Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tsuneko Sasamoto

I don't like to concentrate on age, but once in a while it becomes part of someone's story. So it is with Tsuneko Sasamoto, who opened an exhibition of some of her photos, taken between 1945-58, last night (at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan). Sasamoto has been freelancing in reportage and portraiture since 1947 and is now 96 years old. Dapper, fashionable, a bright and approachable personality, she is also still working. Last year she went to New York (for the first time) to photograph Japanese women working there.

In a brief talk I had with her at the opening, she said she wanted to go again this year but it gets difficult as time goes by. And anyway, she also would like to go back to the West Coast of America (first trip there was in 2002) and visit the Napa Valley – as she does like red wine.

In some ways, she's an inspiration to us all. In others, she's more just herself rather than any "role model", a great example of spirit. For age is only part of the story: her photographs are gentle, observational, positive takes on people which, apart from a wonderful technical execution, almost have an aura – perhaps simply of affection for the subject.

She has an interest in social questions, leading to such photos as "Maria of Ant Town" (of a woman who helped children in a makeshift shanty town of post-WWII Tokyo, below right in the layout) but she photographs anyone – socialist politicians or the Imperial family, space researchers or ballet dancers – it's her love of people that comes through foremost. There's little that's stylised, but much that's captured with a firm but gentle eye.

After speaking with her, perhaps that's the "secret" to her continuing to work – a curiosity about things, a happiness to engage. I'd love to see her recent work (which includes the digital – this show, obviously, features work from Rolleiflex and Leica cameras). Meanwhile, there's not just her work and her continuing to do so, but the fact that she was a "pioneer": she's seen as the first Japanese female photojournalist and continues her interest in women's lives.

I laid out a piece on her work by Lucy Birmingham (above) in the FCCJ in-house magazine last year, and was glad of the opportunity to meet her: it was a pleasure.

Yes, I got her to sign my pamphlet

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