Kenro Izu was born in Osaka, Japan in 1949. He attended Nihon University College of Art in Tokyo from 1969-1972. After moving to the United States in 1972 he spent two years working as a photo assisstant in New York City and subsequently established his own studio, specializing in still life photography.
Since 1979, in addition to his well established comercial work, Kenro began his serious professional commitment to his fine art photography, travelling the world to capture the sacred ancient stone monuments in their natural settings. He traveled and documented Egypt, Syria, Jordan, England, Scotland, Mexico, France and Easter Island (Chile). Mot recently he focused on Buddhism and Hindu monuments in South East Asia: Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia, Veitnam and India. Through them, he captures profound beauty with natural states of decay.
Recently Izu founded Friends Without a Border an organization devoted to raising funds for children’s hospitals in Cambodia. Profits from select prints sales and his recent book Light Over Ancient Angkor are donated to this worthy cause.
John Paul Caponigro You’ve gone to Easter Island, the Egyptian pyramids, Indian temples, the megalithic monuments. What led you to photograph these kinds of places?
Kenro Izu I started first at the pyramids in Egypt back in 1979. The Seven Wonders of the World, I went and visited those. It was my dream since I was a child. I was most interested in Egypt. At that time I was only a commercial photographer. I was thinking that someday I’d like to do more artistic photography. But I didn’t think I could do it, just my studio business was enough, day by day it was very crazy. I was twenty-nine years old and ten months, so I thought, “I’m going to be age thirty in a few months and I haven’t accomplished anything artistically.” So I thought I had to see these pyramids and I’d take my camera with me.
JPC So time, your own impermanence, was part of what prompted you to do this?
KI I came back with only one picture was successful to me. I was looking at the picture hanging up on the wall. Looking, looking. There is something about stone structures that exudes really spiritual feelings. It’s not because it is the pyramid, but because it is massive stones, structures worshipped by people’s hands. I am not so interested in natural stones. The closest things to natural stones are in Scottland, standing stones, they look like natural stones only standing upright. I saw just a touch of human hands there. After that they used it as a place of worship. That really gives the atmosphere of that area special feelings.With a few it is spiritually a very dense atmosphere. I was very attracted with that feeling. I had a few strange experiences around the pyramids too. So I was thinking for one full year and after that I thought, “I have to do more photography of these stone monuments because they have something very, very special.”
I picked Stonehenge as a second subject. That was the time I saw your father’s photographs of Stonehenge, the portfolio. I had a chance to see prints in my hand at an auction, Sotheby’s or Christie’s. It was really nice. Very transparent, very clean spiritual feeling. For a long time those pictures were my goal until I started to see something different which evolved today into monuments.
JPC I was reading through Sacred Path, Sacred Architecture recently and there is an interesting quote by Rudolph Arnheim, “Buildings acquire meaning only when they are shone to reverberate in their shapes the deeper strivings of human nature. Religious architecture is the best proclaimer of this truth.” It is interesting how the residues of the activity that occurred in these places can linger so much longer after the events have passed. That happened hundreds of years ago and yet one still feels the kind of activity that was put into those places particularly through the things that people shaped. I think that’s true of the photographs people make. We put so much intensity into seeing and then making the final object that we leave a kind of residue there too. Do you agree?
KI Yes. Feeling is a very important aspect because my subject is sacred sites. There is a very strong spiritual feeling regardless of what the religion was. The important thing is the spirituality of these monuments. It’s not just a photograph of a building. The building has to be there to photograph but the atmosphere is what I’m really interested in. The building is a representation of that spiritual side. Without architecture there is nothing I can photograph. But what I’m photographing is atmosphere, air actually surrounding that monument.
JPC It’s curious, I talk to so many photographers where the photographs they make are less about what’s right in front of the camera than they are about what seems to be invisible. It’s very hard to see air and yet one breathes it and that very breath lets us know we’re alive. But we can’t photograph it or find scientific confirmation of its existence.
