Pantomime by Daido Moriyama and A Child Is Born by Lennart Nilsson, compared by Torsten Nyström

Daido Moriyama’s book “Pantomime” arrives with the mail, as usual accompanied by a Japanese whiff of fragrant ink (Swedish-produced photobooks do not smell because their printing ink is water-based, probably for occupational health reasons), with a stapled silkscreen linoleum cover, containing photos of human fetuses.

“Pantomime” launches the more or less complete series of Moriyama’s pictures of fetuses, stored in formalin, which he at age 25 photographed at a maternity hospital in Kanagawa. It was 1963, and this was his first own project after three years’ work as an assistant to Eikoh Hosoe.

At the same time, around 1963, recently deceased photographer Lennart Nilsson strived in various medical research laboratories in Sweden to document fetuses aborted after ectopic pregnancy and at Karolinska hospital to document them alive inside the uterus with the help of an endoscope. (When Nilsson later wanted to use an endoscope to document the vocal cords of famous opera singer Birgit Nilsson, she declined, saying “I know where that one has been before”.)

These pictures were first published in 1965 in the book “A Child is Born”. April 30 same year the U.S. picture magazine Life in an issue devoted to Nilsson’s picture story of life, on its front page featured his photo of a living 18-week old fetus inside it’s amniotic sac; floating like an astronaut on an extra-vehicular assignment in space. Arthur C. Clarke must have seen the photo before he included “the star child” in his 1968 novel and in the script for Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey” same year.

I’ve got the 1976 Swedish edition of “A Child is Born” (Bonnier), bought as a handbook seven months before the birth of our first daughter in 1980. The book is a true example of Swedish evidence-based science in the sexual field. Some sentences are underlined by me or my wife, like “A healthy pregnant mother can have intercourse at any time.”

In 1968 Moriyama’s public photobook debut “Japan, a photo theatre” was published. It starts with a portrait of actor Shimizu Isamu and stage photos, probably from Moriyama’s “entertainer’s series” for Camera Mainichi, continue to intersperse the sequence that gives a foreboding of Moriyama’s “grainy, blurry and unfocused” photos to come. And it ends with the beginning of life; a section framed by black pages showing eight of Moriyama’s fetus photos; black and white like the rest of the book.

Pantomime”, maybe alluding to the 1968 title, since it’s a form of theater, published by Moriyama’s main publisher Akio Nagasawa, in a limited edition of 600 copies, now gives us a chance to see the fetus photos in imperial octavo (21x29cm) instead of the sextodecimo format (10x17cm) of “Japan, a Photo Theater”; even more so since the entire new book is made out of double or simple foldouts.

Some of Moriyama’s close-ups could give the illusion of living fetuses, with a luster but thin fur, but the majority obviously are dead fetuses in a plastic bag or a glass container or test tubes. Two are lying spread out in streaks of blood on a table. Others kneel in a praying position or lie in a heap. “Poor little fellows indeed”, Moriyama says in the afterword. He calls it the starting point of his photographic career whereas the pantomime “was projecting nothing else but my own hopelessness at the time”.

Nilsson’s images are printed from color slides and are placed in an optimistic chronological narrative of social and biological evolution of man, represented by the common people. Nilsson’s photos are surrounded by text, explaining what we see and providing facts. The latest Nilsson publication, “Life” (several editions, first one 2006), is, however, timely enough, strictly a photobook, edited and designed by Mark Holborn, with short comments at the back of the book.

Moriyama’s pictures of anonymous creatures and graphic patterns of meaningless death, in bleeding layout, make the quintessential modern photobook, different from illustrated text books (still photobooks may be credited at Amazon to the writer even when he or she’s produced not much more than a afterword, and I would, by the way, prefer “the Americans” without Kerouac).

When people read Nilsson’s book they thought the pictures showed living proto-babies, which only a few photos did; when they looked at Moriyama’s fetuses, some (like the maker of the blog Achtung.Photography), believed they saw dolls, and the bloodiest photos certainly are not published in the “photo theater” book. Hardly anyone could however doubt that the Moriyama fetuses are non-living.

Nilsson follows the tradition of Life magazine and that of the Family of Man exhibition (now in Luxembourg, himself represented by several photos there), celebrating humanity’s common endeavour. Moriyama is a forerunner of today’s young Japanese photography that has become mainly abstract, even though you sometimes glean some reality behind the patterns of colours and shadows, in the work of Daisuke Yokota or Kenta Cobayashi, for example; one preferring chemical means to alter the content of his material whereas the other mainly uses digital tools.

These artists strive for “hypermateriality” in a binary world, manifested in artifacts like Cobayashi’s “MMGGZZNN”, a 1.7m high and 1.2m wide magazine, or Yokota’s ”Matter”: 100,000 photographic prints coated in wax and eventually burned.

Moriyama’s “Pantomime”, in a more modest way, brings to proximate, two-dimensional existence these proto-creatures, so long since gone. It’s part of the modern-day photobook scene that is more about art than informative books like ”A Child is Born”.

Many of today’s photobooks are, like graphic art from copper plates and litographs, printed in editions smaller even than the 600 for ”Pantomime”. The latest trend is to make them as much handmade as possible and to include artifacts like facsimiles of newspapers and passports. A handbook to consult during pregnancy needs a handy book or a tablet computer to read in the doctor’s waiting room..

Not that information and journalism are extraneous to art. Walker Evans spoke of “lyrical documentary” which he found in the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Mark Holborn, who promoted Japanese contemporary photography in the West, way ahead of Parr and Badger (1), also refers to Leonardo, in the context of Nilsson’s oeuvre, when he stresses the scientific importance of Nilsson’s photos.

It’s all about photography.


(1) Aperture No. 106, “Black Sun. The Eyes of Four” 1986; “Beyond Japan – A photo theater”, Jonathan Cape, 1991; Parr/Badger “The Photobook: A History volume 1”, Phaidon, 2004

Torsten Nyström has been working as a newsphoto editor for forty years. He has published hundreds of columns on photography and curated two major exhibitions of Soviet post-war photography (APN). Following that, he helped Mark Holborn make the photobook “Propaganda” (published in three different editions in 2006). In 2013, Torsten Nyström published an essay about the Göttingen publisher Steidl for the catalogue of the exhibition “How to make a book with Steidl”, at Daelim Museum in Seoul.