AMHERST — Time defines photography as motion defines dance. Yet just as some dancers move more vigorously than others (jitterbuggers, yes; Javanese court dancers, no), some photographs reveal more clearly the medium’s relationship to time. That’s the case with two striking exhibitions currently at Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum. With “Fifty Years of Showa Japan: The Photography of Kageyama Koyo,” the revealing is historical and cultural. The show runs through June 28. With “Jonathon Keats: Photographing Deep Time,” the revealing is conceptual — and right there in the title. It runs through May 31.
During the course of his lifetime, Koyo (1907-1981) saw Japan change more rapidly and thoroughly than perhaps any nation in history: modernization, industrialization, Westernization, global war, unconditional surrender, economic miracle — and all this in a culture that venerated its past, and still does. The collision between tradition and transformation informs every photograph in the show. There are only 23 of them. That’s more than enough, such being the acuteness of Koyo’s eye — and the magnitude of the collision.
The first two images, which date from 1928, make explicit this tension between past and present. Or maybe past and future would be more accurate.
A woman bearing a parasol and wearing traditional Japanese attire walks across a bridge that’s definitely not traditional. Its walkway is concrete, its railing and the support we see are metal. The juxtaposition is striking. On closer examination, it becomes even more so. The shape of her parasol chimes with that of the catenary arch of another bridge behind her, and the shape of the thick wooden soles of her sandals chimes with that of the base of the bridge support.
The title of “Modern Girls in Beach Pajama Style,” which Koyo took three months later, announces the photograph’s modernity. The candid gaze of the young women declares it. The fact that in the previous photograph the parasol covers most of the woman’s face declares a very different stance.
Modernity takes many forms. Scantily clad showgirls pose onstage. In a version of that great 20th-century tableau, the nocturnal cityscape, two men gaze at the Ginza. A line of uniformed police stand with pistols drawn, the sense of dislocation and menace underscored by Koyo photographing them from beneath and at a severe angle. A Japanese jazz band performs less than 14 months before Pearl Harbor. Men in topcoats and homburgs celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the imperial family.
After the war, a Japanese woman stares at the mannequins in the display window of a US Army PX. Another Japanese woman walks hand in hand with a GI — “going straight to a hotel,” the caption says. A very different embrace of the West is apparent in the last photograph. “Afro Hair,” from 1972, shows a trio of young men strutting down the Ginza, their hair frizzed out for a Black Power look. It’s not just cultures and hemispheres and races and even centuries that are colliding. So are scalps.
If only on the basis of duration, that Koyo photograph of the 2,600th anniversary is the one that has the most resonance with “Jonathon Keats: Photographing Deep Time.” The show is an introduction to Keats’s installing a “millennium camera” in the college’s Stearns Steeple in June.
Keats, a conceptual artist, has designed that camera to record time on a scale more geological than photographic. It consists of a copper casing, a pinhole, an interior sheathed in gold (gold doesn’t corrode), and a layer of oil paint where film would be in a regular camera. The aim is to record an exposure of a thousand years. A more important aim is to make us rethink our idea of time and its relationship to the world we — and subsequent generations — live in.
Last year, Keats installed a hundred “100-year cameras” in undisclosed locations throughout Berlin. The Mead gallery devoted to “Photographing Deep Time” includes press articles about the Berlin installation, several examples of the cameras, and a disassembled version. The pigment that will serve as “film,” rose madder, is a particularly pleasing shade of red. Complementing this message of art and life linked by time are other items in the gallery: Assyrian reliefs, Yoruba and Asante artifacts, a 5th Dynasty Egyptian relief. There’s also a display case with more familiar cameras that Keats has modified: a Brownie, a Rolleiflex, a Nikon, a Canon, a couple of Minoltas. They look pleasingly familiar and handsome, if also melancholy, like blinks that dream of staring.
FIFTY YEARS OF SHOWA JAPAN: The Photography of Kageyama Koyo
JONATHON KEATS: Photographing Deep Time
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, 41 Quadrangle Drive, Amherst, through June 28 and May 31, respectively, 413-542-2335, www.amherst.edu/ museums/mead.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.