Shomei Tomatsu’s Hateruma Island, Okinawa.

CHICAGO - We all enjoy the feeling of discovering something new in a museum, and a great museum like the Art Institute of Chicago is full of surprises. I stumbled upon a photography show there the other day that gave me a new perspective on the medium, as well as the history of 20th-century Japan.

Shomei Tomatsu: Island Life, which is on view until 5 January, has a dreamy and poetic quality to it. The photographer passed away last year at 82, but enjoyed a burst of fame when his book Hiroshima-Nagasaki Document 1961 was published detailing the effects of the American atomic bombs in Japan. The Chicago exhibition focuses on Tomatsu’s work done in the 1960s and 70s, when he explored the southern islands of Japan. Many of the images were taken on Okinawa, which became an American military outpost.

Shomei Tomatsu’s Untitled (Aka-jima, Okinawa).

Tomatsu has what Garry Winogrand and other street photographers of his era possessed (even though many of these were not taken on streets): the ability to capture a fleeting moment.

But Tomatsu’s twist, in the best of his images, is that he takes what could be a thoroughly banal shot, like a single cloud floating above the sea, and makes it completely new, in part through the camera angle. I stared at his cloud image for some time to try and orient myself with the horizon line, but it was impossible. Ditto for a shot of a plane taking off near some trees – shouldn’t be that interesting, but he knocks it off-kilter and makes it strangely beautiful.

Shomei Tomatsu’s Eiko Oshima.

Almost no one was in the show’s small gallery when I was there, but I hope more people check it out. Tomatsu’s work has power and depth, and it encouraged me to order The History of Japanese Photography by Anne Tucker, the legendary photo curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston