Shomei Tomatsu: 1930–2012
By Laura Phillips
Shomei Tomatsu, the influential post-war Japanese photographer, died on December 14 in Naha, Okinawa, from pneumonia complications. He was 82. Although Tomatsu never left Japan, his work has been exhibited in galleries worldwide, and was celebrated in a retrospective at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 1996 as well as the touring show organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2006, titled “Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of a Nation.”
Born in Nagoya in January 1930, Tomatsu made a seminal contribution to Japanese post-war photography. In a career spanning 50 years since he first began taking photographs as an economics student at Aichi University in the early 1950s, Tomatsu depicted the complex and often aggravated post-war political landscape. The subjects of his work ranged from American military bases occupying the islands of Okinawa in the “Chewing Gum and Chocolate” series he started in 1958, to the post-atomic landscape of Nagasaki in the 1960s in the series “Nagasaki 11:02.” His images capture the profound grief still raw in a society in the midst of reconstruction.
His most famous image, Melted Bottle (1961), taken in Nagasaki, is an example of Tomatsu’s movement beyond the unmediated style of other photographers in the immediate post-war period. Tomatsu, instead, employed a highly subjective aesthetic. For this work, Tomatsu discovered a melted bottle in a small memorial museum while on a magazine photography assignment to document the recovering city. The bottle was a small relic of the devastation caused by the atomic bomb, which had been twisted by the heat of the blast. Its form—at first look resembling an ethereal, muscular shape—is so distorted as to be almost unrecognizable. Tomatsu’s response was not merely a passive documentation of what he saw but an engaged, personal encounter with the subject.
Tomatsu’s later works captured violent anti-Vietnam War protests and student riots in his “Protest” series from Tokyo in the late 1960s, as well as the emergence of Shinjuku’s radical Bohemian culture in the 1970s. “Oh! Shinjuku,” the photo essay published in photography journal Mainichi in 1969 captures the chaotic youth culture of the Tokyo neighborhood, depicting naked bodies sprawled in the night, train lines running through slums and scenes of social upheaval. Towards the end of his career, in the 1980s, Tomatsu turned his focus to Japan’s economic boom and the ever-encroaching influences of Western consumer culture.
Tomatsu took formal risks in the framing and cropping of his shots to communicate an intense intimacy that would categorize the style he maintained throughout his career. Tomatsu’s photography was a major influence on the Provoke generation of photographers, prominent in the 1960s, such as Takuma Nakahira, Daido Moriyama and Koji Taki, who in turn developed a highly emotive, surreal approach to photography that aimed to communicate a reality existing beyond the visual surface.