Masters of Japanese Photography-Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts


Masters of Japanese Photography is an exhibition of the work of three photographers described in the exhibition guide as three of Japan’s most prominent living photographers. Nobuyoshi Araki (b1940) Ekoh Hosoe (b1933)  Kikuji Kawada (b1933)

They work is set against a background of post war Japan, a period in which rapid reconstruction and industrial development took Japan from defeat to be a leading industrial and technical nation. At the same time traditions were bing questioned and cultural change in this island nation led to a critical review of identity.  I tend too think of Japan as having three distinct historical contexts, an ancient one rich in traditions dating back to before medieval times, a more recent imperial history dating back to the 1800’s and a post war modern in austral history. The work of the artists in this exhibition touch upon all of these themes and to my relatively uneducated eye, also show European cultural  influences such as surrealism, Dada and classical renaissance european painting.


before relflecting on the artist i wanted first to say something about the display and curation of the work. All the images were framed in large simple wooden frames and i was really struck by the high quality of the productiopn of the work. Given the dates of the work, i assume they were all film based process, and some were labeled as such. There were three distinct zones separating the work of each arts and in two of the individual exhibits there was a clear sequence. one

Nobuyoshi Araki

Araki is the youngest of the three artists featured and he started his career in commercial photography after graduating in Filmaking from the Chiba University in 1963. His work more than the others appeared to present a sharp contrast. One wall was made up of large 20×24 framed Cibachromes, slightly entail in colour. The images bar one were all of exotic and complex japans flowers. There was something slightly unreal about the works and the colours remind me of the super real and sometimes lurid colours seen in Martin parr images. On the other wall there were images of women, all in monochrome and these ranges from Fashion images with an clear erotic tone to very explicit images of women in Bondage. The contrast in the works was as  I say very stark. The exhibition notes set out out that Araki used ‘Kinbaku’, an ancient Japanese type of bondage using ropes as a recurrent theme in his work. I am not sure I liked the images but I have to say I felt the exhibit in hola gave me a revealing and indeed completing sense of the tensions between the ancient and the modern in Japan. Images of women wearing kimonos and tied in ropes suggest something dark. From a technical point of the view the images were faultless and Araki is clearly a skilled images maker, his work offering glimpses of thing that sit below the surface in this distant and to me quite alien, but intriguing eastern  culture.

Ekoh Hosoe

Originally a freelance photographers and film maker, Hosoe changed his name from Toshihio to Ekoh, in response to an new era in Japan following the end of the war. With a number of artists he established the Vivo agency in japan

Hosoe’s work in this exhibit had a much clearer narrative and although the style of the images changes through the sequence, i found this set much easier to read than Araki’s work. All in monochrome the collection of work on display are large, beautifully printed 20×24 silver gelatine prints framed simply and elegantly. The work has a whole had a beauty about it that appealed to my love of film made black and white art.

The set of images on display were a surreal exploration o the writer Yukio Mishima, entitled ‘Ordeal by Roses’, originally called ‘Killed by Roses’ when published but changes at the request of the subject. The works range from fairly orthodox portrait images to college like surreal interpretations. All had some reference to flowers /roses as part of the iconography. I got a real sense of the tension and angst from the work I think about when considering Mishima. As a student many years ago I had read some of his work an was aware of his ultimate ritual suicide following a failed attempt inciting a coup d’ etat. 


I could see many in the work and al were executed beautifully. I was confused by the sequencing of at e work, all of which had unique numbers in their titles, but they were not displayed in number sequence. I would have liked to find out the curatorial reasoning behind the sequencing but no one at the gallery could tell me. That said this really did flow and there was a strong sense of sequence. There was also a clear sense of western influence with collage like sequence that used  snippets of well know european art, within the overall composition. I  was also intrigued by the artists use of the rose, a reference perhaps to beauty and thorns. 

Kikuji Kawada

Kawada, unlike his peers in this exhibition started out as an economics graduate and after working for a publishing company got involved in photography. A founder member of the Vivo Agency his work in this exhibit is a strange and at times hard to follow exposition  of natural phenomena. With a particular focus on eclipse and images of the astronomical events. This ‘Last Cosmology ‘ set draws upon traditional notions of such natural events being the harbingers of disasters. The work was very dark and although there was some serial progression i the eclipse images, I found the narrative of the work oblique. The exhibit notes talked about influences from European landscape art but again i found that hard to read. I will persevere though. i have made it an early new years resolution to look further into work that is hard to grasp and see it as an academic as well as aesthetic challenge. I was remanned of the scene from early black and white hour fils, patricianly the cloud and moon images. there was area Hammer feel to some of this work.



What I learned from this exhibit

This was a challenging and thought provoking show. i led Hose work the most, and was more intrigued by Akira and Kawada. I left with a real sense that visiting exhbition and getting something from them isn’t about whether i like the work or not. Rather it is about the thought processes that are provoked. All three of theses artists offer an insight into post war Japan, a clash of cultures and the influence of the west. i also reflected that the post war industrial growth in the country also gave us many of the tools we all use to make our our own work

Note to Self- Follow up on the Vivo  Agency and the idea of an anti documentary approach. 



Koetzle, H-M,(2015) Photographers A-Z, Taschen, Koln

Sainsbury Centre Gallery Guide  (2016) University of East Anglia,Norwich


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