Shomei Tomatsu (東松 照明, Tōmatsu Shōmei) was a Japanese photographer, primarily known for his images that depict the impact of World War II on Japan and the subsequent occupation of U.S. forces. As one of the leading postwar photographers, Tomatsu is attributed with influencing the younger generations of photographers including those associated with the magazine Provoke
and Daido Moriyama
Tomatsu was born in Nagoya in 1930. As an adolescent during World War II, he was mobilized to support Japan's war effort. Like many Japanese students his age, he was sent to work at a steel factory and underwent incessant conditioning intended to instill fear and hatred towards the British and Americans. Once the war ended and Allied troops took over numerous Japanese cities, Tomatsu interacted with Americans firsthand and found that his preconceptions of them were not entirely salient.
At the time Tomatsu's contempt for the violence and crimes committed by these soldiers was complicated by individual acts of kindness he received from them – he simultaneously loved and hated their presence. These interactions, which he later described as among the most formative memories of his childhood, initiated his long-standing fixation on and feelings of ambivalence towards the subject of American soldiers.
If I had seven lives, I’d be a photographer in every one.
-- Shomei Tomatsu
Tomatsu embraced photography while an economics student at Aichi University. While still in university, his photographs were shown frequently in monthly amateur competitions by Camera
magazine and received recognition from Ihei Kimura
and Ken Domon
. After graduating in 1954, he joined Iwanami Shashin Bunko
, through an introduction made by Aichi University professor Mataroku Kumaza
. Tomatsu contributed photographs to the issues Floods and the Japanese
(1954) and Pottery Town, Seto Aichi
(1954). He stayed at Iwanami for two years before leaving to pursue freelance work.
In 1957, Tomatsu participated in the exhibition Eyes of Ten
where he displayed his series Barde Children’s School
; he was featured in the exhibit twice more when it was held again in 1958 and 1959. After his third showing, Tomatsu established the short-lived photography collective VIVO with fellow Eyes of Ten
exhibitors; these other members included Eikoh Hosoe
, Kikuji Kawada
, Ikkō Narahara
, Akira Satō
, and Akira Tanno
. Towards the end of the 1950s, Tomatsu began photographing Japanese towns with major American bases, a project that would span over 10 years.
Tomatsu's artistic output and renown grew significantly during the 1960s, exemplified by his prolific engagements with many prominent Japanese photography magazines. He began the decade by publishing his images of U.S. bases in the magazines Asahi Camera
and Camera Mainichi
and his series Home in Photo Art
. In contrast to his earlier style which resembled traditional photojournalism, Tomatsu was beginning to develop a highly expressionistic form of image-taking that emphasized the photographer's own subjectivity.
In response to this emergence, a dispute arose when Iwanami Shashin Bunko
founder Yonosuke Natori wrote that Tomatsu had betrayed his foundations as a photojournalist by neglecting the responsibility to present reality in a truthful and legible manner. He rejected the claim that he was ever a photojournalist, and admonished journalistic thinking as an impediment to photography. Both essays were published in Asahi Camera
. In addition to Asahi Camera
and Photo Art
, Tomatsu worked for magazines Gendai
no me and Camera Mainichi
. For Gendai no me, he edited a monthly series titled I am King
(1964); for Camera Mainichi
, he printed multiple collaborations made with Yasuhiro Ishimoto
and Shigeichi Nagano
in 1965 and his own series, The Sea Around Us
Tomatsu first went to Okinawa to photograph the American bases under the auspices of Asahi Camera
in 1969. The images he captured formed the book Okinawa, Okinawa Okinawa
which served as an explicit critique of the American air force. On the cover, an anti-base slogan verbalizing his disdain with the overwhelming U.S. presence in Okinawa reads: "The bases are not in Okinawa; Okinawa is in the bases"
. This sentiment was foreshadowed in Tomatsu's earlier writings, like his 1964 essay for Camera Manichi
in which he stated "it would not be strange to call [Japan] the State of Japan in the United States of America. That's how far America has penetrated inside Japan, how deeply it has plumbed our daily lives."
Tomatsu visited Okinawa three more times before finally moving to Naha in 1972. While in Okinawa, he traveled to various remote islands including Iriomote and Hateruma; he spent seven months on Miyakojima where he organized a study group called “Miyako University”
aimed at mentoring young Miyako residents. Combined with his images taken in Southeast Asia, Tomatsu's photographs of Okinawa from the 1970s were shown in his prizewinning Pencil of the Sun
(1975). Although he had come to Okinawa in order to witness its return to Japanese territory, Pencil of the Sun
revealed a considerable shift away from the subject of military bases that he pursued throughout 1960s. He credited a diminishing interest in the American armed forces, in addition to the allure of Okinawa's brilliantly colored landscapes, for his adoption of color photography.
In 1974, Tomatsu returned to Tokyo where he set up Workshop Photo School
, an alternative two-year-long workshop (1974–76), with Eikoh Hosoe
, Nobuyoshi Araki
, Masahisa Fukase
, Daidō Moriyama
, and Noriaki Yokosuka
; the school published the photo magazine Workshop. Tomatsu's dedication to nurturing the photography community in Japan was also evidenced in his role as a juror for the Southern Japan Photography Exhibition and his membership in the Photographic Society of Japan's committee to create a national museum of photography. The efforts of this group led to the establishment of photography departments at major national museums, such as Yokohama Museum of Art
and the National Museum of Modern Art
, Tokyo, as well as the first photography museum in Japan, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum
In this, photography is the same thing as love. When my gaze, diving into the sea as my subject, converges with the act of photography, hot sparks fly at the point of intersection.
-- Shomei Tomatsu
Tomatsu took part in his first major international show, New Japanese Photography
(1974) at MoMA
New York, alongside workshop members Hosoe, Moriyama, Fukase, and 11 other photographers. New Japanese Photography was the first survey of contemporary Japanese photographers undertaken outside of Japan. It traveled to eight other locations in the United States including the Denver Art Museum
, San Francisco Museum of Art
, and Portland Art Museum
By 1980, Tomatsu published three more books: Scarlet Dappled Flower
(1976) and The Shining Wind
(1979) were composed of his images from Okinawa; and Kingdom of Mud
(1978) featured his Afghanistan series printed earlier in Assalamu Alaykum. In the early 1980s, Tomatsu had his first international solo exhibition, Shomei Tomatsu: Japan 1952-1981
shown at thirty venues over three years. He was also included in notable international group exhibitions regarding Japanese art: in 1985, he was one of the main artists in Black Sun: The Eyes of Four
first shown at the Museum of Modern Art
, Oxford; in 1994, he was featured in the seminal show Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky
at the Yokohama Museum of Art
, Guggenheim Museum
and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
In the last decade of his career, Tomatsu embarked on a new and comprehensive series of retrospectives, dividing his oeuvre into five "mandalas" of place. Each mandala was named after the area it was exhibited: Nagasaki Mandala
(Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum, 2000); Okinawa Mandala
(Urasoe Art Museum, 2002); Kyoto Mandala
(Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art, 2003); Aichi Mandala
(Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, 2006); and Tokyo Mandala
(Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 2007).
Tomatsu also had a separate retrospective, Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation
, for the international museum circuit. Skin of the Nation was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
, and curated by Sandra S. Phillips
and the photographer and writer Leo Rubinfien
. The exhibition toured three countries and five venues from 2004 through 2006: Japan Society
(New York); National Gallery of Canada
, Corcoran Museum of Art
, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
, and Fotomuseum Winterthur
In 2010 Tomatsu moved to Okinawa permanently, where he held the final exhibition during his lifetime, Tomatsu Shomei and Okinawa - Love Letter to the Sun
(2011). He succumbed to pneumonia on 14 December 2012 (although this was not publicly announced until January 2013).