Critical Fieldwork 42

Provoke and Con-pora IV: Post Con-pora Expression

The Con-pora photography of Japan has a characteristic that the original Con-pora photography could never have had. That is, an American flavor that was somewhat liberated from the prevailing sense of Japan at the time. Con-pora photography is both stylish and exotic. Not Japanese but English-language newspapers, not baseball but American football, not Atami but the former Karuizawa, American life that surrounds the military bases, foreign cars, foreign people, barbecues … the feeling that it was straining to portray an American life is sort of humorous and at the same time downright unnatural. Why was it so stuck on American-ness?

One reason originates in the essential nature of Con-pora – the fact that it is photograph of a photograph. The bases were a “privileged” motif, reflecting the political awareness of the Japanese-occupation generation, with all its masochism, fear and repulsion. The “photographs of the bases” cannot be dismissed as not being “serious” photographs as they expose Japan’s disgrace, says Con-pora. With an awareness of the need to maintain a cool distance from such institutional thinking or liking for the bases, Con-pora photographed the bases as “bases” within quotation marks, in other words, as a “motif representative of Japanese photography.” Akihide Tamura, for example, passed the “base” in his base photographs off as tourist photos for the Americans – thereby all too easily causing the emotional burden experienced by Japanese people towards the motif to vanish into thin air – and at the same time also appropriated the symbolic motif of Paul Strand’s white fence “American photography” in the US military bases in Japan.

Akihide Tamura – from “BASE.” Top: Atsugi, 1968. Bottom: Yokosuka, 1968. Both: Courtesy Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Another reason, which might also be closer to the truth of the situation, was the fact that in the developing country that was Japan in the late 1960s, it was 10 years too early to be taking photographs of the “media-ized” social conditions (= the social landscape) – times in which color televisions were almost ubiquitous in households, in which the pages of magazines and newspapers were filled with color photographs, and there was a burgeoning advertising industry where the copywriter was the new hero of the age (1) – and their cameras were naturally turned on the US military bases, international airports and foreign people where one could catch a glimpse of an advanced kind of life that did not as yet exist in Japan.

So, that the differences between Con-pora and Provoke were – in that period or even now – unclear is because in addition to the fact that they were both premised on the same social conditions (a society turning itself into photographs), the key-phrase of modern photography “as it is” (the thing itself, “real reality,” a real image of the world etc … it has many different names) can be applied to both of them. For Provoke/Takuma Nakahira, the “world as it is” means an innocent and ingenuous world, normally clad in media, existing almost invariably as a utopian extreme value, like a light that shines at the end of the critical process. For them, therefore, the act of mere dispassionate taking of photographs of the apathetic lives we see before us and the mere composition of them as photographs is nothing more than intellectual laziness that lacks any critical process. Nakahira, who continues to point himself in the direction of “the world as it is,” is criticizing the lazy world of “as-it-is photographs.”

There is a precedent for Nakahira’s kind of criticism. In Albert Renger-Patzsch’s well-known book, Die Welt ist schön [The World is Beautiful; initially given the title Die Dinge (Things) by the author himself; 1928], he attempts, by drawing on the properties of photography, to expose the world of physical phenomena “as it is” beyond its beauty or ugliness. Walter Benjamin is known to have been intensely scathing of this “Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity),” charging that “it has succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment.” (2) He criticizes the cycle that is completed when photographs of the world “as it is” couple with the people who merely look at such photographs (people who immerse themselves in the “world of ‘as it is'”), contending that “photography turns all life’s relationships into literature.” (3) He argues that photographs cannot be made to stand on their own as photographs alone; they are interrupted by the “language to come,” that the cycle is broken by their montage-ing with other essential elements. If we accept that, even today, the photographer/critic Takuma Nakahira has a freshness about him that will never lose its luster, it is not the part of him that, likening his starting point to that of photographs of Atget and Evans, is attempting to return to the starting point. It is this part, in other words, outside this absorption tendency.

On the other hand, Con-pora did not have a utopian, negative extreme value orientation and was attempting dispassionately to verify a world where photographs act as an intermediary, and the current situation of the self. Where the dualism of the “system” and “its exterior” and the reciprocal motion between the former and the latter was no longer regarded as valid, to be more specific, since the mid-1970s when the era of Provoke had ended and the word “Con-pora” itself had disappeared, two forms of representation appeared among post-Con-pora photographers: the last of the absorptive modernist type that could possibly be compared to some of the New Topographics (1975- ) from the same period, and as always a theatrical first-generation post-modernist type that attempts to deviate from the modern conceptual grouping.

The former does not direct itself towards some kind of utopian arrival point – beyond the representation. It is because it is a scene of a vacuum that appears on the photographic paper, neither positive nor negative (ie, “neutral”) (4), that makes it truly a scene of “as it is.” This could be described as the last form of the modernist photograph, retaining the “real world” as a vacuum or as emptiness, and in order to achieve a vacuum of meaning and of value, a pure photographic emptiness, many photographers have adopted the so-called “plus minus zero” method, a method which, at the same time they execute it, sets off the two extremes of that dualism against each other – such as “system” and “its exterior” = “action” and “lack of action,” “artificial” and “natural,” “pictorial” and “straight,” “absorption” and “theatrical.” For example, with the New Topographics, an important motif has emerged, the motif of developed land and new residential areas in the “suburbs” where landscapes that appear “natural” or “artificial” or neither of the two are vaguely spreading. Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, who exhibit “absorptive” motifs “theatrically,” Hiroshi Sugimoto, who photographs “pictorial, artificial” motifs in a “straightforward” way, and furthermore within Japan, although they lack that kind of methodological consistency, Shin Yanagisawa, Kanendo Watanabe and Toshio Shibata – it is not that difficult to find the last of the modernists and their large and small variations, whose common ground from the 1970s through the 1980s was “emptiness” in the place of “real.” (To be continued)

Robert Adams Untitled, Denver, 1970-1974

Hiroshi Sugimoto – Polar Bear (1976), gelatin silver print. © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy Gallery Koyanagi.

Shin Yanagisawa – from Tracks of the City (1979).

Kanendo Watanabe – from Kisshi no machi (City of déjà vu; 1980). Image courtesy Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

1968 – Japanese Photography” was held form May 11 through June 15, 2013 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

  1. In the popular American TV series Bewitched (ABC, 1964-1972), which was also popular in Japan, the protagonist, Darin, was a copywriter by profession.

  2. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” trans. Anna Bostok in Understanding Brecht, (Verso, 1998), p 95. Nevertheless, how many current-style, flawless “as-it-is” photographs have people attempted to take of the disaster-stricken area since the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011?

  3. Walter Benjamin, “A Small History of Photography” in One Way Street and Other Writings (London: NLB, 1979) p. 256.

  4. Shinichi Kusamori, “Inja no shutcho: Yanagisawa Shin ni okeru ‘ki no nasa'” (Hermit on a filed trip: ‘Neutrality’ in Shin Yangisawa), in Shin Yanagisawa Tracks of the City (Sonorama Shashin Senso 26, Asahi Sonorama, 1979) .

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