Philosophy & Reflections

In Homage to – and Defence of – the Work of Tatsuo Suzuki – By Steven Bleistein

February 17, 2020

No worthwhile art ever escapes at least some controversy of some kind from some people at some time. Even Ansel Adams, whom no one would likely consider controversial, was no stranger to controversy himself. In the 1940s, Adams produced a series of photographs of interned Japanese-Americans in the landscape of the Manzanar camp, entitled “Born Free and Equal.” Even long after the end of Word War II, these photographs still invite controversy, some of which even emanates from the Japanese-American community itself!

Renowned Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama used his work to criticize Japan’s martial past and photographed anti-government protests in Japan during the 1960s in support of the anti-war movement. His fellow photographic artist Nobuyoshi Araki photographed women nude in full bondage regalia and even photographed nudes of his own wife Yoko. He later photographed Yoko during her slow decline in her battle with cancer, which she ultimately lost.  Both photographers along with others formed a collective and issued a magazine entitled “Provoke.” These photographers were certainly not at all cagey about the objective of their art!

All significant art and every significant artist at some point make people uncomfortable, and even angry. So it is no surprise that notable Japanese Street photographer Tatsuo Suzuki, founder of the photography collective Void Tokyo and former Fujifilm X-Photographer, found himself mired in a controversy of his own. 

Suzuki has long been partial to Fujifilm’s X100 series cameras, and so when Fujifilm recently launched its new X100V, featuring Suzuki and his work as part of the marketing launch was a no-brainer. However, a video Fujifilm had posted on its corporate website of Suzuki practising his art in the streets of Tokyo elicited criticism of Suzuki’s method from the public that proved too much for Fujifilm to bear. In the video, Suzuki weaves and bobs in the crowd getting right in the faces of his subjects, some of whom are visibly perturbed.

Fujifilm promptly expunged from its website all mention of Tatsuo Suzuki and removed him from its X-Photographer roster so thoroughly that there is not a trace of his ever having existed there—an erasure job so well done as to make a Soviet propagandist blush. Ironically, Fujifilm’s expungement of Suzuki, far from drawing attention away from him, has likely boosted awareness among people who had not yet heard of him, bolstered his celebrity if not notoriety, and added further heft to his street cred as a serious artist.

In Japan at least, Suzuki is doing nothing illegal in terms of fine art photography or photojournalism in public spaces. The laws in Japan are remarkably clear on this, as long as you can read Japanese. (I can and do.) While Suzuki violates no laws regarding photographing people in public, police likely could stop him just for being a public nuisance should they have a mind to do so. According to Suzuki, they never have.

Legal or not, whether Suzuki’s methods are ethical and proper is an entirely different question. The ethics of street photography and its myriad methods should always be worthy of debate in my view no matter how you happen to feel about street photography at the moment.

Now I don’t fault Fujifilm for dropping Suzuki. There is nothing immoral or unethical about Fujifilm’s decision. In fact, morality and ethics have nothing to do their decision. So all those who cheer Fujifilm for doing the right thing or otherwise condemn Fujifilm for doing the wrong thing, save your breath. They don’t care.

Selling cameras is Fujifilm’s business, not making art, but the company’s managers appear happy to patron artists as long as patronage supports the primary business objective of—once again—selling cameras, in case you have forgotten. That’s their prerogative, and Fujifilm’s executives have a fiduciary imperative to act in the best interests of the owners of the business. That’s all. Nothing more.

So while Fujifilm’s decision was not driven one way or the other by ethics, hypocrisy on other other hand is an open question in my view. After all, how can you possibly tout the X100V as the quintessential street photography tool of choice while highlighting one of the most significant practitioners of the art in our time only to abruptly erase him from your history as soon as an inevitable artistic controversy arises? 

As for me, I look to Fujifilm for cameras, not artistic inspiration. Tatsuo Suzuki is one of my most significant artistic influences, among whom I also include some well-known artists like Daido Moriyama and Jacob Aue Sobol, as well as some of whom you have perhaps not yet heard, like Meg Hewitt, Josh White Chu Viet HaSouhayl A., Tadashi Onishi, and Kawara Chan. If you are unfamiliar with any of the artists I have mentioned, have a look, and see their art for yourself.

