This picture appeared in Tōmatsu’s first book, Nagasaki 11:02, whose title marks the minute that an American atomic bomb devastated Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, precipitating the end of World War II. The subject is Senji Yamaguchi, who survived the explosion but was permanently scarred by it. Tōmatsu cast Yamaguchi’s face in shadow and sharply illuminated his scars to register a frightening, irregular form—a striking metaphor for violence and suffering. The picture was made in the 1960s, during Japan’s extraordinary postwar economic recovery, and it may be interpreted as not only a cry of protest against the bomb but also a call to memory to the Japanese people.
Japanese photographers of Tōmatsu’s generation felt compelled to confront the unprecedented catastrophe that had been unleashed on their people, and the war itself had opened a path for them to do so: the American occupation dismantled the Shinto state, dissolving the emperor’s autocratic rule. Liberated from the weight of ancient cultural strictures, Tōmatsu and his contemporaries created a highly expressive style of photography, full of dramatic forms and abrupt contrasts of light and dark, through which they were able to address the profound events that had shaped their lives.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)