Book: The History of Japanese Contemporary Photography

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Book review of The History of Japanese Contemporary Photography, a book by Japan Professional Photographers Society (JPS). Thick and heavy book containing 815 photos taken by 379 Japanese photographers from Aug. 6, 1945 to 1995. A chronology of Japanese photography history from 1945 to 1998 is also provided.

The History of Japanese Contemporary Photography 日本現代写真史1945-95

Reviewed on: 2001.05.12 Last modified: 2005-04-03


Published: 2000.03.24 Publisher: Heibonsha ISBN: 4582231101 Price in Japan: ¥18,900 Qualities: Hard cloth cover, color photos, cardboard sleeve Size: A4 landscape, 660 pp. Language: Japanese and some English Edited by: JPS 日本写真家協会編集

With a price tag of 18,000 yen, this book will give you sticker shock. However, if you are a student of Japanese photography history like I am, it is a must-have book. It took me about a year to shell out the money for it though. Happily, I got a 20% discount because I bought it from the publisher's booth at the Tokyo International Book Fair in April. It's the only time in Japan when new books can be sold at a discount.

You would expect a photography history book to contain a lot of text and some pictures. But in the case of this book, it's mostly pictures. It's more of a pictorial catalog rather than a history book. About 80 percent of the book is filled with over 800 photographs spanning from the end of World War II (the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) to 1995. Hence, the high cost of the book.

The first three chapters show pictures. Each chapter has a brief introduction in both Japanese and English. The first chapter has documentary photos showing Japan's post-war history. It starts with the atomic bomb devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then it moves on quickly to show the usual riots and protests, natural and man-made disasters, urban life, politicians, sports figures, and overseas conflicts (Vietnam, etc.). The name of the photographer credited under each photograph is also spelled out in English.

Chapter 2 focuses on the work of 49 acclaimed Japanese photographers like HAYASHI Tadahiko, UEDA Shoji, KIMURA Ihei, HAMAYA Hiroshi, HAGA Hideo, Domon Ken, NAGANO Shigeichi, ISHIMOTO Yasuhiro, TOMATSU Shomei, Hosoe Eikoh, KUWABARA Shisei, TOMIYAMA Haruo, ISHIKAWA Bunyo, Shinoyama Kishin, MORIYAMA Daido, Araki Nobuyoshi, OISHI Yoshino, TSUCHIDA Hiromi, HASHIGUCHI George, TANUMA Takeyoshi, FUJIWARA Shinya, SUGIMOTO Hiroshi, and KON Michiko. Three to nine photos are shown for each photographer. They are usually the photographer's trademark photos, or what they are best-known for.

Chapter 3, titled "Melange of Subjects and Expression," is the largest chapter (almost half the book) consisting of several subsections. The first subsection shows the changing rural and urban landscape and lifestyle in Japan. Then a collection of pictures taken by Japanese photographers during their foreign travels. This is followed by aesthetic landscapes and architecture in Japan and overseas, nature and wildlife photos, celebrity portraits (mostly Japanese), female nudes, sports photos, advertising photos, and fine-art or artistic photos. It's a smorgasbord of pictures.

Chapter 4 is a thin chapter of text explaining various aspects of Japanese photography history such as camera magazines, photo books, photography museums in Japan, and camera history.

It's not until we come to the Appendix when the book starts to read like a real history book. There is a good chronology of post-war Japanese photography history from 1945 to 1998. The chronology has three columns: Japanese photography history, photography data, and Japanese/world events. Thus you can read the photo history within the context of the current times in Japan and the world. The photography data column gives a list of the year's major photo exhibitions and photo books. Everything here is in Japanese.

Following the chronology is a collection of brief biographies of all the photographers whose work appears in the book.

This book was put together by the Japan Professional Photographers Society (JPS), Japan's largest association of pro photographers with over 1,700 members. They have published Japanese photography history books before, and this book sort of amalgamates the previous books together with the information included for the more recent years. Much of the preparation for this book was actually done in 1995 for a major, JPS-sponsored photo exhibition commemorating 50 post-war years. Many of the photos that appeared in that exhibition (and in the exhibition catalog) also appear in this book. Out of 30,000 photos, they chose 815 taken by 379 photographers.

Although this is one of the most comprehensive books ever published on modern Japanese photography, it still shows only the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more behind each photographer and behind the chronology. Nevertheless, it has a gold mine of information, and no doubt it will serve well as a reference source for PhotoGuide Japan as well. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)