Masters of Photography: Shōji Ueda

Shōji Ueda was a Japanese photographer, most famous for his surrealist style.

Born in 1913 in Sakaiminato, Japan, and the only child of a manufacturer, Ueda’s passion for photography was sparked as a teenager. After graduating from high school in 1931, he joined the Yonago Photography Circle, and later moved to Tokyo to study at the Oriental School of Photography. At the age of 19 he set up his own studio back in his hometown.

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In 1937, he became one of the founders of the Chugoku Photographers Group (Chugoku Shashinka Shuudan), gaining much praise for his works such as the “Four Girls Poses’’.

Ueda married in 1935. His wife was often a muse for him and along with their three children she became a recurring model in his works, an example being the 1950 image “My wife in the dunes” (Tsuma No Iru Sakyû Fûkei).

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After putting aside his camera during the second world war, Ueda returned to photography with much zeal. At the end of the 1940s he began photographing the sand dunes of his home, Tottori. Set against the stark, crisp dunes, Ueda’s subjects appear like characters on a giant stage. Shot mostly in black and white and using simple props such as hats and umbrellas, Ueda creates intimate, yet mundane snapshots of everyday life, all with a trace of his quirky humour. His 1949 series “My Family” became the first of his widely acclaimed works.

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Although Ueda’s images often have a playful element to them – children laughingly tugging on their mother’s kimono, a little boy waving energetically from his father’s shoulder – his subjects are also perfectly staged with precision and order.

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In 1958 his works were selected by Edward Steichen for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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Unlike many of his contemporary Japanese photographers, Ueda did not publish many books. Instead he preferred to work with magazines and distributed images via media intended for amateurs.

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Ueda outlived his wife and worked well into his 80s, dying of a heart attack in 2000.

Ueda left behind thousands of unpublished images, but in 2015, a retrospective was published featuring some of these previously unseen photographs. The retrospective sparked surprise among Ueda’s admirers, as many of the works deviated from his familiar style. For example, a series called “Genshi Yukan” (Illusion) from 1987-1992, shows a variety of still life images. The fruit are shot in a burst of colour, cherries tumbling out of a bowl next to a tiny outstretched hand or a pomegranate sliced in half, all presented against dark, austere backdrops.

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Similarly, in the series “Shiroi Kaze” (Brilliant Scenes) from 1980-1981, we see a different side to Ueda again. Instead of sharp colours, there are soft, blurred tones. The people and landscape captured appear as much like a watercolour painting as an actual photograph.

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Shōji Ueda leaves behind a legacy of prints, many of which can be seen today in the Shoji Ueda Museum of Photography, opened in 1995 in Houki-cho, Tottori Prefecture.