Introduction to the exhibition
The MEP is proud to present Moriyama ‒ Tomatsu: Tokyo, a landmark exhibition that brings together two of the undisputed masters of post-war Japanese photography. Conceived by the two men together before the death of Tomatsu in 2012, it is the realisation of a dream for Moriyama, who has said of his friend and mentor, “For me, as a photographer, without a doubt, everything began with Tomatsu”.
Shomei Tomatsu was already a recognised photographer when, in 1961, Daido Moriyama came to Tokyo to meet him. Eight years Tomatsu’s junior, Moriyama was a great admirer of the older man’s work, which was often featured in the best photographic magazines. The VIVO agency, which Tomatsu helped to set up, and which Moriyama hoped to join, had just disbanded, but nonetheless the two men established a relationship which was to last for over 50 years. But although Moriyama was fascinated by Tomatsu’s personality and aura, he gradually distinguished himself from the style associated with the VIVO group, becoming in turn one of Japan’s most original and radical post-war photographers.
Thanks to a close collaboration between Daido Moriyama, Akio Nagasawa and Madame Yasuko Tomatsu, Shomei Tomatsu’s widow, this exhibition is based on the artists’ initial selection, which has subsequently been enriched and adapted to present a broad panorama of the two photographers’ work, comparing their shared obsession with the Japanese capital.
The second floor of MEP is devoted to Shomei Tomatsu’s work, the third to Daido Moriyama’s.
Presentation of Shomei Tomatsu
Shomei Tomatsu began his photographic career in 1954, and within a few years became a leading figure in the world of Japanese photography. As a result of both his style, which broke away from the conventions of traditional photojournalism, and his commitment to promoting a distinctly Japanese point of view, he became emblematic of an entire generation.
After the trauma of the two cataclysmic nuclear events of August 6th and 9th 1945 and defeat in the Second World War, Japan was a deeply wounded country undergoing a process of intense reconstruction. Shomei Tomatsu became the chronicler par excellence of these post-year wars, and arguably no other photographer observed so sharply the effects of the American occupation and its transformative effects on Japanese society in complete.
After arriving in Tokyo from Nagoya in 1954, Tomatsu was confronted with a city and way of life that were almost unrecognisable.
In his chronicles of the now legendary neighbourhood of Shinjuku, for example, he bore witness to the country’s political, economic and societal upheavals. In his very personal style, he continued to observe the city’s environmental and architectural evolution into
the 1970s. As a photographer, Tomatsu employed an innovative and highly subjective aesthetic, in a radical departure from the assumed neutrality of documentary practice in its treatment of subject matter, as well as taking a strongly critical view of developments in Japanese society. For Tomatsu, it was not enough to reflect or describe the world. He deeply believed in the power of photography to reinvent, and even transform society. Even in sequences of images taken from everyday life that might seem anecdotal, he was able to reveal the desires and aspirations of his generation.
16th January 1930
Born in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture.
Studies photography while at university.
Participates in a competition for the review Camera. His talent is noticed by two members of the jury: Ihei Kimura and Ken Domon.
Finishes his studies and leaves for Tokyo to work as a photographer for Iwanami Shoten publications.
His work soon appears in photography magazines.
His first important series: “Local Politicians”.
Starts his project “Chewing Gum and Chocolate”.
Receives the revelation award from the Photographic Association of Japan.
With 5 other photographers, participates in the exhibition The Eyes of Ten (Eikoh Hosoe, Kikuji Kawada, Ikko Narahara, Akira Sato and Akira Tanno), he co-founds the VIVO photo agency in Tokyo.
First photos published about the American occupation in the magazine Asahi Camera.
Receives the Mainichi Photography Prize.
Publishes with Ken Domon the book Hiroshima-Nagasaki Document 1961.
The VIVO agency is disbanded. Receives Photographer of the Year award from the Japan Photo Critics Association.
Creates the series “Asphalt”. Discovers La Nouvelle Vague and in particular, Jean-Luc Godard.
Starts the series “Ruinous Gardens”, marking his entrance into colour photography.
Publishes Nagasaki 11: 02.
Obtains permission to travel for the first time to the province of Okinawa, which had been under American control since the end of the war. The book Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa is published by Shaken.
Produces the series “Protest” and “Eros”.
Publishes Oh! Shinjuku.
Spends a year in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, which was returned to Japan after 27 years of American occupation.
Publishes I Am a King.
