“Take art as your weapon and use it to destroy the present and create the future.” This was the motto of a group of artists in post-War Japan who called themselves the Democrats, working in various mediums and allied in their search for new subject matter and new approaches as artists in the new Japan.
Artistically, Japan in the 1950s and early 1960s was an amazing blend of old, new, radical, and explosively inventive. It was a period that saw the birth of Butoh, the very stylized dance theater that has had a tremendous influence on modern dance outside of Japan; the emergence of Yukio Mishima, considered by many to be Japan’s greatest post-War writer; radical forms of conceptual art (Yoko Ono, aside from her notoriety as John Lennon’s wife, was a respected conceptual artist and was associated with the neo-Dada group Fluxus); a new music blending Japanese traditions with Western forms (a stance beautifully realized in the music of Toru Takemitsu); and a brand of photography that sought, against the influence of the documentary realism espoused by Ken Domon, personal metaphor as the basis for art. Among a group of exceptional Japanese photographers who took their training and established their reputations in this period, Eikoh Hosoe stands out markedly.
Eikoh Hosoe, published by The Friends of Photography and with an afterword by Ronald J. Hill, does the reader a great service by presenting in capsule form examples of Hosoe’s work up to 1986, beginning with selections from Man and Woman (1959-60). There is a strong element of surrealism in Hosoe’s photographs at this point, most notably a couple of images that are strongly reminiscent of Man Ray, and incorporating a strong, abstract sense of imagery. Selections from Barakei, Hosoe’s project in which Yukio Mishima is the artist’s primary model, extend this imagery into a powerful dream sequence (the book Barakei has been reissued, and is an extremely potent statement of Mishima’s legend filtered through Hosoe’s vision.) Kamaitachi, using the dancer Hijikata as a model, is an extended study based on Hosoe’s experiences as an evacuee from Tokyo in the final days of World War II. Embrace utilizes four of Hijikata’s dancers in another extended study of men and women. The book ends with a group of studio portraits and two series: photographs of the work of Antonio Gaudi and a narrative study titled Shifukei (Simon: A Private Landscape). The latter returns to the theme of alienation, previously explored in Kamaitachi in a study of the life of a contemporary transvestite.
Any artist worth beans is going to change over time, and Hosoe is a prime example. Early in his career, as evidenced in Man and Woman and Barakei, Hosoe’s photographs are the result of a process involving a high degree of manipulation of the images during processing. This provides, in Barakei, dreamlike images of breathtaking power in which the technical aspects reflect the thematic content perfectly: space is dissolved into a mutable fabric in which images ranging from erotic to horrific combine and dissipate in a sequence that is almost cinematic. In Kamaitachi, Hosoe has moved into a more fundamental working mode: manipulation is minimal; the power comes from Hosoe’s keen sense of composition and lighting, which is even more marked (and less extreme) in Shifukei.
As a capsule study of the career of a major contemporary artist, Eikoh Hosoe is a treasure. The reproductions are superb, the selection intelligent, and Hill’s Afterword is scholarly, perceptive, and contains a wealth of information about Hosoe’s context and philosophy. I doubt that this book is widely available, but I feel strongly enough about Hosoe and this book that I would recommend contacting The Friends of Photography directly to order a copy if it can’t be found anywhere else.
(Friends of Photography, 1986)