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Between ‘reality’ and representation : photographic ambiguities of place and identity in Japan’s postwar modernity

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Tunney, RR 2017 , 'Between ‘reality’ and representation : photographic ambiguities of place and identity in Japan’s postwar modernity', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

Photographs are slippery documents. While they carry the promise of a pure truth, the nature of this truth is elusive. Any potential veracity that might be inherent in the photograph can perhaps be attributed to the very materiality of the medium itself. The photograph is quite literally a physical image formed when rays of light reflect and bounce back from whatever the camera is pointed towards. These light rays then travel through the camera lens to make contact with the film or digital sensor, which fixes them in place. In the capturing of a photographic image, therefore, light, an element of nature, combines with technology. This meeting of technology and nature can explain why photographs are so persuasive. The combination of the visceral immediacy of the material world with the abstract knowledge of scientific rationality is a potent combination that encourages us to suspend our critical faculties. When we look at a photograph, for a moment at least, we see – or believe that we see – not a representation but the thing or scene that was photographed itself. As a consequence, the medium of photography appears to carry a sense of moral weight. There is a certain trust placed in the photograph that lulls the viewer into thinking that what she or he sees is exactly what happened, or that the people and objects captured are exactly as they were. Particularly in the field of documentary photography, the mode of photography examined in this thesis, the photographer must not be seen to betray this trust. More than any other, the documentary genre is charged with the task of providing an unmediated account of social reality. This persistent expectation of facticity in the photographic image explains, at least in part, the heated recriminations that can occur upon the discovery of photographic manipulation. What these discoveries point us towards, moreover, is the extent to which the production of photographs is mediated by social institutions and their prevailing discourses, and also by the authorial intentions of the photographer. Such discoveries further emphasise the ambiguity generated by the tensions between these elements. The discussion that follows will investigate this ambiguity, and how such ambiguity relates to notions of place, in the work of seven photographers working largely in the postwar era in Japan. These photographers are: Hayashi Tadahiko (1918-1990), Takanashi Yutaka (b.1935), Naitō Masatoshi (b.1938), Hamaya Hiroshi (1915- 999), Suda Issei (b.1940), Tōmatsu Shōmei (1930-2012), and Ishikawa Mao (b.1953).
This thesis analyses representations of Japanese society produced by seven Japanese photographers. Each chapter focuses on a series of analogue images that were compiled for publication as a monograph. By considering the images in terms of their historical, discursive, and authorial context, the analysis will examine the ways in which these representations reveal the ambiguous nature of Japanese identity in the postwar era and how this identity relates to place.
The thesis will illustrate that, just as the meanings of photographs evade fixity, so too are notions of identity fraught with a fluidity that resists pinning down. This was particularly the case in the postwar era that saw rapid economic development and the monumental social changes that accompany such development. It was thus a time during which collective Japanese identity experienced a crisis, with individuals turning to past traditions as a means of critiquing capitalist modernity. Given the contingencies of war, such critiques by necessity implicated the United States. It is paradoxical that those who mounted these critiques were often themselves deeply entrenched within the structures of capitalist modernity in a way that saw them embrace aspects of the American way of life that they claimed to reject. Each of the seven photographers featured in his or her own way expresses the complexities of this debate.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Tunney, RR
Keywords: photography, Japan, identity, postwar, representation, modernity
Copyright Information:

Copyright 2017 the author

Additional Information:

Altered versions of chapters four and five of this thesis have previously been published elsewhere as separate journal articles.
In 2013 chapter five was published in Volume 4, Issue 1 of the Trans Asia Photography Review journal under the title ‘Archiving the Spirit: Suda Issei’s Fushi Kaden and ‘Essential Japan.’
In 2015 a subsequently altered version of chapter four was published in volume 7 of the New Voices in Japanese Studies journal under the title: ‘Imaging the Rural: Modernity and Agrarianism in Hiroshi Hamaya’s Snow Land Photographs.’
The articles were published under Creative Commons licenses 3.0 and 4.0 respectively, and are therefore and thus permissible for use in their altered form in this thesis.

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