Due to economic and cultural developments in Japan towards the end of the 20th century, European photographers became increasingly interested in the examination of Japan. But the basic supposition of a characteristic otherness of Japan as seen from a European perspective has inhibited a thorough appreciation of Japanese culture: mostly, the mystery Japan lingers on. This insight forms the starting point for my analysis.
Japan was opened to the West almost at the same time as photography was invented, which is one of the aspects that lead to my particular interest for the photographic view on Japan. But even though photography became a witness to the transition from the feudal to a modern industrial society, most of today’s photographic production still seems to be tied to the exoticizing tradition of 19th century European photography in Japan, thus displaying a stereotyped view. Although the topics may have slightly changed, visual representations of Japan today mostly show the country as oscillating between history and modernity, shaped by a deep fissure between a lively tradition and a dominant industrial culture.
However, the image of Japan conceived by some artists in the 1990s greatly differs from mainstream productions. Starting from the differentiation of various photographic approaches to Japan, I will explain the concept of artistic documentary photography and show examples of two photographic books depicting Japan. The artists’ way of dealing with Japanese issues will be examined including aspects of visual clichés. As European and Japanese perceptions of the photographic works may differ, I will relate to my discussions with Japanese curators and photography experts on their perception of the presented European view on Japan, thus hoping to provide a thorough insight into the artistic documentary photography’s potential to represent the other.
Bettina Lockemann is a PhD candidate at the State Academy of Visual Arts Stuttgart, Germany. She currently holds a postgraduate research fellowship at the German Institute for Japanese Studies.