Karen M. Fraser’s Photography and Japan marks a welcome addition to the growing number of expositions on the history of photography in Japan. This introductory book is a part of Reaktion Books’ series Exposures, which includes twelve other titles related to photography. It is a series “designed to explore the rich history of the medium from thematic perspective.” Fraser selected the following topics for this book: “Representation and Identity,” “Visions of War,” and “Picturing the City.”
This thematic approach is precisely what distinguishes Fraser’s book from previous studies of the topic. Instead of following a chronological order or superimposing a narrative arc of the “Western” history of photography onto her narrative, Fraser instead demonstrates how the medium interacted and shaped the social history of Japan: how photography accompanied, and indeed, penetrated into sociopolitical changes of a modernizing nation. In each of the chapters framed by the themes, she encompasses wide-ranging materials—from tourist souvenirs to propaganda journals to fine art photography—and convincingly demonstrates how photographers have addressed and questioned the topics selected through their work. Fraser’s deft ability to consolidate published scholarly works and to offer a balanced history of the medium marks this book as an important resource for photography enthusiasts as well as students of cultural studies and art history. This book fills a gap by providing a much-needed socio-historical account of the photographic medium in Japan.
Having said that, at our present historical juncture, when digital files fly seemingly unbounded through global networks of communication, the imposition of national categories onto photographic images would seem less than wholly convincing or productive to many. It is in this light that I offer the following observation as a dialogic consideration.
To be sure, Fraser recognizes the limitations and problems of framing a history of photography within a set of always already differentiated nationalistic essentialisms, and she appropriately opens the book by acknowledging, “Interpreting artistic production through the lens of nationality is a tricky proposition. This is particularly true when it comes to Japanese photography.” (p.7) She further admits the fallacy of assuming the existence of a static field called “Japanese photography” by highlighting the issues of defining such a field through “visual and nationalistic characteristics.” (p.8) What Fraser aims instead is to narrate its divergent and rich history through distinctive “elements” (or “qualities,” another term she uses) with which she seeks to defy such nationalistic essentialism. (p. 30) To this end, Fraser discusses works by Japanese-American photographer Toyo Miyatake, as well as Felice Beato and other foreigners in Meiji Japan. These photographers received little attention in “The History of Japanese Photography” exhibition and its accompanying catalogue in 2003 (Yale University Press, 2003), rendering them peripheral in a seminal event that introduced the subject to the American public. Fraser thus gestures toward a more fluid consideration of “Japanese photography” as a field.
But it is in this attempt to identify “elements” that Fraser steps on a slippery slope. Searching for elements distinctive to the photographic history of Japan, she identifies transnational scope, the significance of the collective group, and the role of print publications. (p.33–34) In explaining the issue of transnational scope, Fraser uses the expression “Japanified” as a way to explain how photographers in Japan incorporated artistic styles from “the West” and made them “their own.” The process of “Japanification” would necessarily have to assume some degree of coherence to their practice, a practice operating beyond the individual, local, and regional units, but yet still decidedly different from other national cultures. Fraser gives an example of how early studio, Pictorialist, and Modernist photography used Japanese subjects in lieu of obviously “Western” subjects, even as they incorporated “Western” stylistic elements.
This mode of explanation requires more careful argument. If, as Christopher Pinney noted, “photography is a cultural practice with no fixed outcome,” then wouldn’t we expect this process to unfold everywhere that photography is available? If Fraser does discern some internal coherence among the works she qualifies as “Japanified,” I was left wondering what specific elements hold them together as such.
The penchant for group activities echoes a familiar, even trite, cultural stereotype of Japanese society. For me, the problem with this framing is that in the effort to avoid employing a circular interpretive logic derived from nationalist essentialism, Fraser co-opts another set of cultural clichés to offer a different version of photographic history of Japan. In the end, this method only amplifies, and to some extent validates, nation-centered stereotypes. Rather, a more meaningful inquiry could be directed to exploring how the financial burden of photographic production historically shaped the practice. The photographic medium—especially negative-based photography, dominant until twenty years ago—requires various pieces of equipment and supplies that were financially costly. Access not only to cameras, lens, filters, films, and papers, but also to darkroom facilities and storage for negatives and chemicals imposed serious economic burdens on photographers. Indeed, Vivo, a group active between 1959 and 1961 and mentioned as subject to such conditions, shared a darkroom and an office in the Ginza area of Tokyo. Takuma Nakahira, one of the founders of Provoke, also mentioned by Fraser as a case of group-centered activity, had a darkroom inside the Provoke office. The continued existence of rental darkrooms in metropolitan areas today, even when the price of darkroom equipment has fallen down, attest to the fact that maintaining a personal, functioning darkroom is still not an option to many practicing photographers. The ways in which photography (along with cinema) distinguishes itself from other visual media, as a medium conducive to collaboration and sharing, demands more careful consideration. The formation of collective units resulted as much from financial conditions necessitated by the practice as from a societal emphasis on the group in Japanese culture.
Photographers from Japan, as well as the history and practices of photography in Japan, have attracted global attention within the last decade. To name a few examples: the Japan Foundation-sponsored exhibit “Gazing at the Contemporary World: Japanese Photography from the 1970s to the Present” has been travelling throughout Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern and Central Europe since 2007; the 2008 Paris Photo focused on Japan; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Provoke Era” in 2008 was critically well-received; and in 2011, the Getty Museum’s “Felice Beato: Photographer on the Eastern Road” featured many of his works from Japan. There have been a number of books and conferences on the topic over recent years. Given the current attention to and emergence of the field, I had hoped that an overview of its history would also introduce, however briefly, new challenges and questions for future studies.