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.