Japanese photography legend Shomei Tomatsu dies

Shomei Tomatsu, born on 16 January 1930 and whose work is currently on show at the Barbican in London as part of the exhibition Everything Was Moving: Photography for the 60s and 70s, is known for his iconic photograph of a melted bottle taken in Nagasaki in 1961 as part of a magazine assignment to portray the devastation and reconstruction of the city. But it’s his non-documentary approach to photography, with his dream-like aesthetics, that made Tomatsu one of the most influential Japanese photographers of his time.

“Tomatsu was a major influence on the so-called provoke generation of Japanese photographers, even though he was only a few years older than them,” says photography critic Gerry Badger. “Named after the magazine Provoke, these young photographers, such as Takuma Nakahira and Daido Moriyama, developed a freewheeling, highly expressionistic visual style that seemed to push the individual photographic image to the edge of descriptive incoherence. Tomatsu was a proponent of this approach, though not quite as extreme as some. The important thing about the whole group, and Tomatsu also, was that the rough-hewn tone of the imagery was not simply a style or an aesthetic, but a means of registering an attitude toward the world, a stance of defiance and political protest.”

Badger adds: “At the root of much avant-garde art is an attitude to shock the middle classes, and cutting-edge art in 1960s Japan, including photography, incorporated a whole raft of protest issues – anti-capitalism, certainly, but also concerns for national identity and a natural resentment of the bomb. At the heart of this dissidence was an almost schizophrenic, love-hate relationship with the USA and American culture.”

Tomatsu’s career in the 1960s and 1970s reflects these concerns perfectly, says Badger. “His aesthetic approach is typical of much Japanese photography of the period, documenting nothing head-on, but always in a sly and poetic manner, such as the melted glass bottles that so memorably connote what the atomic bomb did to human flesh at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

For Martin Parr, Tomatsu was “one of the greatest post-war Japanese photographers”, he tells BJP. “And ironically Provoke was partly set up to react against Tomatsu and other photographers of his generation. Yet with the benefit of hindsight he looks as radical as they were, especially with his Oh! Shinjuku book.”

In Oh! Shinjuku, Tomatsu not only recorded the raffish nightlife, but also photographed the great 10:21 rallies, the massive anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that took place in Shinjuku on 21 October 1968, says Badger. “Politically active, Tomatsu protested through his images, and he helped the student and union protestors with photographic technique so they could make their own viable document of the protest movement itself.”

Ivan Vartanian, director of Goliga and co-author of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and 70s, adds: “Beginning with his reportage of the 1960s, Tomatsu was able to present a vision of Japan that was deeply personal as it was complicated and vexed, creating many images that have become iconic in status,” he tells BJP. “Several of the photographers who we consider masters of the field were directly influenced by Tomatsu and his work. He had a remarkable career and produced a body of work that repeatedly chronicled the story of a man and his country. Even in the last several years, it is clear that Tomatsu has a strong legacy and that his work continues to influence photographers.”

Tomatsu died on 14 December 2012 of pneumonia.