Posted:Jun 23, 2023

Narrative Passages: Seiichi Motohashi and Robert Doisneau Meet at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

Tokyo Photographic Art Museum is holding the “Motohashi Seiichi & Robert Doisneau —Chemins croisés (Narrative Passages)” exhibition from June 16 to September 24.

“Motohashi Seiichi & Robert Doisneau— Chemins croisés (Narrative Passages)” at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

Tokyo Photographic Art Museum is currently holding Motohashi Seiichi & Robert Doisneau —Chemins croisés (Narrative Passages) exhibition. This is the third exhibition in the series featuring pairs of leading Japanese and French photographers, following Ihee Kimura & Henri Cartier-Bresson: Eastern Eye & Western Eye (2009) and Ueda Shoji & Jacques Henri Lartigue: Play with Photography (2013). While tracing the two artists’ careers, the exhibition uncovers the similarities that exist beyond time and region.

Robert Doisneau “The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, Paris” (1950) at the entrance of the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

Robert Doisneau was born in 1912 on the outskirts of Paris, France. Known as the pioneer of French photojournalism, he is most recognized for his playful portrayal of everyday French life. Doisneau launched his practice as a freelance photographer in 1939 after working as a photographer for the automobile manufacturer Renault and has been awarded many prizes throughout his career, including Niépce Prix (1956) and Grand Prix National de la Photographie (1983). One of his most well-known works, Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (The Kiss by the Hotel de Ville, Paris), also decorates the walls of the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum.

On the other hand, Japanese documentary photographer and movie director Seiichi Motohashi was born in Higashi-Nakano, Tokyo, in 1940. Forced to flee the Bombing of Tokyo in his early years, Motohashi describes the burned landscape of the city as his “starting point.” After graduating from the Tokyo College of Photography in 1965, he was awarded the Taiyo Prize in 1968 for his debut series Coal Mines (1968), featuring the city left behind after the postwar economic growth and energy revolution. His photography series Nadya’s Village (1998), featuring Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and many documentary films, including award-winning Alexei and the Spring (2002), received domestic and international acclaim.

Seiichi Motohashi at the opening of the “Motohashi Seiichi & Robert Doisneau —Chemins croisés (Narrative Passages)”

At first glance, there is no connection between the two artists, but it is not entirely true. Motohashi, who had been collecting Doisneau’s photo books, met musician and actor Pierre Barough in Japan, who immediately contacted his friend and arranged the meeting at the hotel in Paris in 1991. Unfortunately, Motohashi’s flight was delayed, and Doisneau had already left for vacation, leaving behind a photo book with a message: “Motohashi, beware of the gang at the bar counter! These people are dangerous. They got me through and through.”

The exhibition begins with the photo book “La Compagnie des Zines” (1991), which Robert Doisneau left for Seiichi Motohashi at the hotel

The origin of the expression: coal mines and suburbs

In the 1930s, Robert Doisneau began taking photographs professionally, and with a longing for glamorous and busting Paris, he shot the suburbs with poetic sentiment throughout his life. In 1934, while working for Renault as an industrial and advertising photographer, Doisneau discovered the dignity of labor and hard-working people. He was commissioned by J Magazine in 1945 to visit the city of Lens to document the working conditions of coal miners.

On the left: “Butterfly-Child, Saint-Denis” (1945) by Robert Doisneau; on the right: “Chikuho Region, Fukuoka” (1965) by Seiichi Motohashi
“Coal Miners, Lens” (1945) and “Miners, Lens” (1945) by Robert Doisneau

Seiichi Motohashi also began photographing people in coal mines after visiting the reportage writer Eishin Ueno for the first time in 1965. Determined to “shoot from the same point of view as the subjects,” he entered the mines and ate and slept with unemployed miners and their families to capture their experiences and lives more directly.

Both photographers saw pride and beauty in the hard-working people trying to survive in a rapidly changing society. And instead of criticizing and focusing on the cruel realities, they highlighted the dignity, spirit, and joys of people living in the dark.