Works on the island of Miyako, creating the series “The Pencil of the Sun”.
Participates in the exhibition New Japanese Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Founds the WORKSHOP Photography School in Tokyo with Nobuyoshi Araki, Masahisa Fukase, Eiko Hosoe, Daido Moriyama and Noriaki Yokosuka.
Participates with Fukase, Moriyama and Hosoe in the exhibition Black Sun: The Eyes of Four, Roots and Innovation in Japanese Photography at the Modern Art Museum of Oxford then in London, Philadelphia, Iowa and New York.
Publishes Ruinous Garden.
Publishes Cherry Blossoms.
First solo exhibition of a Japanese photographer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: Photographs by Tomatsu: Sakura + Plastics.
Retrospective exhibition Skin of the Nation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Dies on 14 December at the age of 82 in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture.
His work has been shown in all the large-scale exhibitions organised by the greatest institutions presenting Japanese photography.
Pigment inkjet prints made in 2020 by Mrs Yasuka Tomatsu, widow of the author.
Shomei Tomatsu arrived in Tokyo in 1954 to work as a photographer for the Iwanami Shoten publishing company. He became a freelancer in 1956.
The first images he took in the streets of Tokyo bear witness to his empathy for the Japanese people in the post-war years: the unemployed, hustlers or people with small trades, an entire population that was trying to survive despite its difficulties. Before long, he became obsessed by the effects of the American occupation and what he called the “americanisation” of his country, constantly exploring the great transformations that Japanese society was undergoing at the time.
The skin of the city, 1960-1964
From the early 1960s onwards, Tomatsu sought to shake up the conventions of documentary and street photography. He experimented with unexpected compositions and perspectives to produce images that, despite having a basis in reality, approach abstraction. Tomatsu turned his gaze on the asphalt of the streets, where, on the ground, litter and pieces of metal, crushed and embedded in the surfaces of the pavements and roads, reflected light like scattered star dust. “They look like galaxies” he wrote. For Tomatsu, asphalt was like the skin of the city, covered with scars, which he transformed into a series of fascinating enigmatic traces. “It was by adopting the stare of a stray dog that these little details – which I was unaware of – became familiar to me” Tomatsu wrote. In the series “On the Road” he took a particular interest in abandoned objects on the pavement, while in “Ruinous Garden”, he took this abstract practice further, producing mysterious compositions in colour from fragments of nature.
Chindon Street Musician, 1961
Chindon-ya was born in the mid-19th century. While playing music, like in a circus show, groups of chindon-ya offered their services to parade through the streets promoting shops or products. Just after the war, performances by these marching bands reached their peak. Tomatsu, who probed the lifestyles of his fellow citizens, took an interest in these actors and musicians, who were often poor but dressed in traditional costumes from the Edo period, as they put on a show in the streets of Tokyo.
Oh! Shinjuku, published in 1969, is one of Shomei Tomatsu’s major works. The book tells the story of this Tokyo neighbourhood, which still has a prominent place in the mythology of Japanese counterculture. It has one of the world’s biggest train stations, and huge crowds gather in its department stores. Its nightlife is feverish, peopled by artists, assorted activists and a marginal youth. With its underground cinemas, experimental theatres, striptease clubs, but also all kinds of trafficking, it is a modern jungle, a place where everything is possible. In this book, Tomatsu mixed together views from the urban daily life with photographs from the series ‘Eros‘ and ‘Protest‘. In 1964, in Shinjuku, he took a famous photograph of the critic and photographer Takuma Nakahira, one of the founders of the magazine Provoke, whom he introduced to Daido Moriyama.
Afterword by Shomei Tomatsu, Oh! Shinjuku, Shaken, Tokyo, 1969
“ Shinjuku is
· a young people’s town
· a getting-off-on-the-way-home town
· an underground city
· a happening-stage
· a floaters’ town
· a sex-town
· the womb of civilization
· a giant supermarket
· Tokyo in miniature
· the Mecca of instant culture
· the student’s home village (furusato)
· where beginners form families
· where you can drink and dance for 200 yens
· everybody’s plaza
· where authority is rejected
· frivolity and infamy
· a modern jungle
· smells of crime
· a night town
· the specter of desire gone wild which can swallow everything.
