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Most photographs of real-life events tend to be documentary by nature, but the kind of photographic image-making that makes a point of approaching its subjects with an “objective” viewpoint and a for-posterity sense of purpose — can such photos ever convey a truly neutral position vis-à-vis their subjects? Should they? At what point does a photographer’s “objective” mode of observing the world become an activist’s way of presenting what he or she captures on film?
As autumn approaches, several events featuring the work of some of Japan’s most accomplished modern photographers may bring some of these aesthetic questions and others into focus: at Chelsea’s Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery, Kazuo Kitai: Students, Workers, Villagers, 1964-1978, an exhibition of photographs by Kazuo Kitai, his first-ever solo show in a commercial gallery in the United States, has just gone on view, and yesterday saw the opening, at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, of the first part of For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979, a two-venue exhibition with photography at its core.
The second part of this large presentation will be shown at Japan Society starting on October 9. Also next month, the New York-based Aperture Foundation will publish Hiroji Kubota Photographer, a big book focusing on the work of one of Magnum Photos’ most well-traveled and prolific lensmen. On November 19, a career-spanning selection of Kubota’s photographs will open at the Aperture Foundation’s Chelsea gallery space.
Kazuo Kitai was born in 1944 in Liaoning Province, in northeastern China, in what was then known as Manchuria, a territory Japan had controlled since its forces seized the region in 1931. Kitai’s relatives worked in the local steel industry. After World War II ended, control of Manchuria reverted to China, and Kitai’s family was sent back home, eventually settling in Kobe, a port city in southern Japan. Later, Kitai headed north, to Tokyo, to begin his university studies.
In high school, Kitai had expressed interest in becoming a painter. He had heard about American Pop Art and the experiments of the Gutai group of Japanese modern artists, who were based in the Osaka area, not far from Kobe. Still, because his art training was rather limited, Kitai enrolled in the photography department at Nihon University in Tokyo. There, one of his teachers chided him for using a mass-market camera with a built-in exposure meter his father had given him. Kitai also became discouraged when he realized he would be required to take courses in English, mathematics and other general-studies subjects. As a result, he rarely attended classes. Instead he went to school only to visit the library or to use certain photographic equipment.
As Kitai was beginning his university studies, the visibility and influence of VIVO, a Japanese photographers’ cooperative, were still notable in Japan’s photography world. That association consisted of six camera artists — Eikoh Hosoe, Kikuji Kawada, Ikkō Narahara, Akira Satō, Akira Tanno and Shōmei Tōmatsu. VIVO’s members shared an office and darkroom; they also took charge of marketing and distributing their own work.
Despite the impact of VIVO’s ideas, which could be felt in some of the mass media and specialized photography magazines of modern, postwar Japan, Kitai found himself drawn more to the character of images that had been made many decades earlier by one foreign photographer, Eugène Atget (1857-1927), whose iconic pictures of Paris and its environs constitute one of the greatest essays in the ineffableness of light and atmosphere any photographer has ever produced.
In an e-mail exchange, Kitai told me, “Many times over I’ve studied and re-examined the photographs of Paris Atget shot from 1895 to 1920. That he chose as his subjects ordinary people and ordinary life — that was a big influence on me.”
Before his focus turned to rural Japanese villages during the postwar period of rebuilding and modernization, Kitai produced several series that documented unfolding news events. In 1964, for example, on the heels of earlier protests against the ratification of a revised U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, Kitai headed to Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, to photograph student demonstrations against the docking of American, nuclear-powered warships at several ports in Japan.
The inside-the-action photos he shot there became the series Resistance, which Kitai published in a book of the same title. About those images, he wrote in the catalog of his 2012-2013 retrospective at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, “I had just turned twenty […] I wanted to take ‘bad’ photographs, the very opposite of the famous photographs in my textbooks […] My subjects were out of focus, the images suffered from camera wobble, and the film was grainy and scratched.” Those pictures shared the aesthetic of the are, bure, boke (“grainy, blurry, out of focus”) mode of image-making that would become the hallmark of photographers like Daidō Moriyama and be featured later in the 1960s in the short-lived photo magazine Provoke. Those often dark-toned, quasi-abstract, edgy images alluded to or actually depicted the harder, darker side of Japanese life and the breakdown of certain aspects of traditional society that were the price of Japan’s phenomenal, postwar “economic miracle.”
As his career progressed, Kitai took up photo-journalistic assignments or pursued his own thematic series. In Kobe Dockers (1965), he examined port workers, again from deep inside their world (of that experience, he later wrote, “I stayed in a flophouse near the wharves.”). In Extremists, Barricades (1965-1968), he shot from the inside the takeover of campus facilities at Nihon University by student protesters demanding the democratization of universities. Later, in Sanrizuka (1969-1972), he photographed farmers protesting the government’s appropriation of their land to build the new Narita International Airport, east of Tokyo, and in Somehow Familiar Places (1970-1973) and To the Villages (1973-1981), he captured the seasonal rhythms and enduring customs of rural Japan.
Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery’s exhibition includes images from all of these series. (Photobooks of Kitai’s various series will be on sale, too. Miyako Yoshinaga has become a notable New York venue for Japanese photobooks, which have attracted increasing attention in their own right from collectors.) In later years, Kitai also produced series of everyday scenes (little birds in their nests, a crab burrowing beneath a stalk of bamboo), as well as studies of life in a Japanese community of high-rise apartment buildings and, in China, of the city of Beijing in transition during the decade of the 1990s. A project he began in 2005, Walking With Leica, is characterized by elegant, simple compositions, including stacks of yuzu, an aromatic, yellow citrus fruit that grows in Japan.
