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“Shomei Tomatsu:

Skin of the Nation”

In an age defined by ever-narrower fields specialization—in the world of art and, it seems, everything else—the work of Shomei Tomatsu is bound to stand out. Those who come to the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s current Tomatsu retrospective lacking anything more than a basic outline of modern Japanese history will likely be overwhelmed by the breadth and sweep the photographer brings to the depiction of his homeland. Even those who know a great deal more will probably have to concede that Tomatsu has them beat. This isn’t Sally Mann and her family or William Eggleston and Memphis. This is photography in widescreen and, in series after series, crammed with people, places, and things.

An omnivorous approach to photography is rare not just in our era but also throughout the medium’s history. How many photographers have set out to chronicle an entire society? August Sander, of course, tried to create a taxonomic study of the people of pre– World War II Germany, and Edward Curtis sought to memorialize Native Americans as they seemed poised for extinction in the early decades of the 20th century. For The Americans, Robert Frank crisscrossed the country to come up with a snapshot of ’50s America. But none of them managed the long-term, in-depth view that Tomatsu has taken.

At the Corcoran, where more than 200 mostly black-and-white images are on display, work from the 75-year-old Tomatsu’s roughly 50-year career has been grouped into 10 “chapters,” with such headings as “Before,” “A-Bomb,” “Après-Guerre,” “Americanization,” and “The Post-Postwar.” Each one of these topics could have provided ample material for a career-making body of work, but Tomatsu undertook them all. The enterprise might seem hubristic if Tomatsu’s eye for the fortuitous, the heart-rending, and the absurd weren’t so keen.

Some of those headings come directly from the titles of Tomatsu’s various books. But the show’s organizers—the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and New York’s Japan Society—have spun Tomatsu’s work through the curatorial blender at least twice. First, they’ve stocked each chapter not with works from a single, discrete project but rather with images drawn from many of Tomatsu’s different series, sometimes photographed years apart. Second, the exhibition doesn’t move chronologically: Visitors are directed first to “Après-Guerre,” which covers Japan’s tribulations in the period immediately after World War II. Only later do they get to see “Before,” which collects vestiges of Japan’s traditionalist past. “A-Bomb,” the tragic lodestar of postwar Japan, comes not at the beginning of the exhibition but right around the midpoint.

“Skin of the Nation” begins with a mesmerizing, untitled image from 1959, one of a series about flooding. Shot directly from above, the photograph captures post-deluge detritus—a boot, perhaps, a cap, a bottle—covered in an oily layer of mud. The image is, of course, poignant: Even if the owners of these objects managed to survive the torrent with their lives, they can look forward to a painful recovery. And yet the image is also achingly beautiful. Light from the sun reflects dazzlingly off the mess, and the mud has been sculpted by the flowing water. The objects within are only hinted at by their outlines—an eloquent suggestion of loss, rather than an overt depiction.

Many of Tomatsu’s early photographs, most of which were done in photodocumentary style, are equally brooding, coming as they do from a period of pain and bewilderment for the just-defeated Japanese empire. In one image from 1951, a child and an old man share a cane, each steadying the other as they walk. Elsewhere, weary travelers stick their heads out of a train car to catch a breath of air, a toppled shoe and a spent cigarette lie listlessly in the street, and a monumentally rigid smokestack stands surrounded by elaborately twisted metal, the legacy of wartime bombing. As in other pieces, Tomatsu suggests as much as he depicts. The artist experienced the harrowing aftermath of the war firsthand as a teenager, but most of the images in the exhibition were made after the mid-’50s—and by then, most of the wreckage had been cleared.

Tomatsu’s mastery of composition and tonality ensure that his substance is always presented with considerable style. In Tenement Houses Lining a Slope, Nagasaki (1962), the artist used an impossibly narrow, geometry-bending plane of focus to make the houses appear stacked one on top of another. In Electric Wires, Tokyo (1964), the wires, isolated against a blank sky, look like a spider web poised to ensnare the figures standing unawares below. Here, as in much of Tomatsu’s early work, death seems to be hovering right around the corner. One darkness-enshrouded image even includes a flock of vultures, backlit against wisps of white smoke.

