Japan's Modern Divide: Photographs by Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto

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Kansuke Yamamoto, Giving Birth to a Joke

In 1974, MoMA staged the exhibition New Japanese Photography. John Szarkowski, who co-organized the show with Japanese critic Shoji Yamagishi, said at the time, “The quality most central to recent Japanese photography is its concern for the description of immediate experience,” attributing this to the fact that pre-WWII pictorialism no longer seemed suitable for conveying how the world looked and felt. 

Even if the MoMA show failed to make these Japanese photographers (like Daido Moriyama or Shigeru Tamura) half as well known in the U.S. as their Western conterparts, it did capture the interest of collector Sam Wagstaff, who began acquiring certain Japanese photographers’ work. The Getty purchased the Wagstaff collection in 1984, which eventually spurred the institution’s interest in work by certain now-historic Japanese photographers, including two who weren’t in the 1974 New Photography show but could have been: Hiroshi Hamaya (1915-1999) and Kansuke Yamamoto (1914-1987). The Getty’s current exhibition, Japan’s Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto (on view through August 25), feels like something of a visual compare-and-contrast essay.

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Hiroshi Hamaya, Rice Harvesting, Yamagata Prefecture

When you enter the first few rooms of the exhibition, installed in the Getty’s lower level photography galleries, you see only in-the-moment images by Hamaya: women planting rice, men fishing in the snow. He had a journalist’s eye for quick poetry but there’s a softness to his images that differentiates them from work in the photo magazines of the day—where Life’s W. Eugene Smith tended to have stark shadows across the faces of the figures he photographed, Hamaya lets faces disappear into scarves and coats.

Subsequent rooms feature work by Yamamoto, who is not photojournalistic in the least. Instead, we have A Chronicle of Drifting, a black-and-white photograph of a well-dressed woman with a ship drawn over her head moving across the picture plane, or Buddhist Temple Birdcage, of a telephone inside a cage, a picture that recalls Man Ray or Herbert Bayer, both slightly older than Yamamoto. His photographs, so clearly experiments with form and function, are cooler, more clinical than Hamaya’s. 

The point of Modern Divide is to trace, through these artists, two trajectories in Japanese photography from the 1930s on: one toward the documentary, one toward the surreal. The fact that this accords with trajectories developing elsewhere in the world—photojournalism and surrealism were thriving in Europe and the Americas as well—makes the exhibition feel more like an opportunity to muse about convergences than any rigid proposition about Japan’s art history. 

Consider the following: In 1949, the year Yamamoto made that image of his drifting, ship-headed woman, Hamaya was at work on his series, Calendar Days of Asa Hamaya, which showed his wife in traditional Kimono with hair perfectly piled on top of her head, mending or writing letters. She seems to be drifting through days with a ritualistic poise that makes her seem as much like a fantasy as Yamamoto’s woman. Here, the surreal and real are not so far apart.