The photos in this piece I have shot recently in the Shibuya and Aoyama areas of Tokyo, Tatsuo Suzuki’s stomping ground, in homage to him.

Well done, Tatsuo! I tip my hat to you!

I am a street photographer who lives in Japan. If you would like to see more of my work, have a look at my website bleisteinphoto.com, or my Instagram @sbleistein

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30 Comments

  • Reply
    Roger B
    February 17, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Fuji’s instant panic-driven self-censorship is pathetic and typical of the corporate world today.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      February 17, 2020 at 8:26 pm

      Roger,

      Let’s not overreact here. Panic-driven? probably. Fujifilm’s action was rash. Self-censorship? Not so sure. Self-censorship implies that Fujifilm managers respect and appreciate Tatsuo Suzuki’s art and are afraid to say or show so out of fear of public reaction. In my opinion, managers at Fujifilm are indifferent to Tatsuo Suzuki’s art. They view him has as a marketing tool that did not work out as planned.

      As for “typical of the corporate world today,” I don’t think so. Many company leaders take stands on controversial issues in line with what they view as company values, and adhere to them even when there is blowback.

      In my opinion, Fujifilm missed an opportunity here. Bruce Gilden’s aggressive methods not once ever hurt sales at Leica. Leica is making money hand-over-fist, whereas FujiFilm’s digital camera division is struggling.

  • Reply
    Stuart L Marcus
    February 17, 2020 at 5:35 pm

    Kudos to you, Mr. Bleistein, for correctly pointing out Fujifilm’s literal “erasure” of an aggressive street photographer. The video (I saw it before it was taken down) showed Suzuki to be aggressive, but considerably less aggressive than paparazzi are when they attack celebrities. Still, Fujifilm was within its rights to remove him as a potential impediment to sales of their cameras to more sensitive souls.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      February 17, 2020 at 8:38 pm

      Note that no X-Photographer is a paparazzo. But artists beware. Fujifilm wants safe, pretty pictures from its X-Photographers and if they happen to rise to the level of fine art, all the better. I regularly go see the photo exhibitions at Fujifilm Square at Tokyo Midtown. Nice, but never anything particularly visceral. Lots of landscape photos, mostly. If you want to see impactful photographic art, better to go to the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in Ebisu.

  • Reply
    Fred
    February 17, 2020 at 8:59 pm

    You can dislike Suzuki’s method, ok.
    Fuji can expunged him for marketing choice, ok (but disapointing from Fuji)
    But people on internet who wants to censure him and ask him to stop are the worse. It’s not ok to forbid some cultural/art works because you feel offended. As you say, Suzuki did not act against japan’s law. So let him work !
    Nice post by the way 🙂

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      February 17, 2020 at 9:08 pm

      I wonder if Leica might consider offering a partnership with Suzuki.

  • Reply
    eric
    February 17, 2020 at 10:28 pm

    It seems we have to like it.
    Photo-Philosophy :
    “To be is to do”, Socrates,
    “To do is to be”, Jean-Paul Sartre,
    “To be do be do”, Frank Sinatra,
    “The thing about art for me is that you can go on theorising your work forever, because it’s open to interpretation.”, Takeshi Kitano “私にとってアートについてのことは、あなたの作品は永遠に解釈できるということです。なぜなら、それは解釈に開かれているからです。”
    Of course : impressive article, …
    And ?

  • Reply
    Roger B.
    February 18, 2020 at 12:01 am

    Fujifilm, like nearly all major corporations, is gutless. Let one voice shout, “I’m offffennnded!” and Big Corp yanks the campaign, or the product, or the spokesperson. Where I come from, one of the main purposes of art is to be offensive, to challenge preconceived notions, to push people out of their comfort zones and cause them to see things differently. But to Big Corp, if even one hundred yen are put at risk, nooooo we cannot do that.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      February 18, 2020 at 12:27 am

      Roger. I take your point, but I think you are exaggerating when you say “all corporations” or “even one hundred yen are put at risk.” Be more sanguine here.

      This is just one action among many that Fujifilm does in a year. Don’t judge the whole company on just that.

      Fujifilm is in fact one of the boldest companies in Japan, that is extremely well led. Have a read of Innovating Out of Crisis: How Fujifilm Survived (and Thrived) As Its Core Business Was Vanishing by CEO Shigetaka Komori, and you will see what courageous leadership looks and sounds like.

