Hiroh Kikai 1945-2020

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To claim that the pithy captions of Hiroh Kikai‘s long-term portraiture endeavour Persona would be able to stand on their own is not to take anything away from the photographs they were paired with. “A man who burst into tears when he heard my Tohoku dialect, saying it reminded him of his departed friend.” “A person who was carrying a paper bag containing a potted plant and a big box of mosquito coils.” “A man who lives alone and confesses that, even though he has suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage, he can not stop drinking.” Much like photographs, writing can carry small worlds, and if anyone was able to masterfully pair them it was this Japanese photographer.

In conversation, Kikai would take off in all kinds of directions, making it clear that — good for him! — photography only interested him as a means to an end. He understood and spoke some English, but like many savvy non-native speakers, he did so selectively. Inevitably, having used the extent of his English, or having maybe realised things had to take a different turn, Kikai would launch into his type of speech, delivered in what to this foreigner sounded like an intense staccato of fiercely clipped consonants; at which point one of the other Japanese people present would attempt to translate. You would always hear afterwards how his Northern dialect was difficult to understand.

When you’re a stranger to another language or attempt to learn it, it always sounds as if it were spoken at an incredible pace. But with Kikai it was never the pace that seemed to overwhelm, it was the sheer intensity of conviction that was being conveyed. I’m sure he could have ordered a loaf of bread in a bakery, and I would have been impressed by the delivery, thinking I had just witnessed a truly profound human transaction.

But there is something truly profound about any human interaction, even when it’s just about a loaf of bread. This, in a nutshell, was being stressed by Kikai when he spoke of or about photographs. “If you’re not in need of anything,” he once told a student, “nothing will come out of your photographs.” “If it’s not challenging you,” another one heard, “it’s not interesting.”

For Kikai, things never had to be challenging or interesting for their own sake: “It has to be as simple as ‘I love you’.” And his photographs are simple. Persona, the body of work he is most well known for, is simple in terms of content and execution. For years, the photographer would go to Sensoji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa area, hang around, observe people, and occasionally approach someone to take a picture. The photographs would always happen against one of the temple’s walls, and the person would be centered in the square frame of his Hasselblad camera.

Decades of this endeavour resulted in a variety of books, with the last one entitled The Final Chapter 2005-2018. Something had come to an end, Kikai had realised. Indeed, compared with the earlier ones the viewer can sense a change in these latest photographs. The earlier ones were published by Steidl as Asakusa Portraits . If you’re looking for those pictures, given the Steidl book is out of print, you might as well look for a copy of one of the Japanese Persona books (the printing is vastly better). The later photographs show how Asakusa had changed, depriving the photographer of the rich canvas of people to choose from; the canvas had been replaced with a more generic variant.

In his life time, Kikai produced a large amount of writing, most of it not translated into a Western language. When I last saw him he proudly told me how there were translations into Chinese prepared (there had been a growing interest in his work in China). Asakusa Portraits contains some of his essays, and they’re almost entirely devoid of any mention of photography. Instead, there is ample talk of doing the laundry, of going out to the temple to wait for pictures while observing people, of getting food at some lunch joint. “It’s not about photographs,” the photographer once said, “it’s about living.”

While Kikai is mostly known for his Sensoji portraits, there are other bodies of work that made it into book form. He had traveled to Turkey and India and photographed there. The resulting photographs are deeply steeped in a classical humanistic tradition, and many of them are good. But none of them managed to reach the magic he appeared to find so effortlessly around that temple in Tokyo.

“The most important message a photograph can deliver,” Hiroh Kikai once summed up his belief in the medium, “is that it’s worth it being a human being.”

Hiroh Kikai died on 19 October 2020 in Tokyo.

Heart of Darkness

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Seen against the trajectory of his artistic path so far, Ron Jude‘s new book 12Hz comes out of left field (full disclosure: MACK is also the publisher of my own Photography’s Neoliberal Realism). For two reasons, I find this development most welcome. To begin with, I’ve always found Jude’s previous works a bit too carefully controlled, too mediated. Obviously photography lends itself to exactly that, to mediate an experience through layers of introspection and control. But as a viewer I want to experience more.

Second, the new work seems entirely fitting for the times we live in. It’s dark not just in a literal sense; it’s also dark in terms of what it conveys. Even though most of the photographs technically are as controlled as his earlier work, I can’t help but feel that something broke through this time. The end result is an overwhelming sense of dread when faced with the hostile world we live in.

We humans tend to think of the world as something we control. If anything, the whole idea of the anthropocene is based on that: look at us, we humans now managed to change the planet on the largest possible scale. We’re the masters of our universe — and much like Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice, we now find that we can’t control the forces any longer that we unleashed.

The reality is, after all, that the Universe is entirely indifferent to us. Assuming we manage to survive long enough as a species, in a few billions years our own sun will undergo a massive change as it nears the end of its life, causing it to expand and completely destroy the inner parts of the solar system, including our planet.

Putting a value or moral judgment onto the world is a pointless exercise. In the now infamous words of the malignant fool currently occupying the White House, it is what it is. The Universe is indifferent to us. Still, we can’t but help project a judgment onto the world because that’s what we do with everything and everybody.

