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On July 31, 2001, Peabody Essex Museum Director of Photographic Services Marc Teatum spoke wit
h photographer Kenro Izu at Izu’s studio in New York City. That interview follows.

Marc: Let’s start from the beginning. You came to New York City in the early ’70s. What made you decide to leave Japan?

Izu: I was a second-year college student. I was studying fine-art photography, and I’d been hearing about New York for photography, art, performance art. I wanted to see for myself. I wanted to meet people, listen to music. So I took a short break from school—three months, I told my professor. When I arrived here, of course, I was overwhelmed…a twenty-year-old boy in the middle of New York, with things happening, museums and galleries all around, jazz clubs. The little money I’d brought lasted about a week. I had to find work almost immediately. Luckily, I found a job in a commercial studio as a photographer’s assistant.

Marc: With Ken Morrie?

Izu: Yes.

Marc: And you stayed with him for…

Izu: One year.

Marc: So originally the plan was to visit and go back home?

Izu: Yes, it was a vacation--a fall vacation. I remember seeing dried corns on people’s doors and didn’t know what it was. Then before I knew it, it was six months. Then a year. I moved on to my next job with a fashion photographer. I was there for three years. By then I’d started to want my own studio. So I left my job and opened a studio.

Marc: You did strictly commercial work at first?

Izu: Yes, to support myself. Even then I dreamed of making photographic art, but I didn’t know where to start. I was still exploring. Coming to New York was part of finding myself. After thirty-two years I’m still searching, but I feel a little closer.

Marc: Was it difficult to adapt?

Izu: New York was very different from the Japanese countryside, where I was brought up. But I’d spent almost four years in Tokyo during prep school and college, and New York wasn’t that different from Tokyo. Of course, the way people think and how they evaluate you—that is where eastern and western styles differ. In Japan, education is more a matter of picking out the negative part and the student corrects it. Under the American style of education, the teacher picks out the good parts of a student’s work and encourages them to grow. When I showed people my portfolio they said nice things about it. Being Japanese, I believed their compliments. “Nobody is saying anything bad,” I thought, “so I must be good.” In Tokyo, a professor would say, “This is bad, that’s bad…you have to correct this or correct that.”

Marc: Which brings up a good point: When you create your own work now, are you eastern or western in your thinking?

Izu: On the practical side—conducting business, traveling, and so on—in these things I am now western, very practical. But when I am photographing religious sites, I’m seeing with an Asian/Japanese eye.

Marc: After your first job here, in advertising, you went to Egypt. You were thirty, I believe. Can you tell us about that trip?

"I’d come to New York to explore what my real photography is. Not fine art, but photography that talks to me, resonates to my heart."

Izu: Yes, I was three months to being thirty years old, facing to the big thirty. I got a panic, actually. I’d come to Ne
w York to explore what my real photography is. Not fine art, but photography that talks to me, resonates to my heart. I hadn’t achiev ed that and I was about to turn thirty. My business was growing and growing, but that’s not
what I was really looking for.

Marc: So you went to Egypt. Why Egypt?

Izu: It’s very simple. Since I was a child I’d had a fantasy of seeing the Seven Wonders of the World. I knew Giza’s pyramid was one of them. I decided I just wanted to be in Egypt when I turned thirty. I literally I dropped my commercial work and went. After I came back, I did lose one big client. But Egypt was more important to me.

Marc: I understand you took a series of photographs in Egypt but weren’t satisfied with them.

Izu: That’s right. I took both 4x5 and 35 mm. I took more than 1,000 images with a 35 mm. And nothing really touched to my heart, except one image. I made a rough print of it, an 8x10 from a 4x5 negative. It was of a pyramid. It was the first time an image talked to me. So I had to continue the conversation. I pinned it up next to the entrance to my dark room, so that each time I pass by there I must see it. After about one year I realized that this is a monument, a sacred place, built 4,000 years ago. It was built of stone. There were stones and parts of a destroyed temple scattered around it, so that it was kind of growing out of the ground. That was the quality that interested me. I went back three times, each time using a larger format. Eventually I realized that what attracted me was the relationship between the stone monument and me. I was interested in life and death, and there was a hint of that in that stone.

Marc: How do decide “Yes, this is the right site, this is the right time” to photograph one of these sites?

Izu: My instincts. I try not to think, not to compose. I try to face a monument, blank my thinking, and see if it vibrates to my heart. I am documenting the site. The only thing I choose is when and where I document it. I can sense it—the place and the moment. That is what matters. If I don’t feel it, I don’t take the picture, because it’s completely meaningless and I would be wasting my precious film. I can take only 80 sheets of film each trip. That’s how the film is made and packaged.

Marc: Some photographers use previsualization. They study the point of view, the angle, the time of day. Do you previsualize your images?

Izu: No. I try not to. I go to the bookstore. I get the guidebook with photographs in it. I look at the backgrounds, see if they interest me or not. Afterwards, I read the history of a place and say, “Oh, that’s what that was there.” I like to blank my mind when I begin, so my instincts work better.

Marc: How do you differentiate between the creative process and the documentation process?

