Japan . . . a chapter of image (and sound)

It was late in the year of 1961 when W. Eugene Smith and Carole Thomas traveled to Japan. Smith was hired via the fledgling  Japanese public relations firm Cosmo PR to produce photographs for a publication on behalf of the firm’s first client, Hitachi. This assignment, like Smith’s Pittsburgh project/expedition/ordeal, started out as a simple one that got complicated and ended up taking the better part of a year to complete. The end result appeared in 1963 as Japan . . . a chapter of image. There were also excerpts  of Smith’s photographs and writing (in partnership with partner Carole Thomas) that appeared in Life Magazine, Pentax’s Asahi magazine, and Hitachi’s Age of Tomorrow. (With thanks for this list to Jim Hughes for his W. Eugene Smith biography)

In addition to the photographic and written work, Smith also made a lot of recordings during this trip. Recently, I have been listening to this group of tapes and trying to gain some insight into Smith’s experience in Japan during this stretch. We still have about 30 reels of unheard W. Eugene Smith tape recordings from Japan to catalog. A couple of tapes I’ve listened to over the last couple of weeks offer some specific insight into Smith’s motives for making this set of recordings. In a lecture at Hitachi, Smith had a Q&A  session wherein he described his photo work there in terms of continuing “to weave in a rhapsodic symphony this impression of balance that I wish to try to give to the rest of the world.”  It’s clear that Smith more concerned with making a great photo essay than fulfilling his contract and getting paid. There’s an earlier tape where Smith speaks to this same goal of representing  with “truth” and “respect” not just the company, but Japan’s people and land. Also, a great line about how Smith insisted on a clause in his contract that specified that no images he made for this assignment could be utilized for the support or exaltation of war.

There are also recordings that capture the ambient sounds of the Roppongi neighborhood where Smith lived and had a darkroom during this time.  A conversation with one of his assistants starts off about “honey buckets” or fertilizer buckets and ends up with an inquiry into the different sources of early morning and late afternoon street songs from sellers of noodles, tofu,  and seashells (for miso soup). Smith expresses a wish to bring in all kinds of street singers to record their different sounds and we hope to hear  these on his tapes. We hope to write more about this once we’ve heard these tapes and maybe post or transcript some of the more interesting meetings or outings, like the one that produced a fragment of 1962 Roppongi nightclub jazz.

It was an interesting juncture in history and Japan’s history. As Carole Thomas told Sam in a 2003 interview:

“Tokyo at that time was in transition, so you’d have a skyscraper next to a shack, where the guy would come out in the morning in his pajamas and sweep his front sidewalk, in his pajamas, next to a building that looks like a skyscraper in New York City.  So visually that’s fascinating.”

Hopefully, we will find some more fascinating audio to augment this history.

-Dan Partridge

1 Comment

  1. Jazz Man Said,

    September 4, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    Smith had a rewarding experience in Japan. He absorbed the elements of society there. I need to check out the photographs of his journey there.