A photograph by Kansuke Yamamoto, 1950.
Future photographer Kansuke Yamamoto’s father, Goro Yamamoto, was a talented photographer himself. The elder Yamamoto had an affinity for “Pictorialism,” or the artistic practice of distorting or manipulating a photograph in perhaps a painterly manner. Yamamoto didn’t initially follow in his father’s footsteps when it came to photography, and preferred to spend his young years writing poetry. At the age of seventeen Kansuke relocated from his birthplace of Nagoya to bustling Tokyo to pursue studies in French Literature at Meiji University. Already a huge fan of surrealist-style poetry, at this time it is very likely that the young artist first saw the various surrealist works of art that had just started to make their way to museums and galleries in Japan. Inspired by what was happening around him he would quickly become the co-founder of the Dokuritsu Shashin Kenkyukai or “Independent Photography Research Association.” The organization was formed due to the disdain many Japanese-based photographers had for the limitations of Pictorialism. The group’s magazine Dokuritsu (or “Independent”) would be the first publication to showcase the young Yamamoto’s photographic works.
It is important to note that the artists who produced surrealist-style work during this time were routinely persecuted by the Japanese government and ran the risk of jail and imprisonment if they were deemed annoying enough by the authorities. Despite this, Yamamoto had already fallen under the spell of surrealism and it would become his artistic calling card for the rest of his life. When Japan removed itself from the League of Nations in 1933, harsh rules such as the “Peace Preservation” laws were put in place. If you’ve ever heard the term “Thought Police” used before, its origins can be traced back to this time in Japan as this moniker was used to describe the law enforcement, or the “Tokko,” whose members worked tirelessly to remove freedom of the press, free speech, and free assembly. Undaunted and unafraid of the consequences, Yamamoto and others would carry on.
Until his death in 1987 at the age of 73, Yamamoto would form many more surrealist-based groups and became a mentor and inspiration to aspiring artists who were members of the Chubu Photography Federation of Students. Much of Yamamoto’s work is included in the 2013 book Japan’s Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto. I’ve included examples from Yamamoto’s vast body of work dating from 1932 to 1970 below. Some are gorgeously NSFW.
‘Stapled Flesh,’ 1949.
More after the jump…