Izu: I try to use my basic instincts, like an animal sensing danger. I want to be as pure, as empty as possible and just try to document the spirituality of the place. If I can’t, then I don’t want to make another picture postcard that someone else has already taken under perfect conditions.

Marc: Are there sacred sites in the U.S. that you want to photograph?

Izu: Yes, but I need to do some exploring. I’d also like to go to Peru and Sri Lanka, which I haven’t been to because of all those terrorisms and civil wars going on. I want to go back to Mount Kailas in western Tibet in about a year. I’d also like to go to China and India, and to the Middle East. Yes, there are many sacred places that I’m very, very curious to see.

Marc: Tell us about the camera you had made. You got a grant. You went to Jack Deardorff…

"You put the negative on top of the enlarger, the lens projects it through the air onto a sheet of paper or a sheet of film. That air in between, it just bothered me"

Izu: Yes. That goes back to the day I first encountered a platinum print. I saw a beautiful print by Paul Strand. It was the first time I ‘d seen a Strand print. I took a workshop to learn how to make them. I realized the platinum print must be contact printed, but I wanted to end up with a large print. So I had to start by making an enlargement of the negative and then contact printing that. After experimenting with enlarging the negative, I finally realized that step detracted from the result. You put the negative on top of the enlarger, the lens projects it through the air onto a sheet of paper or a sheet of film. That air in between, it just bothered me, because this negative was photographed in the desert of Egypt, or the jungle of Cambodia. If you’re projecting through this New York City air, very clean air, then something is trapped in between that affects the print. I needed a very large format camera, in other words. So I sent an application to the National Endowment for the Arts proposing to do a project on sacred monuments with a large camera. And surprise, a $15,000 check just flew into my mailbox at my Woodstock house. I was just so happy. I went back to Mr. Deardorff, a camera maker, and he offered to modify a 12x20 to a 14x20 format—which is very close to the format of a 35 mm or a 5x7, which I like. I’m not particularly fond of 4x5 or 8x10 because they’re quite square and lots of subjects I photograph have long horizon lines.

Marc: What about film? Do you special-order it, or do you buy larger film and cut it down?

Izu: Luckily, Kodak was willing to make any size I wanted if I ordered the minimum quantity. It costs me over $10,000 each time I place an order—which is very difficult sometimes. Once every few years I place an order and have it cut. Fortunately I can get any film I want, Plus-X or Tri-X.

Marc: What about print paper? You just don’t go to the store and buy the paper stock.

Izu: No. I apply the emulsion myself.

Marc: Right. So let’s say you’re back in New York. You’ve made your paper. How do you control for variability in the paper itself? Wouldn’t this affect the print?

Izu: Soon after I come back I develop my film, I choose a particular image, and I make a single print of it. A few months later, because I have to send it to Japan, say, or to an exhibition, or somebody wants to purchase it, I make another. This time I don’t necessarily try to match to my original print. It may now be six months later, or six years later. My emotions are different. My idea of a good print may be different. Sometimes my feelings change from morning to evening. So, I try not to match the original. There is no master print.

Marc: You don’t create edition prints?

Izu: Sometimes I do. I may print an edition of twenty, say. I promise to make twenty prints, no more, but I do not necessarily make all twenty prints at one time. I may make four or five prints at the initial printing and, when that runs out, come back to the darkroom and make more. By then the original prints may look too dark or too contrasty, or too expressive. So I change it. I might lighten it up, or make it heavier. I try not to match the original feeling.

Marc: The new technology that’s out—digital technology, computer-enhanced manipulation after the fact—have you thought about using any of these to create the same kind of feeling that you do using the platinum process?

Izu: For one thing, yes: There are a few negatives I took in the old days, before I had my formula set up for platinum, where the density and contrast of the negatives are not ideal for platinum prints. I would consider digitally altering these images to get a better print. But not to create a cloud which didn’t exist in the original. The truth is, in my platinum printing I’m following the nineteenth-century photographer’s footprint, but I’m not carrying around a glass plate weighing hundreds of pounds. I’m carrying the plastic film with today’s technologies.

Marc: What about Howard Greenberg? I believe you were the first living artist shown in his gallery.

Izu: Yes, I met him in the late ’70s…early ’80s. He was a juror of a fellowship program I applied to in upstate New York, and I was awarded a small grant. Greenberg called me at home afterwards. Then he visited me at my house. He explained that he’d been a juror and admired my pyramid picture and would I consider doing a show in his gallery. “I have only five prints,” I said. “I cannot make a show.” He said not to worry, “the gallery won’t open until a year from now, and I can give you one year to work on it.” So I went to Mexico, to a pyramid, and to the Stonehenge. Howard and I are still doing business together at the Howard Greenberg gallery. He encourages me and is giving me shows ever since.

Marc: In the forward to your new book, Clark Worswick wrote that he met you at a gallery. Can you tell us that story?

Izu: Yes, we met through a mutual friend. I was at my friend’s gallery, studying a picture of a pyramid, and Clark was there and we started talking. First, Clark said he had a photograph of a pyramid on his refrigerator door, which he said was one photograph worthwhile keeping. It turned out to be mine! Then, we discovered we were neighbors in our country house and he invited me to his house. Again, because of my cultural difference, when he said, “Please come over,” I thought, “Well maybe he’s just being polite.” So I didn’t take it as serious. Then he called me again. “Kenro, I am sincerely inviting you. Please come. We are only twenty minutes apart.”