      • Reply
        Roger B.
        February 27, 2020 at 2:02 pm

        Well-stated, Steven. I may have painted with too broad a brush, living in a nation where corporate virtue-signalling has been taken to extremes. And Fuji is to be commended – and supported – for designing and selling innovative quality digital gear, as well as keeping analog film stocks alive.

  • Reply
    Castelli Daniel
    February 18, 2020 at 12:26 am

    Steve, I’m missing something here…what is his “sin?” Bobbing & weaving as he seeks & shoots his subjects? Is this a cultural taboo in Japan? How would people react to Bruce Gilden? It’s not my style to be a gonzo photographer, but the photos ARE good!
    Dan

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      February 18, 2020 at 12:35 am

      You are not missing a thing, and Japanese culture has nothing to do with it. Most of the complaints emanated from the U.S. and Europe, not from Japan.

  • Reply
    Stpehen J
    February 18, 2020 at 7:34 am

    It is called mob rule and pretty it ain’t Steve, it is happening in many walks of life.

    I like the pictures, so it doesn’t offend me…

    The perhaps only offensive thing is that you probably won’t get to see the snapper’s snap, since it was only a chance meeting.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      February 19, 2020 at 1:55 am

      Just to be clear, the photos in the article are mine, not Suzuki’s. I took them in homage to him. If you would like to see Suzuki’s work, visit https://www.tatsuosuzuki.com

      Posting Suzuki’s photos in my article would have been a violation of his copyright, which is why I provided the link to his website in the article.

      As for seeing the “snapper’s snap,” photos of Suzuki are easy to find.

  • Reply
    In Homage to – and Defence of – the Work of Tatsuo Suzuki – By Steven Bleistein – 35mmc – The Click
    February 18, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    […] In Homage to – and Defence of – the Work of Tatsuo Suzuki – By Steven Bleistein […]

  • Reply
    George Appletree Photography
    February 18, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    He seems to be practicing a strange fight with himself (can I photograph everything moving?), by the way fully lack of any concentration. That is one of the motivations of street photography at the very end.
    Your shots are as good as Capa’s sentence was expected to give results: They’re close enough. But I don’t see if just documentary of Tokyo style of life or rather some other thing.
    Finally, “Selling cameras is Fujifilm’s business, not making art, but the company’s managers appear happy to patron artists as long as patronage supports the primary business”. Leica does exactly the same. They have their ambassadors and everybody’s happy: Leica shows their photographs, they get the camera and their work promoted.
    Probably without Cartier Bresson and all the Magnum paraphernalia Leica wouldn’t have been the same

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      February 18, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      Leica never dropped Bruce Gilden because of his methods, or any other photographic artist as far as I know. Leica’s LFI magazine features significant works of art, much of which would likely offend at least some people some of the time, but that does not stop Leica.

      I never solicited feedback on my photos in the article. In my experience, unsolicited feedback is never for my benefit, but rather only for the person who delivers it. How does your critique help me become a better photographer?

      Capa who photographed combat in the Spanish Civil War and at the Normandy Invasion, whose photojournalist fiancée was killed while photographing combat in Spain, never likely thought about composition and clarity in the heat of battle. You can hardly compare his work with walking around Harajuku snapping passers-by. Is your citation of Capa praise of my work, condemnation, or something else? I don’t get the point.

      You can deride Suzuki’s methods if you must, but I have to ask. Where is your photographic work? Do you produce art yourself, or just critique and trade in the art of others?

      • Reply
        George Appletree Photography
        February 19, 2020 at 8:23 pm

        Do you need some help? Then start accepting criticism. I take street photographs before you got your first Leica

        • Reply
          Steven Bleistein
          February 19, 2020 at 8:40 pm

          Always looking to improve. Would love so see your work if you are agree to share. It is easy to contact me privately. My Instagram account and website details are in my author profile. If you contact me, I promise to be polite.

          • George Appletree Photography
            February 20, 2020 at 6:50 pm

            Glad you improved your mood.
            There you have a small part of my work. Contact me if you wish.

