Born in Nagoya in 1930, Tōmatsu studied economics at Aichi University, graduating in 1954. While still a student, he had his photographs published by the major Japanese photography magazines. He entered Iwanami and worked on the series Iwanami Shashin Bunko. Two years later, he left in order to freelance.
In 1959, Tōmatsu formed Vivo with Eikoh Hosoe and Ikkō Narahara. Two years later, his and Ken Domon's book Hiroshima–Nagasaki Document 1961, on the effects of the atomic bombs, was published to great acclaim.
In 1972, he moved to Okinawa; in 1975, his prizewinning book of photographs of Okinawa, Pencil of the Sun (太陽の鉛筆, Taiyō no enpitsu) was published.
Tōmatsu moved to Nagasaki in 1998.
Tōmatsu has had various retrospectives, both within Japan and abroad. In the early years of the new century he embarked on a new and comprehensive series of retrospectives, dividing his oeuvre into five "mandalas" of place:
- Nagasaki Mandala (Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum, 2000)
- Okinawa Mandala (Urasoe Art Museum, 2002)
- Kyo Mandala (Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art, 2003)
- Aichi Mandala (Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, 2006)
- Tokyo Mandala (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 2007)
Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation, a retrospective, was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and curated by Sandra S. Phillips and the photographer and writer Leo Rubinfien. The exhibition toured internationally from 2004 through 2006: Japan Society, New York (September 2004 – January 2005), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (January – April), Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington, D.C. (May – August), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (February–May 2006), Fotomuseum Winterthur (September–November 2006).
Other recent exhibitions include:
- Shomei Tomatsu: Ravages of Time (September–October 2001) Tepper Takayama Fine Arts (Boston)
- Myths and Games: Milton Montenegro, Daido Moriyama, Hiromi Tsuchida and Others (June–July 2004) Tepper Takayama Fine Arts (Boston)
- Poli Sci (September–November 2004) Tepper Takayama Fine Arts (Boston)
- Common Ground: Discovering Community in 150 Years of Art: Selections from the Collection of Julia J. Norrell (October 2004 – January 2005) Corcoran Museum of Art (Washington, DC)
- Festivals and Rituals (November 2004 – January 2005) Tepper Takayama Fine Arts (Boston)
- Color/Generations: Shomei Tomatsu, Cassio Vasconcellos, Yoshi Abe and others (March–April 2005) Tepper Takayama Fine Arts (Boston)
- Saints and Sinners:: Images and Books November–December 2006, Tepper Takayama Fine Arts (Boston)
- Island Life (September 14, 2013 – January 12, 2014), The Art Institute of Chicago (Galleries 188–189)
Books of Tōmatsu's works
Books by Tōmatsu and compilations of his works
- Suigai to nihonjin (水害と日本人, Floods and the Japanese). Iwanami Shashin Bunko 124. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1954. Joint work. The photographs are reproduced within Aichi Mandala (2006).
- Yakimono no machi: Seto (焼き物の町：瀬戸, Pottery town: Seto). Iwanami Shashin Bunko 165. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1955. The photographs are reproduced within Aichi Mandala (2006).
- Hiroshima–Nagasaki Document 1961. Tokyo: Japan Council against A- and H-Bombs. With Ken Domon.
- "11 ji 02 fun" Nagasaki (＜11時02分＞Nagasaki, "11:02" Nagasaki). Tokyo: Shashin Dōjinsha, 1966.
- Nippon (日本, Japan). Tokyo: Shaken, 1967.
- Sarāmu areikomu (サラーム・アレイコム). Tokyo: Shaken, 1968. Photographs of Afghanistan, taken in August 1963.
- Ō! Shinjuku (おお!新宿, Oh! Shinjuku). Tokyo: Shaken, 1969.
- Okinawa Okinawa Okinawa (Okinawa沖縄Okinawa). Tokyo: Shaken, 1969.
- Sengoha (戦後派). Tokyo: Chūōkōronsha, 1971. Tokyo: Gurabia Seikōsha, 1971.
- Tōmatsu Shōmei shashinshū (東松照明写真集) / I Am a King. Tokyo: Shashinhyōronsha, 1972.
- Akemodoro no hana (朱もどろの華). Tokyo: Sanseidō, 1976.
- Doro no Ōkoku (泥の王国) / Kingdom of Mud. Sonorama Shashin Sensho 12. Tokyo: Asahi Sonorama, 1978. With a summary in English in addition to the Japanese text. A reworking of the material published earlier in Sarāmu areikomu.
- (in Japanese) Hikaru kaze (光る風：沖縄) / Sparkling Winds: Okinawa. Nihon no Bi. Tokyo: Shūeisha, 1979. A large-format (37 cm high) book of color photographs of Okinawa. An supplementary colophon gives publication details in English (including the only mention of the English title), but all the explanations and other texts are in Japanese only.
- Tōmatsu Shōmei (東松照明). Shōwa shashin: Zenshigoto. Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1984. One in a series of books of which each is devoted to the entire career of a single photographer.
- Shomei Tomatsu, Japan 1952–1981. Graz: Edition Camera Austria; Vertrieb, Forum Stadtpark Graz, 1984. ISBN 3-900508-04-6. In German and English.
- Haien: Tōmatsu Shōmei sakuhinshū (廃園：東松照明作品集) / Ruinous Gardens. Tokyo: Parco, 1987. ISBN 4-89194-150-2.
- Sakura sakura sakura 66 (さくら・桜・サクラ66). Osaka: Brain Center, 1990. ISBN 4-8339-0513-2. Color photographs of sakura.
- Sakura sakura sakura 120 (さくら・桜・サクラ120) / Sakura. Osaka: Brain Center, 1990. ISBN 4-8339-0512-4. Color photographs of sakura. Texts in both Japanese and English.
