4.15 / Review

From Los Angeles: Japan’s Modern Divide

By Danielle Sommer May 6, 2013

The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto

Two photographs representing Japan’s Modern Divide are splashed across Los Angeles on street banners including one at the entrance to the Getty Center’s parking area. Kansuke Yamamoto’s A Chronicle of Drifting (1949) features a woman with a boat for a head standing in profile atop a dark wetness—maybe rock, maybe water—and gazing to the right as water sprays in from behind her. In the other, Hiroshi Hamaya’s Man in a Traditional Minoboshi Raincoat, Nigata Prefecture (1956), a figure encased in what looks like a small, straw house runs through snow.

Both Hamaya and Yamamoto began their photography careers as teenagers in the 1930s. The moment was a potent one: European and American ideas about modern photography had just entered Japan via students returning from schools abroad and through the 1931 German International Traveling Photography Exhibition, which was shown in both Tokyo and Osaka. Until this point, Japanese photographers had focused on picturesque images of landscapes augmented by the laborious process of hand coloring. This technique was too slow and inflexible for Hamaya’s and Yamamoto’s generation, however; they wanted to capture urban life on its own terms. By the late ’30s, most young Japanese photographers had embraced what they called Shinkō Shashin (New Photography), along with its dual characteristics of experimentation and formalism and its mission to confront social reality. Hamaya and Yamamoto were no exception.

Japan’s Modern Divide at the J. Paul Getty Museum dedicates a section of the exhibition to each of the photographers, and it is Hamaya’s images of people living and working that viewers encounter first. Though he experimented with avant-garde ideas and organizations, Hamaya’s biggest influence was a group of ethnographers and philosophers studying rural Japanese communities who argued that humanity is shaped by its natural surroundings as much as anything else. Already invested in documentation and portraiture on the streets near his home, Hamaya spent his spare time photographing remote communities and their rituals, such as the Little New Year celebration in Yokoyama, which celebrates the first full moon of the year. From 1940 to 1949, including the entire duration of World War II, Hamaya travelled to Yokoyama and took photographs, finally publishing his results in Yukiguni (Snow Country) in 1956. From this point forward, Hamaya’s career followed a photojournalistic path: The exhibition highlights his photographs of peasants in China, Japanese rice pickers and fishmongers, and even the protests over the renewal of the United States-Japan Security Treaty in 1960, which he published as Ikari to Kanashimi no Kiroku (A Chronicle of Grief and Anger) that same year. 

Hiroshi Hamaya. Man in a Traditional Minoboshi Raincoat, Niigata Prefecture, 1956; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. © Keisuke Katano.
Kansuke Yamamoto. A Chronicle of Drifting, 1949; collage. Private collection, entrusted to Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. © Toshio Yamamoto.

The photographs from Yukiguni are Hamaya’s most impactful. In every frame we see humans and nature alternatively dominating each other or occasionally in balance. Bird Chasing, New Year’s Ritual, Niigata Prefecture (ca. 1940–46) depicts a distant line of school children walking across a snow bank, all framed by a tree branch covered with snow in the foreground. In Children Singing in a Snow Cave, Niigata Prefecture (1956), four young children sing with their teacher in what looks to outside eyes like an igloo, which Hamaya shoots through its small, square door, capturing the candles burning in the center of the group. And in the darkest of nights, fires blaze and men spin flames in Fire Festival, New Year’s Ritual (ca. 1940–46). The entire series is quiet, isolated, and otherworldly.

Although on the surface surrealist Kansuke Yamamoto’s work might seem to be the polar opposite of Hamaya’s work, it holds the qualities of isolation and otherworldliness in common. Called a “disobedient spirit” by the exhibition’s curators, Yamamoto began his career as a poet and French literature major, embracing both the surrealist mission and its methods, particularly collage and photograms.1 Over and over, he borrows surrealist tropes such as birdcages, butterflies, and the female body, and photographs them from such an extreme close-up view  that the represented object’s context is obscured. Other photographs feature a central image left isolated and detached from its background, as in A Chronicle of Drifting.

Yamamoto made such tropes his own, however. For example, Buddhist Temple’s Birdcage (1940) depicts a telephone trapped inside a birdcage, a symbol that Yamamoto may well have borrowed from René Magritte’s The Healer (1937). At the time the photograph was taken, most photographers in Japan had either stopped practicing or were supporting themselves by shooting propaganda pictures for army magazines. Yamamoto refused to stop publishing his own work, leading to his interrogation by the government on multiple occasions. The imagery in Buddhist Temple’s Birdcage is thought to refer to his experience with the “thought police” during the war, giving the symbol of the birdcage a meaning unique to Yamamoto’s lexicon.2

Both Yamamoto’s surrealist, floating dream figures and Hamaya’s social portraits represent each photographer’s desire to capture, if just for a moment, worlds within worlds. Though Yamamoto’s world may have been based on his own internal landscape and Hamaya’s on the very real world of rural Japan, the juxtaposition of their oeuvres in Japan’s Modern Divide makes it easy to see their practices as two sides of the same coin. Their communal lack of direct engagement with World War II ripples through their works as one large, negative space; each seemed to treat his practice as a sort of refuge from the war.

Taking another look at the iconic images for Japan’s Modern Divide—A Chronicle of Drifting and Man in a Traditional Minoboshi Raincoat—it’s curious that Yamamoto’s supposedly drifting woman does so with such solidity—she is firmer than her surroundings, standing at the center of the image; her nose is the edge of a sail and her bow points decidedly in the direction of her gaze. The strong light reflecting off her white evening gown does not match its background; she is cut out and pasted in, bright and hard-edged against a more diffuse sea. On the other hand, Hamaya’s running figure seems more whimsical and even a bit surreal despite the fact that there’s nothing in our unconscious manifesting the form. It’s simply the image of a man in a traditional straw raincoat running for home. In the dream, there is the real; in the real, the dream.


Japan’s Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto is on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, through August 25, 2013.


Full Disclosure: Danielle Sommer is an assistant editor at the Getty Research Institute. Both the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum are programs of the J. Paul Getty Trust.


  1. Judith Keller and Amanda Maddox, eds., Japan’s Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013.
  2. Ibid.

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