  • Reply
    Bruno Chalifour
    February 18, 2020 at 9:42 pm

    There is a lot “to drink and eat” from this piece. First of all, it raises some very interesting questions related to ethics in photography. It is a serious question and one should stay away from caricatures, shortcuts, and twisted arguments such as the amalgam being made between Moriyama, Araki, and Tatsuo Suzuki. Their practices are worlds apart and except for the use of mostly black and white photography and their being Japanese I do not see much common ground regarding the esthetics and contents of their productions.
    Secondly the reference to Ansel Adams and controversy is also a far-fetched one in the sense that it is not so much controversy (after all his images were published in US Camera and shown at MoMA, with some delay and accommodation, agreed) but difference in perception. The subject was controversial at the time for a country at war with Japan, so are the detention conditions for deported illegal children now. Documenting them was and is controversial for a conservative America; documenting them while it was / is happening is problematic and only some images are tolerated so that they escape censorship. Those images seen out of context decades later may seem mild and understated, they were not then. Some Japanese-Americans (not all of them, some being also grateful that someone like Ansel Adams documented the camp and gave it visibility, while also creating documents for history and the future that we would be deprived of had he not done it) remark that, although his words were clear about the issue, his images were a mild reflection of those words [this also led to a first problem in his relationship with Dorothea Lange who had photographed the same Manzanar camp but with a more humanistic and concerned/militant approach]. Ansel Adams was not exactly involved in direct social photography and all that was reproached to him was that his photographs were either too controversial or not controversial enough. So it went both ways between two opposite camps and the truth /reason may lie in the middle.
    “Even long after the end of Word War II, these photographs still invite controversy, some of which even emanates from the Japanese-American community itself!” …so … hmmm not quite (the Japanese-American community in fact reproaches him for not being “controversial” enough at the time [yes, context has also got to be considered here] ).

    Now back to Tatsuo Suzuki (the Adams and Moriyama /Araki digressions were not originally mine, and I just answered them, giving them a broader context for the reader to follow the reasoning involved here), although rather matter-of-fact in his attitude, his practice can be seen by some (obviously more than a few otherwise Fuji would not have withdrawn its videos of him shown photographing) as somewhat problematic, ethically. Fuji’s reaction has to do with their audience’s reaction, probably operated under moral and ethical guidelines: just like Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden, Suzuki is extremely aggressive in his photographing people and appears to treat them as photo-fodder, just objects, whose presence he uses, whose space he invades without being invited,… this for what “humanistic” purpose… hmmm, most people having looked at his work may agree on “not much.” Spectacle for the sake of spectacle and drawing attention and the expenses of his subjects sound like a more accurate conclusion. No wonder some reacted. Which does not take anything away from his skills as a photographer, simply, the human being behind the photographer and his actions are being questioned. What also separates just skills and acquired talent from valuable art may be what one uses them for. One could also state that Hitler, Mussolini or Franco had strategic skills beyond most… now what they used them for may be questionable and so are (not that Suzuki has anything in common with those evil three or A. Adams, Moriyama or Araki for that matter) Suzuki’s skills and talent. Their use is questionable and probably not the right thing to promote for advertising purposes. Feedback from the audience reminded Fuji that all spectacles are not good, or at least good enough.
    “Fujifilm promptly expunged from its website all mention of Tatsuo Suzuki. […] Now I don’t fault Fujifilm for dropping Suzuki. There is nothing immoral or unethical about Fujifilm’s decision. […] In fact, morality and ethics have nothing to do their decision.”
    All right, we seem to agree on that…. But wait what came next?
    “hypocrisy on other other [sic] hand is an open question in my view.” Well on the one hand Fuji seems to be understood in its move, which has “nothing to do with morality and ethics,” and on the other it is “hypocritical” which I assume is not a compliment but a repudiation of the previous lines, based on moral and ethical criteria. Which is which? What are we supposed to understand from the reversal of point of views?
    “ After all, how can you possibly tout the X100V as the quintessential street photography tool of choice while highlighting one of the most significant practitioners of the art in our time only to abruptly erase him from your history as soon as an inevitable artistic controversy arises?”
    Calling Suzuki, “one of the most significant practitioners” of street photography is probably a stretch and many seem to disagree and even Fuji has agreed with them. Fuji did not “erase” Suzuki for “our history”, just from their advertising website, big deal. They just acknowledged they made a problematic choice, one that fired back and corrected it. Where is the problem? Does Fuji on its own make history, probably not; in fact their move also advertised Suzuki’s work. I, personally, would have never looked at it, hadn’t it raised a question on ethics in street photography. Fuji did not advertise Winogrand and he left a trace in the history of street photography. So let “history” make its own opinion, away from Fuji’s website.

