This portrait is a high contrast print, that could easily be a photoshopped graphic for a indie horror film. The artistic focus is upon capturing raw emotional expression rather than being visually representational. It is not the woman that matters so much as communicating her experience to the viewer. The face is the vehicle of emotional expression disembodied in black.
Above – One could almost step into this landscape onto the spongey grass under the tree branches that tentacle out into distinct relief against the white sky. Wisps of wire hover above them like a spider web, attached to a steel thread-like structure of the tower veiled in netting. The print is painterly in its attentiveness to detail , like a 19th century daguerrotype.
Looking at these two images is like looking at the first and last words of a novel, and trying to figure out the meaning held within, it is impossible. But once one examines Kitajima’s body of work, it is understood how these images relate to each other, like the dark of night relates to the light of day.
Keizo Kitajima began in 1975, mentored by Daido Muriyama in Tokyo, Japan at the The Workshop School. And like any 19 year old, he was anxious to break rules even if he was ignorant of them.
In order to release the images he captured on film nightly, as quickly as possible, he created an impromptu presentation and printing technique. He would transform the IMAGE CAMP projected gallery into a dark room, placing a large piece of bromide paper onto the wall and projecting images in a grid pattern upon it. He then developed and fixed the images on the paper with a sponge.
Shortly thereafter he would show his work. This was all an attempt to keep the work fresh, and allow him to learn from happy accidents that resulted from him relying on his artistic gut rather than aesthetic stratagems. He writes, “ I sought to produce images in a mechanical way, beyond my control: The accidental became a means of experiencing the world.”
Night photography demanded high contrast exposures with high ISO film which resulted in grainy resolution. His camera literally sliced through the fleeting patterns of Tokyo nightlife, catching it unrehearsed and uncensored. From 1975 to 79 he created the CAMP series of 12 books originally released each month of 1979. Each book containing 16 pages of monochrome prints.
His entire creative process embraced what many young self-conscious artists might consider technical weaknesses: grainy resolution; harsh contrast; slapdash development. But this process actually harmonized with the vibrant and mysterious nightlife of Tokyo – where social taboos were indulged and displayed. His photography exemplified this “other-worldliness” that was a stark contrast to the decorum of daytime Tokyo.
During this same time period he took an urban landscape of Tokyo at night. Below is a detail from “Dark Nights” – in Photo Express Tokyo – 1979, (a republication of the CAMP series.(Steidl publishing – 2012)
This work foreshadows Kitajima’s ultimate shift toward architectural photography 30 years later. The lines of the Tokyo skyline appears fragile and intricately bound together like lace, it is difficult to know where one structure begins and ends with the fog softening the divisions. This photograph is an anomaly among his other work of the time. In spite of this, Keizo, has included this photo in the Photo Express collection, recognising it as a slow-growing seed of inspiration that would ultimately grow into an entirely different photographic pursuit.
Another example of Kitajima’s early architectural photography is this iconic photograph of the Empire State Building taken during a six month trip to New York City in 1981. Here again this shot is unique among his slightly more refined shots of the 80’s club scene, where sexuality veered in all directions.
Below are candid portraits of stars stripped of their glamour, such as : The Rolling Stones; Madonna, and Al Pacino secured him fame at 25 in the U.S.
This work was later appeared in a series titled – New York in Tokyo: Byakuya Shobo Publishing in 1982, as well as in his Joy of Portraits series, published by Shino Kuraishi – 2009.
While in New York, his work began to expand from carefree candid portraiture of the clubs to a sober photojournalistic depiction of the seedy streetlife of New York. For the first time his photos started to tell a story, his perspective editorializing the desperate living conditions of the impoverished American in New York. Here humanity is engulfed by its urban surroundings.
In the daylight, Kitajima is no longer restricted by the limitations of his film stock. And he can now show every detail of the scene. The shots are no longer just capturing one fleeting moment they are telling a story not full of life but of loss. At this point his photography transitions from Art Punk style to gritty journalism. His work now takes on the gravitas which will inspire Japan’s Asahi Shimbum newspaper to hire him to document the Soviet Union for a year, starting in 1990.
In the Soviet series his subject matter shifts yet again, with the monumental architecture, still unsentimentally portrayed, either the human subjects are placed in direct opposition or the structural environment as eclipses their forms altogether.
Another significant change in style is his introduction of color, which is used strategically to point out the visual relationships within the frame. The color is subdued, keeps close to monochromatic simplicity. Color is not used as a celebration but as a tool for graphic communication.
These aesthetic themes continue in Untitled Records – his ongoing collection of work 20 volumes starting from 2001. It is in this work that Keizo Kitajima has fully embraced the genre of architectural photography – focusing on the alienating effect of manmade landscapes. The hand of mankind is implicit rather than present. Color is used again to highlight the differences between the natural and manmade/unnatural environment.
Much of his work on this series is the documentation of the devastation wrought upon Japan in 2011 due to the Tohuku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear accidents.
Keizo writes – that his interest had shifted from merely documenting the built environment to shooting a “landscape that lost face and name.”
Article by Liza Davies