Reviving the forgotten influence of a pioneering female photographer

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Ahead of the opening of Eiko Yamazawa’s first posthumous retrospective in Tokyo, curator Tsukasa Ikegami discusses the importance of the Japanese photographer’s abstract work, and why her legacy has largely been forgotten

Eiko Yamazawa was one of the first successful women photographers in Japan. Moving from studio portraiture to vibrant abstract photography, Yamazawa produced work from the 1920s until her death in 1995, aged 96. But, in the history of Japanese photography, Yamazawa’s significance has been largely overlooked. Now, a new exhibition and accompanying book seek to restore it.

After a successful run at the Otani Memorial Art Museum in Nishinomiya, Kansai, earlier this year, Eiko Yamazawa: What I Am Doing will open at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum next week. Although the exhibition focuses on Yamazawa’s abstract work, its 140 images address the entire oeuvre of her long career.

Yamazawa was born in Osaka, in the Kansai region of Japan, in 1899. She moved to the US in 1926 to study painting at California School of Fine Arts, where she worked as an assistant to photographer Consuelo Kanaga, who became one of her greatest influences along with Alfred Stieglitz’s quarterly journal Camera Work.

Returning to Japan in the 1930s, Yamazawa opened a photography studio in Osaka, and became one of the country’s first female photographers. After her second visit to New York City in 1955, Yamazawa began to make more abstract and vibrant colour photographs — an aesthetic that was unlike anything in Japan at the time. She shut down her portrait studio to work exclusively on her abstract work, leading to her seminal series, What I Am Doing in the 1970s and 80s.

Curator Tsukasa Ikegami has been working at the Otani Memorial Art Museum in the Kansai region of south Japan since 1999, organising exhibitions of regional contemporary artists. In 2011, while organising a retrospective of a local abstract artist, Ikegami came across a portrait taken by Yamazawa. After some digging he found that Yamazawa had exhibited in several group exhibitions with other artists he was familiar with.

Below, curator Tsukasa Ikegami discusses the new-found importance of the Japanese photographer’s experiments.

© Eiko Yamazawa.
© Eiko Yamazawa.

“When I saw the images, I was so impressed by their modern and sharp quality, and was surprised that she was little known, even in Kansai”

Tsukasa Ikegami, curator

© Eiko Yamazawa.

Is this Yamazawa’s first retrospective? Why do you think it is relevant to show her work now?

During her time, Yamazawa had just one solo museum exhibition, at Itami City Museum of Art in 1994. Yamazawa was 95 years old at the time. The 1994 exhibition can be seen as her retrospective, but her work was largely forgotten after her death in 1995. So this is Yamazawa’s first posthumous retrospective, and the first attempt to view her work and career from a historical perspective.

The exhibition was organised to commemorate the 120th anniversary of her birth, and next year, 2020, marks 25 years since she passed. I think it is highly relevant to show her work now. We saw #MeToo and #KuToo [an ongoing movement in Japan against high heel policies in workplaces] take off in Japan this year, and it is important to show Yamazawa’s achievement and struggle as a pioneering female artist.

Compared to other significant Japanese photographers, there is very little information about Yamazawa’s work. Why?

The biggest reason is that after the 1994 exhibition, no curator or scholar conducted research on Yamazawa’s work. Because of that, she was largely forgotten. Although she was known as a pioneering Japanese female photographer, the historical importance of her abstract photography has never been understood in Japan, and she has been marginalised in the history of Japanese photography.

Another reason is that Yamazawa was not part of any photography societies such as Tampei Photography Club in Osaka,  because she had no interest in being part of a male dominated photographers’ circle in Japan, hence her anonymity.

In chapter four of the publication, Yamazawa says many people were opposed to her opening her own studio. Do you think Yamazawa struggled as a female photographer?

Yes, I think she struggled. Yamazawa used the following words in her essay, which is reprinted in the book: resistance, contradiction, and irrationality. Especially before World War II, it was difficult for Japanese women to receive higher education and to work as professionals. As a female photographer, she must have had a hard time because at that moment almost all the photographic societies in Japan consisted of rich male photographers.

© Eiko Yamazawa.
© Eiko Yamazawa.

Why does the publication present Yamazawa’s work in reverse chronological order?

Because my objective was to evaluate Yamazawa’s last series, What I Am Doing from the 1980s, so I wanted to let the audience see this first. I believe that Yamazawa should be remembered for her abstract photography, because it was undoubtedly the highest artistic achievement of her career. Following the second chapter, this book was composed as a time travel to the past, in order to discover the background of her abstract photography.

Yamazawa writes about how she wanted to “improve Japanese photography”. Did she go on to influence other Japanese photographers?

I’m afraid I have to say no. In 1950, Yamazawa founded the Yamazawa Photography Study Group in order to nurture young female photographers, but few students became professional. Plus, none of them followed her photographic experiments. But in the future, we might see a new talent inspired by Yamazawa’s work through this book and retrospective. I hope that more and more people will be interested in Eiko Yamazawa’s photography.

Eiko Yamazawa: What I Am Doing will be on show at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum from 12 November 2019 to 26 January 2020. The exhibition catalogue of the same name is published by Akaaka.



Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner worked as an editor at BJP between 2018 and 2023. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.