Hiroh Kikai

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Artists

Hiroh Kikai (鬼海弘雄 Kikai Hiroo ?, born March 18, 1945) is a Japanese photographer best known for his monochrome portraits of people in the Asakusa area of Tokyo, a project he has pursued for over thirty years.

Early years

Kikai was born in the village of Daigo (now part of Sagae, Yamagata Prefecture) on March 18, 1945 as the seventh and last child (and fifth son) of the family. He had a happy childhood, from the age of 11 or so preferring to play by himself in the nature that surrounded the village. He graduated from high school in 1963 and worked in Yamagata for a year, and then went to Hosei University in Tokyo to study philosophy. As a student he was keen on the cinema — he particularly enjoyed the films of Andrzej Wajda, who would later write essays for some of his books, and Satyajit Ray — and has said that he would have worked in film production if it did not require him to write, a task he has never enjoyed, and money, which he lacked.

Immediately after his graduation in 1968, Kikai worked as a truck driver. A year later he worked in a shipyard. Meanwhile he stayed in touch with his philosophy professor from his university days, Sadayoshi Fukuda. Fukuda's wide interests extended to writing a regular column for the magazine Camera Mainichi; he introduced Kikai to its editor, Shōji Yamagishi, who showed him photographs by Diane Arbus that made a great impact. Kikai started to take photographs in 1969. At that time (when a university graduate could expect to earn ¥40,000 per month), a Hasselblad SLR camera normally cost ¥600,000; Kikai heard of an opportunity to buy one for ¥320,000 and mentioned this to Fukuda, who immediately lent him the money, with no interest, no date for return, and no pressure. (The loan was eventually repaid.) This Hasselblad 500CM, with its 80mm lens, is what Kikai has used for his portraits ever since.

Photographic career

Kikai thought that work on a boat might be photogenic, but, having no experience, could not get a job. He eventually got a job on a boat fishing for tuna by having an unneeded appendectomy and displaying the scar as a guarantee that he would not force the boat into port. He worked on the boat in the Pacific from 6 April until 9 November 1972, with a stop in Manzanillo (Mexico) for provisions. It was during this time that he took his first photographs to be published, in the May 1973 issue of Camera Mainichi. But Kikai decided that in order to be a photographer he needed darkroom skills, and he returned to Tokyo to work at Doi Technical Photo (1973–6). In 1973 he won a prize for his submission to the 14th exhibition of the Japan Advertising Photographers' Association. He became a freelance photographer in 1984, a year after his first solo exhibition and the same year as his second.

Living close to Asakusa (Tokyo), Kikai often went there on his days off, taking photographs of visitors. He stepped up his visits in 1985; three collections of his portraits have been published so far.

Kikai's other long-term photographic projects are of working and residential neighborhoods in Tokyo, and of people and scenes in India and Turkey. All these are black and white. However, his occasional diversions have included colour photographs of the Gotō islands and even of nudes.

Unusually in Japan, where photographers tend to join or form groups, Kikai has never been in any group, preferring to work by himself. When not setting out to take photographs, Kikai does not carry a camera with him. He leaves photographing his own family to his wife Noriko, and it is she who has the camera if they go on a trip together.

In the early part of his career, Kikai often had to earn money in other ways: in 1980 he briefly worked at an Isuzu plant, in 1982 in a Subaru plant.

Kikai taught for some time at Musashino Art University, but he was disappointed by the students' lack of sustained effort and therefore quit.

Kikai has had solo exhibitions in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan, Kraków, and San Francisco; his prints are held by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and the Centre for Creative Photography ( University of Arizona, Tucson).

Asakusa portraits

Kikai had started his Asakusa series of square, monochrome portraits as early as 1973, but after this there was a hiatus until 1985, when he realized that an ideal backdrop would be the plain red walls of Sensō-ji. At that time, the great majority of his Asakusa portraits adopted further constraints: the single subject stands directly in front of the camera (originally a Minolta Autocord TLR, later the Hasselblad), looking directly at it, and is shown from around the knees upwards. He may wait at the temple for four or five hours, hoping to see somebody he wants to photograph, and three or four days may pass without a single photograph; but he may photograph three people in a single day, and he has photographed over six hundred people in this way. He believes that to have a plain backdrop and a direct confrontation with the subject allows the viewer to see the subject as a whole, and as somebody on whom time is marked, without any distracting or limiting specificity.

