Text by Javier Izquierdo Vidal
Published in Film und Foto Magazine Number 3. December 2007
On August 6th and 9th 1945 Shomei Tomatsu is fifteen years old. He won´t take any pictures till the following year when he studies at Aichi University. For the next seventy years he´ll aim at watching the speech of his fellow citizens´ existence.
Throughout a longer time than Robert Frank photographing Americans, Tomatsu depicts the Japanese inhabitants´ lifespan with his eyes fairly near their skin, sometimes made up for the kabuki, in other instances being a survivor of the atomic havoc of the new era. Always with a slanting look, as if being with his eyes half-closed. Getting the hang of it before taking photographs, understanding that he must self-portrait himself to a great extent in every of his pictures.
It´s not the gaze of a western denizen reporting the postwar of the Empire of the Rising Sun which lost it and drinks coke. Tomatsu watches from inside his Japanese pith and through the way in which this belonging to photographed human beings changes his ideological structures, while the story of the successive American occupations takes hold.
He goes on fulfilling it after Japan turns itself into one of the symbols of the socioeconomic modernity, while very traditional ways of life decay progressively. This strife without struggle, though conflicting, is the magma around which his photograph is wrapped.
It isn´t an easy to see or understand photography. Seemingly it oughtn´t to be like that. In the same way as Doisneau only shows off Paris to us, Tomatsu only shows us Japan. Bearing in mind the time in which he creates his work, it´s very remarkable the fact that he continues implementing it being in his seventies, a full-fledged feat. Therefore, apparently we´d have the keys to understand his photographic art. But his images transcend this claim. Let´s say that it´s a very Japanese glance of his own, which is becoming more and more into his ideological and formal level. Despite all of this, Tomatsu´s visualization keeps on essentially being the same: oblique, piercing and lacking compromises of any kind.
Very strict in his own code, Shomei is a samurai without shogun walking his time paths, making use of his camera to cut into pieces the twists of the lights and shadows of his fellow countrymen.
He´s so severe with them as with the long or flat-nosed occupants. There isn´t either hatred or folkloric love, albeit his whole photograph is an empire of the compassion conveyed by the search for knowledge.
A high percentage of his photographic yield belongs to assignments from Japanese magazines difficult to fit in the synchronical Western photojournalism. Photographing to understand, understand to be able to take pictures. Perhaps this is the everlasting question, the doubt inherent to everyone walking with a camera grabbed in his hand.
Undoubtedly, without a lot of passion, he wouldn´t have been able to contribute such a comprehensive assortment of his efforts, but the sight he displays is dispassionate, by asking a lot of questions rather than answering them.Bottle melted and deformed by atomic bomb, Nagasaki. 1961
Tomatsu hasn´t been excessively watched in the West. Maybe that´s the reason for the surprise and restlessness he brings about. I´m speaking about the exhaustive exhibition comprising around 250 Shomei Tomatsu´s photographs, made by both the Japan Society of New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And before being installed in Bilbao, this impressive array of pictures has been displayed in San Francisco, Washington, Prague, Winthertur and Modena.
It´s a Japan observed with oriental vision and seeing it through Tomatsu´s eyes enables us to understand many a thing, above all the brutal and dramatic clash posed on changing in a decade from a solid and conqueror empire to be defeated in II World War and subsequently colonized and deprived of any imperialism.
Prostitute, Nagoya. 1958
Shomei Tomatsu´s sight sticks to the skin of any of his Japanese fellow citizens and from such an extensive organ of the human body, he captures the drama and scars.
The series ´ Nagasaki 11:02´ outlines it with utter roughness. It starts with a clock (found at a thousand meters from the epicentre of the detonation) that halted just at the moment in which the second atomic bomb exploded. This picture was made at the beginning of the sixties, which bestows upon it a different perspective to immediacy. It´s a cold and dispassionate essay, deprived of any vindicating load as Eugene Smith will do years later in Minamata.
That´s why its drama is bigger. The comparison between the cicatrices on the skin and the objects twisted by the hecatomb stand for the magnitude of the facts and the imprint they leave on the Japanese nation skin: if the fire and the horror of gamma rays melt a glass bottle into astonishing shapes, the same is portrayed on the skin of surviving victims.
To use narrative resources to implement the shambles effect on humans seems to be obscene to Shomei Tomatsu. The same harshness in the sight while he aims his lenses at the American occupation, chewing gum and chocolate. There´s a deep uneasiness in his framings, in the explosive and crude contrasts, but the most untemporal and unique Japanese aspects are likewise pointed out with similar thoroughness.
The same is going to happen when the occupation stage dilutes steadily to give way to the achievements of the modernization and western life style to a great extent.
His way of watching evolves, but he continues keeping an iron discipline. It´s all the same if they´re the abstract images of asphalt, the ´pictures of nothing´ that move Winogrand, the photographs made in Okinawa of B-52s coming from or going to bomb Vietnam. Twenty five years after seeing fascinated and frightened how the B-29s went past over his teenage head trying to tattoo with fire the epidermis of the casualties of total war.
His pictures neither judge nor narrate; they don´t describe either, they´re not portraits. They constitute a closed visual structure in themselves, like a haiku followed by one after another, setting up a canvas accumulating time and going beyond it, always in Present Simple Tense.
These photographs by Tomatsu don´t tell the history. They both inquire and even harass it to catch the essence through the trivial things swaddling us. Mainly on silver gelatin monochrome copies and exceptionally on colour ones. The first ones usually on coarse and very contrasty high keys, as often as not featuring more than apparent granularity and technical background.Sometimes he works to the very limit of the feasible, with great diaphragm apertures and slow shutter speeds, forcing the materials and asking them their opinion too.
Iwakuni, from the series Chewing Gum and Chocolate. 1960
In his series of pictures on the erotism inside the red-light districts, this technique becomes very evident as an opposite vision to Playboy like proposals. However, the colour is soft, much lesser rude and boasting a clear monochromatic drift between sea (which for him is not blue but red and flows through his veins as he confesses), the kimonos, jackets and uniforms, across the great luminous avenues and the narrow streets of Okinawa, walled with timber little houses and other places, always in Japan.
The images taken by Shomei Tomatsu during the last six decades ramble throughout all of these locations.
Hateruma-jima, Okinawa. 1971
´ The Skin of the Nation ´ joins together all the quoted aspects and the ones I have forgotten or inadvertently overlooked, in a very rough way, without eluding the scars but with high doses of calm, with the mercy built-in to understanding though questions haven´t been replied.