It is exactly this conflict between an uncaring world and us humans hoping, wishing, thinking that our own preconceptions and feelings are somehow met with something comparable that appears to have spawned the pictures in 12Hz. Of course, this is the basis of the idea of the sublime.

To make the photographs in the book, Jude ventured into what looks like the wild — locations, the colophon informs us, in Oregon, California, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Iceland. The majority of the photographs in the much larger first section depict tightly cropped views of rocks, ice sheets, raging bodies of water, with only occasional minor appearances of flora. The photographic description serves to stress the hostility to most forms of life in these locations.

There is an interesting push and pull between pure description (photographic formalism) and crossing the threshold of having pictures communicate something entirely different. I still have not been able to make up my mind how I feel about this fact, so I can’t write more about it other than the following. Given the presence of this push and pull — where some picture describe, whereas other allude to something way outside the frame, I’m left to feel that Jude’s feelings towards these locations were adversarial.

Thus, even though at a surface level, there is a large degree of similarity between this work and Awoiska van der Molen‘s, these two artist’s photographs end up speaking about something very different. Where the Dutch artist’s work is accepting of the world in front of the camera, Jude is not. I couldn’t say that I prefer one over the other; all I could say is that I prefer not to see their work next to each other.

There is a second part in 12Hz, which is printed on a different (much thinner) paper stock and which is much shorter. In an obvious sense, it’s the complete inverse of the first, with depictions of (again) tightly cropped parts of vegetation. These pictures are obscene, and I neither mean this in a sexual sense nor do I want to imply a value judgment.

These pictures of garbled messes of vegetation depict the world just as hostile to us as in the photographs of rocks or ice sheets. Maybe I’m using the word “obscene” because there is life depicted in the pictures, but boy, what kind of life it is. It shows no restraint.

This then brings me back to the times we live in: aren’t they obscene and revolting in so many senses of these word, whether it’s the sheer crassness of so many of our leaders or the widespread indifference to humans’ and animals’ suffering? Wherever you look, it feels as if the next abyss to stare into is not just around the corner — it’s already right in your face.

Of course, this obscenity is man-made (it is, after all, mostly men responsible for it); in another sense, however, it only mirrors the world’s sheer indifference to human life. And it is exactly this that is on display in 12Hz.

It’s a book I can only look at during the day. For sure it is one of the best books published this year.

Recommended.

12Hz; photographs by Ron Jude; short text by Paul Kingsnorth; 128 pages; MACK; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.2

A Few Fragmented Thoughts on Michael Schmidt (In No Particular Order)

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To begin with, I can’t talk about Michael Schmidt without acknowledging how much of an inspiration some of his work has been for my own photography. I’m thinking here in particular of his masterpiece Ein-Heit and to a lesser extent 89/90.

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Whatever you might think about Schmidt’s work, whether, in other words, you like it or not, I think it’s impossible to deny his ability to shape it both through the form of the photobook and the form of the exhibition. In fact, while many artists can be thought of as preferring one over the other, often for somewhat superficial reasons, Schmidt excelled in executing both equally well.

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The books are what we’re left with. But there also is the major retrospective that is currently on view at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof (it’s due to travel to a number of other venues afterwards), which, alas, I am unable to visit and see. The retrospective comes with a massive companion catalog that provides the basis for these thoughts.

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The presence of Thomas Weski as the person in charge of Schmidt’s archive is most fortuitous, given his deep insight into and knowledge of the late artist’s process and thinking. It is Weski who curated and organised the retrospective and who made available a variety of previously unseen material: work prints and other previously unpublished materials, book dummies, exhibition posters and cards, and more.

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I only met Schmidt once, roughly a decade ago at his gallery in Berlin. At the time, I didn’t know all that much about him, which in retrospect might not have been such a bad thing. For sure, I would have been able to ask more specific questions, had I known more about, say, Ein-Heit. On the other hand, when I walked with him to a restaurant in the company of a group who only spoke English and I felt I had to engage in some small talk (which is not something I’m very good at), asking the kinds of questions you don’t ask when you know more about an artist turned out to be a gift. For all I heard about him later — he was said to be famously gruff with people (to the point of grudges still making the rounds in today’s Berlin), he was warm, honest, and open when he spoke of his beginnings as a photographer.

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When you heard Schmidt speak, you heard a real Berliner: theirs is the German dialect and attitude most likely to offend all other Germans (if you want to learn more about it, this video is very good). If as a foreigner you think Germans are rude, given they tell you what they think (in Germany, to do the opposite would be rude), in Berlin you’re really going to get it. Berliners sound as if you’ve just offended them (which, granted, you might have, maybe by being a bit too coy or precious). I personally find this rather endearing; your mileage might vary. While Schmidt’s general filter might have been a bit on the weaker side, delivering “the goods” with a Berlin dialect for sure helped cement his reputation.

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Schmidt also was a self-made artist in the truest sense. Born into a rather modest family background and self-trained as a photographer, he never managed to stop people mentioning that his first job had been being a policeman. Add to that the fact that he was not very tall, and you had all the ingredients for what you could think of a bulldog: someone who felt the need to be incredibly assertive while dotting all the i’s. In the catalog, you see a larger number of materials that hint at Schmidt’s attempts to present himself in a very specific way.

