Portraits reveal much more than a person’s appearance

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

Filmmaker and photographer Dennis Hopper leans against an old wall with his camera sandwiched between his body and the brickwork. Photographer Robert Frank lies sockless on the sand, harmonica in mouth. These celebrities are only two of a very long list of figures from film, art, music and pop culture, both Japanese and foreign, who photographer Kazumi Kurigami has quietly captured.

“Portrait: Kazumi Kurigami” at Gallery 916, places emphasis on an intense relationship between these figures, their personalities and the places they’re associated with. In an early photograph, two sets of hands rest across an engraving, signed “William S. Burroughs.” The engraved words “look,” “perception” and “viewpoint” are instantly recognizable and the show’s theme could be encapsulated by these three simple words.

Born in 1936, Kurigami graduated Tokyo College of Photography in 1961 and became a freelance photographer in 1965. During the 1970s and 1980s he directed a string of wildly imaginative commercials for the Parco department store. “This is Film for Parco” had actress Faye Dunaway dressed in black, peeling the shell from a hard-boiled egg. The scene is repeated in his first feature film, “Gelatin, Silver — Love” (2009), where private investigator (Masatoshi Nagase) is tasked with following a mysterious femme fatale (Rie Miyazawa) who, for Nagase’s character, proves ultimately lethal.

In another photograph of Burroughs, the writer stands beside a tree against which rests the silhouette of a discarded shooting target echoing the shape of his own figure, hat included. The wooden cutout towers over the tall writer, who lost in thought, seems oblivious of his head being so close to the figure’s heart, shot through, splintered and replaced with a gaping hole.

It’s an interesting era for the photographic portrait. What purpose does it serve? Is it a document or record of someone’s presence in this world, or something more telling and descriptive of us all? Yosuke Yajima’s recent show “Portrait” at 916-small questioned the very nature of the human face and the personality behind it with a series of fearsome photographs, while Kurigami’s 2012 solo exhibition at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography — “Portrait of a moment” — documented his hometown both past and present’

Across town at Shin-Nakano’s Tosei-sha Gallery, American photographer Kathryn Abbe’s photographic portraits are emblematic of the landscape her subjects live in and the lives they’ve led. Her photo of artist Larry Rivers, for example, has him seated in his studio, staring ferociously into her camera, while behind him an unfinished painting and his young family, suggest a raucous lifestyle and creativity at odds with his home life. In Kurigami’s case his study of character and his commitment to portraiture are similarly telling with people shown in intimate surroundings — figures that define their time.

Darting between what’s on the wall and in the catalog, searching for names to less-than-familiar faces, visitors will find Kurigami’s images have a wry sense of awareness and sensitivity that express more than simple celebrity status. The final photograph of Allen Ginsberg has the poet holding his hand to his right eye. Are you looking at him or is he looking at you?

“Portrait: Kazumi Kurigami” at Gallery 916 runs till Dec. 28; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (Sat. till 6:30 p.m.) ¥800. Closed Sat. www.gallery916.com