New Street History: An Interview of Legendary Japanese Photographer Keizo Kitajima

You could say that Keizo Kitajima is an heir to the Provoke photography movement’s electrifying foundation and principle idea that a photographic image can be a completely new type of language. It’s a language fired from the shutter of a camera – a lexicon that can encapsulate a fraction of a moment, yet recite an epic in a single explosive image. Often blurry, out of focus and with choking contrast, the short lived movement made icons out of photographers such as Daido Moriyama. Moriyama also seemed to have the most influence, especially on Kitajima who was encouraged to carry on in the tradition of Provoke, but also expand beyond its confines – to travel the world and to see if that same language could tell a more universal story. Kitajima made his way  to New York in the early 80s – a pivotal time when the streets were alive with a new breed of bohemia and fervent creativity. His resultant images from the six months spent on the beat in Manhattan resulted in some of the best documentation of the era. In 1990, Kitajima traveled to the USSR to photograph the last glimmer of the Soviet Union – all on rich, saturated, extinct Kodochrome film. Currently, Kitajima has an exhibition of works spanning his entire career on view at Little Big Man gallery in Los Angeles. Featuring vintage and new prints, it’s a perfect glimpse into the oeuvre of a lesser-known photographer that deserves to be a legend. Autre got a chance to catch up with Kitajima to ask a few questions about his work and to discuss why he could never make a photo book about Los Angeles. 

OLIVER KUPPER: So, first off, thank you. I appreciate your time. My first question is: what are some of the greatest lessons you learned at the Workshop School?

KEIZO KITAJIMA: There was no formal class there but I was very influenced by [Daido] Moriyama. Basically, Moriyama taught me how to think and how to look. And, those lessons are still with me today.

KUPPER: Interesting. And you knew about him, breaking out of the transcript a little, but you discovered his photography earlier than the school, as a teenager right?

KITAJIMA: Yeah, at the end of my teens.

KUPPER: How did you discover his work? I mean, obviously he is a big force in Japanese photography, but what was it about his work that was so electrifying?

KITAJIMA: Moriyama is famous for his Provoke photographs, for the destructive qualities of his images. This is what attracted me. It was not just Moriyama but also photographer Takuma Nakahira who I was drawn to for his rather dangerous and challenging writing and thinking which broke down prejudices. And, Nakahira was of course also producing images that looked like Moriyama’s as well.

KUPPER: Do you feel like you were carrying on the tradition of modern Japanese photography or were you trying to break totally new ground?

KITAJIMA: Of course I was critical of modern Japanese photography. But, at the same time, even the criticism of that work could only become another kind of modernism.

KUPPER: When you’re visiting New York or USSR, do you go in with a specific approach. When you’re commissioned to do specific series do you go in with a specific plan or is it totally improvised?

KITAJIMA: No plan. I just figured it out when I got there.

KUPPER: Is that intimidating?

KITAJIMA: No, not really. It wasn’t scary.

KUPPER: Can you describe the energy you’re feeling when you’re shooting in the streets or a night club? And, are you trying to transfer that energy to the photographs you’re taking?

KITAJIMA: When I’m in a city, I respond to things on many different levels. So, I might walk down the street and say “that’s a pretty girl” or “that’s a sad looking sky” or “this is dirty” or “this is beautiful.” Taking photographs is a kind of system for synthesizing these things. Film expresses these things in many different ways. For me, photographing in a city means to expose what’s inside of me. I try to do that as specifically as I can. I don’t just have one way of looking at things and I try to make clear the many different ways of looking at things. A baby, when born, knows nothing and as the baby grows up it will eventually get taken up by various systems which is not part of its control. In other words, the subject is created by society. So, in a sense then, the society is actually the real maker of my photographs. The fact that I speak Japanese is totally out of my control, it’s just something that is imposed on me from outside.

KUPPER: So the photographic process is almost automatic in a way.

KITAJIMA: I think about these things while photographing constantly. After taking photographs every day my mind kind of became like this.

KUPPER: So, this is a less philosophical question: you have an amazing photograph of Mick Jagger, sort of iconic of that New York series. Can you talk a little bit about how that image came about?

KITAJIMA: I saw The Stones walking down the street, from their bus into a bar called St. Mark’s Grill. I just kind of wandered in there. I encountered them. For me, New York is a place where you can see Andy Warhol or some other star and on the same street meet a beggar.

KUPPER: Did you ever spend time with any of these artists at the time or was this something you were just photographing from the outside?

KITAJIMA: I took photographs at The Factory once but I wasn’t spending a lot of time with him or other artists.

KUPPER: When you’re producing the pictures of negatives, do you imagine them more in photo books or on gallery walls?

KITAJIMA: It’s changed. When I was young I wanted to make photo books. After New York I stopped; I didn’t feel I wanted to make books as much afterwards. In the past five years I’ve become more interested in making photo books again.

KUPPER: As a teacher yourself, what kind of wisdom can you impart to our generation of photographers, especially in a digital world?

KITAJIMA: If it was ten years ago maybe I would have had some advice, but now I feel that there is nothing for me to say.

KUPPER: How do you feel about the digital revolution in photography?

KITAJIMA: In Japan, everyone is talking about what is digital or what’s the difference between digital and analog but the only thing we can do is get used to digital. Let’s get used to digital. But, I’m speaking about my own generation. For question of what looks like photography or what is photographic, the answer is different for my generation or for younger generations. Old people who look at digital photographs might say “this isn’t a photograph,” or younger people who are only used to seeing digital photographs might look at an older photograph and think “this is a really weird photograph.” But that’s photography. There is no original in photography.

KUPPER: So for this show, it’s a little bit of everything. Was it difficult to curate the show or pare things down?

KITAJIMA: Well, Nick did most of it.

KUPPER: Okay. And there are also some color photographs which people don’t usually see. Do you like shooting in color, working with the embrace of color? There’s a different energy between black and white.

KITAJIMA: I’m only taking color photographs these days but I don’t use monochrome film because I’m using a digital camera now. There’s just no need to make that black and white. The difference that I see is when you’re taking a color photograph the color is also an object. In other words, that you could take a photograph of something just because it is blue. Or red! Color is on par with taking a photograph because of the object properties of it. Color is a very important question.

KUPPER: Last question, if you were to make a photo book about LA, what would it look like?

KITAJIMA: I really like the West Coast in general and Los Angeles in particular. If I was going to take photographs on the West Coast my rival would have to be Karl Watkins. I’m very interested in photographing Yosemite, where Watkins’ photographs are from but if I were to photograph LA it would be desert landscapes. LA is an artificial city built in the middle of the desert.

KUPPER: Yeah. It would the desert city of Los Angeles.

KITAJIMA: It would be really difficult to make a book in LA because I only take photographs when it’s cloudy or rainy.

KUPPER: So you can never take photographs in LA.

KITAJIMA: Yeah, it’s basically impossible.

KUPPER: There’s maybe two days a year so not much career in that. You’d have to work quickly.

KITAJIMA: Well today was a little cloudy and overcast. On Monday I’m going to Joshua Tree, it’s like being on another planet.

KUPPER: Yeah, totally, like being in outer space. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Keizo Kitajima's exhibition New Street History is on view now until November 27 at Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles. text and photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Translation assistance by Dan Abbe. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE