‘our face’ project – Ken Kitano
text/ Lee Wing Ki
Collecting Debris, Creating Metaportrait
The ‘our face’ project is the most recent portrait photography series by Japanese photographer Ken Kitano since its inception in 1999. Ken Kitano visited various countries across Asia, starting from his home country Japan, to Bangladesh, China, India, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and beyond. Such journeys inspire the photographer to create an ‘ethnology of face and appearance’ in the most contemporary sense. Ken Kitano believes that Asia is the birthplace of many world’s religions. Cultures in Asia are historic and prolific, also being the most populous continent in the world, all these render portraits of Asia and Asian to be the furthest variety of all time. Ken Kitano travels, and collects debris of face, like any travel photographer, but with an utmost sensitivity in artistry.
In the nineteenth century, anthropologists from the west such as John Thomson (1837-1921) and Jones Lamprey (d. 1900) employed photography, the visual medium in-vogue, and created ethnological portraits of Asian for the comprehension of cultures and civilisations in Asia. Whereas the turn of the twenty-first century is the time where globalisation, cultural assimilation and digitalisation of image-making take place. Ken Kitano retrieves to the basis in photography, experiments with creative tactics in exposure and darkroom technique, and renders a new stylistic in portrait photography of our time, and our face. In Kitano’s photography, photographic subjects vary from, but not limited to, the esoteric Buddhist monks at Wakayama, to Geikos and Maikos at Kyoto, to young girls in anime cosplay costumes at a comic market in Taipei. These ‘metaportraits’, or piling portraits as a working terminology, a term and technique that Ken Kitano invents, create ‘icon’ of groups that give new appearance in the studies of anthropology, ethnology, photography and contemporary arts by and large. By revisiting the origin of photography, that is the drawing of light, Ken Kitano authorises the unlimited capacity in multiple exposure in image-making. Multiple exposure, as a back-to-basic darkroom technique, interrogates the monopoly of digital imaging today, also allows audience to rethink the beauty and nature of analogue photography. Ken Kitano life-sized handmade silver gelatin prints not only endorse the invaluable rarity in darkroom printing in the digital era, but also serves as an exemplary work in portrait photography in the future.
Ken Kitano’s Aesthetics on Exposure and Imaging
As a black-and-white portrait photography series, ‘our face’ is composed by different shades of gray. These pictorial lights-and-shadows are fabricated and layered by treatment of multiple exposure, of people and places. One of the Kitano’s stylistic signatures is his creativity and experimentation in ‘exposure’ and ‘imaging’. His earliest artistic venture, ‘Flow and Fusion’, by employing long-shuttered exposure on black-and-white film, re-creates the city of Tokyo to a haunting and disappearing cityscape in the most lyrical visual manner. ‘our face’ series is a continuing effort of Kitano’s aesthetic – each metaportait, the icon of a group, is layered by faces through the treatment of multiple exposure of various negatives on a single sheet of photographic paper. Interestingly enough, the repetition of exposure (not printing) is a long exposure per se in a darkroom sense. Each photographic subject is a personal encounter of Kitano in situ, at a particular place in a particular time, ‘there’ simply put. Such decisive technicality, precision and accuracy in making is already a craftsmanship that is larger than life. The finished product, a metaportrait, represents the ‘icon’ of group in the most figurative sense.
Ken Kitano categories this body of work in six groups, respectively, “on the road”, religion, children, war, race and occupation. To date, about 150 metaportraits are created. Each metaportrait is the aggregation and accumulation of, as many as 78 negatives, or usually up to 30 to 35 negatives.
To create an ‘icon’ through multiple exposure, Ken Kitano focuses on ‘eyes’ – by locating each subject’s eyes as a focal point. As such, the eyes in each ‘icon’ are always in clarity and in focus. However, the slightly variety in posture and movement from each subject creates a hatching-like silhouette, and such imprecise silhouette renders the volume and existence of subject in disappearance – the more it overlaps, it hatches, the blurrier it will be. The aesthetics of disappearance is a highly personalised image stylistic in Kitano’s photography, and could be comprehended in threefold. Firstly, the nature of multiple exposure is a creative tactic to render appearance into disappearance. Overlapping of image renders overexposed imaging. That’s how optics work and the beauty of such. Secondly, the disappearance in imaging signifies Ken Kitano’s thought in globalisation and cultural assimilation – individuality will be distinct because of grouping and merging. This is a rarity in the photography world today – that a photographer is able to single-handedly convey his/her thought into photographic image. Ken Kitano is a firm believer in one-world. He has no intention to distinct between the weak and the strong; The metaportait, by accumulating image of individual into an icon of a group, best reflects the world vision of the photographer. Thirdly, from a viewer perspective, one can draw an interesting disconnection in the tradition of portrait photography from the contemporary Kitano to the nineteenth century counterparts. In the late nineteenth century, technology in photography was rather underdeveloped. It was the time when film speed was slow and required a comparatively large aperture. To create an indoor portrait photograph requires, as such, a rather long exposure time, very often up to 8 to 10 seconds for a frame. The photographic subject was required to be supported by specially designed structure to maintain the stability of pose hence avoid shaking. However, eyelid’s movement is uncontrollable. Therefore, amongst the 19th Century portrait photograph, one can easily detect this charm – the eyes are always out of focus (because of shaking and eyelids movement) and the torso and background are clear and in-focus. If we look at Ken Kitano’s metaportait from the history of portrait photography perspective, the focusing-eyes-versus-the-blurring-eyes creates an interesting dialogue between the contemporary and the ancient, and definitely posits Kitano a significant place in the history of portrait photography.
Cutting and Connection across Space-time
In the annual exhibition ‘élan photographic – Contemporary Japanese Photography Vol. 10’ at SYABI (2011), Ken Kitano once stated, ‘photographs cut out sections of time… photography is a excising medium.’ He further fabricates his argument which ‘photography as a 20th Century “cutter of existence”’ and ‘photography as a 21st Century “connector with the future of the unknown”’. Ken Kitano’s comprehension in photography and its medium specificity sheds a spotlight for the development of form in the future. ‘our face’ project is an indexical proof of existence of people and their groups, in situ. These portraits cut out the photographic subjects from their time and space by extracting a hundredth of second of their existence, that also characterise the nature of ‘decisive moment’ in photography. And yet, the metaportrait, the ‘icon’, by overlapping and accumulating pieces of existence, offers a third dimension in portraiture, that is the depth of group appearance, time and space.
In the literature of Buddhism, there is a poetic approach in decimal numeral system, resemblance to Zen thinking. ‘Sand’ and ‘dust’ are used to describe some of the smallest decimals, followed by ‘blur’, and the smallest decimal is ‘the silence in Nirvana’. The black-and-white portrait in ‘our face’ reveals the beauty in light, in people and in analogue photography. Being ‘heavenly’ (or ‘Nirvana’) is the most meagre compliment that Ken Kitano could receive. After 13 years of endeavour, with 150 metaportraits accumulated about faces in Asia, Ken Kitano looks forward to America, Africa and Europe and is prepared for his life work – an ‘IMAGE’ of the world. As audience, we are hunger to see more from this photographer, whose photographic future is ‘incredibly’ ‘immeasurable’, just like the way it describes the highest digit in Buddhist literature.
About Ken Kitano
Ken Kitano (b. 1968, Japan) was born in Tokyo, Japan. Ken Kitano started his craft in photography since 1989, and graduated from Nihon University’s College of Industrial Technology in 1991. Ken Kitano’s photography pinpoints on the notion of ‘time’ and ‘existence’, and experiments with basis and creative dimension of image making such as light and exposure, long exposure and multiple exposure, that brings his work beyond the discourse of ‘decisive moment’ in photography and visual medium. In 1993, Ken Kitano début ‘Flow and Fusion’ at I.C.A.C. Weston Gallery in Tokyo. Since 2006, the ‘our face’ project and its succeeding exhibitions worldwide bring Ken Kitano to the international arena in photography. In 2007, Ken Kitano is awarded a Newcomer’s Award from the Photographic Society of Japan, and is selected in the ‘Contemporary Japanese Photography Vol. 10 – élan photographic’ by Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (SYABI) in 2011. Ken Kitano’s photography has been exhibited nationally in Japan, in the New York Photo Festival 2010, a solo exhibition after a three-month artist-in-residence at the Three Shadows Photographic Art Centre (Beijing, 2010), Paris Photo 2012 as well as in India. Ken Kitano’s photography is collected by the National Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo, Japan), Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (SYABI) (Tokyo, Japan), Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts (Yamanashi, Japan), the Yamazaki Mazak Museum of Art (Yamazaki, Japan), Thyssen – Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection (Austria) and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Ireland).