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Absence and image
Thinking with the family photograph to consider the meeting points of absence, presence and image
Look at the photograph above. When an unknown photographer took this photograph of a moderately wealthy family in his studio in northeastern Japan’s Tōhoku region, the father was not there. The studio, although designed to be invisible, is revealed to viewers upon closer inspection; notice the mock-grand door frame behind the group and the painted outline of a door behind the partly pulled curtain. One business day, a professional photographer took this photograph of the assembled family group—six children, their grandmother or maid, and a young woman who was likely the mother of one, some, or all of the children. However, using a technique known as kessei waku or “frame of absence,” the photographer materialised the absent patriarch. The resulting effect is that father seems to float and preside over the family image, which is as comical as it is indicative of the aesthetic malleability of both the photographic moment and the social purpose of the image. In the case of this unknown family, the floating father reinforces the purpose of the family photograph as an exercise designed to display all members. It also suggests that the photograph offered a way to be present while absent echoing the routine Isao was exercising in his photographs of Eiko and the children as he began to step behind the camera.
The potential of the family photograph as a source and the reason it is worth “thinking with” (Darnton 1984) when we think about the family in Japan, is because it pushes us to talk differently about men's absence in postwar Japan as well as the appearances of absence in our archives. Perhaps it is better to say it pushes us to talk more widely about men's movement in and around their family particularly in questioning the gendered power play behind who or what is “made visible” in the historic record—both personal and public (Thomas 2008). The artificiality of the floating figurehead while a practical solution to absence and producing comic effect, prompts a greater sensitivity on the visual charade of completeness particularly at work in group photos. What happens, however, if one person has to take the photograph? In Album 1 there is a single image which emphasises not only that Isao and his family's expectation that he is the visual labourer behind their photographic record, but also that this is a labour which is gendered as male. The story of that photograph follows the image on the left.
On 3 January 1960, the sun was shining. It was the New Year holiday and Isao, Eiko, and Kazu were visiting the hot spring resort of Izu with their fond friends, regular travel companions, and ballroom dancers, the Iwabuchis. Before setting off for a day’s sightseeing, the two families stood in front of their parked cars, huddled together, and smiled for the camera. Unfamiliar to the Yajimas, they would pose for two photographers before setting off that morning. Iwabuchi Sensei took the first photograph. Before he clicked the shutter, the group organised into two clusters of three bodies. As Iwabuchi Sensei looked through the viewfinder, on the left was the Yajima family; Eiko stood on edge of the group, her arm touching Isao’s, and Isao put his arm around Kazu’s shoulders, pulling him closer and disturbing the centre-line of the image. To the right, Mrs Iwabuchi stood upright, and her two young children stood close together and stared ahead. Iwabuchi Sensei took the photograph, then Isao uncurled his arm from Kazu and walked over to take the camera and took the second photograph. This time, as Iwabuchi Sensei returned from behind the camera, the group split into men and women to retain the balance of two clusters of three bodies.
Isao went on to devote three pages of Album 1 to this day trip, and he chose to start the sequence with these two images. At first glance, the narrative statement these two photos make appears clear—this was taken at the outset, before the day’s trip, these are the people who were there, and you can expect to see all or some of them in the photos that follow. However, looking at the space between the photos—the material, papery space on the album page—the waiting between the photos becomes manifest through Iwabuchi Sensei and Isao seeming to travel across the images. It is affirming to the wider argument of this module that only the fathers take the photographs but more emphatic is the sense that the province and privilege of movement is one monopolised as male. So, while the absent hardworking father might scaffold discourses of postwar masculinity and fathering in Japan, this is twinned with a largely invisible pulse of constant and free movement (DasGupta 2012).
A note on ethics
Buying and writing about someone else's photographs
A note to readers: this page is structured in a question and answer format. If you have any connection to the images in this module, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where did the Yajima albums come from?
The albums were bought at Yokohama Antiques World (Yokohama kottō warudo) in 2015. They were bought as a bundle of three. It is possible others in the collection had already been bought or were never acquired by the seller. The seller confirmed that he had acquired the albums in Tokyo and drawing on discussions with other retroware and antique vendors across the city in 2015, box auctions are a commonplace means for them to acquire stock from old or abandoned houses, or from owners selling on their family possessions for a profit. The use of such albums in scholarship on amateur photography is commonplace. In the wider global scholarship Mette Sandbye, for example, draws on her "vast collection" to think about and think with in considering image and family (Sandbye 2014). Elizabeth Edwards, meanwhile, has commented on the discarding of family albums (Edwards and Hart 2004).
Do the family know that you have their photographs?
No. The author is actively looking for the family and a relevant institution has been approached for any contact information. This module also exists as a way of—hopefully—reaching the family. However, it is possible the remaining family members know the album was sold as there are signs that someone—perhaps a family member—prepared the albums for sale by removing some images to discard separately, or perhaps for framing as individual prints.
What have you done to protect personal information?
As it is likely some of the family are still alive, all identifying information has been changed (names, addresses, car registration plates etc.) You will notice that these features are blurred or cropped out of the images in this module.
Are all photographs in this module from the Yajima albums?
No. The image of a family from Tohoku which includes the father shown through kessei waku was bought separately and is used here to provide something to think with in considering absence and image.