There are countless words one can use for Shinjuku. If we try to catch them, they will wriggle out of the net like eels. No place is as hard to decode but I will say the following. Every time has its own unique face and the face of a time may appear vividly in a particular town. Like Asakusa and Ginza in the past, Shinjuku is now the town that responds most acutely to the new. Theatrical and nontheatrical space mix mysteriously in Shinjuku. The town called Shinjuku makes us feel « free » even if this is an illusion. This is what so many people have come to love. At the end of 1969 however, the winter blowing through Shinjuku is frigid. A raging hurricane of steel threatens to turn the tide and tear that freedom apart. The heavy shadow of the state… Oh ! Shinjuku”
Tomatsu photographed the intense confrontations between the students and riot police in the streets of Shinjuku. During the 1960s, Japan experienced massive movements of revolt, which reached their peak as in Paris in 1968 and 1969. Strikes and demonstrations took place across a background of anti-Americanism. The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the USA was due to be extended in 1970, and protestors stood up against such a guardianship of Japan. They were also demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Students in particular rebelled against the government’s authority and an overly conformist consumer society.
Tomatsu empathised with this counterculture and the demonstrators. However, from this he would only retain the almost abstract forms confronting each other in the night, with solitary figures deployed in a timeless dreamlike choreography.
At the heart of the city
Shomei Tomatsu’s vision of Tokyo is sometimes fragmented, and often poetic, but always without compromise. He is interested in both daily life and architectural details – often the unexpected effects of unrestrained urbanization, which he associated with a blind faith in modernity. This was particularly true during the preparations for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo which the city’s inhabitants found themselves confronted with, even if only in passing. Tomatsu’s critical approach to urban spaces also led him to photograph areas of environmental damage at the heart of the metropolis.
Chewing Gum and Chocolate
In 1958, Shomei Tomatsu started to photograph American soldiers who were in the military bases in Japan. This was the origin of his project Chewing Gum and Chocolate. It is a very personal vision of the hybridisation of these two cultures during the years of occupation after Japan’s surrender. Tomatsu was to continue this series for 20 years.
In this way, he evoked his first experience of the American presence when he was a teenager: “The closures were not just common, but a broadly recognised symbol. (…) We were starving and they were throwing us chocolate and chewing gum, and so it was also through this filter that we encountered American culture.”
“For a great many Japanese, the Americans were invaders and detested, but we detested even more the self-glorifying despots from the war years, so it was impossible not to like the Americans, in order to break their hold.” “Love and hate”, said Tomatsu, “are no more distanced than either side of a sheet of paper.”
Tomatsu and the performing arts
Shomei Tomatsu has always been interested in the world of the performing arts. Having photographed Kabuki, an epic form of traditional Japanese theater, he later collaborated with film director Nagisa Oshima on the set of The Trap (1961), before, in the 1970s becoming passionate about the most extreme experimental avant-garde performances. In 1971, he accompanied eight “actors” and a cameraman who locked themselves up in an unknown location (Room n°541). They didn’t belong to any artistic group and some of them had never met before.
Some of the photographs from the series “Eros” or “Illustration”, which were staged by Shomei Tomatsu, also seem to be drawn from, or inspired by, radical artistic actions.
I Am a King
In 1972, at the age of forty-two and already established as one of Japan’s most important photographers, Shomei Tomatsu published I Am a King, a kind of visual manifesto in which he confronted different series that made up his work to that date, revealing its larger political significance.
In the series ‘Blood and Roses‘, he collaborated with a Butoh dancer and his wife so as to catch the delirium of physical love. He chose unusual framing conveying a raw, uneasy and sometimes transgressive representation of physicality and sexuality. Here we find ourselves far from a harmonious reality but rather confronted with the anger and unease prevailing within Japanese society at the time.
After moving away from Tokyo in the early 1970s, Tomatsu took an increasing interest in environmental themes, condemning the collateral damage brought about by the ‘economical miracle’ and unrestrained urbanisation.
Although he had been using colour since the 1960s, this practice became increasingly important over the years. In his series ‘Cherry Blossoms‘, produced in the early 1980s, he magnified the flowering branches of the trees, which are celebrated in springtime across the entire Japanese archipelago.
In 1974, he set up in Tokyo the WORKSHOP Photography School, in collaboration with some of the greatest photographers with whom he was very close: Nobuyoshi Araki, Masahisa Fukase, Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama and Noriaki Yokosuka. Around this time he posed his photographer friends in various disguises, including himself as both a prisoner and a gangster, and Moriyama as a Japanese bride.