The soul of Kenro Izu was seduced by photography. Through a microscopic lens—when he studied medical science—and then via the lenses of cameras, his aesthetic sense lures the viewers to look and relook at his photographic works. His subjects, like sensuous nudes in cyanotype, and evocative stones of Khmer ruins, not only entice to gaze, but his platinum-palladium prints can also set the room aglow with otherworldly aura.
Born in Osaka, Japan, Kenro went to high school in Iwakuni, where his sense of beauty was nurtured by its idyllic countryside landscape. His desire to become a doctor gave way to the arts when he attended college in Tokyo. During his sophomore year, he travelled to New York and worked as a photographic assistant for three years.
“Back then in Japan, photography wasn’t considered an art form,” Kenro recalls, adding it was employed mainly for journalistic purposes. “So I went to the US where photography is also a fine art. When I was 25, I opened my studio for commercial photography to make a living while I continued to do my art photos.”
Starting to travel, his first subject was the Egyptian pyramids of Giza. “I am attracted to stone monuments and ruins,” he explains. “It’s wabi-sabi sensitivity (imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete). Instead of a perfect structure, I see something run down, eroded, with moss growing or ficus trees growing. That’s impermanence; nothing is forever. Angkor Wat was a 12th-century masterpiece of architecture but it’s now in ruins. I found that beautiful.”
In 1985 he first exhibited his photographs of sacred sites—from Scotland, England, and Asian countries—at the Howard Greenberg gallery in New York. He made these majestic monuments come alive as if they could speak via his atmospheric vignettes and prints.
Working in once war-torn countries like Cambodia and Laos, Kenro noticed the effects of these conflicts upon local children. Initially, their lost limbs from landmines moved him, but their health problems and living conditions also needed help. He thus raised funds with Friends Without a Border, his charity organization, to build paediatric hospitals to provide free, international-standard medical care.
His gentle still lifes in blue quietly seduce the viewer. Although they resemble paintings in the same genre by Morandi, Cézanne, and Matisse, Kenro wasn’t influenced by these artists. “I’m actually inspired by Picasso’s ‘Blue Period’ because these works are more quiet, not screaming. These portraits are great, big, and very beautiful but not loud,” he clarifies.
Printing photographs require both deftness and patience—selecting paper, adjusting contrasts, and choosing printing types—but Kenro doesn’t use many digital manipulations. Citing the words of Ansel Adams he explains, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. The negative is the music but someone has to play it. So each performance differs in subtle ways.”
Having lived in New York for 48 years, Kenro’s style is still understated. “I work from my heart and my eyes. When I see the subject, I look at the right angle with the shadow. When I sense it with the spirituality, I will set up the camera, choose the lens, and shoot. I like being alone when I photograph. I’m inspired by subjects whether they are flowers, bottles, masks, or nudes. Like the ruins, the skin shows ages. It’s impermanence again. These models at 28, 36, or 42 have wrinkles too. The decay of skin at various ages is interesting.”
However, these sand dune-like figures aren’t overtly erotic, but more poetic and meditative. “I cannot take erotic pictures like Araki or shunga, Japanese erotic prints. Exposing too much is not art. It’s not subtle. If you hide it, it’s more interesting.”
From the solitude of photographing still lifes he moved to a series of portraits in India. “At first, Indian culture is very intimidating—outgoing, loud, aggressive, and confrontational. People question me about what and why I take photos. But after a few trips, I started to love and enjoy it.”
By creating, arranging, composing, and waiting for the right light to shine on the subjects, Kenro became an ardent observer. His latest book, Eternal Light, documents places and people in India. “Most of the people who appear in this book have passed away,” he notes. “I am glad to have captured them and hope that I got something more than their spirits.”
Kenro’s new projects are a series on Pompeii and on Japanese Noh theatre masks. Casts of ash-covered bodies set against Pompeii’s haunting ruins will be exhibited in large prints to lend their transient quality. Meanwhile, Noh masks—shot in natural light—will exude dramatic stillness.
“Noh movement is minimal,” he explains. “You have to use your imagination. I prefer Noh to Kabuki, which is an entertainment, like a Broadway show with heavy make-up.My work is more like Noh.”