NEW YORK — Shomei Tomatsu was 15 years old in 1945, the year Japan was devastated by war. That spring, firebombing incinerated Tokyo, and later the country's other major cities, including his home of Nagoya. The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki followed. The Japanese coined a new term to encompass the destruction: yakinohara, "burnt plains."
In "Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of a Nation," the extraordinary retrospective now at the Japan Society here, the photographer observes, "Ruins are the basic image of postwar Japan." Our notion of that country as the phoenix-like dynamo of Honda, Sony, and Pokémon bears little relation to the land of psychic wounds Tomatsu has witnessed in a career spanning more than 50 years. His photographs reveal a nation scarred by its loss of history, identity, and soul.
In the 1950s and '60s, Tomatsu, often working for mass-circulation magazines, redefined photography into a potent blend of reportage, Surrealist theater, and Haiku-like introspection. He has long been recognized as Japan's most important postwar photographer, yet the 260 images on view, in both black and white and color, represent the first major exhibition of his pictures in the United States.
As gallery upon gallery unfolds, the exhibition reveals a photographic artist of astonishing strength. Tomatsu's earliest work documents the period of reconstruction. A 1951 image shows a disabled veteran dazed and uncertain as he walks on the fringe of a rebuilt town, steadying himself with a walking stick and being led by a small girl. The picture stands in stark contrast to American photography of the same era, which sought out moments of heightened visual climax. Here, the drama is inward and metaphoric, almost nonchalantly representing the once-great Japan as a depleted figure utterly dependent on whatever small hand is offered.
In the 1960s, Tomatsu turned his lens on American military bases and servicemen in Okinowa. The images, from an extended series titled "Chewing Gum and Chocolates," depict the American presence as an infestation of sinister values, the occupation of a foreign power offering puny tokens of friendship and exporting spiritual decadence. This is hardly a surprising reaction from a member of a defeated society. One image shows the dark underside of a shoe hovering menacingly near the lens, while a group of crewcut American soldiers grins overhead. Another captures a jet fighter as it cuts a black gash across the face of an already dark cloudbank.
Some of the photographer's most powerful images trace the lingering destruction in Nagasaki 15 years after the atomic attack. The pictures recorded physical evidence, such as a wristwatch stopped at 11:02, when the blast occurred, a bone fragment fused to a steel helmet by the heat of the explosion, a statue of a shattered angel. More searing are the portraits of the survivors, men and women disfigured by the bomb, and later ostracized as symbols of defeat.
As Japan's supereconomy grew through the 1970s and '80s, Tomatsu's photographs examined the spiritual costs of a society built increasingly on values of wealth and acquisition. "Japan World Exposition," a color image from 1970, shows blood-red splatters of liquid on a window, obscuring the blurred skyline of some futuristic metropolis.
Among the exhibition's more powerful pictures are those approaching a kind of photographic abstraction. The show concludes with an extended suite of such images, of a melted bottle, a glare of light on the water, a fragment of ancient statuary, a tidal pool tangled with seaweed and detritus. Descriptions of the pictures' subject matter cannot capture the interwoven sensation of chaos, uncertainty, surprise, and often grace, they contain. Left untitled by the photographer, the images appear as splinters and strands of a dream world.
Tomatsu once wrote that "the stuff other photographers substitute for seeing is nothing but a kind of pessimism." His images represent, if not optimism, an abiding devotion to truth as a process of salvation: They burrow beneath the skin. Often bleak and austere, his images - born of pain - speak of love and mourning.