A Portrait of Japan • Burt Glinn • Magnum Photos

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Travel

A Portrait of Japan

Capturing the rich culture of Sixties Japan, Burt Glinn’s vivid photographs are a testament to his skills with early color photographic processes

Burt Glinn

Burt Glinn A boat adrift in the reeds on the Inland Sea. Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos

“Your job is to discover, not to invent, nor to work with a preconceived notion of what you are going to discover” wrote Burt Glinn, recounting a piece of advice he was given by Henri Cartier-Bresson at the start of his career. One of Magnum’s earliest members, Glinn was vocal about the profound influence the agency’s unique and innovative approach to photojournalism had on his practice. “What a lot of us at Magnum were doing was not abandoning story structure altogether, but making good pictures in a more individual way and building stories around our own insights and discoveries – an approach to the story I found more dynamic,” he stated.

Burt Glinn An airplane ride at a carnival, in the midst of cherry blossoms. Nara, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn The Buddhist priest, Yano Kasha, contemplates in the Nazenji Temple that was founded in 1293. Kyoto, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos

"What a lot of us at Magnum were doing was not abandoning story structure altogether, but making good pictures in a more individual way and building stories around our own insights and discoveries - an approach to the story I found more dynamic"

- Burt Glinn
Burt Glinn A festival functionary sits in front of stacks of straw-wrapped saki barrels. Tashogu Shrine, Nikko, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn A senior geisha, Takeha Fujimoto. Kyoto. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Two apprentice geishas on their way to evening appointments. Kyoto, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos

Glinn traveled to Japan in 1961, commissioned by the iconic Holiday magazine for a travel series documenting Asia and the South Seas. His extensive documentation of the country later grew into the book A Portrait of Japan, which offers an arresting visual study of Nipponese landscapes and people.

A technical perfectionist, Glinn’s photographs are a testament to his mastery of relatively early photographic color processes at a time when it was still much more common to shoot in black & white. From a gentle morning sun bathing Mount Fuji in golden light, to the dramatic tones of a full moonrise, his images lend a surreal quality to Japanese landscapes. Sprawling wheat fields and delicate blossoms give way to portraits of people from across the region, making for a collection of images that capture the essence of Japan in the early Sixties.

Burt Glinn Agricultural workers in a field beneath Mount Fuji. Five Lakes, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn A fishing boat at dusk returns home. Mount Fuji, Izu Peninsula, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Full moonrise over Mount Fuji, viewed from Mount Sichimen. Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos

"I have come to believe in the superiority of discovery over invention. What is important is not what I make happen but what happens to me"

- Burt Glinn
Burt Glinn A participant in the Hollyhock Festival is dressed as an ancient geisha. Kyoto, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Yanagizaki Teruo, a Shinto priest, meditates at the Heian Shrine. Kyoto, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Lanterns hang along a walkway in the Kasuga Shrine, founded in 768 AD, in holy city of Nara. Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos

Describing his approach, Glinn notes, “I have come to believe in the superiority of discovery over invention. What is important is not what I make happen but what happens to me.”

Glinn’s background in cultural anthropology shaped the approach he had to travel photography. His comprehensive visual studies of the countries he travelled to providing an insight into cultures that were largely unknown to the Western reader. Far from presenting a voyeuristic perspective on his subject-matter, Glinn’s work offers a studied document of the places he visited.

Burt Glinn The Kabuki actor, Kanzaburo Toshi, made up as a lion before going on stage. Tokyo, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos
Burt Glinn Pilgrims contemplate Mount Fuji at sunrise, from a Buddhist Monastery lookout atop Mount Sichimen. Mount Fuji, Japan. 1961. © Burt Glinn | Magnum Photos