Marc: So you saw your pyramid picture on his refrigerator.

Izu: Yes.

Marc: You’ve talked about giving back to the cities you’ve photographed—especially your Friends Without Borders project. Can you tell us more about this?

“I’m a photographer. My career is observation. Looking, very carefully."

Izu: I was in Cambodia. It was 1993. It was quite a tense spirit in the country. But when I happened to see a photograph of Angkor Wat in a magazine, I got that sensation again—something about life. The trees’ life, the monument’s life. There’s some kind of a hint about life in the monument. I got excited and contacted my travel coordinators. They said it’s not ideal time because of terrorism. The Khmer Rouge sometimes comes out and kills peoples. But I couldn’t wait. When I arrived, there were very, very few tourists. I had the entire Angkor temple complex to myself. I can set up my tripod any time without worrying about tourists in background, tourists passing by or crossing my cameras. I got so excited I just kept photographing, without feeling any danger, except for seeing land mine signs all over. One night when I’m there, somebody planted a mine right by the gate of Angkor. Next day it became a minefield. But I went back to the complex several times. There was a lot to photograph—about twenty-five monuments. Gradually I start to get acquainted with neighbors and locations.

So in the daytime when the photography is too hot, or too much of sunshine, then I start to take a walk to the village, go to the vendors, see people, meet people—very friendly, very quiet, nice people. Whenever I set up the tripod, because it’s such a big camera, kids gather around and look at it. Some of the kids don’t have hands or legs, or part of a face was like blown up by a land mine. I get accustomed to seeing the red land mine signs with skulls on them, and am careful not to walk outside of any footpath or hard-packed road. This was the first time I encountered land mines. I never went to war. I knew about land mines and other kinds of explosive in my head, but not in real life. These kids—these cute and friendly kids—actually stepped on the mines and lost legs, or got blown up playing with unexploded detonators. And it really hurt my heart. I didn’t know what to do.

Ironically the countries with ancient monuments often had a past glory, but are now poor, and always I feel like I’ve invaded: I photograph a monument, take it home, exhibit it, and make a living. Always I feel a pain in my heart, that I take those beautiful scenes but don’t return anything. To justify those feelings, I dump all my coins and some dollar bills into those charity boxes at the airport, and then at Christmastime I send to my favorite charities. But in Cambodia, because I went there four or five times, I started to feel close to those kids. They rarely begged monies. They always offer the work, and in return they want to make money. They try to carry my big camera, they try to fan me, cool me down, or sell the Coca-Cola or water. And they are hard workers. Since they don’t beg, I feel I want to do something for them. Do I put the money into a charity box again?

I was forty-five years old and I thought, “I’m a photographer. My career is observation. Looking, very carefully. Did I never see the reality behind those scenes, behind this magnificent Angkor monument?” They are the people, especially the children, who have absolutely no responsibility for this civil war or greed or political arguments. Yet they are victims of it. No compensation from the government or anybody. They have to survive on the street. And I thought this is one thing I cannot pass by. I have to face its truth. I’m not the journalist or journalistic photographer, but I like to see, so I have to turn my body straight to this truth. Usually I just look to the side and “Ok, here’s a donation.” So this time what I took from Angkor, I want to return to Angkor. But giving the platinum prints to the Angkor temple is not going to help many people, so I decided I don’t want to take a penny from these pictures or postcards or my book, or anything I do here. These entire monies I earned, I’m going to return to that village. But how?

They need some educations and they need medical cares. I decided medical care should come first, then education. So I studied during the daytime when I cannot do photography. I stopped by the clinic there, and the provincial hospitals. And I see that there is literally no medical care for people who do not have monies. Farmers—95% of the population is farmers—they have no cash income. These people are carried into hospitals bleeding to death. I saw nobody was coming and doctors not standing up from chairs, no medicine coming, until a mother screaming with a handful of currency came in. When doctor saw the monies, he slowly stood up and nurses slowly showed up with IV fluid. Emergency medical care should be for everybody. Save a life first, then discuss. So I thought a children’s hospital for the poor is something maybe I can do. But I’m only a photographer. How could I set up a hospital?

Well, I have many friends. One is a general contractor for a Japanese firm based in Singapore. I asked him if he can estimate how much would it cost to make a modest hospital. He said roughly $1 million could build a hospital with very simple medical equipment. So I have to go raise one million dollars and start a small hospital, or at least a clinic, for people regardless of money or not. I call up all my friends, in America and Japan. I say I will donate the entire proceed of my photographs. I won’t ask your money, but give me your talent, give me your knowledge and help me. One of them, a graphic designer, made a brochure. Another one, an architect, drafted a sketch of a hospital. My engineer friend studied about what is needed to design a hospital. Together we made a three-dimensional model of the hospital, which I always set up when I show my photographs, with a poster saying “This is what I’d like to achieve and please help by buying these prints.”