Review: Asakusa Portraits by Hiroh Kikai


Book Reviews, Photobooks

These are exciting times for contemporary photography, with vast amounts of new work to be seen, vast numbers of books published, vast numbers of young photographers emerging. Looking back over the past few years, one thing appears to be unchanged, though: Only every so often, one encounters photography that has the ability to stop one in its tracks, that makes everything else disappear for a moment. Those moments are to be cherished, especially since they’re so rare, so unpredictable.

I do remember the last such moment very clearly. At the Heavy Light show, ICP’s recent survey of contemporary Japanese photography, I discovered the photography of Hiroh Kikai, or actually more accurately his “Asakusa Portraits”. I went to see the show twice (something which I almost never do), in part because of the work. The second time, I was with two photographer friends (each with lots of big shows and several books on their respective CVs), and they both reacted to “Asakusa Portraits” the way I did: They were completely mesmerized.

Needless to say, Asakusa Portraits has been the book I have been looking forward to, and it now is available.

It has become customary to include August Sander’s name in any discussion of portraiture (just like any talk about photography in general often is “enhanced” by some Roland Barthes quote and the use of the words “sublime” and/or uncanny), but if any comparison of Hiroh Kikai’s portraiture with somebody else’s could be made it would be with Diane Arbus’. But even so, it is never very obvious to me why one would want to refer to someone from the photographic pantheon when discussing a photographer’s work, and inferring Diane Arbus here would only stress what one could call superficial similarities.

Hiroh Kikai’s portraiture is very direct and sometimes very humourous, with the humour being partly created by the colourful characters in the photographs, partly by the deadpan titles of the photographs (“A man who came a long way to eat eel, 1986”, “A seller of footwear who suffered from a bad leg when he was a child, 1985”). But it would be wrong to say that everything is just funny, in fact a lot of the portraits or their descriptions are not funny at all. So maybe here the Diane Arbus comparison would make sense: Just like Arbus’ work, superficially all about “freaks”, was really not about freaks, but about people, so is Hiroh Kikai’s.

Asakusa Portraits is the book that I will be coming back to often over the next few weeks, to discover more and more layers; and it is certain to be on top of my list of the best photography books of 2008. Asakusa Portraits is an absolute must-buy, especially for anyone interested in portraiture.