At the tail end of an unexpectedly long conversation, the last question I ask photographer Keizo Kitajima is why it’s important for him to have even lighting across the image. The photographs he is showing at the Photographers’ Gallery in Shinjuku are part of his long-running “Untitled Records” series of unpopulated urban and semi-rural landscapes. As the gallery is a small space, there are only a handful of exhibits, but the precision with which they have been made is mesmeric.
As photographic images they are flawless: edited to remove the effects of foreshortening, buildings stand absolutely straight, and the compositions are organized so that what appears at every border and in each corner is meticulously calculated.
The color is particularly controlled. These days, Kitajima prefers to photograph only when it’s cloudy, or raining. The diffuse light gives the liminal urban and suburban landscapes he has been photographing since the 1990s a formalistic, austere quality. This is quite different from his earlier black-and-white Daido Moriyama-influenced street photography, which was full of flashlight, shadows and shadowy goings-on. When Kitajima photographs areas in Tohoku that were destroyed by the 2011 tsunami, his restraint and control have the subdued emotional power of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations.”
“I don’t want to force a perspective (on the viewer), I don’t want to make ‘atmospheric’ pictures,” Kitajima says. “Before the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a kind of utopia of street life, which has now disappeared, and now I don’t photograph people interacting with the city environment. I take pictures of people and landscapes separately. I like the flatness (of subdued lighting); that’s what photography is about, it’s two-dimensional, it’s not human vision. I want to capture detail throughout the frame.”
Though this flat, consistent lighting of mundane architectural structures was most famously pioneered by German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Kitajima says that he’s not so interested in their typologies, and that a greater influence on his work is the documentary principles of Walker Evans. Because the weather conditions and composition are highly regulated in the Bechers’ work, Kitajima says “it’s abstracted out of time. I go back to the same places and want to record changes; that means including the passage of time in my work.”
Given that Kitajima is inspired by the potential of photography to act as a documentary tool, and that Evans is most well-known for his work with the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, I ask if humanism and using photography as a way of disseminating evidence of an objective reality factors into his practice.
“We’re not in a humanist age anymore; it’s post-humanist now,” he says, after which follows a long pause. Out of the blue he stands up to have a cigarette and says, “Do you know Yurie Nagashima? She has a show opening at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum tonight.”
“Are you going?” I ask. “I have to really, she’s a friend,” he replies. “It starts at 5:30”
As it is 5:20 p.m., Kitajima seems very nonchalant about heading over to Ebisu from Shinjuku. He previously mentioned that he doesn’t really like hanging round Tokyo apart from in Shinjuku, where he established the Photographers’ Gallery as a collective workspace and exhibition venue for young talent.
Before leaving, he introduces me to another member of the collective, who has been quietly working at a computer in the back of the office while we’ve been talking. “Do you know Keiko Sasaoka’s work? It’s very good. She’s exhibiting at the Yokohama Shimin Gallery at the moment. You should go.”
His last words as he goes out the door, “Brothers, we are brothers.”
“Keizo Kitajima: ‘Untitled Records Vol. 12′” at the Photographer’s Gallery runs until Oct. 22; daily 12 noon-8 p.m. Free. pg-web.net