KI Right. You have to have some kind of subject you can photograph and whatever best suits what we’re looking for. It may not be Angkor Watt. It may be somewhere else. For me it just happened to be Angkor Watt, for me it had a perfect spiritual atmosphere and architectural form and nature. Before Angkor my work wasn’t so much together with nature. Nature reclaiming human civilization and the cooexistence and the making of a transformed beauty. That I can capture in a camera. That made a very different approach. Of course the Pyramids were half buried in the sand. That in a way is nature but I’ve never seen nature in this way. Trees grow and roots travel all around in search of water. I’d never seen such a form of life.
I started with 4×5, then 5×7 and then I thought it wasn’t big enough. That feeling of air, that spiritual feeling, I just couldn’t reproduce it on the paper. And I thought it was maybe because I was making and enlargement. The closest thing is contacting, when the negative and the paper are together with nothing in between. Looking at my 5×7 enlarger I thought, “Here’s the negative and here’s the lens and here is the air of New York City and here is the paper. This air might be doing something.” It was to me. I did some experiments with 8×10 contact prints and learned about platinum prints and these exhibited that feeling I was looking for.
JPC What were the qualities?
KI Sharpness is not really my concern. Enlargement from a very sharp modern lense of an 8×10 to a 16×20 is sharper than my 14×20 contact. My lense is fifty years old,very low tech, and looking at a negative with a four power magnifier, it was already not sharp. It wasn’t designed to be enlarged. It wasn’t the sharpness, it was the gradation. The tonalities enlarged are in larger steps but when contacted are very fine.
It gave me really good training when I first got the 14×20 camera. I realized I couldn’t photograph as casually as 4×5’s. The number of films is limited, the weight is heavy, there are limitations of where I can set up – lots of limitations applied. I learned to observe the subject so carefully because I cannot afford to casually photograph. After all a photographer has to see and feel to photograph and capture. If the photographer doesn’t see the camera won’t see.
When I walk in the city street my wife will say, “You’re not looking at anything. You don’t remember that person passing was a friend.” But when I come to interesting subject to me I see every bit of detail – texture of petals, leaves, or going to the monuments just a little bit of lichen growing from the stones or vines hanging, or the decay on the stones, the texture, shiny or the sun is hitting just a tiny bit on the stone. Those delicate things I observe every bit and when I’m really motivated then I pull out my camera.
JPC It’s a different way of looking.
KI It’s completely different. When I get to the place I don’t walk around the place with the camera. I leave the cameras, everything, at the entrance and ask the guide or driver to watch it. I try to see in my eye so carefully, which wasn’t my nature before the big camera. Whenever I have a chance to teach at a workshop I try to teach students to try to see with your eyes not through the camera because through the camera is always something different. Your eyes are the most honest. Your eyes are sharper than any fine lens. If you don’t see it you don’t get it. If you see you’ll get it. Of course if you see and get it, in between you need highly skilled techniques to capture it. Not everything you see will be captured as you see. But if you don’t see you’ll never get it.
So I got a 14×20 camera. I proposed the idea to a National Endowment Grant and they gave me the money which I took to Jack Deirdorff. I wanted to produce the largest format I could carry myself. I was thinking a 20×24 but after he studied the problem he said I’d never be able to carry it myself. I cannot afford to take an assistant on every trip. Not just because of money, but I need to be sitting there all day long just trying to feel and capture things. So I always travel alone. There were always assistants who were dying to come along to these places but it really defeated my purpose – to be alone so I could feel even just a bit of air move. I believe in the atmosphere around sacred places, that was the reason that I got that huge camera to make contact prints. It took one year to complete the camera.
JPC Many people think that photography is instantaneous, that it happens very fast. Sometimes one does have to dwell with a subject in order to achieve depth. So I wonder how long you spend making these photographs and how often you go back.
