There's no way you can really reduce the photographic history of a place to just a few artists, let alone two. But the curators at L.A.'s J. Paul Getty Museum are trying — in the forthcoming exhibition, Japan's Modern Divide.
By focusing on two artists, the show will examine how, as Japan faced westernization, photography diverged in two general directions: Hiroshi Hamaya's documentary style centered on Japan's traditional culture, while Kansuke Yamamoto's avant-garde art more closely aligned with French surrealism.
The two men didn't necessarily know each other, but there were some parallels between them: Only a year apart in age (Yamamoto was born first, in 1914), they both learned to photograph in high school. Both grew up in cities; Hamaya was the son of a detective in Tokyo, and Yamamoto's family "had basically brought photography to Nagoya," says Amanda Maddox, co-curator of the show with Judith Keller.
And both photographers were aware of what was happening in the West. Yet Yamamoto, who was independently wealthy, never really left Nagoya. And, says Maddox, "it's fair to say that [he] is still relatively unknown within Japan."
Hamaya, on the other hand, "was very well-known in Japan by the '50s," says Keller. He was one of the first to do aerial photography in the country. Early on, he received an assignment on Japan's snowy, rural west coast and "decided that he wanted to photograph in rural Japan and represent ... how they were being left behind by the westernization of the country," Keller says.
A few photos in a blog post about an exhibit of a few photos by two men barely scratch the surface of Japanese photography. But before this show, Keller says, "so little was known in English about either one of these photographers." And Keller and Maddox suggest that there's more to come.