Born in Tokyo in 1938, Masatoshi Naitō graduated from Waseda University in applied sciences and trained as a research scientist. A keen interest in the folkloric traditions of rural Japan led him to pursue a career in photography, recording the customs and beliefs which first piqued his interest in developing a documentary practise.
Naitō’s time spent recording the ethnological practises of Tōhoku region in the north of Japan became the focus of his seminal series, Baba Bakuhatsu (‘Grandma Explosion’, 1970). In 1974 Naitō was invited to participate in John Szarkowski’s ground-breaking exhibition, New Japanese Photography, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and was subsequently included in the Barbican’s important survey exhibition, Beyond Japan (1991).
Early on in his career Naitō photographed the mummies of Buddhist priests who had died fasting for the salvation of starving farmers at Dewa Sanzan, a sacred mountain, as part of his interest in the folk religions and ethnology of Japan’s northern Tōhoku region. Naito was also amongst the only photographers to capture the legendary female shamans, known as itako, who invoke the spirits of the dead. Female Shamanism was formerly a widespread phenomenon within Japan, however it is limited today to this region where esoteric traditions of Japanese folk religion are still practiced. The female shamans photographed are celebrating death, exuberantly mourning by performing celebratory rituals and dancing all night to evoke the spirits of the deceased.
Naitō pays homage to this time-old culture with his bright flash, graphically illuminating the characters he depicts. He observed: ‘The vitality of women comes from the earth. They embrace everything like goddesses and the title Baba Bakuhatsu came to my mind naturally.’ Naitō revisited similar themes in Tōno Monogatori (1983), in which he followed in folklorist Yanagita Kunio’s footsteps to explore the sacred Tōno region. Naitō's images endow people and objects alike with a mystical aura, weaving ancient tales into contemporary photographic narratives.
Naitō’s work is held in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, where a major retrospective of his work was held in 2018.