KI Each trip is as long as three weeks. I can take only about eighty sheets of film since it’s so big. So it’s as long as eighty sheets lasts. One time I was visiting three different countries and so I took one hundred and forty sheets and that was way too many. My concentration wouldn’t last more than eighty sheets worth of exposure. When I work, because the camera is so big, I really want to make sure each exposure is what I want to make. I don’t cover many angles. I can’t do that. Sometimes it’s very productive. Six shots in the morning and six in the evening. That won’t happen too often. I go back again after a few months. That works better than if I go a few months at a time and live there. I feel I lose my freshness. When I’m fresh things always surprise me somehow. But if I see something everyday for one month then it doesn’t surprise me anymore. It’s become routine. I’ve been to Angkor ten times in the last four years. Each trip is as long as three weeks.
Recently I went there without a camera. It was about my hospital project. After I saw the disaster fo land mine victims and the lack of medical care I donated the profits from this book (Light Over Ancient Angkor) and the prints to an organization named Friends Without Borders, which I founded here. This is the headquarters, to raise funds for a children’s hospital in Cambodia. They had one hospital with no doctor. The doctors were paid by the government and so they just do a side business, they just come in a couple of hours in the morning and do some basic treatment and then they go home to their practices to make money. Whenever I went to the hospital I never saw doctors there. So emergency patients come in without money and they don’t bother, they just die. I thought that was so sad. So I decided to sell my prints of Angkor, I made a limited edition of one hundred for this series, usually I make an edition of ten or twenty, and I lowered the price by half and the whole thing will go to this fund. We raised about three hundred thousand dollars last year. Now we have other corporate and individual sponsors and we are up to one million dollars. So in two weeks I am going to Cambodia for the groundbreaking of a new hospital. It makes me feel so good that I can give back to this beautiful city. I took so many pictures and I never gave back. I thought in taking we have to give something. I decided to sell my pictures, raise money, raise consciousness and each time an exhibition takes place I ask them to give some kind of gallery talk so I can talk about photography but at the same time I can talk about this project. We photographers are priveledged to have a communication tool like the camera. It’s great communication. I don’t speak a word of the Cambodian language but by taking pictures I can communicate with them. I have to use that priveledge for good not just for my career or artistic or personal business. That’s very new to me.
Since I started this foundation for the hospital project I’ve met many people who I otherwise would never have met. Each one has their own idea about life or helping people, or what their satisfaction is. I’m doing this for Cambodian children but I’m really doing this for myself, my satisfaction. Many organizations that we are trying to collaborate with now have their own idea about better worlds and better societies and that’s motivation or energy to keep pushing in sometimes difficult situation. Fund raising is never easy because simply put fund raising means begging money. Right? I’ve never done it before but I’m doing it and now fairly comfortably.
JPC It’s much easier to do it for someone else and for a cause you believe in.
KI Exactly. And it’s often very effective. I see it’s working and it’s amazing. I didn’t think I could raise one million dollars.
JPC That must feel terriffic.
KI It is good. I’ve been learning a lot through this project. It is like a kind of fate or destiny that I was bound to encounter Angkor Watt four years ago was one major change about my concept of photography and subsequently changed my life course instead of just being my artistic career, twenty to thirty percent of my time is spent on this project, so the number of pictures that gets made may be less but maybe something has philosophically affected my work so it’s bound to help me by changing course in my photography like this. I believe in destiny, no matter how I struggle.
JPC The view out your studio window is quite different from the ones you find in your work. It’s a great view of the New York City sky line.
KI One thousand years from now, if we all abandon New York for some reason, and I come back, I may see this as interesting. This picture (Angkor Watt) is state of the art architecture in the 1200’s. They’d been defeated by Thai forces, so they retreated, abandoned this capitol, and they moved the capitol to Phenom Phen, the current capitol. That was 1350. When Angkor was rediscovered in the mid 1800’s it had only been abandoned for five hundred years and it’s like this now.
JPC Nature reasserts itself.
KI Yes. Nature is reclaiming their territories. And somehow I see a good harmony. As a matter of fact they tried to remove this tree and they found if they removed the tree the building would collapse. The building and the tree were hugging each other. If one fell, both fell. They designated that this temple was to be kept as it is, they decided not to remove anything but to just try and avoid more overgrowth.
JPC We usually think of stone as the closest thing to eternal. Wooden structures, say the stave churches in Norway, don’t last as long. Stone lasts longer but not forever.
KI People always ask me why I am photographing stone monuments. It’s the closest thing to something that lasts an eternity. But look here there is a border line between the sand and the stone. It’s so vague. When I saw this I thought, “Stone is not forever.” Everything eventually goes back to the soil or water. Buddhism will teach, nothing is permanent. Everything is transient. This life, our life, this flower’s life, even the stone’s and the tree’s, everything is just a moment of things. A stone may last ten thousand years or one hundred thousand years but that’s just a little bit comparatively. That whole concept of time is so different.
JPC That’s very true. Photograph’s don’t last forever either. And the “immortality” of art will fade as well.
KI People say that the platinum print is permanent. Nothing’s permanent.
JPC How does your still life relate to this new work? You still do still lifes?
KI Yes. I do flowers, I do nudes, and other still lifes.
JPC I was interested, why do you call your nudes still lifes?
KI I don’t photograph them as the characters. So there are no faces showing, you may notice, and just the body. When I look at a flower petal, so close, and I see the skin, very close, to me it’s the same – both to me are just a forms of life, forms of a death. Whether it’s five days of a life, a rose, or fifty years of a life, a human being, or ten thousand years of life, a temple, it’s the same to me. It’s death and life that are my large interests. Everything is an experiment to photograph these as a process, an experiment in thinking of what is a life and what is a death.
This flower I’ve been observing for three days, it’s coming to the final stage and probably tomorrow morning all the petals will be on the table. It really interests me.
JPC Studies in transience? When I hear you talk about these things passing I’m also reminded of Japanese prints, ukiyo-e … the floating world, where impermanence was a potent theme. Coming from the east, living in the west, I wonder if there’s another artistic tradition that you bring with you to these photographic forms which at first glance seem very western. I wonder if there is a way of looking or a focus of intent that you feel comes with you?
KI My professional training was done in the United States entirely. Since I spent twenty one years in Japan I think the foundation of my viewpoint may be Japanese. Some see my photographs as unmistakably eastern. I don’t get it. I think, “It can’t be.” But it depends.
JPC I wondered if you had any thoughts on what might be eastern and what might be western or do you feel there are so many similarities today that those distinctions are no longer useful?
KI In general what I learned was in the west something eroded, rotten, disintegrated is not something beautiful. Fresh is better than dying. Sometimes I got very weird comments when I photographed a dead or dying flower. They said, “Why don’t you take it when it’s really beautiful?” That’s a different point of view. One might think these roses are ugly, that two days before they were much prettier. I see both ways. When they were in full bloom, peak, they were beautiful, of course. But I see this as equally beautiful. In a way it is more beautiful to me. I sometimes wonder if that is one difference between eastern and western.
JPC One of the great functions of that kind of reflection and of art is to help us consider beauty outside the bounds of the norm. It’s still wonderful to focus our attention on the easy things to appreciate, like the rose, but then discovering another viewpoint also can lead us to the appreciating the stranger things that we have been taught weren’t beautiful or that weren’t worthy of our consideration . It’s a wonderful way of finding value in the things that surround us. I think this kind of activity, and it need not be confined to art, is one key to conscience and consciencetiousness.
KI I try to search my own sense of beauty. And where I can see it, I use it as a study, thinking about what is life and what is death. It’s a big subject and I still can’t figure out what it’s about. But by observing I can sometimes feel … but I can’t really say.
Would you like to see some photographs?
JPC I’d love to.