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Given that Schmidt had to learn how to be a photographer without much of a formal education, the form of his books and exhibitions for sure comes as no surprise. He worked incredibly hard on them because he felt he had to. There was no other option. There was no room for sloppiness. Sloppiness would have had people talk about the former policeman who now wanted to be an artist (Germans can be ruthless when they want to). And what he demanded from himself, he demanded from others (which in general isn’t a good idea).

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In the book, there is a letter he wrote in which he detailed his method of photographing. “In order to learn more about a district, I drive down each street twice in both directions using the district map; this means that I have seen every street and its buildings in the district usually at least twice, but often even more often. […] Per day, the task is to cover and view roughly 1/20th of the district. On my map, I mark each path that I took or drove.” (p. 32 in the catalogue’s German edition; my translation) In light of this, a body of work such as Berlin nach 1945 with its variants of views of the same street becomes instantly clear: Schmidt was looking very, very hard for pictures.

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This is a very interesting approach to inspiration: you don’t wait for it to come and then start work. You work and work, and things will take off when it arrives — in part because it will be triggered by something you encounter while working. But it might not arrive for many months.

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Schmidt also looked very hard at pictures, his own as much as other people’s. The catalog unfolds a breadth of work that makes it clear how much he must have looked, how much he must have taken in from others. I found myself surprised at this breadth. I also noticed how certain motifs kept recurring (not necessarily in the same form, though).

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There is, after all, the Schmidt beyond the Waffenruhe one, beyond the Ein-Heit one. One was steeped in a New Topographics approach (as in Berlin-Wedding and Berlin nach 1945). There was the early Schmidt who was clearly inspired by classical social-documentary approaches, which today are mostly dismissed for the wrong reasons (it is as if some people can only imagine a Waffenruhe Schmidt). There’s the late Schmidt who’d occasionally misfire (as with the dreadful Frauen), and who’d then move on to bring back colour and considerable experimentation with Lebensmittel. And yes, colour had been a part of Schmidt’s early commercial work, as is being shown in the catalogue.

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I find it interesting how consistently Schmidt managed to arrive at high quality. Of all the books I’ve seen I can’t think of one where there are too many or bad pictures.

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I don’t necessarily want to speculate about the man’s personal life. But I’m thinking that it can’t have been easy being Schmidt. I remember Thomas Weski showing binders filled with contact sheets at the archive. Going through an in-between year provided a glimpse at the stark reality of relentless art making or rather: of failing to make art. Schmidt strove to at least partly re-invent himself after a finished body of work, and that was evidenced by his contact sheets. The process must have been a painful, with talk of a former policeman pretending to be an artist just one misstep in the final result away.

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At the end of the day, there will have to be a re-writing of the history of German photography. That new history will have to accommodate the fact that for a while there were two strands of German photography, an East German one and a West German one. Their joint tradition notwithstanding, there were clear differences. Schmidt clearly was a West German photographer. Berlin is said to have been his subject, but no, it was West Berlin.

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The difference between East and West German photography does not come down to good or bad. Instead, it’s a matter of recognition. For the most part, the history of the medium has a lot of work to do to give East German artists their due: A future history of German photography must not follow the lead of “re-unification,” which in reality and form was an incorporation of East Germany into the West German federal structure with very little, if any adjustments by the West (the consequences of this fact will be with Germany for a long time).

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Back to Schmidt: here we have a West German photographer operating in West Berlin, making West German work. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but we also need to be very clear about it.

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Having seen the archive and the previously unpublished material in the catalogue has left me wondering to what extent there is something else in Schmidt’s oeuvre that could be unearthed by a curator. Of course, this is where things can get iffy: after all, to what extent can you, should you look into something an artist decided against publishing during their life time? For sure, Schmidt’s case is bit different than Winogrand’s (where there were all those undeveloped rolls of film — if an artist doesn’t even look at their work, why should anyone else?). In fact, you could already extract a few unrelated photographs from the catalogue and create something different.

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With some of Schmidt’s books re-issued (Weski has been doing a stellar job bringing the photographer’s work back), the one still missing is Ein-Heit. As I wrote above, I consider it as the by far best body of work. Its ambition and scope is unsurpassed. It’s dense and opaque. It doesn’t necessarily make for the most rewarding experience unless a viewer is prepared to immerse her or himself repeatedly. Given its many historical references, a reissue might want to include a study section that reveals some of the historical references (the catalogue shows the sources of two images appropriated by Schmidt).

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The catalogue contains a number of in-depth essays by authors who worked with and knew Schmidt and who are able to provide more context around the different stages of the artist’s career. It’s a most attractive and hefty package. If you have almost 5cm/2″ to spare on one of your bookshelves, do yourself a favour and get a copy.

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Michael Schmidt: Fotografien 1965–2014 (or Photographs 1965–2014 in the case of the English language version); essays by Ute Esklidsen, Janos Frecot, Peter Galassi, Heinz Liesbrock, Thomas Weski; 400 pages; Koenig Books, London; 2020


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