The unflinching lens – Bodyscapes

The Glass Archive presents the second in a special three-part series – The unflinching lens

Part two Bodyscapes

Nobuyoshi Araki, Eikoh Hosoe and Daido Moriyama, 
three eminent Japanese post-war photographers, have captured radical views of a country and people shaped by conflict, atomic bombs and rampant consumerism. They share with Peter Yeoh intimate stories and insights on their art and life

The photographs of Eikoh Hosoe, one of the pioneers of Japanese post-war photography, capture the essential being of his subjects including some of the most famous artistic personalities of his generation.

For more than five decades, Eikoh Hosoe has been constructing – and reconstructing – the Japanese identity with transfixing photography. His abstract images of the human body and theatrical representations of folklore are sublime explorations of memory and desire – and of Japan’s tumultuous modern history. While many photographers documented WWII’s aftermath with objective starkness, Hosoe resisted the realism of shashin (the Japanese word for photography which translates literally as “truth copy”), and employed the bodies of artists to conjure photographic art. He crafted minimal and sensual photographs of Tatsumi Hijikata, founder of the radical Butoh dance (Man and Woman, 1961; Embrace, 1969), and transformed the dancer into a kamaitachi (sickle-weasel), an elusive demon that haunts the rice fields of northern Japan (Kamaitachi, 1965).

Eikoh Hosoe, Kimono #8, 1963. Hosoe took photographs of a kimono-clad woman at different stages of her life - © Eikoh Hosoe / Courtesy of Studio Equis

Hosoe famously photographed Yukio Mishima, the legendary writer who committed seppuku (ritualised suicide) in 1970, in homoerotic and ostentatious poses (Barakei, 1961), and Kazuo Ohno, the flamboyant Butoh dancer who died this year at the age of 103 (The Butterfly Dream, 2006). These days, Hosoe passionately advocates the eradication of nuclear weapons through his Deadly Ashes (2007) photographs of Pompeii, Auschwitz, Trinity Site, and Hiroshima.

What inspired you to photograph Hijikata so extensively in your oeuvre?
Hijikata changed the whole understanding of dance. When I saw his adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours, 1951) in a small Tokyo theatre, I questioned if it was a dance, but it was a dance. It was a revolutionary dance. He was dancing with Kazuo Ohno’s son, Yoshito, and they twisted a chicken’s neck on stage to make it scream. That was their soundtrack. They used whatever they wanted as long as it sounded like experimental music and that freed me from my own thinking about photography.

I realised that it’s not what I photograph but how I photograph. The theatre was so dark that no photographs exist of the performance so it became a legend. It’s in my memory. After the show I rushed backstage to meet Hijikata, realising that he was a great artist and sensing that our friendship would persist – it did until his death in 1986. I didn’t photograph him on his stage but on the stage I belonged to: the photo studio.

Eikoh Hosoe, Spiritual Yosemite 1, 1974. Ansel Adams invited Hosoe to teach nude workshops at Yosemite in the mid-70s - © Eikoh Hosoe

What is Kamaitachi?
Kamaitachi is not a demon. It’s a spirit with a sense of humour. No one has seen the creature and it does mischievious but inconsequential things; it never kills. Japan was changing rapidly after the war and losing its past, especially in the countryside. As a photographer I didn’t want to capture only the countryside’s exterior as a “superficial document”, but also its interior as an “inner document”.

I liked the rice fields but hated other aspects of country life. I was only 12 when we were evacuated there – my mother came from the area – and the country people laughed at me. I was a Tokyo boy and wore shorts with stockings, boots, jackets, and shirts with white collars. I became a target. I was their kamaitachi. They laughed at me and we fought. I made a chestnut and pole contraption as a weapon to battle them, but we soon became friends. I couldn’t write down the interesting stories from my time in the countryside, as I’m not a writer so I expressed them through photography. I wanted to record my memories, and use them as inspiration for my photographs. Some people call my work a ‘theatre of memory’.

Your photographs of Mishima made you famous.
Mishima had seen my pictures of Hijikata and asked me to photograph him in 1961. My relationship with Mishima started from that moment until his death in 1970. Even at that time he was already a superstar. He asked me to photograph him for the frontispiece of his new book. Then I asked him if I could photograph him in my own way, and he said: “Oh yes, Mr Hosoe, I am your subject matter.” It was strange that he used the phrase “I am your subject matter”. I thought: “I had won. It was my victory! I could put Mishima into my own world.” At that time Mishima was not famous for his nationalistic gestures but as a writer. He became very famous when he committed suicide. He was protesting the changes to the constitution, or some parts of it, and I think he was right. He was not nationalistic. He was a patriot who loved his country.

