Japanese history begins with Nagasaki. The superfluous cruelty of the United States in dropping a second atomic bomb on Japan sent a message that a third bomb and a fourth bomb were coming, that the annihilation of Hiroshima was not unique, a dread which has informed the world ever since and which stands as the centerpiece of post-war Japanese photography: Shomei Tomatsu’s 1966 photo book Nagasaki-11.02, features frozen snapshots of relics from the nuking, a stopped watch, a beer bottle.
This book is included in a stunning exhibition, "For a Language to Come: Provoking Change in Japanese Postwar Photography," on view Sept. 12-Nov. 8, 2008, at Carolina Nitsch Project Room in Chelsea. Japanese photographers worked collectively in the postwar period, and created photo books of dark precision and refined beauty. Their nominal motivation was to shock, as in Nobuyoshi Araki’s first edition of Tokyo Lucky Hole, on view here, but retrospectively these works are masterpieces of reflection and discipline.
Barakei Shinshuban’s 1971 Ordeal by Roses, the documentation of Yukio Mishima’s seppuku, originally scheduled to be published simultaneously with the writer’s ritual suicide, is a sensual mix of thick pages and homoerotic snaps of Mishima’s lithe body and gorgeous eyes, striking a dagger of desire into the viewer’s heart. In the same year, Araki published Sentimental Journey, a thorough and shockingly intrusive photo essay on his honeymoon, the tiny nipples of his confused bride as exposed and vulnerable as any rectum or pudenda.
Seija Kurata’s Flash Up is a tour of the fleshpots of Shinjuku, tattoed ninjas and bourgeois couples out for some thrills. Always, the extreme black printing and sensual photo stock, reminding us of American magazines such as Avalanche and the early issues of Interview, are a physical turn-on to the viewer. The Nipponese message seems to be the primacy of the object as the demarcation of life: as life evaporates, its depiction dominates.
This message is best preserved in non-sexual pieces such as Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Buddha, an exquisite flipbook of 1,000 Buddha statues in a Kyoto Temple, known as the "Hall of the 33 Bays," and Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens, birds of bad luck and supple brains that haunted the photographer on his trip home to the island of Hokkaido after a brutal divorce. I cannot properly highlight the mixture of exquisite craft, deep reflection and sensual stimulus which informs this exceptional exhibition. You will have to experience it for yourself, and the retreating hours of autumn are the right time to do it.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).