“Sunappu” Photography in Japan


A review of Sunappu: A Genre of Japanese Photography, 1930-1980, by Yoshiaki Kai.

Yoshiaki Kai’s compelling dissertation examines the development of so-called sunappu photography in Japanese visual culture from its roots in the 1930s through the 1970s.  Drawing attention to a concept that has been completely overlooked in English language sources and never critically analyzed in the Japanese literature, Kai describes sunappu as being “at once a technique, a genre, and a discourse” (p. 4).  He argues that sunappu formed a distinctive entity in the world of Japanese photography, one related to but not synonymous with Western conceptions of the snapshot.  His project investigates both the genealogy of the concept and the ways in which this approach was used by select Japanese photographers to address a variety of broader cultural issues, including debates over the concept of Riarizumu (Realism) in the 1950s, reactions to the American presence in Japanese culture of the 1960s, and the concept of nichijōsei or “everydayness” in the 1970s.

Kai traces subtle but important changes in sunappu’s meanings from its earliest usage, where it referred to candid photographs taken of a subject who was unaware of the camera, through its later stages, where it more closely approached the casual and aesthetically mundane amateur photos implied by the English-language term snapshot. He ties sunappu to innovations in photographic technology, with the use of handheld cameras and roll film enabling such photos to flourish by the 1950s. The camera and film industries themselves were also key components in the genre’s evolution. These “photographic apparatus industries” (p. 5) were instrumental in supporting photography periodicals and contests that shaped a dialogue of sunappu discourse between professionals and amateurs.  Notably, photo essays in magazines and individual artist books (photobooks) were the primary methods of exhibiting photography in Japan. These modes of display, in which sequencing and juxtapositions are key, are very different than the single fine art print tradition, and they are particularly well suited to sunappu.  Kai also situates sunappu in terms of its dialogue with Western photography, suggesting that the degree of receptivity towards Western photographers was shaped by current trends within sunappu.  Thus foreign photographers whose work resonated with sunappu tended to have a much more significant impact on the Japanese photographic world.

The rich array of primary sources Kai incorporates includes technical photography manuals, writing by and about professional photographers in magazines like Asahi Camera and Camera Mainichi, photo essays in said magazines, and photobooks such as Ken Domon’s Chikuhō no kodomotachi (The Children of Chikuhō, Tokyo: Patoria shoten, 1960) and Shōmei Tōmatsu’s Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa (Tokyo: Shaken, 1969).  This material is presented using a combined chronological and thematic approach. Each chapter begins with a discussion of how the idea of sunappu shifted during the relevant period. Kai then focuses on one or two representative photographers in greater depth, analyzing how their images exemplified the current nuances of sunappu and situating their work within the context of other societal trends.

Chapter 1, “The Birth of Sunappu in Japanese Photography,” covers the origins of the term sunappu, linking it to the concept of sukecchi (sketch), which appeared in photo magazines in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Sukecchi referred to photographs taken quickly, but even at this early stage, it also seemed to signify the process and action of making such images.  Though the concept of sunappu was fairly well formulated by the 1930s, the first truly iconic sunappu images date to the postwar period. The work of Ihei Kimura was instrumental in this early phase. Kimura is often compared within Japan to Henri Cartier-Bresson. Kai articulates how his book Kimura Ihei kessaku shashinshū (Select Pictures by Ihei Kimura, Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1954) was significantly inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment (Images à la sauvette, Paris: Éditions Verve, 1952), particularly in the flattening of the depth of field but also in other aspects such as the ambiguous meanings conveyed by the images. Kai suggests that Kimura’s connection to Cartier-Bresson reveals a kind of “creative misinterpretation” (p. 60) that is typical of the Japanese appropriation of work by Western photographers.

Chapter 2, “Sunappu and Photojournalism in the 1950s,” focuses on sunappu’s ambiguous relationship to the overlapping categories of photojournalism, photo reportage (hōdō shashin), and Riarizumu shashin, or Realist photography, during the postwar period. Ken Domon was a central figure in defining these terms. Domon emphasized sunappu as the only suitable approach for Riarizumu, or photos that captured objective depictions of contemporary culture and social issues completely free of the photographer’s intervention (although, as Kai highlights, Domon’s comments on these various categories could be quite contradictory). Here Kai also examines the important role of sunappu in facilitating interactions between professional and amateur photographers. The photographic industry was a significant contributor to Japan’s postwar economic recovery, and thanks to affordable 35mm cameras, photography became much more accessible. Both Kimura and Domon directly engaged with amateurs as judges in photo contests and in their written commentaries in photography magazines, where they encouraged readers to produce sunappu photography.

Chapter 3, “Targeting America: The Work of Shōmei Tōmatsu and Daido Moriyama in the 1960s” explores the dramatic shift from 1950s realism to the much more aggressive images of Tōmatsu and Moriyama. Kai attributes the significant stylistic changes embodied by this phase of sunappu to two main factors: the widespread popularity of the SLR (single lens reflex) camera, often used with long lenses that compressed perspective, and the influence of works by William Klein and Robert Frank on the Japanese photography scene. Both Tōmatsu and Moriyama drew on the more confrontational capabilities permitted by sunappu technique to grapple with the Americanization of Japanese society. Tōmatsu’s work of the 1960s ultimately was a hybrid of styles and techniques, creating non-linear narratives to suggest a pessimistic mood characteristic of Japanese society as a whole as it dealt with the forces of Americanization.  Though not as explicitly linked to sunappu as his contemporary Moriyama, Tōmatsu used sunappu techniques to “emphasize his antagonistic relationships with his subjects” (p. 184). Moriyama, who appropriated imagery from Andy Warhol and Jack Kerouac in his exploration of Americana, more deliberately used the term sunappu in reference to his own work. His bure, boke, or blurred, out of focus style can be linked particularly to sunappu’s instantaneous qualities. Rather than the human subjects found in most earlier sunappu, Moriyama focused on inanimate objects and his experience on the streets, which provided “a place for him to encounter and experience American culture” (p. 197).

Chapter 4, “Sunappu and the Everyday” links sunappu to the related concepts of konpora, the contemporary, and nichijōsei, or everydayness. Here too a major inspiration (or creative misinterpretation) came from the West, in this case the catalog accompanying the 1966 exhibition curated by Nathan Lyons, Contemporary Photographers: Toward a Social Landscape (New York: Horizon Press, 1966), which included work by Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Danny Lyon, and Duane Michaels.  Kai’s exploration of konpora and nichijōsei focuses on images from the 1970s by Shigeo Gochō and Nobuyoshi Araki.  While these two artists have typically been discussed as embodying a new trend towards a more personal style of photography, Kai argues that their work represents another phase in the development of sunappu.  This iteration employed an aesthetic that was nearly the complete opposite of Moriyama’s bure, boke. It consisted of images of mundane scenes of daily life often shot from a distance with a standard or wide lens and oriented horizontally, and with the main subject frequently centered in the frame.  Both photographers fit into the sunappu discourse by emphasizing candidness, while also drawing on the tradition of family snapshots. Gochō used this approach to depict everyday scenes in Hibi (Days, Tokyo: privately published, 1971), a photobook he co-authored with Masao Sekiguchi, while Araki used his own life to explore the everyday in works like Sentimental Journey (Tokyo: privately printed, 1971), which chronicles his honeymoon in a series of candid images.

The final chapter, “Sunappu Seen from Abroad: Reconsidering the Exhibition New Japanese Photography” examines how Japanese photography was interpreted in the first major international postwar exhibition of the medium, curated by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1974. Sunappu images dominated the exhibition, though other genres were included.  However, the complexities of sunappu were not well understood by either Szarkowski or the audience. Lacking any historical context, viewers interpreted the images in a straightforward fashion “as raw and transparent visual documents of contemporary Japanese society” (p. 254). This was due in large part to sunappu’s distinctive qualities, namely “its relative indifference to personal expressions and concern for realistic representations of the world” (p. 273). The dissertation concludes with a short chapter addressing shifts in photographic practices from the 1980s onward that have since overtaken sunappu as a primary means of expression.

This is a major contribution to the scholarly literature that adds significantly to our understanding of twentieth-century Japanese photography.  In lucid prose, Kai articulates the changing contours of sunappu over time and convincingly argues for its usefulness as a singular diachronic concept linking a disparate array of images. This project will be of particular interest to scholars of modern Japanese art, history, and culture as well as a broader audience interested in photography and visual culture in general.

Karen M. Fraser
Department of Art and Art History
Santa Clara University

Primary Sources

Photographic magazines: Camera, Photo Times, Asahi Camera, Camera Mainichi, among others.

Photobooks and artist’s books: Ken Domon’s Chikuhō no kodomotachi (The Children of Chikuhō, Tokyo: Patoria shoten, 1960) and Shōmei Tōmatsu’s Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa (Tokyo: Shaken, 1969), among others.

Technical guidebooks: Asahi Shimbunsha, ed., Sunappu (Vol. 2, Asahi camera kōza [Asahi Camera Lecture Series], Tokyo: Asashi Shimbunsha, 1955) and Yoshio Watanabe, Sunappu shashin no neraikata utsushikata (How to Aim at and Shoot Sunappu Photography, Vol. 4, Shashin jitsugi dai kōza [Extended Lectures on the Practical Techniques of Photography], Tokyo: Genkōsha, 1937), among others.

Dissertation Information

City University of New York. 2012. 373 pp.  Primary Advisor: Geoffrey Batchen.


Image: Spread from Yoshio Watanabe, Sunappu shashin noneraikata utsushikata (How to Aim at and Shoot Sunappu Photography), vol.4, Shashin jitsugi daikôza (Extended Lectures on the Practical Techniques of Photography) (Tokyo: Genkôsha, 1937),unpaginated.

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