Shomei Tomatsu, Provoke Movement Photographer, Dies at 82

by David Walker

© Shomei Tomatsu
"Card Game, Zushi, Kanagawa, 1964." Kurenboh Collection, promised gift to SFMOMA. 

Photographer Shomei Tomatsu, one of Japan's most influential post-war photographers and a prominent figure in the Provoke Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, died December 14 from complications of pneumonia, his London gallerist has confirmed. He was 82 years old.

"We have lost one of the world's truly great photographers. Shomei Tomatsu refused to compromise on every level and was a photographer's photographer," says gallerist Michael Hoppen, who adds that Tomatsu had been fighting cancer for some time. "[He was] brilliant and visionary. His work remains as a living testament to his talent."

Tomatsu, along with photographers Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira and Koji Taki, was part of a movement that rejected the quiet, formal conventions of a previous generation of Japanese photographers for a more radical approach that reflected the influence of American popular culture after World War II.

"We photographers must use our own eyes to grasp fragments of reality far beyond the reach of pre-existing language," Taki wrote in a manifesto for the movement. The result was impressionistic photography that was disorderly and even jarring in style and content, but also poetic.

In broad terms, Tomatsu's subject was all of post-war Japan, but he focused on the experience of individual people, photographing them in public and private, along with evidence of their presence--often in the form of objects such as shoes abandoned in the streets. He famously photographed a series of objects that survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, such as a watch that stopped at the exact moment of the bombing, stirring a collective memory that had been largely suppressed.

Tomatsu's work was the subject of a 2006 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA  says on its Web site that Tomatsu considered the US occupation of Japan after 1945 "a defining event in his life and his art. He spent years studying the Americans and the spread of their culture into Japanese life." One of his best-known bodies of work, called "Chewing Gum and Chocolate," was a collection of images he shot over a period of several years on the periphery of US Army bases. The series reflected his ambivalence about the US occupation of Japan.

He also photographed bohemian culture for a series he called "Eros, Tokyo," and a series called "Protest, Tokyo," about youth culture of the 1960s. In the 1970s, he published a book called "Pencil of the Sun," a collection of work about a pocket of pre-modern Japanese culture in Okinawa. Later in his career, he turned his camera on Japan's economic boom, while continuing to photograph western cultural influences in his native country.

Tomatsu was born in 1930 in Nagoya, Japan. According to a 2010 story about his work in The Guardian, he was "famously reclusive" and never ventured outside Japan. More about his career, including examples of his work, is available on SFMOMA's Web site.


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