Keizo Kitajima


1954, Suzaka, Nagano Prefecture

Color photograph portrait of Keizo Kitajima
Keizo Kitajima; courtesy Keizo Kitajima

While the photography magazine Provoke ran only three issues, between 1968 and 1969, it had a significant impact on subsequent generations of photographers. Keizo Kitajima (b. 1954) was one of the first and most prominent artists to incorporate its are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, and out-of-focus) style and its ideals of subjectivity and anti-commercialism into his work.

In 1975 Kitajima took a class taught by Daido Moriyama at Workshop Photo School, a photography school founded by several members of the Provoke circle after the magazine ceased production. The class proved foundational, and Moriyama became a lifelong mentor. Just one year later the pair established Image Shop Camp in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo—one of a number of artist-run galleries popping up at the time that served simultaneously as exhibition spaces, darkrooms, and meeting places for like-minded photographers. From January through December 1979 Kitajima presented a monthly series of exhibitions of experimental photographs that he took around Tokyo, accompanied by booklets titled Photo Express: Tokyo. These pictures adopt the are-bure-boke aesthetic of Provoke, but the way the artist figured Japan’s booming consumer culture was distinctly his own: pulling in close to his subjects, he foregrounded their jubilant humanity and injected each scene with a pulsating, ecstatic energy.

With Moriyama’s encouragement, Kitajima began to expand his practice beyond Tokyo. Having previously found inspiration in Shinjuku’s sordid and vibrant nightlife, in 1980 he turned his attention to the red-light district of Koza, a city in Okinawa Prefecture. The United States had established an air base at Kadena, also in Okinawa, at the end of World War II, and in 1970 Koza had been the site of a violent protest against the ongoing American military presence. Kitajima’s photographs in Photo Mail from Okinawa capture the wild and tense interplay of sex, money, and cultures that continued to mark the interactions between Japanese citizens and American soldiers ten years later. His work also took him to New York, where he photographed the height of 1980s decadence and excess both in black and white and in color. Not inhibited by his outsider status, Kitajima came right up to his subjects in the city streets, as he had in Tokyo. This direct engagement is often evident in the pictures, which were published in 1982 to great acclaim: New York earned Kitajima the prestigious Kimura Ihei Award, and it was even adapted for a 1995 Comme des Garçons fashion advertisement campaign.

In 1990 Asahi Shimbun newspaper, which founded the Kimura Ihei Award, commissioned Kitajima to travel throughout the Soviet Union to photograph the multiplicity of people and places across its numerous republics. The artist created an extensive visual document of the USSR on the brink of change—the state was officially dissolved on December 26, 1991, just one month after he finished shooting. This fortuitous timing lends considerable historical gravitas to the series, USSR 1991, and has greatly influenced the way the photographs have been interpreted. Often visibly exhausted, several of the pictured individuals clutch relics of earlier cultural and national identities, foreshadowing the seemingly inevitable fragmentation of the state. While Kitajima’s landscapes depict a utopian ideal in clear decline, his sympathetic portraits capture a resilient and diverse population.

Today Kitajima remains an active and prolific member of Japan’s photographic community. He has largely transitioned from street to studio photography and has been working on an extensive, ongoing series of portraits of men and women and their built environments that has been exhibited frequently over the past twenty years. His interest in supporting younger photographers has also persisted: in 2001 he founded photographers’ gallery, a hybrid artists’ cooperative, exhibition space, and publishing house in Shinjuku.

— Matthew Kluk


Works in the Collection by Keizo Kitajima

Essays and Artist Talks

  • The end of the 1950s and the early years of the following decade marked an astonishingly rich transitional moment in the history of photography in both the United States and Japan. While a long tradition of photography existed in Japan before this period, the country’s relationship with the U.S. after World War II seems to have instigated a distinctive and wide-ranging reexamination of the medium—a reaction against classic photojournalism and prewar aestheticism in favor of more personal and expressive picture making. Several key exhibitions in the United States in the 1970s drew attention to these shifts, highlighting not only new currents in Japanese photography but also the important ties between Japanese photographers and the Americans who were looking at their work with interest. By the 1970s Japan had fully recovered from its postwar economic hardships and was experiencing a period of prosperity that would lead to the “bubble economy” of the 1980s. The abundance of the times and the lifting of restrictions on travel inspired a generation of young people to leave Japan and go abroad—often to the United States. Among them were photographers such as Eikoh Hosoe, who visited the U.S. frequently (he spoke fluent English, which was extremely useful); Ikko Narahara, who stayed in America for four years and studied with Diane Arbus; Ken Ohara, who has lived and worked in the U.S. since 1962; and Kikuji Kawada, Keizo Kitajima, and Takuma Nakahira, who traveled to Europe and mainland Asia. These excursions, often lasting years, were part of a larger surge of exploration of the U.S. and Europe by Japanese artists in many media. The issues that occupied Japanese photographers during this time and the ways they engaged with them were in some cases responses to The Family of Man, a landmark exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, that traveled to Japan in 1956.[1] The show included 503 photographs made in 68 countries—mainly journalistic works, presented with the intention of generating a sense of world community and of drawing attention to the dangers of waging war in the new atomic age (fig. 1). Edward Steichen, the charismatic director of MoMA’s photography department, asked for Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s help with the Japanese version of the show, having previously met the photographer and displayed his work at the museum. Ishimoto’s role, however, was ultimately minimal; instead he became a central figure in the transition of Japanese photography toward a new kind of expression.[2]
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related exhibition

  • Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now
    related exhibition

    Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now

    October 15, 2016–March 12, 2017

    One of the most significant contributions to the art of photography comes from postwar Japan. After World War II, the country began to produce film and camera equipment, supporting a large amateur photography culture and sponsoring native photographers as important artistic producers. This exhibition highlights SFMOMA’s considerable collection of Japanese photography, focusing on generous gifts from our community and the important donation of the Kurenboh Collection, Tokyo. Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now includes photographs from the 1960s, when major figures such as Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama investigated Americanization and industrial growth; the more personal and performative work of Nobuyoshi Araki and Eikoh Hosoe; and photography addressing the present culture and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Organized thematically, the show explores topics such as Japan’s relationship with America, changes in the city and countryside, and the emergence of women, especially Miyako Ishiuchi, Rinko Kawauchi, and Lieko Shiga, as significant contributors to contemporary Japanese photography.

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