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Thursday, March 22, 2012
Photographing history: pioneers of technique
Special to The Japan Times
A good retrospective presents an artist's full career, challenges our preconceptions and encourages us to rethink his or her work and contributions. Two new exhibitions at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography do just that, shedding new light on two very different photographers: Felice Beato (1832-1909), one of the first photographers to work in Japan, and Masao Horino (1907-98), an important figure in the establishment and development of modern Japanese photography, who nevertheless is hardly known today.
"Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road" was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where it was on show last year as the first full retrospective of this well-known photographer's work. The J. Paul Getty Museum owns the world's large collection of Beato photographs, and nearly all of the 144 works here are being shown in Japan for the first time.
As the retrospective makes clear, Beato was first and foremost a war photographer, a fact that will surprise many here who know him only for the picturesque images of Japan he produced for Western tourists. But long before he came to Japan, Beato had established himself recording the aftermath of conflicts in the Crimea, India and China. Beato's photographs of battlefields were the first to show the dead, a shocking development at the time.
Following the British military across a wide swath of Asia, Beato was among the first photographers to provide Western audiences with images of previously unfamiliar countries, including India, China, Japan, Korea and Burma. In each location, he photographed civilian subjects as well as military ones, proving himself adept at a wide variety of genres including landscapes, portraits, costume studies and architectural views.
Wide-format panoramas, painstakingly constructed by piecing together as many as eight photographs prepared separately, became a particular specialty of Beato's. Panoramas required a high level of skill: The heavy camera had to be repositioned multiple times along an even plane to ensure that the frames would match up, and the photographer had to work quickly to ensure that lighting conditions remained consistent from one frame to the next. Of the 10 panoramas on show, the most spectacular is a sweeping view of Edo (old Tokyo) photographed from the top of Atagoyama in present-day Minato Ward. Given Beato's extensive experience in military photography, it is not surprising that he carefully framed his shots to include daiba (defensive forts ) in the bay beyond the city. Although there is no evidence that Beato sold this work to the British military, the panoramic view would have had clear value for a foreign power preparing to attack.
Beato spent more than 20 years in Japan (1863-84), his longest residency in one country and the most prolific period of his career. He photographed military conflicts, including the Western forces naval expedition to Shimoseki in the southwestern tip of Honshu in 1864, but he also built up a successful photographic business catering to Western tourists.
One of his most important contributions to photography in Japan was introducing the hand-coloring of photographs. Using local paints and talented artisans, Beato's studio achieved a higher level of quality and sensitivity than anything previously seen in hand-coloring. The examples on show — 11 from the J. Paul Getty Museum and 14 from the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography's own collection — should not be missed.
The second exhibition, running concurrently at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, is the first retrospective of the work of Masao Horino, who was active and influential during the prewar period, particularly in the 1930s. While he is known to those with a strong interest in modern Japanese photography — he was a member of the Shinko Shashin Kenkyukai (New Photography Research Society) — his work and contributions are largely unknown to the wider public. Yet Horino's interests closely mirrored those of other Japanese photographers of the time, so this retrospective not only reintroduces a "vanished photographer," but also provides insight into the development of modern Japanese photography.
Horino stopped taking photographs soon after World War II. In subsequent years he refused requests to exhibit his work, or claimed — falsely — that certain works were destroyed during the war. For this exhibition — the first Horino show in 75 years — the organizers searched far and wide to gather the material necessary to represent his entire career: more than 200 exhibits, including some 100 original photographs that are being shown to the public for the first time.
In the first half of his career Horino experimented widely with techniques and formats. He took a highly scientific approach to photography and worked methodically and assiduously to find, for example, a way to photograph theater productions using only ambient stage lighting.
Like many of his colleagues, Horino was influenced by the work of the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch, who took sharply focused images of buildings and mass-produced objects. Horino began to photograph similar subjects, including boats, bridges and factories, and published them in 1932 as "Kamera me x tetsu kosei" ("Camera Eye x Steel: Composition"), considered one of the most important photography books of that era.
Horino also developed a new platform that he called "graph montage," combining photographs with minimal text to tell stories in cinematic fashion, often about something on the fringes of modern society. Placing these photo-stories in popular magazines such as Chuo Koron and the lowbrow crime-and-detective rag Hanzai Kagaku, Horino sought to "free the photograph from the photographer" and "see how the photograph can serve a function in society."
His other great contribution was pioneering a new way of portraying feminine beauty. Horino's subjects were often ordinary women at work and play, positively engaged in society. He photographed them with wide, unconscious smiles, an expression we now take for granted but which was unusual at the time. Those sweet smiles brought Horino commercial work in advertising, and later, during the war, brought him to the attention of propagandists. He was commissioned by a colonial railroad authority to take photographs of people in Korea, Mongolia and northern China. These final photographs exhibit respect for his subjects and a high level of technical expertise, crowning the varied career of a photographer who deserves greater recognition.
"Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road" (¥800) and "Vision of the Modernist: The Universe of Photographer Horino Masao" (¥700) at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography run till May 6; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu., Fri. till 8 p.m.). Closed Mon. For more information, call (03) 3280-0099 or visit www.syabi.com.