Why did you introduce ukiyo-e (the iconic Japanese pictures depicting “the floating world” produced between the 17th and the 19th centuries) into your work?
After Hijikata died his wife, who inherited his dance studio, rebuilt it beautifully but something went wrong with the American bank from which she borrowed money. I don’t know the details. She had to surrender the studio in three months. As a photographer I wanted to do something good for the historic studio. My concept was that the foundation of Butoh lies in ukiyo-e and I wanted to make a visual proof of my hypothesis.

And the dance studio wasn’t simply a dance studio but it was a place where many artists like Mishima gathered and had discussions – and drank. It was a historical place and a modern salon. In making my photographic proof of my hypothesis I asked the dancers to be my models, and projected ukiyo-e prints from the 17th and 18th centuries – Utamaro, Haronobu, and others – on the dancers and I asked them to dance. I choreographed the dance, and then yelled: ‘Stop! Hold!’ and shot them with a four-second exposure. A month later the studio was demolished.

Eikoh Hosoe, Kamaitachi #17, 1965. Hosoe collaborated with Tatsumi Hijikata for two decades until the legendary dancer’s death in 1986 - © Eikoh Hosoe / Courtesy of Studio Equis

Do you consider your photographs expressionistic?
My photography has never been called expressionistic. It can be interpreted as subjective. Photography has a strong urge to be objective, like photojournalism, but a photographer must have the freedom to express subjectively according to his or her own vision. Many photographers born before the war were involved in a salon where everyone must be realistic. Social realism was the manifestation, like taking pictures of flowers, moon and so forth, and they tried to deny anything else. I was against that and wanted to be freer. It’s fine if you like realism but it’s not the only way. Photography should be free from a fixed perspective and be anything as long as it inspires people.

Do you see any new trends or concerns in Japanese photography?
Young photographers are going outside Japan and travelling to poorer countries. Japanese society today doesn’t show its true face anymore while other Asian countries like Cambodia are still revealing everything. After the war you could see Japanese people’s lives inside their houses. They even said: “O you, come in, you hungry? You can have something to eat.” They were so friendly then but as they became rich or civilised, they stopped being accessible. They became impersonal: “Your life is yours. I don’t want to see yours, I’d hate to see yours, and at the same time don’t see mine.” So new Japanese photographers travel to other countries where people still show their stomachs and everything and in the process show their humanity. They’re good as a photographic subject matter.

Why did you photograph Barcelona?
I visited Barcelona in 1964 before the Tokyo Olympics and saw Gaudi’s buildings. I became haunted by his architecture and studied him. With some knowledge about Gaudi I returned to Barcelona 13 years later and photographed his buildings. But my knowledge impeded me as my superficial study prevented me from unearthing new things about Gaudi. So I gave up on my research and followed my intuition. I discovered that Gaudi’s architecture was organic and composed of the human body.

My annual Gaudi pilgrimage continued for ten years. I visited Juan Miro and he loved my photographs, and wrote the preface of my book, The Cosmos of Gaudi (1984). I wanted to continue photographing the city but when I went there after the Barcelona Olympics I was disappointed that most of Gaudi’s architecture had been exploited by commercialism and tourism. The famous Casa Milà apartment had been purchased by a bank and made into a tourist spot with busloads of tourists being guided through the building. It became a Spanish Disneyland. Even Sagrada Familia, a house of God, became the house for merchants and tourists.

Eikoh Hosoe, Barakei #32, 1961. Hosoe’s famous photograph of Japan’s legendary novelist, Yukio Mishima, who committed ritual suicide in 1970 - © Eikoh Hosoe / Courtesy of Studio Equis

Your Deadly Ashes series is more of a documentary than abstract photography.
I don’t define “I am this, I don’t do other things” in my photography. The Deadly Ashes photographs started in Pompeii and ended in Hiroshima. The citizens of Pompeii died of deadly volcanic ash. When you visit Pompeii you can see their bodies frozen as empty spaces. Anthropologists poured clay into the hollow spaces and recreated the exact form of their bodies. They were killed by a natural disaster but our modern “deadly ashes” are from man-made weapons. You can avoid disasters from man-made weapons but not from natural ones.

This is simple logic. The 20th century is the worst century in mankind’s history because of nuclear weapons. We invented a demon that can destroy the world twenty-two times over. We must have the will and wisdom to get rid of nuclear weapons. My idea is to search for the human identity because we’re living in the nuclear age. Japan is the only nation that was bombed by atomic bombs so we know their terrible effects. No one has seen the epicentre of Hiroshima as everyone melted instantly. This is the devil’s weapon. We created such a weapon, such a demon.

by Peter Yeoh

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue three – Rapture

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