The Year That Changed It All

A new exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography traces the radical history of Japanese photographs around 1968.

poster for 1968 Japanese Photography

1968 Japanese Photography

at Tokyo Photographic Art Musem
in the Ebisu, Daikanyama area
This event has ended - (2013-05-11 - 2013-07-15)

In Photo Reports by Randy Swank 2013-05-20

The second half of the 1960s was an exciting period of epochal world events in which students, workers and intellectuals questioned everything – from social hierarchies to the political system and cultural dogmas. Even Japan experienced turmoil. In particular, a new generation of artists pushed their respective fields beyond commonly accepted standards. The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography’s current exhibition, “1968 Japanese Photography”, chronicles the events through which Japanese photographers began to challenge traditional approaches to photography; many of whom came up with novel answers to the seemingly simple question, “what is a photograph?”

View of the exhibition at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

1968 in particular was a turning point in the history of Japanese photography, starting with the “A Century of Photography” exhibition in which The Japan Professional Photographers Society explored the way Japanese photography had evolved in the previous 100 years. The organizers, headed by Shomei Tomatsu and including among others Koji Taki and Takuma Nakahira, reassessed the evolution of photography up to that point, and its role in shaping Japanese society.

Unknown, 'A Cat of Sakhalin' (c. 1890-1901)

Unknown, 'Ainu'(c. 1871-80)

The exhibition features a number of vintage works that foresaw, with their provocative and feral images, the revolution to come.

Yutaka Takanashi,'Toshima Seibu Department Store' (from the series 'Tokyoites') (1964-5)

Among the artists who showed an interest in new subjects were Yutaka Takanashi, who around the same years produced the “Tokyoites” series…

Daido Moriyama, 'Nippon Gekijo - Tonami Ryutaro Company 1 and 3' (1966). Gelatin silver prints.

… and Daido Moriyama who portrayed the world of the stage in his “Japan Theater” series.

Cover of Provoke Magazine.

Daido Moriyama, from Provoke Magazine issue 2 (1969)

In 1968, Taki, Nakahira and Takanashi, together with Takahiko Okada launched Provoke Magazine. They were later joined by Moriyama.

Koji Taki, from Provoke Magazine

Breaking with established photographic canons, Provoke championed a new rougher style characterized by blurry, sometimes sideways images, that provided a new aesthetic sense to those frantic, urgent times. Provoke only lasted three issues but its short life managed to revolutionize Japanese photography.

Katsumi Watanabe, 'Two Men Saluting' (1969)

Still in 1968, Kamera Mainichi magazine began to introduce new trends under the korpora (contemporary) label. Young photographers were featured who shared a new approach to realism in photogrpahy based on a distinctly personal take on everyday life. Among them was Katsumi Watanabe who in “”Shinjuku Gangs” immortalized the Shinjuku underworld with his transgressive portraits of gang members, bar hostesses, and strippers.

Hitomi Watanabe, 'Tokyo University All-Campus Joint Struggle League' (1968-9)

The student protests of the late ‘60s found their iconographic counterpart in the work of the members of the All Japan Students Photo Association, like Hitomi Watanabe who covered the “Tokyo University All-Campus Joint Struggle League.” In an effort to affirm the importance of the collective struggle, the students often published their works anonymously, thus questioning the idea of artistic authorship.

Nobuyoshi Araki, from the series 'Sentimental Journey'(1971)

While some of the prime movers gradually distanced themselves from traditional photography and closed themselves in their private worlds (like Moriyama with his controversial “Bye Bye Photography” series from 1972), the seeds planted in 1968 gave rise to new personal ways to approach artistic creativity. One of the more noteworthy examples was Nobuyoshi Araki who, with the self-published “Sentimental Journey” (1971) championed a more personal, subjective approach to photography.

Randy Swank

Randy Swank. Escaped from his home country in 1992 and found refuge in Japan, where he promptly found a job teaching people how to shout HELP! and avoid being robbed on foreign buses. Since 1997 he has been unhealthily active in the mail art network, unleashing on the unsuspecting public, among other things, the Treatise of Pataphysical Anatomy and the international fake political campaign poster project. When not running after his two kids and from his wife, he is usually busy making zines (one of them is about Tokyo and all things Japanese), writing for high- and lowbrow magazines, and exploring Tokyo. You can read his uncensored, Gonzo-like adventures in Artland at The Randy Reviewer. » See other writings

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