EIKOH HOSOE, MASTER PHOTOGRAPHER
Eikoh Hosoe was born in Japan, Toshihio Hosoe. His experimental photography is known for surreal and dreamlike images. Contrast and nudity, as well the surreal images of fairytale, come together as art rather than pornography, even with his use of erotic imagery.
He moved all over Japan because of the war, but by the time he reached high school, he was back in Tokyo. He joined the English language club at school and was an active member of the photography club. His first subjects were the American children on the military base. At his cousin’s suggestion, he took the name Eikoh as one better suited to a new era. In 1952, while still in high school, he won a Fuji photo contest for a portrait series about a boy. His first show was An American Girl in Tokyo, but by the late 1950’s he started to focus more on what it meant to be Japanese.
“Inexplicable suffering. Wounds inflicted by beings whose motives are beyond comprehension. The human and the supernatural encountering each other, unpredictably but inevitably. These notions, it seems, would come to inform and shape much of Hosoe’s photography.” His main subjects are nudes as well as fairytale images about the kamaitachi. After college, he turned back to photographing Japanese subjects and his next photo series was titled Man and Woman. He worked with a Japanese dance troupe, and the black and white images were considered more distinctly Japanese.
They were so widely popular, the controversial writer, Yukio Mishima requested Hosoe to take his portrait for his book of essays. The photo shoot became a series of ten sessions over six months and grew into a gallery exhibition, “Barakei or Killed by Roses”. Hosoe loved the theatrical appearance of Mishima’s home and created a cinematic-like set of portraits symbolizing the author.
After Mishima’s suicide, Hosoe went back to his childhood memory of the kamaitachi and did a series of surreal, fairytale images. Hosoe says in an artist’s talk in 2010, "Kamaitachi is a document of my memories when I was a child evacuated from Tokyo to the countryside." A kamaitachi is a weasel-like demon that attacks with a sickle. It is said they attack in threes. One buffeting the victim, the second clawing him and the third healing the external wounds, leaving the victim to suffer without evidence of injury. It was stories about these creatures that inspired the images in the Kamaitachi series.
In this paper, I use images from these three series, but he made more and in 1971, he created Embrace. This series was a return to the study of the human body. By focusing on parts of the male and female bodies in abstract positions, it was not only about eroticism and intimacy, but it was a celebration of the human body and its beauty as a form. He also did several architecture images and other portraits.
The first image I want to talk about is Man and Woman #33. The image, done in black and white photography, printed in high contrast, features a nude, dark skinned man holding two light colored birds. The birds are kissing. The model is Tatsumi Hijikata, creator of the Butoh dance movement. I chose this image for the stark contrast between black and white, and the gentleness and intimacy conveyed by the way the man is holding the birds.
The composition is set in the rule of threes and the solid black background sets the subject apart. The birds are framed by the man’s hands and even though they are small, they hold my eye as being in a safe place. The grain of the film is visible in this print, setting the man apart from the birds even more since the grain is smoother over the birds.
I find I am drawn to this image because of the contrast. I have written about the contrast of black and white in a few of my own works. The reflection of the light off the man to single out the birds makes them the main subject. I thought it was just the sense of intimacy and gentleness that drew me to this image, but Eikoh says that the birds represent us. “We are in the hands of Buddha. We can’t see Buddha’s face.” While I’m not Buddhist, I can see the sense of God in this image. I feel like the birds are in a safe place in the man’s hands, even though all he would have to do is squeeze and they would be crushed.
The second image I want to talk about is Barakei #32. This image is done in black and white photography, printed in high contrast, and features a man holding a rose in his mouth. The model is Yukio Mishima, a controversial writer. Eikoh felt the rose, beautiful outside, but inside full of thorns, represented Mishima.
This image is very symmetrical, yet asymmetrical as well, the asymmetry set by the lighting. I love the symbolism of the rose representing the man. I see the truth of it on a larger scale. People are beautiful on the outside, but inside they are full of thorns. This set was done to commemorate Mishima’s life.
