Shomei Tomatsu, who has been described by Martin Parr as “one of the greatest post-war Japanese photographers”, has died at the age of 82 of pneumonia. The photographer, much admired for his raw, grainy and impressionistic style, has had a number of exhibitions across the globe, including a major San Francisco retrospective Skin the Nation. Most recently his work formed part of a show entitled Everything Was Moving: Photography for the 60s and 70s at the Barbican in London.
Tomatsu is best known however for his iconic photograph ‘Melted Bottle, Nagasaki, 1961’ which he took as part of a magazine assignment to portray the devastation and reconstruction of the city. The image first appears to be that of a skinned animal, but is actually a picture of a beer-bottle that was contorted in the intense heat of the nuclear blast that devastated Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. Tomatsu also focused on his country’s history in many other photographs, including his portraits of survivors whose faces had been scarred by the nuclear bomb. He also shot a cracked wristwatch with its hands frozen at 11.02am; the exact time of the detonation. His work has been described as going beyond documentary in its incredible power to evoke almost unimaginable horror, and many have found an overwhelming sense of grief lingering beneath the surface of his photographs.
Born in Nagoya, Tomatsu had started out as a photojournalist in the early 1950s, and despite moving away from the journalistic subject to the more intimate and everyday, he was nonetheless an important documenter of Japan’s political situation throughout the 50s and 60s. He shot American soldiers stationed in military bases in the country, in a process of Americanisation which he later described in his book, The Pencil of the Sun: “It was as if America seeped though the gaps in the wire fences surrounding the bases and, in time, soaked the entire country.” In his series of pictures Oh! Shinjuku, Protest, Tokyo and Eros, Tokyo, he showed student protests on the streets of the capital as well as the prostitutes, drifters, artists and hippies living on the peripheries of society. Critic Gerry Badger described Tomatsu as “politically active”, adding that he “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.”
Though he was only a few years older than them, Tomatsu was a major influence on the so-called ‘Provoke’ generation of Japanese photographers, including Takuma Nakahira and his friend Daido Moriyama. In 1974, the great curator and critic John Szarkowski Tomatsu as “the pivotal figure of recent Japanese photography”.
Of the obituaries which have appeared in the press over the last few weeks, perhaps the most touching is that of Guardian writer, Sean O’Hagan, who wrote of the great photographer, “[f]ew photographers have looked so closely and penetratingly at and beneath the skin of a nation as Tomatsu did when he turned his camera on his homeland. The results remain by turns startling, disturbing and complex, imbued with all the contradictions he felt about Japan, photography, himself.”
Sources include: The Guardian, The British Journal of Photography
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