Monday, 12 April 2010

A vanished look

Title Unknown, 1931

Pinned on the wall behind my computer is a flyer advertising last year's exhibition of Japanese photographer Yasuzo Nojima (1889–1964) here in Tokyo. Since I look at the portrait on that flyer every day, I thought it about time to feature the photographer on this blog.

Also, this month I'll be laying out a photo-feature for a magazine which is about an amateur photographer's work from the 1930s-60s and in part illustrates something similar in what has changed in Japan since the two photographers were working. (More on the magazine feature when it is published next month.)

That change is one noticeable thing about Nojima's work, whether portraits or nudes: it's the difference in the Japanese "look" – the difference in appearance but also in a way of looking at women. It's probably true across the modern world. Now, pale, slim, often blank-faced women (though the same is partly so for men, too) are too much the norm. Japanese womanhood seems smoothened, whitened – perhaps because of changing tastes in bodies, perhaps also changing priorities, changing diets, changing leisure time. Changes generally.

Nojima's models are rounded, look somewhat like "workers" even when nude, celebrate flesh – not "fat", but filled bodies, rather than the frequently surface-only slimness of today. And they look back at you not with the learnt look of a current professional model – blankly – but with character. Perhaps in Japan, like everywhere, people were just less concerned with presenting a look, less swamped with images all around which suggest how to look.

A couple of years ago, a group of Japanese friends and I were discussing whether the 60s movie Ten Black Women could be made today: whether 10 substantial Japanese actresses – complete with acting chops, impact, character, depth – could be assembled for the cast. We thought perhaps not (at least perhaps not ten), and the thought about these photos touches on a similar topic: what has changed and when?

Of course, this is a generalisation about how pictures are taken today and were then, and there are enough exceptions. But there's something in the photos that means I want to have one of the sitters staring back at me, engaging me, from the wall behind my computer.

Meanwhile, on the image at the top of this post, I love the focus on the toes, neatly captured like a jaw of teeth.

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