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Domon Ken Exhibit at the Ara Pacis Museum

Sophia Bare, Reporter

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Introduction

After being celebrated as one of the most influential photographers in Japanese history, even having several awards named after him, Domon Ken has finally received his first international exhibition in the Ara Pacis Museum of Rome, Italy. The exhibition has just ended this past Sunday, on the 18th of September. I was able to visit the exhibit right before it closed, on that exact Sunday, and am still reeling from the impact of the show. The exhibit itself wasn’t flashy, didn’t show off, didn’t need to show off. There were no fancy frames or grand halls. There was simply photograph after photograph, divided into the different sections of Domon Ken’s life and his job as a photographer, each subsection giving an insight into what Japan was like in the 20th century. From the early propaganda pieces of World War II, to the lives of poor miner children, the serene landscapes of nature-shrouded temples and the tear-jerking after-effects of the Hiroshima bombing, Domon Ken was able to capture not just moments in time, but the emotions present, that still carry through to this day. Truly, he is the father of photo-realism

 

The pre-war period: from photojournalism to propaganda photography

Though Domon Ken is known as the father of photorealism, his early works, or his sponsored works were obvious propaganda pieces to try and further the Japanese military’s agenda. This was all during Japan’s conquering of Asia, through Korea and Nanking, etc. Although his photographs were propaganda pieces, it doesn’t undermine the quality of his works at all. The way he captures the soldiers, as well as the Red Cross nurses, in training, truly show his talent in photorealism. Though the soldiers are supposed to look harsh and emotionless like killer robots, Domon Ken is able to capture the breaking out of a smile and the personalities of these soldiers. After all, some of these navy men just graduated from middle school, and Domon Ken is able to display their youthfulness still untouched by the horrors of war.

The war years and the Bunraku puppet theatre

To avoid being forcibly enlisted into the army, Domon Ken took an interest in the Bunraku puppet theatre, taking many pictures of both the people operating the puppets in their workplace as well as the puppets themselves. Additionally, he photographed protests and demonstrations to avoid being thrust into the front lines of World War II as a propaganda photographer.

Children and miners’ villages

Though Domon Ken’s best known works are those which pertain to war and the hardships that adults faced, he was also very interested in children. He had several collections dedicated to this subject, such as Kodomotachi and Chikuhō no kodomotachi. The children and scenes depicted in his series were not from cities that were prosperous or well known at the time. Through Domon Ken’s exposure, smaller areas (even within cities which were widely populated and regarded as advanced, such as Tokyo) were able to get more attention and thus, the stories of the “miner children” were told.

His collections showcased the struggles of these children (as seen in the upper left picture, a child crying while sharpening a knife), whose parents, working in the mines, were susceptible to easy deaths- but they also show the boundless joy and optimism which children possess through photos of children playing with parasols, participating in games, generally laughing and being able to have fun.

Among the children he photographed, Rumie was a central character. Domon Ken even had an entire collection dedicated to Rumie, called Rumie’s Father is Dead. The cute and innocent face paired with her devastatingly tragic story amplified the reach that her story had, moving millions around Japan to tears.  

 

The postwar period: the affirmation of realism in photography

After his propagandist capturing of pre-World War II and his dabbling in Bunraku Puppet Theatre and such, after the war, Domon Ken took it upon himself to capture the state that Japan was left in. After surrendering, Japan set out to become fully westernized, something which can be seen in Domon Ken’s captures. Whether through a U.S. soldier getting his shoes shined or a group of young girls dressed in western influenced clothing, Domon Ken, through this and other works, was able to show Japan’s transition from traditional and nationalistic to the westernized nation that it is today.

Hiroshima

Probably the most emotional out of all the exhibits was the Hiroshima portion. It was separate from everything else, in a dark-walled set of rooms with lights only illuminating the handful of photographs decorating the area. I’m not lying when I said I cried. Just like Domon, I cried seeing not only the objects and areas that were affected by the tragedy that was the bombing of Hiroshima, but the people. The stories, told through only black and white photography were more moving than any movie, or book, or speech, could ever be. The silent message of a deserted area of town, of a woman recovering from injuries, of a family that could find happiness in a dark time.
The way that Domon Ken addressed the situation by simply pressing the shutter- not by taking a stance or furthering an agenda, but by purely telling the stories of the living, of those that had a story to tell, was truly heartmoving. The thought that someone was able to capture these stories and put them on blast- to know that these people, who can never erase this part of their history, were able to tell their story in a time that people just wanted to forget- moved me to tears.

Pilgrimage to the ancient temples

Throughout Domon Ken’s career as a photographer, through his constantly changing focus, whether it be on the lives of children in the poor villages of Japan or the westernization of post-war Japan, his pilgrimage to ancient temples has been a central topic. His skillful capturing of nature only further proves his skill as a photographer, showing his ability to create stories through only the still life of nature.

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Domon Ken Exhibit at the Ara Pacis Museum