Domon Ken is one of the most renowned Japanese photographers of the 20th century. One might not recognise his name but one will likely have seen some of his work, which is iconic and which spanned decades.
This is an excellent book which strives to offer the reader a comprehensive overview of Ken’s photographs. The majority of the pictures are in black and white which rather emphasises the often poignant subject matter.
We perhaps think of Japan as a country of colour and drama and that is indeed true. But Ken had his focus on reality and he began his career when colour photography was in its infancy. He produced almost 70,000 photographs over four decades. He has been almost totally overlooked outside his native Japan, although he evidently merits the accolade of Master of Japanese Realism.
The photographer’s passion
Domon was born in 1909, in Sakata in Yamagata Prefecture. Although a painter, he changed his artistic medium, and in 1933 he joined a photography studio as an apprentice. Only a few years later the whole world had changed and photography was a tool for political propaganda, but he was also moved by temples, culture and architecture. He created a whole series of 7,000 images of Bunraku, the traditional puppet theatre, which shows the photographer’s passion for his homeland.
He became a freelance photographer in 1945 and began working with range of publications. The 1950s saw Ken’s influence as a photographer and public intellectual become increasingly recognised. There were few commercial photography galleries so his work was promoted through books; some of Domon’s volumes sold as many as 100,000 copies.
Domon is remembered now for his series on Hiroshima, though he may have been most prolific as a photographer of Buddhist temples, showing the contrast between two aspects of Japan’s history. But some of Domon’s most powerful images are those of children in a poor coal-mining community. He swings, in subject matter, from documentary to calming beauty to the poignant.
Joys of the Japanese people
In 1963 he began work on the most significant project of his life, Koji junrei (1963–1975), photographing ancient temples and their artefacts. Concerning his photographs of Japan’s traditional culture, Domon wrote, “I am involved with the social realities of today, at the same time that I am involved with the traditions and classical culture of Nara and Kyoto, and these two involvements are linked by their common search for the point in which they are related to the fate of the people, the anger, the sadness, the joys of the Japanese people.”
In 1976 Domon was completely incapacitated by a third stroke, and he died in 1990. In 1981 Mainichi Newspapers launched the annual Domon Ken Award. A couple of years later, the Domon Ken Photography Museum was opened in Sakata, his home town.
Domon Ken is considered a significant exponent of photographic realism. He perfected his technical expertise and moved from propaganda photography during the war to a more gentle representation of Japanese life and culture. His influence on contemporary photographers cannot be overstated.
Domon Ken: The Master of Japanese Realism
Published by: Skira Editore
Art book review by Chrissie Walker © 2018