I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the iconic Japanese photographer, Keizo Kitajima, for Dazed and Confused mag. I’m a huge fan of his work, and regularly use his seductive, gritty black-and-white images of urban life to illustrate posts on this blog (as you may have already recognized), so I was extremely excited to chat with him. After our convo, I converted his part of the interview into a chronological oral history. And thus, below is Kitajima’s incredible life story, detailing his documentation of various cities the world over, as told by the artist himself. (There are some footnotes below the main text, for additional info.)
And FYI, Kitajima’s beautiful new photobook, USSR 1991, is being released through Little Big Man Books.
“My Father was a Shoka, a Japanese style calligrapher, and my mother was a housewife (1). Neither was very interested in art. When I was 15, I became infatuated with photography. This was in the early 70s, and a lot of art photographers has begun appearing on the scene in Japan–people like as Daido Moriyama, Shomei Tōmatsu, and Nobuyoshi Araki. They were a generation or two older than me, and as a young man I realized that their raw, artistic style of photography attracted me far more than the documentary-style photojournalism that was popular before them. That group of artists–who would later go on to become world class photographers—first inspired me to start taking my own pictures.
In 1975 I began studying under Moriyama. He didn’t teach me anything technical. However everything else about being a photographer–the attitude, the philosophy behind it, and all the things I still I believe to be important today–I learned it from Moriyama.
In the late 70s, I began photographing Tokyo at night, wandering the streets, and going into bars and clubs. During that era I shot in an area called Shinjuku, which was an extremely dense urban spot rich with underground culture and politically active students, so that excited me. Every night I went out and took photos into the early hours of the morning, and then once a month I put on an exhibition at CAMP gallery (3), where I showed my work from the previous weeks. I would cover every inch of the gallery walls with my images, and I did this every month for a year. (4) I worked constantly, and very fast. I was trying to capture the mood of the era, and how I felt within it. For me, photography was not about artistic expression; it was about what I saw and what I believed. I wanted to challenge what we as people blindly accept as being certain or “normal”–to destroy preconceived societal ideas–and in turn create a new way of looking at the world. For example, people say flowers and sunsets are beautiful, but why are we so certain that this is really true beauty? People say kids are cute, but are they really cute? I think it’s important to constantly question what we see.
In 1980 I began photographing in Okinawa. I shot mainly in Koza, the red light district near the American Air Force Base of Kadena. I didn’t have any political reason for shooting at the Okinawa base. Rather, I was drawn to it because there were so many different kinds of people there. Of course there were American soldiers, but there were also Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, etc, so there were all these different cultures rubbing shoulders, which created a strange and vibrant atmosphere. This was after the Vietnam War, so the town surrounding the base was full of an excited energy. (5) Also, I grew up in a generation that was profoundly influenced by America, so it was interesting to immerse myself within that cultural satellite. Affection, hatred, rejection, acceptance: everything was there in Okinawa, and nothing was a given. I wanted to make photographs that transcended all that.
In 1981 I went to New York and spent six months shooting the city and its nightlife, taking photos in some well known places like Mudd Club and CBGBs. What I loved about New York was that it was so chaotic and raw. You’d see a bum lying on the street right next to a superstar. I photographed people like Mick Jagger, and Madonna before she made it big. Celebrities, immigrants, drag queens, high-class, low-class—it didn’t matter. It was a city stripped bare.
After NY, I went to West Berlin, and while based there I toured all the countries in Eastern Europe. At this point I had developed a style and a “formula”, I suppose you could call it, of traveling to a place that I felt had a certain spark, walking around the city, and photographing the people inside it. From Eastern Europe I moved on to the Soviet Union. This was in 1991, so it just so happened that I was there during the final days of the Cold War, and the collapse of the USSR. Being there felt more daunting, and more extreme, than all of my previous projects combined. It was a dangerous time, and crazy things were always happening. Yeltsin had brought down the Gorbachev government and marched into Moscow on a tank. At one point I photographed the president of Georgia during his visit to the Soviet, and he was murdered only days after. Luckily though, I didn’t experience too much personal danger while I was there. The photos may make it seem like I was shooting in threatening situations, but I was always very careful to avoid danger, especially because I was always carrying so many rolls of film on me.
Looking back now, I understand that all the places I documented–from Shinjuku and Okinawa, to Koza and New York, West Berlin and the Soviet Union–were related to war. Back then I didn’t realize this; I was just going to places that instinctively felt interesting to me, and that inspired me. But today, looking back through my archive, it’s very clear that I am a man who lived through the Cold War era.
After the Soviet Union, I stopped shooting people in the cities. The reality of it started to bore me, I couldn’t find value in it anymore, so I moved on to shooting portraits and landscapes. Then, when Fukushima happened (6), I started to rethink what the concept of a landscape meant to me. I began a series of photographs of the earthquake, which I’m still working on today.
As I got older, I realized that I needed to do more than just take pictures. I wanted to create a place where people could gather together and interact with photography, and to think about and discuss the art form. Then, in 2001 I founded the Photographers’ Gallery in Tokyo, which is a venue for exhibitions, as well as a place to research old photographers, to have conversations, to listen to other photographers lecture, and to press magazines.
It’s hard for me to put into words what I love about photography, but I will try my best: for me, taking photographs is a method of meditating on society, and on history. Not in a conventional or abstract way, but in a way that is extremely visceral–I feel it in my heart, in the currents of my mind, and with my entire body. It connects me to the world.”
FOOTNOTES ON KEIZO KITAJIMA
1. Keizo Kitajima was born in Nagano, Japan, in 1954.
2. Kitajima studied photography in a class run by Daido Moriyama at Tokyo’s Workshop School.
3. Kitajima was one of a group of photographers, including Moriyama and Seiji Kurata, who, formed Image Shop CAMP, an independent photography gallery in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, in 1976.
4. Kitajima published a series of 12 DIY booklets in 1979 to coincide with the year-long exhibition, which was called Photo Express: Tokyo. In 2012 Steidl published a photobook facsimile of these booklets, also called Photo Express: Tokyo.
5. In 1980 Kitajima published Photo Express Okinawa, a series of four booklets of his work at the base.
6. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the largest since Chernobyl in 1986, was a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant that followed the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011.