Shomei Tomatsu 東松照明

Shomei Tomatsu was born in Aichi Prefecture in 1930 and passed away in Okinawa in 2012. He was one of the leading figure in post-war Japanese photography. As Nobuyoshi Araki spoke in memory of Tomatsu, "Mr. Tomatsu was the magnate in our photography world. He was like my school principal. With his beard he had a kind of dignity like a boss, a master," there is an immeasurable influence Tomatsu has given to the latter generation of photographers. Parting ways with classic documentary approach, Tomatsu's style surpassed the usual photojournalism that points out the various social issues of post war Japan. He transformed his photography into "portrayals" of the subjects, like a lyrical language. This has opened up many different possibilities of photographic expressions, which is why Tomatsu was considered the nouvelle vague in the photography field. In 1959 he established a self managed photography agency "VIVO", along with Eikoh Hosoe and Kikuji Kawada, devoting themselves to "subjective" documentary photography instead of the classic objective documentary photography.


Tomatsu began photographing when he was in college. After graduation, he moved to Tokyo and worked for Iwanami Shashin Bunko publishing house as a photographer, but he became independent 2 years later in 1956. His short career in this publisher, however, has deeply impacted the direction of his photography career. He then published works continuously by putting photographs in groups and present them sequentially as a whole - starting with his photo stories composed of groups of photographs in the magazine "Camera Mainichi" and "11:02 NAGASAKI" (Shashin Doujinsha, 1966); After he has started his own publishing house Sha-ken, "Nippon" (1967), "Salaam Alaikum" (1968), "Okinawa Okinawa Okinawa" and "Oh! Shinjuku" (1968); as well as a cultural magazine "KEN", featuring the Osaka World Exposition. Tomatsu was not only a photographer but also an editor, a designer, a critic as well as a publisher, who gradually established his authentic photographic style by presenting multiple photographs together.


Tomatsu had another important career that has largely influenced his works: being one of the research committee members for the exhibition "100 Years: A History of Photographic Expressions of the Japanese" (Results of the research were put together in the publication "A History of Japanese Photography 1840 - 1945", edited by the Japanese Photographer's Association and published by Heibonsha in 1971) This project was originally initiated by the strong wish of critics and magazine editors to consolidate the history of Japanese Photography, and to create a platform for dialogue and discussions. Tomatsu completely excavated all the Japanese photography between the Dawn of Japanese Photography to Pre-war period, which was once disconnected by the war, and analyzed the roots and uniqueness in their photographic expressions, differentiating from the western photographic expressions.


Okinawa was the main focus of his research work at that time, and Tomatsu was deeply impressed by the climate, customs, culture and local people under Americanization. As a result, his monograph "Pencil of the Sun", composed of his works captured in Okinawa and other countries in Asia, was put together and publicized in 1975. The latter half of this series were photographed in color. Tomatsu stated afterwards, "I've reexamined my photographs from the past 50 years and discovered something - that the shift from monochrome to color in my works represents the shift of Japan away from America. One can get glimpses of America in my monochrome photographs, but the overshadow of America in my color photographs are very slight." Tomatsu has indeed undergone a period of transition in themes and expressions in his photography. Instead of comparing and contrasting America and Japan, war and post-war, cities and rural areas, Americanization and native customs, etc, he began to focus directly on Japan as itself.


Tomatsu's conscientious and persistent work has been highly acclaimed in and out of Japan. He had a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992 and the National Film Center, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo in 1996. After his retrospective exhibition "TRACES: 50 years of Tomatsu's works" held in Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 1999, he has held a series of Mandala exhibitions in different places of Japan, starting in 2000: "Nagasaki Mandala" at Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum; "Okinawa Mandala" at Urasoe Art Museum, Okinawa; "Kyo Mandala" at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; "Aichi Mandala" at Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art; and "Tokyo Mandala" at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. On the other hand his retrospective exhibition "Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation" has toured around in America and Europe from 2004 to 2007. After he passed away, a solo exhibition "Island Life" was held in the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013.


In the beginning of 2012, when the sad news of Tomatsu's passing has spread out, many major western news media have written memorial articles about him. As an extremely important figure in the history of Japanese photography, Tomatsu's work has still been catching more and more attention internationally. His 60 years' prominent career as a photographer is currently being reevaluated and appreciated once again.


  • Shomei Tomatsu

    Pencil of the Sun

    Shomei Tomatsu

    The title, "Pencil of the Sun,” is a clear reference to Henry Fox Talbot's "The Pencil of Nature,” hinting at a thematic connection between the original of photography and his own body of work, which was in itself a groundbreaking project and a return to his own roots as a photographer.
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