DodhersHiroshi Hamaya: When lyricism and poetry become photographs

Hiroshi Hamaya, a pioneer man of the generation that inaugurated the reportage photography in the Japanese press, but whose work did not focus solely on the journalistic aspect. Defined as "photographer of the sky" by Japanese poet Daigaku Horiguchi

Hiroshi Hamaya, a pioneer man of the generation that inaugurated the reportage photography in the Japanese press, but whose work did not focus solely on the journalistic aspect. Defined as “photographer of the sky” by Japanese poet Daigaku Horiguchi, most of his works are full of tranquility, beauty and strength that reflect shots of moments that would become eternal. 

Hiroshi Hamaya was born in Ueno, Japan on 28th march, 1915. He had a happy childhood, surrounded by the affection of his parents and his three brothers and two sisters. In his infancy, Ueno and Asakusa neighborhoods abounded entertainment centers such as theaters and cinemas. Hiroshi frequently went to the movies with his older brothers. Many of the things he discovered in those cinemas aroused his curiosity, which would grow more over time.

I like the idea that my work isn’t intended only for the Earth, but for the entire Universe.

Hamaya photographed by Ian Berry in a Scottish cafe in 1973 | Image source: Wikipedia

Despite those happy moments, his childhood was marked by a disaster in 1923, the great earthquake that struck the Kanto region. That disaster triggered a series of events in Japan that also affected the Hamaya family: the crisis had accelerated the disappearance of democracy, a fact that allowed the military to gain power. Victims of the profound changes that the region suffered as a result, the Hamaya family was forced to change residences pretty often (up to seven times) which caused Hiroshi to leave his studies prematurely.

At 15, Masuno (a friend of his father) gave him a Kodak Brownie. At that time, photography could not even be considered a hobby: cameras were expensive and few could afford them. Hiroshi soon showed the passion he felt for photography, so he began to devote himself to it from a young age. This is how, in 1930, he made his first photographs whose subjects would be, in addition to family, friends and relatives, the reconstructions made after the earthquake and the parties to celebrate them.

His interest had been centered, initially, in his social environment. In 1933, when he finished his studies at Kantô Commercial School at the age of 18, he entered the photography department of the aviation laboratory. Hiroshi had just discovered a completely new world for him, which offered him experiences never before lived. There, he took his first aerial photographs of Ginza.

The subject I liked best was painting, but the teachers didn’t approve of my experiments and sometimes criticized me in front of the whole class. Maybe my love for photography came from that humiliation: a photo is something that you develop and print yourself, in the dark, and that remains in the dark until you decide to show it.

However, the department had to close three months later. He went to work for Oriental Photo Industrial Co in 1936, where he learns about the photographic technique in its entirety (thus completing his training as a photographer). Shortly after 1935, the world of photography undergoes a change, with the rise of magazines like “Life” and the beginning of graphic journalism, which would also arrive to Japan, a fact that would open many doors for Hiroshi.

In 1937, he began to work as a freelance photographer. In 1939, his career as a photographer begins to change. He had received a commission from Graphic magazine to prepare a report on the winter exercises of the military corps in the town of Takada. He was able to make some photographs, but the project was canceled shortly after, as the war was approaching. Hamaya then decides to take photographs of the winter area.

This change of environment caused a notable change in his work, as Hamaya had mainly focused on urban environment photography. That same year, he met the anthropologist Keizo Shibusawa, founder of the Tokyo Attic Museum, who for years would support and finance his work in the prefecture of Niigata, where he studied the customs and traditions of the New Year in the villages of the Niigata prefecture. 

For years my only purpose was to do documentary photos for magazines, without any idea that they were part of a larger project. It was as if I were carried along by a stream—even though I believed that the current was taking me in the right direction.

Between 1940 and 1942, he left the rural landscape and traveled throughout Manchuria for a month, at the invitation of Manchurian Railways. That’s when he decides to devote himself fully to journalism. He photographs these areas until they were invaded by Japan in World War II. After the war, he continued photographing the north of the Japanese country, where he made his famous series of photographs entitled “Yukiguni” (Snow land).

From 1950, he began documenting life in big cities, while still reporting on rural Japanese life. His later work collected from the anti-American demonstrations of Tokyo in the 60’s (the same decade when he became the first Asian photographer who joined the prestigious Magnum agency), to the Himalayan landscapes from the air, photographs of the seas of the south, and a series of images from the U.S in the 70’s.

Hamaya died on March 6, 1999 in Tokyo.

Tanya Akkari

Having studied International Relations, there’s a present passion for different cultures, people and history which gives rise to an interest in learning and writing about all those subjects.

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