When you see the vibrant image above and hear the exhibition title—Shomei Tomatsu: Island Life—you might get the impression that this photography show is all about idyllic tropical living. And while it does focus on Tomatsu’s fascination with Japan’s southern islands, it delves much deeper into life for the islands’ residents.
After World War II ended, the U.S. occupied the majority of Japan until 1952, but maintained jurisdiction over Okinawa (Japan’s southernmost prefecture that includes hundreds of islands) until 1972. Entry into Okinawa was very limited for Japanese citizens during this time. Tomatsu gained entry in 1969 and alternately lived in or regularly visited the southern islands until his death in 2012. Much of Tomatsu’s work from this period discusses both the aftermath of World War II and the Americanization of Japan. The decades-long military presence (that still persists today) in Okinawa provided substantial content for Tomatsu to explore both the complicated confluence of Western products and ideas with traditional Japanese culture, as well as the contradictory feelings that Tomatsu himself had about Americanization. As Tomatsu said in writings on the subject, “love and hate are no farther apart than two sides of a sheet of paper.”
This is Tomatsu’s first posthumous exhibition and his first exhibition in the United States in nearly 10 years. Shomei Tomatsu: Island Life is open through January 5.
Shomei Tomatsu. Untitled (Aka-jima, Okinawa), from the series The Pencil of the Sun, 1973. © Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.
Shomei Tomatsu. Untitled (Kadena, Okinawa), 1969, printed 1978. Photography Purchase Fund. © Shomei Tomatsu – interface.