Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Masters of the silver age (3)

Concluded: Japan's post-war mountain photographers gain an international reputation

Inconveniently for historians, the effect of the second world war on the arts is hard to sum up neatly. As we’ve seen, some mountain photographers just picked up where they’d left off. For others, the war marked a turning point. One such was Tabuchi Yukio (1905-1989). Up to March 1945, he’d spent more than a decade teaching science at middle schools, and studying butterflies in his spare time. Nobody in the photographic world had heard of him.

Tabuchi Yukio at work
Having lost his home in the fire-bombing of Tokyo that month, Tabuchi moved to the village of Azumino in central Nagano Prefecture, at the foot of the Japan Alps. Henceforth, he’d make his living as a freelance writer of teaching materials. He established himself on the mountain photography scene with his first collection, published in 1951. Its title can be taken as a manifesto: Tabuchi Yukio – masterpieces of mountain photography (田淵行男- 山岳写真傑作集). His emphatic style of deep shadows and dramatic skies drew in part on the use of high-contrast copy film combined with red filters.

Mt Asama at sunrise, by Tabuchi Yukio
Pursuing his twin passions of butterfly and mountain photography – Tabuchi liked to jest that no weather could stop him taking pictures, as clouds suited the butterflies and blue skies the mountains – he followed in the tradition of the Japan Alpine Club’s naturalist photographers such as Takeda Hisayoshi and Takano Takazō (see first post in this series). Indeed, he is one of the few photographers who gets a mention in Fukada Kyūya’s One Hundred Mountains of Japan:

Butterfly sketches
by Tabuchi Yukio
Every mountain has its special benisons to grant. Jōnen offers bold young climbers no crags or challenging gullies but for those of an artistic temperament its elegant form is an invitation, yielding limitless subject matter to the photographer and painter. Ridgeways (尾根路, 1958), a collection by the photographer Tabuchi Yukio is a case in point. Living as he does in a farming village close by its foot of the mountain, Tabuchi has come to know the mountain as closely as if it were in his back garden. "Jōnen and Ōtaki-yama are the mountains I visit most often. I must have climbed them more than a hundred times," he says. From this extraordinary devotion spring masterly photographs that illuminate the mountain's every mood.

By going freelance, Tabuchi was ahead of the curve. In December 1960, Prime Minister Ikeda set out to double Japan’s national income. And before the decade was out, the plan had so far succeeded that a growing number of mountain photographers could think of pursuing their art on a full-time basis. As this naturally called for a representative body, the Japan Mountain Photography Group (日本山岳写真集団) was established in 1967 by nine professional photographers.

Shirahata Shiro
One of the group’s founders, and its leading light, was Shirahata Shirō. Nothing if not dedicated to his profession, Shirahata had a few years previously postponed his wedding three times in favour of spending the necessary funds on a Linhof Super Technica M3. To acquire technical mastery, he had started out in photography by apprenticing himself to Okada Kōyō (see previous post), on occasion porting the master’s gear all the way up Mt Fuji.

A traditional discipleship did not mean that Shirahata would slavishly imitate his mentor’s style. While Okada and his peers worked primarily in black and white, Shirahata made his name in colour. Selling his first colour picture to the Yama to Keikoku magazine as early as 1961, he went on to compile colour albums of the Nepal Himalaya, the Karakorum, the Rockies and both the European and the Japanese Alps. All of these volumes were also published in foreign languages, winning Shirahata an international reputation – except for the Japan Alps collection, which – ironically – contains some of his best images.

From Himalaya, by Shirahata Shiro

Large-format avalanche, from Himalaya by Shirahata Shiro
The Japan Mountain Photography Group remained prominent well into the Heisei era. In the tenth year of the reign (1998), 14 members of the group published the collection “Mountain voice” (the English-language title is spelled out in katakana), to which Iwahashi Takashi was a major contributor. Yet mountain photography is far from a monoculture. Outside the group, Fujita Hirokichi is known for his large-format Himalayan pictures, and Ōmori Kyōichirō for his aerial surveys of the Japan Alps and the Himalaya.

Then there is Shirakawa Yoshikazu who started out with collections on the Alps and the Himalaya, diversified into travel photography and forests, and then documented “one hundred famous mountains of the world” (世界百名山) – a project that paid homage to a magazine series left unfinished by the original Hyakumeizan author at his death in 1971.*

Shirakawa’s global Hyakumeizan was published in 2007. By coincidence, this was the year that Nikon introduced its “second generation” digital cameras. For many mountain photographers, even serious ones, the days of film were numbered. But this is another story. Like Zhou Enlai’s famous comment on the French Revolution, it may even now be too early to say what effect the digital takeover will have on Japan’s mountain photographers. Only one thing is certain: theirs will continue to be one of the most happening mountain photography scenes on the planet.


Joe Bensen, Souvenirs from High Places: a visual record of mountaineering, Mitchell Beazley, 1998

Sugimoto Makoto, "Yama to shashin" in Ohmori Hisao (ed), Hito wa naze yama ni noboru no ka, Autumn 1998

Tateyama Museum of Toyama, Yama wo toru: yama e katamuketa hitotachi, exhibition publication, 1998

*Although, unlike Fukada Kyūya, who consulted only his own taste in selecting his candidate mountains, Shirakawa delegated the task to an international committee of mountain illuminati, including Chris Bonington, Kurt Diemberger, Wang Fuzhou, Maurice Herzog, Edmund Hillary, Harish Kapadia, Edouard Myslovski, AI Read, Nazir Sabir and Pertemba Sherpa. See Wikipedia for the complete list of Shirakawa’s 100 mountains of the world.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Great stuff, Martin! I've been very lucky to have met Shirahata-san on a couple of occasions, and he wrote a nice dedication in the front of one of his photo books for me. I'll email some pics of that meeting separately, in case you're interested in seeing the great man in his element at one of his own exhibitions. Tony