Photographs from the “Coal Mine” (published in 1968) by Seiichi Motohashi

Theaters, plazas, and moments between the acts

Motohashi began photographing performers in 1972 for Shoichi Ozawa’s Shokoku Geino Tabi Kaban series in Taiyo magazine. Throughout the 1970s, he explored the performing arts as the urban landscape was rapidly changing and popular entertainment became a natural part of the Japanese landscape. In the 1980s, Motohashi began documenting Ueno Station, finding comfort in the plaza-like spaces filled with people who coexisted despite their differences. His explorations continued in the streets of the Tsukiji market and slaughterhouses, where he encountered and captured the work and spirit of the local workers.

“Midget Pro Wrestlers, Fujioka, Gunma” (1976) and “Midget Pro Wrestlers, Chiba” (1976) by Seiichi Motohashi
“One of the Fratellini Family” (1944) in the middle; “Pinder Circus” (1949) on sides by Robert Doisneau

On the other hand, Doisneau’s work is often described as “Doisneau’s little theater” due to his extraordinary insight and vision of the streets of Paris. Fascinated by people's energy, Doisneau sought to capture their narratives by depicting the city as a collective of people living together. Like Motohashi, he also turned his camera to the performers, portraying traveling carnivals and circuses. It was an ideal stage for him to expand his imagination, and we, as viewers, can expand ours as we look between the acts.

“Coco, Café ‘à la belle étoile’ Rue Xavier Privas, Paris” (1952) and “Mademoiselle Anita, Paris” (1951) by Robert Doisneau
Red exhibition room featuring a mix of photographs by Seiichi Motohashi and Robert Doisneau

Narratives and new beginnings

In 1991, five years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Motohashi was invited by the medical support team of Shinshu University to visit the surrounding villages for the first time. Walking through the contaminated area, he looked beyond the accident and envisioned it as a “land of life” where people coexisted with nature. During the visits, he produced a series of photographs and documentary films, including Nadya’s Village (1997) and award-winning Alexei and the Spring (2002).

On the right: “Dudichi Village, Chechersk, Belarus” (1996); on the left: “Otor Village, Chechersk, Belarus” (1992) by Seiichi Motohashi

In 1951, Doisneau visited the village of Saint-Sauvant on the outskirts of Paris for the first time since the end of World War II to photograph the wedding of Annie Motillon. The Motillons were the ones who took in Doisneau and his family when they evacuated to avoid the German invasion. In this intimate series of family photographs, Doisneau shifts the viewer’s gaze away from the hardships of the Roma people and portrays the special day of happiness with a touch of fiction.

Series of photographs with cellist Maurice Baquet by Robert Doisneau at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

Toward the end of the exhibition, you will find the humorous collaboration between Robert Doisneau and his lifelong friend and cellist, Maurice Baquet. In the 1980s, Doisneau was involved in the DATAR [then the French Industrial Development Board] project to document the suburbs of Paris. Most of the photographs for the project were in color, and many of them captured the vanishing spirit of the suburbs. However, by focusing on geometric composition, Doisneau created a new narrative, and instead of melancholy, he infused the series with humor and irony.

Parisian suburbs by Robert Doisneau at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

While Doisneau’s stories depict the charm of the Parisian suburbs and the energy of the people, Motohashi’s photographs and stories focus on people of different backgrounds living together. Shinjiro Miyajima, Motohashi’s former teacher, founded the Maki Kyodo Gakusha at the foot of the Northern Alps in Nagano Prefecture to create a place for people with physical disabilities or difficulties fitting into society. Although each person in the facility has their sense of time, they share the same community as a family, which echoes the idea of the plaza in Motohashi’s earlier works.

“Maki Cooperative School (Arayashiki), Otari, Nagano” (2013) by Seiichi Motohashi

Unfortunately, Seichi Motohashi did not have another opportunity to meet Robert Doisneau before his passing. However, their works, which express happiness, life sensations, humor, love for people, and their spirits, crossed paths at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. On view through September 24, the exhibition is a must-see for every photography lover.

Exhibition view of the “Motohashi Seiichi & Robert Doisneau —Chemins croisés (Narrative Passages)” at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

Alena Heiß

Alena Heiß

Editor at Tokyo Art Beat since 2021. Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Keio University. Specializes in arts-based research, performative sociology, and visual sociology.