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On July 31, 2001, Peabody Essex Museum Director of Photographic
Services Marc Teatum spoke with
photographer Kenro Izu at Izus studio in New York
City. That interview follows.
Marc: Lets 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 Id 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 schoolthree
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 Id brought
lasted about a week. I had to find work almost immediately.
Luckily, I found a job in a commercial studio as a photographers
Marc: With Ken Morrie?
Marc: And you stayed with him for
Izu: One year.
Marc: So originally the plan was to visit and go back
Izu: Yes, it was a vacation--a fall vacation. I remember
seeing dried corns on peoples doors and didnt
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 Id
started to want my own studio. So I left my job and opened
Marc: You did strictly commercial work at first?
Izu: Yes, to support myself. Even then I dreamed of making
photographic art, but I didnt know where to start.
I was still exploring. Coming to New York was part of
finding myself. After thirty-two years Im 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 Id spent almost four
years in Tokyo during prep school and college, and New
York wasnt that different from Tokyo. Of course,
the way people think and how they evaluate youthat
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 students 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, thats 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 sideconducting business, traveling,
and so onin these things I am now western, very
practical. But when I am photographing religious sites,
Im 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?
"Id 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. Id
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 hadnt achiev ed
that and I was about to turn thirty. My business was growing
and growing, but thats not
what I was really looking for.
Marc: So you went to Egypt. Why Egypt?
Izu: Its very simple. Since I was a child Id
had a fantasy of seeing the Seven Wonders of the World.
I knew Gizas 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
Marc: I understand you took a series of photographs in
Egypt but werent satisfied with them.
Izu: Thats 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
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 itthe place and the moment. That is what
matters. If I dont feel it, I dont take the
picture, because its completely meaningless and
I would be wasting my precious film. I can take only 80
sheets of film each trip. Thats 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, thats 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 cant, then I dont want to make another picture
postcard that someone else has already taken under perfect
Marc: Are there sacred sites in the U.S. that you want
Izu: Yes, but I need to do some exploring. Id also
like to go to Peru and Sri Lanka, which I havent
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. Id also like to go to China
and India, and to the Middle East. Yes, there are many
sacred places that Im very, very curious to see.
Marc: Tell us about the camera you had made. You got a
grant. You went to Jack Deardorff
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
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 youre 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 formatwhich is very
close to the format of a 35 mm or a 5x7, which I like.
Im not particularly fond of 4x5 or 8x10 because
theyre 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 orderwhich 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
Marc: What about print paper? You just dont go to
the store and buy the paper stock.
Izu: No. I apply the emulsion myself.
Marc: Right. So lets say youre back in New
York. Youve made your paper. How do you control
for variability in the paper itself? Wouldnt 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 dont 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 dont 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 thats outdigital
technology, computer-enhanced manipulation after the facthave
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 didnt exist in the original.
The truth is, in my platinum printing Im following
the nineteenth-century photographers footprint,
but Im not carrying around a glass plate weighing
hundreds of pounds. Im carrying the plastic film
with todays 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
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 hed 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 wont 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
Marc: In the forward to your new book, Clark Worswick
wrote that he met you at a gallery. Can you tell us that
Izu: Yes, we met through a mutual friend. I was at my
friends 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 hes just being polite. So I didnt
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.
Marc: Youve talked about giving back to the cities
youve photographedespecially your Friends
Without Borders project. Can you tell us more about this?
Im 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 againsomething
about life. The trees life, the monuments
life. Theres some kind of a hint about life in the
monument. I got excited and contacted my travel coordinators.
They said its not ideal time because of terrorism.
The Khmer Rouge sometimes comes out and kills peoples.
But I couldnt 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 Im 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 photographabout twenty-five
monuments. Gradually I start to get acquainted with neighbors
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 peoplevery
friendly, very quiet, nice people. Whenever I set up the
tripod, because its such a big camera, kids gather
around and look at it. Some of the kids dont 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 kidsthese
cute and friendly kidsactually stepped on the mines
and lost legs, or got blown up playing with unexploded
detonators. And it really hurt my heart. I didnt
know what to do.
Ironically the countries with ancient monuments often
had a past glory, but are now poor, and always I feel
like Ive 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 dont 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 dont 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, Im
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. Im 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, heres 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 dont want to take a penny from these pictures
or postcards or my book, or anything I do here. These
entire monies I earned, Im 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. Farmers95% of the
population is farmersthey 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 childrens
hospital for the poor is something maybe I can do. But
Im 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
wont 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 Id like to achieve and
please help by buying these prints.