In 1904, Yoshiyuki Iwase was born in Onjuku, a fishing village in the Chiba prefecture. He studied law in Meiji University in Tokyo. He was the heir to his family’s sake distillery. The young Iwase received a Kodak camera as a gift and he found his passion for primitive beauty of ama, girls and women who dove for and harvested abalone, seaweeds, and turban shells when the tides were favorable and the temperature was bearable. The ama became his muse and passion and Iwase’s amazing photographs remain as the final and most comprehensive visual proofs and records of the life of the ama divers.
Ama divers, literally "sea women", went out three times a day, requiring extensive eating and warming at the fireside between runs. A good harvest required long, cold dives, up to four minutes of hard underwater work on a single lungful of air. As such, ama divers were paid enormous salaries, often making more a few week season than the men of the village made in a year. When Yoshiyuki began shooting in the late 1920s, there were several hundred ama divers active in the seven harbours of the Iwawada coast (Kohaduki, Oohaduki, Futamata, Konado, Tajiri, Koura and Nagahama). By the late 1960's this 2000 year old way of life had disappeared. Yoshiyuki's images are the most comprehensive document of ama divers ever produced and a stunning visual testament to these fascinating iconic women.
Using the models that he had met at the dives, he went on to create a series of exceptional modernist nudes. Although postdating the work of Weston and Cunningham in the United States, he was working at a time in Japan when the modernist nude was being redefined artistically and was therefore a contested and prolific subject.
In 1951, the photographic journal Photo Art published an issue on nudes which was banned for obscene content, spark-ing public controversy and debate. Iwase went on the work with contemporaries such as Asano Kiichi, Hayashi Tadahiko and Akiyama Shotaro, exhibiting his work mainly in Chiba and Tokyo. Among his many awards, Seaweed Harvest (1956) won the Japanese Prime Minister's Prize in 1957.
He had numerous solo exhibitions in Chiba and Tokyo. His achievements in the field of photography earned him honors and citations for his excellent work. Many of his photographs are held in collections in Tokyo and Onjuku historical museums. He passed away at the age of 97, leaving behind a legacy of his beloved village at the local folk museum.
His work is held in many collections in Japan including the Japanese Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokyo. Much of Iwase's work was lost after his death, making the extant vintage prints exceedingly rare.
(Excerpted from Anthony Luke, 'basterda' at Lomography Magazine and BachmannEckenstein JapaneseArt)