I like that the rose is fully lit while the man is half-shadowed. The metaphor then becomes the image. The reality of the rose promises beauty with a bit of pain. On the same scale, the metaphor can be expanded to represent humanity. While there is beauty in the world, it is tempered by pain and tragedy. The author Mishima committed ritual suicide after this book was finished. Hosoe held off publishing it for a year after Mishima’s death. The image makes me a little sad knowing what happened.
Like image one, this is done in black and white. The black and white allows for the stark contrast Hosoe is using to hit the viewer with the message. Both images are close cropped, telling the story of the second subject: the intimacy of the birds, the beauty of the rose. Both images use Japanese men, but both tell a deeper story than just the story of the men. Hosoe uses the hands of the man to frame the birds and the face of the man to frame the rose.
But these images are also very different. The first image is a metaphor for religion, people in the hands of God. The second is a part of the story of one man’s life and death.. Both contain a metaphor, but the first uses birds where the second uses a rose. In the first image, we don’t see the man’s face because no one can know the face of God. The birds then represent man. In the second image, we see the man’s face. The rose becomes the man by placing it in his mouth.
The third image I have to show is Kamaitachi #34. This is also a black and white photograph, with less contrast. It is based on a fairytale Hosoe heard while growing up. This one shows a man in a field portraying the weasel-like demon. He teamed up again with Tatsumi Hijikata for this series.
I chose this image for a few reasons. I like that you can’t tell if the subject is a man or a woman. I thought it was a woman when I first saw it. I really love the hazy, surreal quality of the image. His depth of field is quite shallow, so that while the man is in focus, the grasses around and in front of him are blurred, giving the image a sense of swaying in the wind. This is my favorite of the three images I’ve chosen. I like how the subject is dancing in the field. He looks mischievous, as though he is planning an attack, but the overall feeling I get from the image is that it is playful, though I still wouldn’t want to run into a kamaitachi in a lonely field.
Like the first two images, this is done in black and white. Hosoe continues his use of human models to portray a story. But that is really where the similarities end. This image is not done in a studio and the subject is clothed. This image is framed vertically and printed with softer contrast and the more generalized lighting of outside.
This image leaves you with the impression of motion. The subject is dancing. The grasses are waving. The images are static in the first two. The man’s face in the third image is obscured by the grass, but still gives the impression of impish plots. The second image, where we see the man’s face, is clear, and while his eyes implore the viewer to see him, he doesn’t look ready to bite you. In this image of a kamaitachi, I almost expect to see his cohorts coming up out of the field behind him. It is told that the kamaitachi attack in threes.
“The camera is generally assumed to be unable to depict that which is not visible to the eye,” Hosoe has written. “And yet the photographer who wields it well can depict what lies unseen in his memory.” There is nothing obsene about the naked human body, and Eikoh Hosoe does a beautiful job of portraying that. He uses both sexes in evocative positions to show the beauty of lines and forms. What I found while researching his images is that it’s not fully about the body and whether or not it is clothes. The power of an image comes from perspective, depth of field and lighting and is so much more than the subject. Whether Hosoe is taking pictures of men and women or of buildings or of villages, he portrays the story he wants to, and we as a view get to see his vision. He truly is a master photographer.
Holborn, Mark. Eikoh Hosoe (Aperture Masters of Photography). New York: Aperture, 1999
Mishima, Yukio (Preface) , Hosoe, Eikoh (Photography), and Holborn, Mark (Afterword). Barakei
Ordeal by Roses. Aperture Foundation, Inc. 1985
Hosoe, Eikoh. “On Man and Woman.” Video. Vimeo.com. May 5, 2010 <http://vimeo.com/15772338>
Fallis, Greg, “Eikoh Hosoe.” Utata Tribal Photography Sunday Salon. May 31, 2009
Ma, A. “Eikoh Hosoe.” Sundays Are For Modern. Blog. July 14, 2007
401 Projects – Eikoh Hosoe. Non-profit. 2006 (founded).
Rusvar. “Icons: Eikoh Hosoe.” May 10, 2010 <http://www.husvar.com/icons/icons-eikoh-hosoe>
Man and Woman #33
All photos copywrite © Eikoh Hosoe