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  • Fukuhara Shinzō and the “Japanese” Pictorial Aesthetic
  • Karen M. Fraser (bio)

Japanese pictorialist photography emerged from roots that were deeply tangled in international pictorialism. Frequently shaped by American and British trends and artists in particular, there were significant areas of overlap and influence between the Japanese and Anglo-American schools of early twentieth-century artistic photography. Even where no direct influence is evident, there are often striking parallels in their development. Yet despite these intertwined global roots, Japanese pictorialism has typically been described as exhibiting a distinctively Japanese aesthetic. This tendency has been shared by both Japanese and non-Japanese art critics writing about the genre since the early twentieth century.1 The frequent choice of nature and landscape themes as subject matter and a stylistic tendency to emphasize flattened space are two key aspects connecting Japanese pictorialist photographs to certain preexisting Japanese artistic traditions, notably woodblock prints and ink painting. Because of these shared elements it is perhaps all too easy to conclude that Japanese pictorialism exhibited “uniquely” Japanese characteristics, despite the links the movement had to foreign influences and antecedents. The genre of Japanese pictorialism thus raises complex questions about the precise nature of any inherent “Japanese-ness,” providing a particularly fruitful example for thinking about the notion of “commensurable distinctions.”

In fact, descriptions of Japanese pictorial photography have often gone beyond formal characteristics and subject matter to suggest that Japanese works captured a more nebulous idea of an innate Japanese character, one that in turn had some inherent understanding of and connection to nature. Perhaps the best-known figure to assert such claims was the Japanese photographer and author Fukuhara Shinzō (1883-1948). A prolific writer whose essays were widely published in Japanese photography periodicals of the 1920s and 1930s, Fukuhara’s influence on the perception of the genre was pervasive. As I shall argue, it was Fukuhara’s writing about the camera’s ability to capture and reveal [End Page 209] the Japanese character that ultimately came to define Japanese pictorialist photography as “distinctively Japanese,” rather than any particular aesthetic characteristic. By arguing this, I do not mean to suggest that Japanese pictorialism was ultimately or merely a derivative form of its Western counterpart; it was not. Rather, I contend that Fukuhara’s art historical criticism itself came to define the commonly perceived characteristics of Japanese pictorialism.

In an extensive body of photographic literature that spanned more than two decades, Fukuhara articulated a conceptualization of the medium that linked pictorialism directly to what he suggested was a particular Japanese state of mind. Beginning in the 1920s, Fukuhara challenged photographers with the task of capturing and conveying this aspect of the Japanese national character, frequently referencing the term seishin, a word with multiple overlapping definitions including heart, spirit, and mind or mentality. He reiterated this concept in essays published in popular photography periodicals on a variety of themes, encouraging Japanese photographers to express the Japanese seishin as only they were suited to conveying the unique sense of Japanese beauty. Fukuhara even suggested that differences apparent in the work of Japanese photographers when compared to their foreign (understood as Western) counterparts were “firmly founded in the racial distinction, which is the poetical nationality, the same spirit as in ‘Haiku,’ that lies before [Japanese] photography.”2

Fukuhara made claims for distinction precisely because of the inherent commensurability of Japanese pictorial photography with its Western counterparts in terms of both practice and aesthetics. Thus the main “distinction” of early twentieth-century Japanese artistic photography lay in its distinct conceptualization, particularly as expressed by Fukuhara. His theories linking photography, haiku, and the beauty of nature would ultimately come to define Japanese pictorialist photography. To help support these claims, this essay begins by providing an overview of the movement, defining its parameters, and identifying major aspects of Western influence and key areas of commensurability with Anglo-American trends. I then turn to look at Fukuhara’s writings in greater depth in order to parse the sense of distinction he articulated for the realm of Japanese pictorial photography, placing his theories within a broader cultural and historical framework.

Pictorial Photography in Japan

Japanese pictorialism was a broad movement with multiple contact points and...