In 1968, a snapshot of Eikoh Hosoe at work is available. Tatsumi Hijikata, an avant-garde dancer with whom he had worked for over a decade, is his topic.
Hijikata is racing barefoot through a field, while Hosoe is jumping in the air while pushing the shutter of the camera clamped to his eye, only a few feet behind him. Rather of only photographing the dancer’s performance, the photographer seems to have joined in.
Hosoe’s interest with and absorption in the Japanese postwar avant-garde, as well as his devotion to generating pictures that continuously challenged traditional assumptions of what photography should be and could achieve, are reflected in this image. It was all about deep cooperation for him: creating a heightened realm in which he strove to merge with his subject.
This concept informed his many collaborations with Hijikata, the founder of butoh, a form of wildly expressive and physically demanding dance, as well as his most well-known work, Ordeal By Roses, in which he photographed the controversial Japanese novelist, actor, dramatist, and ultra-nationalist Yukio Mishima in a series of darkly homoerotic tableaux.
Hosoe was ahead of his time in his embrace of the avant-garde and creation of a darkly poetic visual expressionism through the use of high-contrast black-and-white tones, sculptural closeups of nude bodies, and starkly evocative landscapes that seem to reflect his – and his subject’s – interlocking states of mind.
His daring stretched the boundaries of documentary photography, reflecting the work of the late 1960s Provoke generation, one of whose prominent practitioners, Daid Moriyama, actually worked as Hosoe’s assistant when he first arrived in Tokyo in 1961. When you consider Hosoe’s co-founding of the Vivo collective in 1959, which was named after the Esperanto word for “life,” as well as his groundbreaking photo books created in collaboration with the best designers of the time, it’s difficult not to consider him the most influential postwar Japanese photographer.
Hosoe was a youngster when Tokyo was firebombed in 1944, and his family was evacuated from the city, residing for a while in the hamlet where his mother grew up. He shot his series Kamaitachi there in 1965, prompting Hijikata to do a type of psychic dance that summoned the buried terrors of their common childhoods, including the summoning of a demon weasel that local farmers thought wandered their fields looking for human food.
Contemporary reviewers and his more conventionally oriented peers panned the series’ atmospheric theatricality, calling it excessive and inauthentic. It now seems to be audaciously fictional.
Hosoe, on the other hand, had met a fellow tourist in Hijikata. Hosoe had watched in awe as Hijikata’s company translated Mishima’s tale of covert gay longing, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors), in a performance that included two dancers engaging with a live chicken seven years ago. Later, he referred to the performance as “ferocious.”
“The encounter fundamentally changed Hosoe’s relationship with photography or, more specifically, the people he photographed,” says Yasufumi Nakamori, a curator and researcher who collaborated with the photographer on a new, extensively researched retrospective collection of his work. “Rather than simply photographing the subject, he began to see himself as a participant in the creation of a unique space and time.”
Hosoe set out to portray the intensity of what Nakamori described as “the trance-like state” he established via his intensive contacts with his victims from that point forward. Hosoe discovered an artist eager to lay his soul naked for the camera with an often terrifying intensity of purpose in Mishima, who first commissioned him to produce some advertising photos.
Mishima is photographed from above, standing on a circular mosaic of zodiac symbols and wrapped in a garden hose that snakes around his torso and into his mouth in one of his most iconic portraits.
They developed a strong story in Ordeal By Roses that touched on forbidden love, sadism, and ritual, with Mishima later remarking that Hosoe’s camera enabled him to explore an inner realm that was “grotesque, barbaric, and dissipated,” but also filmed with “a pure undercurrent of lyricism.” Mishima had committed himself by seppuku – ritual suicide by disembowelment – by the time the book was released in 1971, giving the series an even darker tone.
Since then, Hosoe, now 88, has expressed his dissatisfaction with being associated with Mishima too closely. The new monograph explains how that iconic series fits into a much larger story characterised by a never-ending imaginative curiosity and a creative boldness that propelled him – and photography – into a new realm of unpredictable possibilities.
His visuals, which are dark, surreal, and unnerving, are hauntingly strong in their fusion of performance, frequently extreme physicality, and a legendary mood. They are timeless, even though they are from another era.