Shigeo Anzai, a photographer of artists, says he loses interest when a subject becomes too famous. That’s why his retrospective at the National Art Center, Tokyo, is full of pictures of young, fresh faces.

It’s also why most of those faces are taut with an unmistakable tension — of ambition unrealized, self-confidence untested and destiny untold. There’s a slim Takashi Murakami grinning like a TV host in 1992, Yoshitomo Nara holding up a painting in 1996 like an in-your-face hawker, and a bare-chested Tsuyoshi Ozawa drinking milk during a performance in Takamatsu that year.

If peeping into the past of Japan’s current crop of leading fortysomething artists isn’t your cup of tea, then how about the older generations? The 68-year-old Anzai has been doing this since 1970. In a 1983 shot, painter Atsuko Tanaka stands nervously in front of the kind of rings-and-dots works that now fetch more than $40,000 on the auction circuit; in 1980, a wrinkle-free Yayoi Kusama stands in front of her dot paintings.

And then there are the non-Japanese: Jean-Michel Basquiat at a Tokyo party in 1985, video artist Bill Viola fiddling with microphones in 1978, Richard Serra and Daniel Buren installing work at the 10th Tokyo Biennale in 1970.

Any professional can take photographs of artists who are already famous. Catching them when they’re unknown is a different ball game.

“I’m not really a professional photographer at all,” says Anzai in his gravelly voice. Talking to The Japan Times at the National Art Center late last month, he continues, “Not in the sense that people pay me to take photos, and I take them as a job.”

Anzai, who started off as a painter himself, says his photographic work is a kind of artistic collaboration.

“It’s all about communication,” he says. “How can I connect with the artist?” In order to take his photographs Anzai spends hours looking and talking — often going to the galleries while the artists are still setting up their works. “It’s important to watch them,” he says. “What are they trying to do now? Why did they do that? I draw on all my experience of looking at art and stand there and just watch. And I talk to the artists. That’s important too.”

Anzai found that artists were appreciative of his efforts. “I’ve had young artists say they’ve never met anyone who understands the details of their work as much as me,” he says.

Anzai was lucky to begin his “new collaborations” at the very time that new site- and time-specific forms of art were emerging. “I looked at this new kind of art that was occurring around me, and I thought, ‘It would be such a waste if they ended up being left out of art history.’ ”

If not documented in photographs, some would have disappeared forever. One of Anzai’s most famous images is of two blocks of wood jammed in the windows of the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto — an installation piece by his friend Kishio Suga from 1973. “The museum was air-conditioned, and Kishio ended up having a big fight with them so he could keep the windows open,” he recalls with a raucous laugh. “So thinking about it now, it was lucky for both of us. Lucky for me and lucky for the artists that I was there too.”

Further distancing himself from professional cameras-for-hire, Anzai says he “dislikes the idea that you can judge an artist by just one show.”

“Some things can only be seen — and some photographs can only be taken — after you’ve seen three or four exhibitions,” he says. He also suggests that the uncertainty of young artists — the fact that they have something to prove — leads to better communication and better photographs.

“When artists get famous and end up using assistants to do their work for them, then the format and function might remain intact, but I lose sight of the spirituality of their work,” he says. “I think the most essential part of the artist is most visible early in their career.”

And while it is these photographs — literally hundreds — of young artists that are the highlight of the current exhibition, there are some of big names too, each taken at the heights of their game, that are bound to keep the most demanding of art voyeurs satisfied.

“Everyone looks at this and says, ‘Why did you take (German performance artist) Joseph Beuys from behind?’ ” says Anzai. “Well, if you can tell it’s Beuys from the back of his head, then that should be enough. It’s more interesting for people to imagine for themselves what his face looked like.

“With this shot of (American painter) Chuck Close (from 1985), I only took about three shots. He didn’t say much, just ‘Yeah, OK,’ when I asked if I could take his photograph. He was not the sort to reveal his inner state too much.”

Care to hear more anecdotes like these? Visit on a weekend and chances are that an outgoing, gray-haired and mustachioed man with glasses and a Leica dangling from his neck will sidle up and start a conversation. Make sure you ask him lots of questions — that’s what he’d do if he were you.

To see more of Anzai’s photographs online, visit www.japantimes.co.jp; “Anzai: Personal Photo Archives 1970-2006” runs till Oct. 22 at The National Art Center, Tokyo, 7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.; closed Tues.); admission ¥1,000. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.nact.jp

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