Shomei Tomatsu was born in 1930 in Nagoya, the center of Japan’s automobile and aircraft industries. Japan Society’s galleries provide a serene environment in which to contemplate the range and complexity of Tomatsu’s photographs. He creates named series that are similar to photo essays, but an unusual feature of his practice is that he sometimes reprints negatives that are decades old, and even recycles images from existing series, to mix into a new series. Skin of the Nation has these characteristics of recontextualizing the old with the new. Section by section, it follows the main outlines of his entire career.
Tomatsu was just 15 when the A Bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, the presence of the American military took root alongside civilian life. Modernization meant Americanization. This subject obsessed Tomatsu, and he made series after series that explored it from various angles. The people who survived the Bomb, himself among them, still had to live there, and photographic images became an important touchpoint for the collective psychic survival.
Early in his career, Tomatsu helped found an agency called Vivo, a group of young photographers who reached a broad public during the 1950s and 1960s by publishing their 35mm black and white images anonymously in magazines. Vivo’s members also exhibited their work in galleries as individual artists. Thus Tomatsu’s name and work came to be indelibly associated with postwar Japanese photography; for many years his images were created within Japan for a Japanese audience. After his initial engagement with the devastation and military occupation of post WWII Japan, he recorded impressions of counterculture as the country made an incredible recovery in the 1960s. He began to work in color while photographing southern Asian countries in the 1970s, and color has become an important part of his work since then.
Tomatsu has worked as a photographer for more than fifty years. This retrospective follows the majority of his principal themes, but his oeuvre covers an even greater range. His pictures insist fiercely upon freedom—the freedom to leap from one subject to another without concern for conventional categories; to turn from the deeply serious to pure whimsy and back again; to desecrate and celebrate the symbols of Japan. He often says that his immediate contemporaries believed in nothing—that they saw Japan’s old beliefs crumble, yet had known such violence that they had little confidence in the future. Tomatsu’s photographs are emphatic in their conviction that one’s personal experience of wounds, earth, detritus, sunlight, and skin contains more truth than grand ideas, and that one ought to trust one’s own eyes before the voice of any authority.