- Nagasaki "11:02" 1945-nen 8-gatsu 9-nichi (長崎〈11:02〉1945年8月9日). Photo Musée. Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1995. ISBN 4-10-602411-X.
- Intāfeisu: Tōmatsu Shōmei shashinten (インターフェイス：東松照明写真展) / Interface: Shomei Tomatu interface. Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, 1996. Exhibition catalogue. In Japanese and English.
- Toki no shimajima (時の島々). Tokyo: Iwanami, 1998. ISBN 4-00-008072-5. Text by Ryūta Imafuku (今福竜太).
- (in English) Visions of Japan. Kyoto: Kōrinsha, 1997. ISBN 4-7713-2831-5. Photographs taken 1987–9 of plastic goods washed up by the sea.
- Tomatsu Shomei. Visions of Japan. Kyoto: Kōrinsha, 1998. ISBN 4-7713-2806-4.
- Nihon rettō kuronikuru: Tōmatsu no 50-nen (日本列島クロンクル：東末の50年) / Traces: 50 years of Tomatsu's works. Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 1999. In Japanese and English.
- (in Japanese) Tōmatsu Shōmei (東松照明, Shōmei Tōmatsu). Nihon no Shashinka. Tokyo: Iwanami, 1999. ISBN 4-00-008370-8. A compact overview of Tōmatsu's career, within a series about the Japanese photographic pantheon.
- Tōmatsu Shōmei 1951–60 (東松照明1951-60, Shōmei Tōmatsu 1951–60). Tokyo: Sakuhinsha, 2000. ISBN 4-87893-350-X.
- (in English) Rubinfien, Leo, et al. Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation. Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-300-10604-1.
- (in English) Jeffrey, Ian. Shomei Tomatsu. Phaidon 55. London: Phaidon, 2001. ISBN 0-7148-4019-X.
- Nagasaki mandara: Tōmatsu Shōmei no me 1961– (長崎曼荼羅：東松照明の眼1961〜). Nagasaki: Nagasaki Shinbunsha, 2005. ISBN 4-931493-68-8.
- (in Japanese) Camp karafuru na! Amarinimo karafuru na!! (Campカラフルな!あまりにもカラフルな!!). Gallery Nii, 2005. Colorful photographs around US military bases in Okinawa.
- Aichi mandara: Tōmatsu Shōmei no gen-fūkei (愛知曼陀羅：東松照明の原風景) / Aichi Mandala: The Early works of Shomei Tomatsu. Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art and Chunichi Shinbun, 2006. Catalogue of an exhibition held at Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in June–July 2006. Photographs 1950–59, and also a small number of later works, of Aichi. This large book has captions in Japanese and English, some other texts in both languages, and some material in Japanese only.
- Tōkyō mandara (Tokyo曼陀羅) / Tokyo Mandala: The World of Shomei Tomatsu. Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 1997. Catalogue of an exhibition held October–December 2007.
- (in Japanese) Nantō (南島) / Nan-to. Gallery Nii, 2007. Color photographs of Taiwan, Guam, Saipan, and other islands in the southern Pacific.
- Hiraki, Osamu, and Keiichi Takeuchi. Japan, a Self-Portrait: Photographs 1945–1964. Paris: Flammarion, 2004. ISBN 2-08-030463-1. Tōmatsu is one of eleven photographers whose works appear in this large book (the others are Ken Domon, Hiroshi Hamaya, Tadahiko Hayashi, Eikoh Hosoe, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Ihei Kimura, Shigeichi Nagano, Ikkō Narahara, Takeyoshi Tanuma).
- Holborn, Mark. Black Sun: The Eyes of Four: Roots and Innovation in Japanese Photography. New York: Aperture, 1986. ISBN 0-89381-185-8. The other three are Masahisa Fukase, Eikoh Hosoe, and Daidō Moriyama.
- 25-nin no 20-dai no shashin (25人の20代の写真) / Works by 25 Photographers in their 20s. Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts exhibition catalogue, 1995. Parallel texts in Japanese and English.
- Kaku: Hangenki (核：半減期) / The Half Life of Awareness: Photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 1995. Exhibition catalogue; captions and text in both Japanese and English. Twenty-three pages are devoted to photographs by Tōmatsu (other works are by Ken Domon, Toshio Fukada, Kikujirō Fukushima, Shigeo Hayashi, Kenji Ishiguro, Shunkichi Kikuchi, Mitsugi Kishida, Eiichi Matsumoto, Yoshito Matsushige, Hiromi Tsuchida and Yōsuke Yamahata).
- Nihon shashin no tenkan: 1960 nendai no hyōgen (日本写真の転換：1960時代の表現) / Innovation in Japanese Photography in the 1960s. Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 1991. Exhibition catalogue, text in Japanese and English. Pp. 78–88 show photographs from the series "11:02 Nagasaki".
- Szarkowski, John, and Shoji Yamagishi. New Japanese Photography. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1974. ISBN 0-87070-503-2 (hard), ISBN 0-87070-503-2 (paper). Contains twenty photographs by Tōmatsu.
- Yamagishi, Shoji, ed. Japan: A Self-Portrait. New York: International Center of Photography, 1979. ISBN 0-933642-01-6 (hard), ISBN 0-933642-02-4 (paper). Contains twelve photographs by Tōmatsu of "American bases and their surroundings: 1960s–1970s".
- 5 edition of Exploring Art, Margaret Lazzari Dona Schlesier
- Sean O'Hagan (14 January 2013). "Shomei Tomatsu obituary | Art and design | guardian.co.uk". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2013-01-15.
- 写真家の東松照明さん死去 長崎・沖縄などテーマに, Asahi Shinbun, 7 January 2013.