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The cultural and gendered shifts from portrait to happy snap
Before cameras were something families could afford to buy and use at home, photographs were composed, taken, and developed by photography studios. Photographers took the photographs in their studios through advanced booking or walk-in trade, and they also travelled to customer’s houses or pre-designated locations. Having your photo taken in a studio was an experience that cost money, generated a story to tell others, and provided evidence which could be displayed at home, carried on one’s body, or kept safe for future viewers.
By the 1930s, the photographic act was an established middle–class family habit, but one which, following the progression of Japan’s war in China, was almost universally interrupted as metal, chemicals, rubber, leather, bodies, and free time were mobilized for the war effort. Following Japanese surrender in August 1945, the postwar households of Japan renewed the practice of family photography with remarkable swiftness, and resumed buying, selling, using, and breaking cameras and associated paraphernalia in a sustained upward trend until 1990.
The particular surge of camera ownership in the late 1950s was heralded as “camera fever” (kamera netsu), and was buoyed by increased international export and a growing international reputation for the “Japanese Camera.” At the centre of this fever were male amateur photographers, a substantial portion of whom were otōsan kameraman (camera man fathers). Anecdotally, these new cultural figures were said to only emerge on Sundays, and were found with their cameras, capturing their families at leisure in parks and popular picnic spots rather than documenting the domestic spaces and labours of house and home. The photographs these Sunday photographers were taking were mainly posed portraits, or kinen shashin. However, starting in the early 1950s, the kinen shashin was criticised for its old-fashioned feel, as commentators lamented that the stiff expressions in photographs came from forced poses that were produced by the familiar refrain to stop and pose. Instead, the zeitgeist called on amateurs to “snap” (snappu).
The “snap” was initially more defined by its opposition to the posed photograph than by any prescriptive coordinates of style. In contrast to kinen shashin, for example, it was not expected to be taken as part of an institutionally-sanctioned record. Snaps were resolutely personal, informal, and designed to be taken quickly and instinctively. Lauded in postwar amateur photography discourse, the “snap” was described as the only way the amateur photographer could really catch reality and the best way to ensure photographs were more emotionally accurate. The development of the happy snapper and the photos they took had two influences. The first was the postwar artistic turn toward realism, or rearizmu, taken by Japanese art photographers, a thorough account of which has been made by Julia Thomas (2008). The second influence was the profit ambitions of the national camera industry. The encouragement to snap away was aimed at both reducing the skills barrier holding people back from having a camera and at getting people to use and buy more exposures. Snap advocacy was specifically geared at getting women behind the lens and getting everyday family life in the frame. The assumed daily, physical contact women had with their children was seen as the optimum condition for “snapping,” whereas photographs that benefitted from physical distance, such as outings or school sports’ days (undō kai), were suggested as more appropriate subjects for fathers to capture.
There are two threads concerning how the snap folds into Isao's story. The first is in the development of his style of photography. While he did experiment with the snappu he largely preferred posed photographs. Second, the scarcity of snaps in the family albums reflects how he spent his time and the time-space constraints of the snap. The snappish turn that professionals advocated were unrealistic for many otōsan kameraman; capturing your child napping, fighting, or lost in play was therefore handed to the emergent figure of the snappy mother.
media/The newlyweds pose outside the Atami Ocean Hotel 1 January 1941.jpg
Making myself: Yajima Isao as subject
How Isao behaved when he was in front of the camera
We know that Isao is largely behind the camera when his young family is in the frame in the course of Album 1. However, in the full body of photographs which make up Album 1, Isao still had plenty of room to experiment with and refine his personal style of pose. As he moved more concretely behind the camera, those images in which he featured or was the focus begin to demonstrate a particular style of self-presentation that we can call “disengazed.” With the exception of formal group photographs or portraits, Isao largely avoided the “eye” of the camera. Alongside caption tone and word choice, it is this refusal to surrender to the subject-making of his own camera which marks Isao out as the primary photo taker of the Yajima albums, and the most likely creator.
So what did this disengazed pose involve? Largely it affected Isao when he was taking self-portraits. In these cases he often retreated alone to the garden and used the timer. He rarely looked directly at the camera, thus differentiating these self-styled photographs from the style of studio pose he was used to. Instead, he developed a style of pose where he looked at a point beyond the camera, usually to his right. This reminds viewers, one of whom was of course Isao, that there is much the camera cannot see. It is also possible that Isao’s middle-distance stare was the result of his own discomfort as a photographic subject and he found himself able to dislodge this awkwardness by not looking directly at the camera.
Why does it matter how Isao presented himself in his photographs? It matters because Isao's visual behaviours of gaze and crop demonstrate that he was keenly aware of the transformation work the camera did in making a version of someone, rather than a replica. He consciously used the camera, final prints and album format to produce a particular and particularly cohesive version of his many selves: dentist, father, partner, traveller and empowered consumer. His goal in the albums was not–it seems–documentation, but self-elevation to the status of a desirable and interesting subject.
Desire seems to have been immensely important to the Isao that is made visible through these albums. This Isao not only wanted to look good himself, but appears to have delighted in Eiko as she posed for him. This desire is alluded to on the last page of Album 1 in a scrapbook style collation of portrait photos of Eiko taken before she married Isao:
This page displays Eiko's visual life before Isao and children. It may also display her involvement in the album's construction. If so, she would have been doing what amateur photography discourse suggested women could, and should, do to pull their weight in the labour of photographing the family. As one guide, Twelve Months of Family Photographs (Masuda 1953), suggested, since fathers were often unwilling to make albums, and given they had already taken the photos in their role as otōsan kameraman, “wouldn’t it be good if this task was something mother took charge of?” As Kerry Ross has shown in her survey of early twentieth century how-to literature, in the hopes of transforming photography from the father’s great escape to a family pursuit, various elements of the photographic process were apportioned to other family members. This was, as Ross argues, a strategy to soothe new tensions whereby photography, as a largely solitary pursuit, threatened how time and space were used at home (Ross 2015 p.66). Then again, a less enticing and more practical explanation might also be behind this lone page; with the album housing so many of Isao's pre-parenthood photographs, perhaps on sorting through boxes one day, Isao or Eiko discovered these old portraits and quite practically decided that the album was a good place to store them. Whether practical or devotional we will never know. However, what is affirmed by this page of portraits is that Eiko's likeness and her visual history was as much a part of this album project as was Isao's.