Though Kikai started to photograph in Asakusa simply because it was near where he then lived, he has continued because of the nature of the place and its visitors. Once a bustling and fashionable area, Asakusa long ago lost this status. If it were as popular and crowded as it was before the war, Kikai says, he would go somewhere else.

Published in 1987, Ecce Homo was the first collection of these portraits. It is a large-format book with forty-one portraits made in Asakusa in 1985–6. Kikai won the 1988 Newcomer's Award of the Photographic Society of Japan and the third Ina Nobuo Award for this book.

In 1995, a number of portraits from the series were shown together with the works of eleven other photographers in "Tokyo/City of Photos", a major exhibition held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Ya-Chimata, published a year later, is a second collection, with 182 portraits printed on smaller pages.

Persona (2003) is a collection of 166 portraits made in Asakusa. A few are from Kikai's earliest work, but most postdate anything in the earlier books. Several of the subjects appear twice or more often, so the reader sees the effect of time. The 33×31cm book format is unusually large for a photograph collection in Japan, and the plates were printed via quadtone. The book won the 23rd Domon Ken Award (presented by the Mainichi Newspapers) and 2004 Annual Award of the Photographic Society of Japan. A popular edition followed two years later.

Portraits of spaces

Kikai has said that people and scenery are two sides of the same coin. When tired of waiting (or of photographing) in Asakusa, he walks as far as 20 km looking for urban scenes of interest where he can make "portraits of spaces". He generally photographs between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., and avoids photographing when people are present as their presence would transform the photographs into mere snapshots, easily understood; even without people, they are the image or reflection of life. Samples from this series have appeared in various magazines from at least as early as 1976.

Tokyo Labyrinth (1999) presents portraits of unpeopled spaces in Tokyo (and occasionally the adjacent town of Kawasaki). There are individual shopfronts, rows of shops, residential streets, and so forth. Most of the buildings are unpretentious. Like the Asakusa series, these portraits are monochrome and square, taken via a standard lens on 120 film. Each photograph is simply captioned with the approximate address (in Japanese script) and year. The townscape series continues with work for "Tokyo Polka", published in the periodical Sōshi.


Kikai has said that going to India feels like a return to the Yamagata of his youth, and a release from life in Tokyo. His photography there is much less planned or formal than his portraits of people or places in Tokyo: after an early start with colour 120 film, he uses black and white 35mm film in India — and has laughingly said that he would use 35mm in Tokyo if the city were more interesting and didn't make him feel unhappy.

India, a large-format book published in 1992, presents 106 photographs taken in India (and to a much lesser extent Bangladesh) over a period totalling rather more than a year and ranging from 1982 to 1990. It won Kikai the Shashin-no-Kai award.

Indo ya Gassan ("India and Gassan", 1999) is a collection of essays about and photographs of India. Gassan is a mountain in central Yamagata Prefecture close to where Kikai was brought up; in his essays, Kikai muses on India and compares it with the Yamagata of his youth.

Shanti (2001) is a collection of photographs that concentrates on children, most of which were taken in Allahabad, Benares, Calcutta, Puri and Delhi in 2000. It won the Grand Prix of the second Photo City Sagamihara Festival.

Malta, Portugal and Turkey

Kikai was one of thirteen Japanese photographers invited by EU-Japan Fest to photograph the twenty-six nations of the European Union; he spent twenty-one days in Malta in September 2005 and a short period in Portugal in October 2004, travelling widely in both countries. In colour, these photographs are a departure from his earlier work. Most are more or less candid photographs of people. A collection was published as the eighth in a series of fourteen volumes, In-between.

Kikai has visited Turkey several times; photographs of Turkey have appeared in the magazine Asahi Camera.

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