    By the way, nIce photographs Steven, a consistent and coherent body of work that does not need to be spiced up with aggressivity.

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      February 18, 2020 at 10:10 pm

      Wow. Your comment is longer than my article, and probably worthy of writing an article of your own.

      Thanks for the thoughtful perspective. I enjoyed reading your views.

      My methods are different from Suzuki’s. Most of my subjects never notice me. At the same time, I think Suzuki’s work is on a higher level than mine.

    • Reply
      Dave Luttmann
      March 1, 2020 at 9:19 pm

      I think it is a bit of a stretch to state he is “extremely aggressive.” Fuji is of course completely in control of who they support as an artist and as marketing fodder. In the same way, I am completely in control of who gets my dollars for cameras and lenses. Fuji’s action against..and yes..against Suzuki…is a turn off for me.

      In support of him, I have ordered some of his Zines. Not sure if I will support Fuji any longer. Maybe that is an “extremely aggressive ” stance to take….but like Fuji…I am in control.

      • Reply
        Steven Bleistein
        March 1, 2020 at 11:11 pm

        FujiFilm likely does not care whether you decide to buy or not buy their cameras. However, I imagine that Suzuki cares about people who buy his books and magazines. It seems to me that Suzuki was more important to Fujifilm than Fujifilm is to him. By now, Suzuki has evolved as an artist and developed a global reputation beyond the point where being an X-Photographer matters. He has outgrown Fujifilm, and this controversy has only helped him in my view. After all, it prompted you to decide to buy his magazine!

  • Reply
    OldRoger
    March 7, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    Overrated photo work. Period. Let’s move on guys…

    • Reply
      Steven Bleistein
      March 7, 2020 at 9:18 pm

      Rogerio,

      I’ve admired your work ever since I read your interview in Inspired Eye. Loved your “Urban Butterflies” project. I thought your comments in the interview on photographing beautiful women in the street were really insightful, and made me think of Suzuki right away when I read them. It seemed to me you were working on a higher level than he was at the time, and you were driven by a more thoughtful ethos. Your comments made me think of my own work differently, and you turned me on to French photographer Marc Riboud. I even bought a copy of his 1958 book, Women of Japan, based on artists and works you identified as inspiration.

      For others, it is well worth having a look at Rogerio’s work, some of which you can see here.

      https://akitidezemphotowalker.zenfolio.com

      Rogerio’s Inspired Eye interview and featured photos appear in issue XLIX. Inspired Eye can be accessed here.

      https://www.theinspiredeye.net/street-photography-magazine/

      The photos Japanese women from Marc Riboud’s book can be seen here. It’s a bit pricey, but if you can get a hold of a copy of Women of Japan the text is also a fascinating look into late 1950s Japan.

      http://www.marcriboud.com/marcriboud/ASIE/JAPON/index.html#54

      • Reply
        OldRoger
        June 14, 2020 at 7:31 am

        Thanks Steve! I only noticed your reply now:))) Arigatou! I’m just a guy with camera who likes Japanese girls, not a real Photographer. But many thanks once again! About Suzuki san works, I used to like his works (2012-2013) but it becomes a kind of eternal repetition of snapshots and that’s the reason why I think about his work is “overrated “. About his style I really don’t mind…

        Cheers!

        Roger

        Ps. You took some amazing pics on your article about Leica M3 👍👍

        • Reply
          Steven Bleistein
          June 14, 2020 at 7:40 am

          Hi Roger,

          Glad we’re in touch! I really enjoy your work!

          I was the same. I started off liking Suzuki’s work but then became disenchanted, as it seemed repetitive. But then I noticed his subjects changed, not just snap-shooting pretty girls in Shibuya and Aoyama. There was a shift to a grittier layer of the city among the shots that made the work feel more authentic to me. So I started following him again, and subscribed to his magazine.

          I noticed that Suzuki’s subjects have evolved yet again while Tokyo was under the state of emergency. To me, it will be interesting to see where his work goes from here.

          Steve

  • Reply
    OldRoger
    March 7, 2020 at 1:55 pm

    Ps. Snap…Snap…Crop…Crop…If you liked it, good for you, not me…

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