Foundation.

“Gazing at the Contemporary World: Japanese Photography from the 1970s to the Present” continues at the Hong Kong Arts Centre until August 31, 2014.