Tomatsu found a wealth of compelling material in Okinawa, where a poor local population even now coexists with a significant U.S. military presence. In a series titled (after the sweets dispensed by soldiers to local children) Chewing Gum and Chocolate, he documented the borderland between the two cultures. A young girl, photographed through a huge bubble of gum she’s blowing, stands in a red-light district; two black soldiers laugh as a petite Japanese woman rushes past them, cowering in fear; and, in an inevitable pairing, a young girl stands in a barren, pockmarked field, gazing at a warplane zooming overhead. Tomatsu in this series has managed to confront the viewer with fundamental questions of wealth and poverty, of white and nonwhite, of youth and maturity, of male and female, and of war and peace. It’s remarkable feat of selection and timing.

Tomatsu’s most famous images, not unjustly, come from his documentation of the damage wrought by America’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a moral and emotional sense, this work, made at about a decade-and-a-half’s distance, is actually some of Tomatsu’s least complicated—after all, who’s going to argue that the individual victims deserved their fates? Some of his A-bomb images are portraits of survivors maimed by the blast, portrayed with almost palpable empathy. Others are inanimate objects eloquent in their simplicity: a wristwatch stopped at 11:02 a.m., the time of the Nagasaki detonation; a blast-deformed bottle that looks for all the world like a living being seared to the point of melting; a helmet, resting precariously on its rounded edge and harboring a piece of bone, fused to it for eternity.

Such work might suggest that Tomatsu is anti-American. The wall texts say explicitly that he long “loathed” U.S. occupying forces before reconsidering his views later in his career. What’s certainly true is that Tomatsu has been unafraid to airbrush the less-attractive side of Japan’s conqueror-turned-ally. Time and again, when a symbol of America appears, it comes across as ugly—Pepsi bottles painted slapdash on a wall, for instance, or fat Japanese women looking foolish in Western beehive hairdos. At its most powerful, Tomatsu’s art contains an element of protest, whether against Japan’s occupier, war itself, or even the unavoidable realities of disaster and death.

It’s surprising, then, that a Japan rising on the world stage and undergoing profound economic and cultural changes proved so uninspiring to the photographer. In ’60s-themed chapter “I Am a King,” Tomatsu’s comparatively airless depictions of modern architecture, bustling urban commutes, and packed sports stadiums contain little of the emotional tension that undergirds his previous work. On the other extreme, his chronicling of what the chapter heading calls the “Underground City”—sex clubs, political rallies, protopunk street fashion—comes off as, at best, voyeuristic and, at worst, self-indulgent.

Eventually, though, Tomatsu got the ’60s out of his system, and since then, his work has been most notable for its experimentation with color. In The Pencil of the Sun, an early-’70s series that documents relatively untouched portions of Okinawa that were outside the military bases’ borders, he created a group of sea-and-skyscapes that brilliantly tweak the genre’s clichés. Simply by having tilted the camera slightly, so that the horizon is not horizontal but diagonal, Tomatsu both surprises and disorients. In one untitled image, the technique was combined with color film to create a memorably elemental rendering of sea and sky in almost unnatural shades of blue. If Tomatsu conveys any sense of place, it’s one of ethereal otherness.

In another Okinawa piece, a view of buildings and an athletic field, the deep blue of the sky combines fruitfully with light from a bracingly yellow late-afternoon sun. That light reappears in a 1975 image from bomb-haunted Nagasaki, in which uniformed school girls walk downhill on a claustrophobically narrow, rain-slicked sidewalk, competing with traffic. Even more poignantly, this chapter also includes a 1996–1997 photograph of the sunlit surface of the city’s Isahaya Bay that offers an optimistic echo of the flood detritus that began the exhibition.

The show concludes with “Skin of the Nation,” a chapter that shares its title with the exhibition as a whole. It recapitulates Tomatsu’s career by combining images from each of the preceding nine chapters, attempting to tease out even more connections among the artist’s works. But this retrospective-within-a-retrospective is more than just redundant; it also misses the point. Trying to reduce Tomatsu’s art into a neatly wrapped package diminishes his main—and perhaps singular—accomplishment: charting his whole wide world.CP