Oliver L. Austin’s Photos of Occupation-era Japan

A selection of Oliver L. Austin’s Photos of Occupation-era Japan are on display at the National Showa Memorial Museum until Sunday, May 6th. Here’s the link to the museum’s post about the exhibition. It’s free, so you can’t beat that. There’s also a concurrent exhibition of photos of Japanese schoolgirls from the war era, and just after the war that is also free. I highly recommend making the time to go to see them. The museum is right on top of Kudanshita station, and very close to the Kitanomaru Koen and Yasukuni Shrine, for those in the touristing mood.

I was in love with Austin’s photos, because they prove two common axioms in photography. One is “f/8 and be there,” and the other is, “time improves photography.”

Despite what the wonderful website responsible for collecting Austin’s photos and maintaining his legacy says, I really couldn’t tell you that Austin is a great photographer. But that doesn’t matter, because the photos are still great. The old saw is that the way to take great photos is “f/8 and be there,” and in the immediate post-war era, there were so few photographers in Japan shooting slides. So, now, half a century later, a pile of old slides of Japan in the late 40s and early 50s is a literal treasure trove. I’m not entirely sure of the logic, but the most interesting photos seem to be left out of the online collection I linked at the beginning of this paragraph. The name of the current copyright holder of the photographs seemed to be prominently displayed in lots of places around the exhibition, so perhaps there’s some financial motivation, or an emotional or sentimental reason to control the images still. So I won’t be reproducing them here.

Which is fine. You should go see them for yourself. I’d seen old photos of the famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing before, so that was fun to see, but not illuminating. The photo of what stood where Omotesando Hills now stands was pretty illuminating though. And there was one photo that straight up made me jealous: the photo of Mt Fuji and the Kokkai-gijido. The Kokkai-gijido, Japan’s version of the US Capitol Building, is fascinating piece of architecture. It looks as if someone saw the Ennis House, (You know the Ennis House from Bladerunner.) and said, “Hey, Frank, that was awesome, could you do that again, but make it more like the Pyramids at Giza, and make it a building for our politicians to do business in? Thanks.” The contrast between the geometrically unnatural peak of Kokkai-gijido and Mt Fuji is an interesting one, but with all the air pollution and skyscrapers that have been built since, it never occurred to me that such a shot would have been possible. And, upon digging into to a little, it’s clear that it’s not possible anymore from the relatively low-to-the-ground angle that Austin captured.

The thing is, looking at that photo of Mt Fuji, and also at Austin’s photo of another Frank Lloyd Wright creation, the Imperial Hotel, made me super motivated to find a time machine and go back in time to shoot that era of Tokyo – because the photos were photos that let you see what photos could have been possible, if the photographer had been more willing or financially able to put more work into the photos. I just gotta make sure he really has a time machine. More seriously, though – we don’t have time machines, but we do have now. I have photos of parts of Kyoto and Osaka that are gone forever. You can never go back in time to that one moment where you should have taken a photo, but you can always take a photo now. That’s why this blog has that Wayne Gretzky quote over there, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

And that brings me to the second axiom, “time improves photography.” Time can’t improve the technical skill of an image, but it can make the contents of the image more valuable. The Austin photos, and the concurrent exhibition’s photos of war-era schoolgirls, are highly valuable because they’re photos of a thing that we know, but also of a different version of it, one that we hardly understand. A class of school girls is a known thing. The uniforms haven’t even changed that much. Seeing a photo of them practicing jō and bokken kata is kinda cool, and also not very different than now, if you hang out with the right kids. But a parade of schoolgirls in uniform, in gas masks, is unsettling. It’s illuminating.

A lot of the Austin photos are illuminating, but not unsettling. From the exhibition, you get the feeling of a guy who’s excited to be where he is, lucky to be on an adventure, and lucky enough to be financially able to afford to shoot slides in the post-war era. And we’re all incredibly fortunate that he did. The photos might not be technically excellent, but they’re fantastic to have, and they are rare documents of an era that is critical to shaping modern Japan. one of the things that struck me was how much the exhibition felt influenced by what a lot of people would call the Magnum style of street photography. Cartier-Bresson’s genre-shaping The Decisive Moment was not published until 1952, two years after the last dated photo in the exhibition, but you can see how perhaps Cartier-Bresson, Capa, and the other early Magnum photographers were riding a wave of technological transformation that lesser-known photographers and hobbyists were also swept up in. There were times looking at the photos that I could feel that excitement of exploring somewhere new, and photographing it as I experience it. It made me want to travel and shoot a new city.

And really, that’s probably the highest compliment any photo exhibition can get – that it makes you think differently about things you thought you knew, and that it makes you want to take photos. So, if you have the time, please go see the Oliver L. Austin exhibition in the National Showa Memorial Museum. You only have until May 5th. Doooo it.