Kitai’s essentially documentary photography is infused with keen attention to detail as well as a sense of engagement with regard to its subjects. There is plenty of soul but little sentimentality in his images of a thatch-roofed farmhouse, a blind shaman inside a softly lit, tatami-floored room, or girls decked out in colorful kimonos, strolling down a country road on their way to a summer festival. Unlike the novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965), an earlier era’s chronicler of dramatic social-cultural developments in Japan who ultimately rejected what he saw as Westernization masquerading as modernization, in images such as these, Kitai seemed able and, finally, willing to accept inevitable change.
In his recent e-mail exchange, Kitai pointed out that, when he embarked on the Sanrizuka series, “the biggest” decision he had to make was “whether or not to side with the farm people against the government.” He added, “Naturally, taking the side of the farmers, I shot the photos.” Unabashedly, he noted, “I felt empathy for [them].”
For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979 was organized by Yasufumi Nakamori, the associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the exhibition was first presented earlier this year. This large show takes as its starting point a specific period of Japan’s fast-paced, postwar reconstruction, one in which artists like Kitai came of age professionally amid a turbulent spirit of change. Against a backdrop of protests targeting the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the Vietnam War at a time when many Japanese saw their society’s traditional sense of community-derived identity threatened by ever-larger, densely packed cities and new social, cultural and economic structures, the exhibition focuses on how artists and photographers in Japan began to question familiar genres and techniques. Specifically, it examines how they merged art and photography, and paved the way for the mixed-media art forms of Japanese artists of more recent decades.
With some 350 works of different kinds on view, including some of Kitai’s photos, For a New World to Come examines, in part, such pivotal events as the 1968 Tokyo exhibition, Photography 100 Years: A History of Photographic Expressions of the Japanese, two of whose organizers, Takuma Nakahira, and Kōji Taki, would go on to create the magazine Provoke. While that landmark exhibition looked back at how modern photography had developed in Japan, Provoke would shake up modernist photo aesthetics with radical ideas about what contemporary photography could be and which subjects it could explore. For a New World to Come also looks at the impact of the 10th Tokyo Biennale: Between Man and Matter of 1970, an exhibition in which artists like Hitoshi Nomura and Jirō Takamatsu used photography in a manner that would now be regarded as conceptual. Nomura’s work has long been concerned with time. In the past, he referred to works like his own as offering ways of “sculpting time.” (A selection of Nomura’s photographs, sound works and sculptures is on view at Fergus McCaffrey, in Chelsea, through October 24.)
The new Aperture monograph Hiroji Kubota Photographer is a stunning document. In more than 500 large, luscious pages, it provides a showcase for a pageant of images offering a concentrated examination of the camera’s power to record and reveal, and of the vision of a skilled photographer who seemed, almost instinctively, to have been in the right place at the right time over and over and again. Kubota is known for his extensive travels and the photos he shot in such places as the U.S., Japan, Southeast Asia, and North and South Korea. His voluminous portfolio spans an astonishing breadth of subjects, from Pueblo men hanging out at a New Mexico trading post to workers in the 1968 Richard M. Nixon presidential campaign, and from Vietnam War scenes to girls with hula hoops in Pyongyang and gamblers at a casino in Macau.
Kubota was born into a well-to-do, fish-selling family in Tokyo in 1939; he grew up during World War II and later studied political science and learned to speak English. As a young man, he aided the photographer Hiroshi Hamaya in his coverage of the student protests in Japan. In 1961, Hamaya introduced his assistant to the foreign photographers Elliott Erwitt, René Burr, Burt Glinn and Brian Blake, for whom Kubota later served as driver, interpreter and on-location fixer in Japan. Erwitt gave him a copy of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book, The Decisive Moment, which helped convince Kubota to become a photographer himself.
In 1962, at a time when very few Japanese were heading to the U.S., Kubota made his way to New York. There, he did odd jobs, hung out at the offices of Magnum Photos (a photography collective/agency that was owned by its photographer members) and was mentored by none other than Cornell Capa and André Kertész. Three years later, Kubota joined Magnum himself.
In an interview that appears in Hiroji Kubota Photographer, the artist says, “I think everybody has a great drama to talk about. Everybody. […] I am never unkind to my subjects. I don’t like brutal pictures.” Overall, Kubota’s sense of engagement with his subjects may feel somewhat more dispassionately reportorial than Kitai’s, but his inquisitive camera, which captures a panorama of natural phenomena and human triumphs and foibles, is never aloof.
“Human nature is interesting, you know,” Kubota notes in this remarkable book, which in many ways serves as a compelling starting point for exploring the themes, inquisitive spirit and technical innovations that characterized some of the most original documentary-photography artists of postwar Japan.
Kazuo Kitai: Students, Workers, Villagers, 1964-1978 continues at Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery (547 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.
Part one of For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979 continues at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East) through December 5. The second part of this exhibition will be presented at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street) from October 9, 2015 through January 10, 2016.
Hiroji Kubota Photographer will be published by the Aperture Foundation in October. An exhibition with the same title will be presented at the Aperture Gallery (547 West 27th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) from November 19, 2015 through January 14, 2016.
Hitoshi Nomura continues at Fergus McCaffrey (514 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.