The Unflinching Eye of Domon Ken, Japan’s “Demon of Photography”Culture Art
Photographers come in many different types and personalities. Those like Domon Ken (1909–90) must now be an endangered species, on the brink of extinction: artists who throw themselves into their work as if possessed. During his early years, Domon was often referred to as the “demon of photography.” If any such photographers remain today, they are the last of a dying breed.
A Penetrating Gaze
Domon Ken was born in 1909 in the city of Sakata on the Japan Sea coast of Yamagata Prefecture. The family was poor, and both parents worked as itinerant laborers, leaving the child to spend his early years in the care of his grandparents. In 1916, the family moved to Tokyo, relocating to Yokohama two years later. In his early years he was an outstanding student at school, until he became obsessed with the idea of becoming a painter and fascinated by archeology. He graduated in 1928 but drifted through a variety of jobs, unable to settle on a career.
In 1933, at his mother’s suggestion, he became a live-in apprentice at the studio of Miyauchi Kōtarō. At last, he had found an aim in life: to become a photographer. But a workaday routine taking humdrum portraits in a mildewed studio failed to satisfy Domon’s ambitions. He became drawn to the new ideas about photography starting to emerge from Germany and in 1935 joined the Nippon Kōbō led by Natori Yōnosuke (1910–62), which aimed to introduce a new approach to photojournalism in the German style.
Under Natori’s strict tutelage, Domon made rapid progress as a photojournalist. He worked steadily, driven by an ambition to see his work published in Life, the American photographic news magazine that had launched in 1936. Dissatisfaction followed when his works were published under Natori’s name. In 1939, taking advantage of Natori’s absence on a work trip to the United States, he submitted a photograph of Japanese Foreign Minister Ugaki Kazushige that was published in Life with the credit “Photo: Domon.” The incident led to a deterioration of his relationship with Natori, and eventually led to Domon’s departure from Nippon Kōbō.
In the years that followed, he produced a wide variety of work as a photojournalist, as well as working for the Center for International Cultural Relations (Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai), the forerunner of the Japan Foundation. During this time, Japan lurched into disastrous militarism and became mired in a bloody war in China. Despite the encroaching crisis, Domon continued to produce critically successful work, gradually developing a reputation through a series of portraits that appeared in Shashin Bunka magazine and documentary photographs, winning the first Ars Photo Award in 1943 for a collection of his portraits. In an essay to mark the award, the poet and sculptor Takamura Kōtarō wrote: “There is something uncanny about Domon Ken. His lens seems to have the ability to probe the very depths of people and things.”
As World War II intensified, Domon’s work as a photojournalist inevitably came under stricter controls. During this difficult period, Domon concentrated on photographing the bunraku puppet theater, and started to take photographs at the temple Murōji in Nara Prefecture. Also around this time, he started a series of portraits of writers and intellectuals like Kawabata Yasunari and Umehara Ryūzaburō that would be included in the collection Fūbō (Faces), published in 1953.
“Absolutely Unposed” Realism
On August 15, 1945, the long war finally ended—and with it, Domon’s period of patient subservience. He launched himself on a series of ambitious and energetic projects, driven to find a way to use photography to respond to the turbulent social changes of the postwar period. From January 1950, Domon served as judge on the readers’ submissions page for the photo magazine Kamera. “All my faith, experience, and sincerity I dedicate to the cause of helping to establish photography socially and culturally as an independent form of modern art,” he stated, and true to his word, Domon threw himself into the work of appraising the submissions in each issue, writing long critiques to encourage and enlighten the readers who had sent in examples of their work.
This marked the gradual flowering of what came to be known as the “realism” movement in Japanese photography. Domon laid out an explicit series of theses, calling for “the absolute snapshot, absolutely unposed,” and “a direct connection between camera and subject.” Photographers all over the country responded to his call. Among those who were inspired by Domon and later went on to achieve prominence as photographers were major names like Kijima Takashi (1920–2011), Tōmatsu Shōmei (1930–2012), and Kawada Kikuji (1933–).
From around this time, Domon began to feel that he needed to find his own approach to realism and give it expression in his practice as a photographer. In 1955 he turned his camera to the children in the streets of the traditional working-class shitamachi areas of Tokyo where he lived, and published these images as Kōtō no kodomo (Children of Kōtō). But he was not satisfied with the results, and in July 1957 he began to travel to Hiroshima.
From July to November 1957 he traveled to Hiroshima six times, spending a total of 36 days in the city, interviewing and photographing “like a man possessed” at a number of institutions including the Atomic Bomb Survivors Hospital and schools for war orphans, children with special needs, and the blind. Even after plans had been finalized for his book Hiroshima (published in 1958), Domon traveled back and forth between Tokyo and Hiroshima nearly 10 more times, taking a total of 5,800 negatives. From these, he made prints of 800 images, finally winnowing these down to 171 for inclusion in the book. The sometimes shocking photographs were a labor of love, into which Domon had poured all his energy and talent. The book met with huge acclaim in Japan and overseas. The images used the full impact of Domon’s unflinching eye as he looked directly at his subjects, which included an operation to graft skin onto the scalp of a patient and twin girls at the Meiseien school for the blind.
