The best of Kageyama Kōyō’s photography contains a nuanced dramatic power that is both aesthetic and political.
Fifty Years of Shōwa Japan: The Photography of Kageyama Kōyō, at the Mead Art Museum, Amherst, MA, through June 28.
By Anthony Merino
Kageyama Kōyō (1907-1981) photographed people in Tokyo, Japan during the Shōwa imperial period (1926–1989). This tumultuous time in the country’s history spans 1923′s Great Kantō Earthquake, a depression, rapid militarization, near annihilation during World War II, and the challenges and triumphs generated by the prosperity of the post-war period. Kōyō succeeds at doing more than documenting the lives lived in a distinctive time and place. At their best, his photographs mingle the lyrical and the gritty, the imagined and the reportorial, the detached and the didactic.
There is no such thing as an ‘objective’ photo — the very nature of a frame both excludes and emphasizes different elements of ‘reality.’ Kōyō would often adeptly manipulates a picture’s ‘editing’ of what initially looks like prosaic existence, the gray routine of the everyday. At times his photographs come off as straightforward documentation, others are unabashedly theatrical. The best of his work combines the two polarities, containing a nuanced dramatic power that is both aesthetic and political.
Fifty Years includes two works that brilliantly mingle art and dissidence. “Anxious Times,” 1936 presents us with a line-up of policemen standing with their guns drawn. It is the aftermath of a coup d’état attempt; the Japanese established a special security force in response to the revolt. Kōyō uses a couple of devices to manipulate our understanding of the image. First, he severely tilts the perspective so that the police formation seems to be almost vertical, which makes it seem as if the lineup of weaponry is almost infinite. Second, Kōyō places the camera down near the ground, so that the viewer is placed at the feet of the officers. The intimations of dictatorship are unmistakable.
“Devastation of the Shinjuku Commercial District from the Fire [Bombings], 1945″ (taken in August 1945, after the March 9th and 10th fire US bombing of Tokyo), stands in striking contrast to the didactic vision of “Anxious Times.” The image depicts a barren cityscape. A large building, the Isetan Department store, stands in the far background. It is dwarfed by the epic scale of the destruction. The horizon parallels the bottom of the picture. Compounding the sense of destruction, the photo is taken from a bird’s-eye view — we are looking down onto the devastation. These framing techniques make the picture read as an objective documentation of a real and horrendous fact.
Kōyō is particularly interested in images of people walking. He manages to find considerable drama in this ordinary act because he amplifies the context, exploring how and why his subjects are out and about. The earliest image in the exhibition “A Young Women of the Shitamachi: The remains of the emotions of Edo,” 1928, gives us a woman in a kimono and geta sandals walking across a bridge in the rain. Compositionally, the picture is a stark study in contrasts. There are two dominant vertical elements — the female figure and one of the bridge’s girders. This clearly establishes a juxtaposition between the modern (the steel bridge) and the romanticized past (the woman wearing a kimono). Out of this conflict Kōyō creates a subtle sense of opposition. The girder is hard-edged and linear. The figure is slightly blurred, its edges rounded.
The most haunting aspect of this image is the photographer’s manipulation of shadow. Most of the shadows on the bridge are fairly defined and crisp. The photo is taken just as the woman walks by a dry spot on the bridge, so her shadow is ambiguous, its outlines blurred. This creates an ethereal effect that, combined with the woman’s antiquated clothing and the other compositional details, suggests we may be glimpsing a ghost, a wisp of the past parading by.
Stepping out takes on different kinds of significance in Fifty Years. There are several photos, such as “Walking Together,” 1934, which shows a man and a woman strolling by a large modern building, or “Modern Girls in Beach Pajama Style,” 1928, which come off as rather innocuous images of affluent people going about their business. Other photographs of locomotion take on more ominous or elegiac resonances. In “Tears in the Public Space in Front of the Imperial Palace,” 1945, Kōyō gives us three members of the women’s auxiliary corps walking almost directly toward the camera. All have their heads tilted down. The image was taken moments after the Emperor announced the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945.
“An American Soldier and a ‘Base Girl’ Going Straight to a Hotel,” 1951, depicts a meeting between a ‘pan pan girl’ (a prostitute) and an American GI. Kōyō’s dramatic techniques here are both obvious and subtle. The solider stands erect, while the woman, clearly much shorter than he, leans forward. Looked at in this way, the woman strikes the viewer to be about half the size of the man. The relationship’s elemental power imbalance is made clear — the man may be buying the female’s services, but it could hardly be considered consensual. This is the final photograph of people walking in this splendid exhibition, and the work suggests the fate of the imperiled femininity seen in “A Young Woman of the Shitamachi: The remains of the emotions of Edo.” Two decades have passed: the image of threatened refinement has given way to a picture of a woman commodifying her body in order to survive.
Anthony Merino is an unaffiliated artist and critic working out of Adams, Massachusetts. He has published and presented papers on contemporary art internationally. Additional articles are available here.