- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

Shomei Tomatsu’s photographs of post-World War II Japan aren’t what visitors expect from a Japanese photographer. Mr. Tomatsu, Japan’s most important postwar photographer, didn’t photograph the obvious, such as the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s postwar movie hero Toshiro Mifune or Mount Fuji as the nationalist symbol.

Mr. Tomatsu doesn’t let bombast invade his work. This admirable self-restraint is vividly illustrated in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation,” an exhibit of roughly 200 photos from 30 years.

He photographs the ruins and rebirth of his country in deceptively simple terms — a little girl leading a Japanese World War II veteran through a pulverized Nagoya, a weaver’s hand, a prostitute expelling cigarette smoke through her nose.

In all his work, and especially in the Corcoran show, Mr. Tomatsu’s metaphor of “skin” invites — even demands — that viewers probe what’s beneath. “If you look at skin closely,” he once said, “you’ll see everything that’s important.”

The photographer wants visitors to carefully scrutinize the pores of a heavily made-up aging actress, the reflection of sun and clouds on water, the coarse hairs of a woman’s beehive hairdo.

Through thousands of photos over the course of his 50-year career, Mr. Tomatsu, 75, poetically documented his times — traditional Japan before the war, shocked Japanese after the A-bomb attacks, the mixed blessings of Americanization.

He never preaches. Rather, he presents charged objects, such as an atomic-heat-melted glass bottle or a fragment of a stone angel shattered at Nagasaki, then lets viewers experience them.

Take, for example, his dispassionate 1960s Nagasaki “A-Bomb” series, probably his most famous. He focuses on single objects and people, such as the bone of a skull fused to a steel helmet by the blast. Other photos show a woman’s face ravaged by nuclear burns and a damaged wristwatch stopped at 11:02, Aug. 9, 1945, the time of the explosion. All have “skins,” or surfaces, that tell much about the objects.

Although the “A-Bomb” series is, like much of his work, compassionate, “He knows not to shove his way in, to pretend he went through what they did,” says exhibit co-curator Leo Rubinfien. “He acknowledges that he’s an outsider.”

In the late 1960s, he shot Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, or “Underground City,” the center of Tokyo’s sex trade and a place an exhibit label calls “the scepter of desire gone wild.” Mr. Tomatsu summed up its anger, excesses and down-at-the-heels inhabitants with violent close-ups of a “Butoh Actor,” a grotesquely eyelashed actress and a grimacing, wild-haired man from his series “Eros, Tokyo.”

The artist’s disdain for Americans is evident in the “Americanization” section of the exhibit, but his series “Chewing Gum and Chocolate,” which focuses on Americans settling into life in Japan, is one of his best. He shoots a U.S. Navy officer in military whites and medals — a sharp contrast to the grime and dirt where the photographer groveled for food as a teenager in Nagoya. In another photo, a solidly middle-class American couple is shown against traditional Japanese houses.

The exhibit’s wall texts mention Mr. Tomatsu’s photo series but don’t identify them. The curators should have described them and explained how they fit into this exhibit’s sections. But this is a small flaw in an otherwise commendable introduction to the work of an artist too little known in the United States.

WHAT: “Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of a Nation”

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street at New York Avenue NW

WHEN: Open daily except Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays. Through Aug. 29

TICKETS: $6.75 adults, $4.75 seniors, $3 students, $12 for families

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