In December 1959, he spent more than two weeks shooting in and around the Chikuhō mine in Fukuoka Prefecture in northern Kyūshū. The idea was to capture the lives of miners and their families for a book of photographs at a time when many mines were being closed owing to the shift from coal to oil. The Hiroshima book had been an expensive luxury production, priced at ¥2,300 when the average salary of an office worker was around ¥16,000 a month. For his next project, Domon was determined to do things differently. Chikuhō no kodomo-tachi (Children of Chikuhō) was printed on rough paper and published in a cheap edition costing just ¥100. The collection, centered on photos of sisters living with their father in a dilapidated shack, sold more than 100,000 copies and was even made into a film.
Failing Health, Undimmed Ambition
The visit to Chikuhō was a major turning point in Domon’s life. Shortly after completing the project, he collapsed with a brain hemorrhage and was forced to undergo a long period of rest and recuperation. Although he was eventually able to walk again after a grueling program of rehabilitation, it became impossible to undertake the kind of frenetic traveling and intense shooting schedules that had marked his career before his health crisis.
Before falling ill, Domon had begun work on a series of photos to be serialized in Kamera Mainichi with the title “Koji junrei” (Pilgrimages to Ancient Temples). The idea of exploring the roots of Japanese culture by photographing old temples and Buddhist sculptures was one that had been in Domon’s mind since before the war. The loss of his physical strength and freedom now forced him to concentrate his energies on the temple series, whether he liked it or not. That he was no longer able to put himself on the front lines in pursuit of images that would address burning social issues anymore must have been a painful wrench.
Despite his reduced mobility, Domon refused to be discouraged. With indomitable spirit, he continued to work on shooting photographs for his ancient temples series. After a second brain hemorrhage, he was forced to hire assistants to push him in a wheelchair and carry him up mountains so he could continue to shoot his pictures. Numerous anecdotes make it clear that his gruff, uncompromising attitude to his work survived undimmed despite the deterioration of his health. When he prepared to shoot pictures of the Eastern Tower at the temple Yakushiji in Nara despite the encroaching darkness, he angrily berated his assistants for their skepticism about his decision to go on shooting in such unpropitious conditions: “The damn pictures don’t come out because you don’t believe they’ll come out!” Despite his declining physical health, Domon continued to live up to his reputation as the “demon of photography.”
Domon’s series of Pilgrimages to the Ancient Temples eventually comprised five volumes. The first, featuring photographs of ancient temples around Nara and Asuka including Hōryūji, Chūgūji, and Yakushiji, came out in 1963; the fifth and final volume was published in 1975. This major project was truly Domon’s life’s work. Using a distinctive technique that exploited the precision and expressive powers of large-format cameras and repeated use of flash photography to bring out dynamic variations of light and shade, Domon’s close-up shots are imbued with rare energy and vigor and capture the finest details of Buddhist images and temples in a way that remains unsurpassed.
Domon’s appetite for photography remained unsated to the end. In 1978, after the completion of the pilgrimage project, he finally succeeded in photographing Murōji in the snow—fulfilling an ambition he had nursed for 40 years. In September 1979, however, he suffered a third brain hemorrhage, and spent the rest of his life in the hospital. He died in 1990, at the age of 80.
Domon Ken felt a duty to document social realities and bring them to the attention of the public through his work as a photojournalist. At the same time, throughout his life he continued to examine what it meant to be Japanese: What was the essence of Japanese culture? In an essay on “Things I Like” published in one edition of Koji Junrei in 1971, he wrote:
“Because I spend so much time traveling around temples and photographing Buddhist images in recent years, people sometimes wonder sarcastically if I’ve become some kind of Buddhist recluse. But the truth is that whether I’m taking pictures of Hiroshima or the image of the Yakushi Nyorai Buddha at Jingoji, my work is always about the same thing: a back-and-forth dialogue between the Japanese people—the same people who sensed that vitality 1,000 years ago.”
Domon Ken maintained this faith throughout his life, and on it built a timeless photographic world on an epic scale that transcends eras.
The Domon Ken Museum of Photography
The Domon Ken Museum of Photography was Japan’s first museum dedicated to photography, built to celebrate Domon’s achievements and to house his collection of 70,000 images. In 2009, it received a two-star listing in the Michelin Green Guide to Japan. The Domon Ken Award, one of Japan’s most prestigious photography prizes, was founded by the Mainichi Newspapers in 1981 and is awarded to the best book of documentary photographs published in a calendar year. Works that receive the prize become a permanent part of the museum’s collection.
- Address: Iimoriyama 2-13, Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture
- Telephone: 0234-31-0028
- Website: http://www.domonken-kinenkan.jp/english/
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: “Kondō Isami and Kurama Tengu,” by Domon Ken, 1955. All photos courtesy of the Domon Ken Museum of Photography.)