PORTRAIT - Kazumi Kurigami

Weekday 11:00 - 20:00

Saturdays and Holidays 11:00 - 18:30

Sundays and Mondays Closed(Except for 2013.11.4 & 12.23)

Entrance Fee 800 yen for over 18


Pictures of ‘unordinary people’ – The portraits of Kazumi Kurigami
Kotaro Iizawa (photography critic)

Photographer Kazumi Kurigami has had a long career, beginning in the 1960s, photographing a range of subjects in a range of different media. He was active in the field of commercial photography in the 1970s and 1980s and is highly regarded for his innovative ideas and his application of advanced techniques. In 1989, he held a solo exhibition titled “CRUSH” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, where he presented a body of images with strong experimental elements that captured the sense of anxiety and of tension “when things break.” He released his first film as director, Gelatin Silver LOVE in 2009, and in 2010, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, staged the solo exhibition, “Portrait of a moment” which included the Hi to Hone series he has been working on since the 1970s. His creative impulse shows no sign of diminishing.

Among Kurigami’s numerous photographs, it is his portraits that have been a consistent feature of his career since it began and have never lost any of their intensity. The production of a portrait in which the photographer stands face to face with the portrait’s subject and attempts to draw out his or her personality and inner spirituality and to capture that within the portrait, has, since the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, been attempted by many a photographer. Kurigami’s portraits, for the most part shot in black and white, are also legitimately part of that lineage.

He observes the subject of the portrait, precisely determines when, where and how the photograph is going to be taken, releases the camera’s shutter and with perfect technique, creates a print rich in a range of gradations from white to black. The photograph has an unwavering, well-balanced composition, yet contains a dynamic sense of movement capable of unbalancing its viewer.

However, looking at Kurigami’s portraits again, I began to think that, although they are most certainly “orthodox” works, they also have a unique texture, a working of consciousness that is not often seen. One may not realize this just by looking at one or two of his photographs, but when you look at a large number of them, you begin to discover a kind of singularity in Kurigami’s portraits that allows you to state “these are unquestionably portraits done by Kuragami Kazumi.” It is this idea that we will now reexplore.

It stands to reason that an overwhelming number of Kurigami’s portraits were destined for magazines and advertising, which means that he has hardly ever turned his lens on someone in a private capacity and also means that most of the people in his photographs are celebrities, that is, people who have demonstrated some kind of special ability in a particular field and whose names are widely known within society. Actors, writers, painters, photographers, musicians, scientists – they are all leading the kind of life that is difficult for ordinary people to imagine. When you take photographs of “unordinary people,” people who spend every day of their lives on the edge as if they’re walking across a tightrope in mid-air, the photographer is required to have a proper level of mental preparedness. There is an interview in which Kurigami talks frankly about this very thing. The interview appeared in a booklet published to coincide with his “Time Tunnel Series Vol. 12: Photographer Kazumi Kurigami” exhibition held at the Guardian Garden and the Creation Gallery G8 in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 2000.

“Portraits are certainly interesting. The way that person thinks, whether that person gets a sense of fulfillment from his or her job, it all comes out on the face. In that sense, if people’s faces were pieces of scenery, they would be glorious scenery. I find photographing men more interesting than women. When I photograph men, I have a chat with them, create the right atmosphere … raise the tension. I have a few tricks up my sleeve for making people bored, or the opposite, making them excited about what is happening.”

Undoubtedly, when you look at the photographs that have been selected for this exhibition, Kurigami’s claim that “men are more interesting to photograph than women” is understandable. The women, for example, Masako Shirasu and Chiyo Uno, just happen to be living a more out-of-the-ordinary life than men, and the beautiful actresses and singing idols who just smile congenially are to Kurigami banal “scenery” that does not conform to his personal sense of what is beautiful.

In order to photograph such “unordinary people,” “[having] a few tricks up [one’s] sleeve” becomes a necessity. It includes of course “rereading a book by that person read long before or buying and reading their latest book.” As part of his diligent preparation, he endeavors to “create an atmosphere by doing or saying a little something to that other person that makes him or her think, ‘Good, he knows what he’s doing.’”

“I’ve never really considered photographing someone just as they appear. As I am face to face with the ‘scenery,’ there’s something in the way I perceive things (because I don’t mind if that twists and turns to some extent) that makes me want to extract the spiked parts of that person, the parts of that person that are his character and to turn them into something angular. … Say, for argument’s sake, the person in question is hugely ambitious, what I want to do is show up that ambitious part of him in a strong way and also take a strong photograph of him. If the person is an eccentric type, I’ll make sure that the photograph is eccentric … with this kind of approach, the ‘game’ that is a photo session becomes more interesting. Because it’s good when the photographer and the subject have a kind of tension between them, like they’re bouncing off each other, I sometimes do and say things that bring them to the edge of anger (laughs).”

Herein lies something hugely important when considering Kurigami’s portraits. When photographs are taken of “unordinary people,” there is the option of trimming away their out-of-the-ordinariness and revealing their true selves. Tadahiko Hayashi, for example, for example, adopted such an approach when, immediately after the war, he turned his camera on the Buraiha, or Decadent School, of writers that included Ango Sakaguchi, Osamu Dazai and Sakunosuke Oda for his “Bunshi” (Literati) series. To meet the desire of the masses who wanted to see their ordinary faces, he stripped away the writers’ previously established social images, to reveal their true selves.

But Kurigami attempts to “extract the spiked parts of that person, the parts of that person that are his character and to turn them into something angular.” Consequently, the out-of-the-ordinariness of his “unordinary people” is more pronounced, cracked open to release their “eccentric” facial expressions and gestures.

