The Destruction of War and Cultural Takeover in Japan, in Captivating Black and White Shots

Shomei Tomatsu’s photographic series, “Pencil of the Sun,” captures the changing indigenous culture of Okinawa in the years before it fell under Japan’s administration. These stunning black-and-white images from the 1960s and early 1970s combine Tomatsu’s highly stylized, gritty composition with his sharp documentarian perspective. Gallery amanasalto has selected 10 images from this series to publish as a reconsideration of the influential photographer’s work.

Tomatsu, who passed away in 2012, was a seminal postwar Japanese photographer whose images influenced the trajectory of photojournalism. As a self-taught artist coming of age in imperialist Japan, Tomatsu frequently confronted political issues in his photography, documenting changing Japanese culture. One of his most recognized images is Melted Bottle (1961), which at first looks like a slab of meat but is actually a charred bottle recovered from Nagasaki. Tomatsu also took many photographs of victims of the bombings of Nagasaki.

Tomatsu’s “The Pencil of the Sun” derives its name from The Pencil of Nature, a photographically illustrated book written by Henry Henry Fox Talbot in the mid-1800s, suggesting a tie between one of the progenitors of photography and Tomatsu’s own body of work. His images in this series are personal yet provocative, documenting generations of Okinawans in their native homes. Miyako Island / 宮古島(1972) is a particularly captivating image of a group of figures with leaved headdresses in a semicircle, arranged in a serene formation that suggests a sense of community. Other landscape photographs capture the unspoiled territory of the islands before impending Americanization, always with Tomatsu’s raw expressionistic eye. In his book Pencil of the Sun, he writes, “it was as if America seeped through the gaps in the wire fences surrounding the bases and, in time, soaked the entire country.”

Tomatsu, who believed taking a photo was akin to writing a haiku, established a minimalist yet evocative style that implored the viewer to dig for poetic meaning beneath the eloquent surface of his images.  

 —Sola Agustsson

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