As Kurigami himself says, this is simply “the game that is a photo session” and to participate in this “game,” one needs to be specially qualified. They are more than aware that they are “unordinary people” with special personalities and powers of expression, and sometimes, to the extent of pretending they are reacting to his provocation, are able to sincerely enjoy their “sessions” with the photographer. Be it Keith Richards, Yuichi Inoue, Akiyuki Nosaka, Robert Frank or Yukio Ninagawa, their true selves seem to have been amplified and to be performing in a self-assured manner. This is what fills us with an excitement far exceeding any image of them that we have created in our minds.

What’s more, the special qualification to participate in this “game that is a photo session” is not only imposed on the subject. The photographer is also required to “extract the spiked parts of that person, the parts of that person that are his character and to turn them into something angular.” Whenever I have the opportunity to meet Kurigami, I always find him to be so effortlessly well-dressed and well-mannered. The facts that, in order to achieve this, he commits to moderation in his life as a matter of routine, is constantly training his mind and body, maintains a lively curiosity, and hones his communication skills are obvious.

In a different interview (“This Person, Kazumi Kurigami,” Japan Photo Almanac 2013, Photographic Society of Japan, 2013), he responded as follows to the question, “Is taking photographs daily a way for you to keep up the training of your photographer’s eye?”

“It’s something that has to be done to get to this level. Also, when I considered the fact that a photographer is a living being and that he’s going to have to maintain his physical senses and his aesthetic sense for a very long time, well aren’t they going to start to deteriorate the older he gets. It’s a matter of declining physical capacity and also, the one that’s most scary for me, decay of the mind. Because I’ve been doing this for 50 years, you understand. But what I mean, what I’m talking about is training to prevent decay of the mind.”

“Training to prevent decay of the mind” that’s goes on for more than 50 years without jadedness creeping in is easier said than done. To be face to face with “unordinary people” in tight situations means he too has to continue being an “unordinary person.”

There is something else I also noticed while I was looking at his photographs. The hands of the subjects rather oddly bother me. The most important part of a portrait is of course the face, because it is in the face that we see a distillation of what makes that person that person and that is also what appears in the photograph. In a number of Kurigami’s portraits, however, the hands are playing a more eloquent role than the face. There are even some that consist only of the hands of the subject, such as those taken of Kenzaburo Oe, Shincho Kokontei, Professor Stephen Hawking, Toru Takemitsu, and William S. Burroughs.

That you can, with relative ease, control your face is something you notice straight away when you’re taking photographs or having your photograph taken, but it is not so easy to do the same with your hands, which is why that subconscious part of a person sometimes appears in the photograph without the subject realizing it. Consequently, Kurigami, in the “game that is a photo session,” pays attention to the movement of the subject’s hands and attempts to capture their subtle changes. It is when the aspect of unconsciousness also comes within the field of vision that the “glorious scenery” of his portraits emerges in clear and sharp focus.

For Kurigami, his portraits are, in addition to being gifts that are the result of the “daily training of his eye,” a challenge for him and for his subjects, in which it is entirely unforeseeable as to what kind of “glorious scenery” will become visible and in what way. It is the same thing for us, members of the audience, and the scenes that become visible by turning the pages of a book of photographs or by standing in front of photographs one by one, always subtly and sometimes greatly exceed our expectations. We should before all else imbibe the out-of-the-ordinariness of the “unordinary people” who appear in such photographs.



Kazumi Kurigami

Born 1936 in Hokkaido. Graduated Tokyo College of Photography in 1961. Joined Central Studio the following year, where he worked under Naoya Sugiki, and in 1965 launched his career as a freelance photographer. In 1969, Kurigami worked on his first commercial film. His practice has since comprised not only adverting photography, but film direction as well.
Among his best know photo-collections are Oyogu hito, Hi to Hone, Crush, Northern, Diary 1970–2005, and Hi to Hone II. Recent solo exhibitions: “Diary” (Leica Salon, 2009), “Hi to Hone II” (Taka Ishii Gallery, 2011), “a trip in death at my house” (Impossible Project Space, 2012), “Portrait of a moment” (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography), and “Nobuyoshi Araki and Kazumi Kurigami: A Mirror of Utsusemi, Ship of Time – Self/Dear/Shadow” (Nara Prefecture Complex of Man’yo Culture, 2013). He directed the 2008 film Gelatin-Silver.

book information

To coincide with the opening of Kazumi Kurigami's photography exhibition “PORTRAIT,” the photography book is now available.
Kurigami examines his subjects with an acute and penetrating eye, burning what he perceives through his senses onto the film. In concert with the powerful line of sight of the subjects he captures within his lens, his photographs have a liveliness that touches the heart of their viewers. Please take advantage of this opportunity to experience the portraits of Kazumi Kurigami, not just a fragment of time separated from reality, but something that will remain alive and fresh forever.

Kazumi Kurigmi: Kazumi Kurigmi
Published by 916Press & Akaaka
¥3,465( with Tax )


Kazumi Kurigami

Date : 1 November, 2013 - 28 December, 2013
Time : Weekday 11:00 - 20:00 / Saturdays and Holidays 11:00 - 18:30
Closed : Sundays and Mondays (Except for 2013.11.4, 2013.11.23, 2013.12.23)
Entrance Fee :800 yen / 500yen for students (Gallery916 & 916small)

Kazumi Kurigami, the photographs For enquiries regarding
the purchase of the photographs, please contact the gallery.
TEL: +81-(3)-5403-9161 / FAX: +81-(3)-5403-9162
MAIL: mail[a]gallery916.com