Platinum records

Kenro Izu's photography focuses on the beauty of life, but he also has a humanitarian side

When he was 23, Japanese-born Kenro Izu moved to New York City, a dream destination for any aspiring lensman. Now an American citizen, the 63-year-old photographer said it was those early years of his life spent in Japan that have left an indelible imprint that remains evident in his work.

Premiering last week at Serindia Gallery, Izu's exhibition "Yin" is on show until mid-December. He's known worldwide as one of the most celebrated photographers specialising in still life, a classical yet rarely-practised genre nowadays.

In "Yin", Izu explores Eastern philosophy dealing with the soft forces in nature, and he executes most of the pictures in platinum-palladium prints, a specialist craft that Izu has mastered over the past few decades.

Izu is also known as a humanitarian, having founded Friends Without A Border, a non-profit organisation dedicated to raising funds for children's hospitals in Cambodia. Izu put artworks up for auction to raise funds for underprivileged Cambodian children. In 2007, Izu was recognised with the Visionary Award at the coveted Lucie Awards.

Izu talked to Life about his current exhibition and his interest in still-life photography.

Tell us about the background behind this project?

Regardless of the subject matter, I have always been interested in life, or in other words you may say death, as these two are back to back, and [they're the same] in a large view.

Why are you interested in still-life photography?

Japanese-born Kenro Izu has lived in New York City for the past 40 years.

My other series of photographs is "Sacred Places" which portrays places of worship, and places in the world people consider sacred, regardless of its religious background. In Thailand, I was in Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Ayutthaya to photograph the Buddhist monuments.

These ancient monuments may have survived hundreds of years, some sites even thousands of years. Human life may be as long as 100 years, while a flower may have a life that only lasts 10 days. But that figure of 1,000, 100 or 10, compared to a larger scale, say the time frame of galaxies, it is only a fraction of time.

That is the reason I adore any life form and find beauty in every moment, every stage of life. A flower is beautiful when in full blossom, but I can admire the beauty of the same flower when its bloom is over and wilted, or even when it is dried. And the same can be said of a human body or ancient places.

Do you have a favourite photographer who works in this style?

I like the work of American photographer Edward Weston very much.

Could you explain your technique, the platinum-palladium prints?

The platinum printing process requires a contact printing process, which means a negative and a print will be the same size, as it cannot be enlarged. Thus, if I want to make an 8x10 inch print, I have to obtain an 8x10 inch negative.

In my case, my camera is built to produce a 14x20 inch negative, to make a print of 14x20 inch (35cm by 50cm). My camera, custom made for me in Chicago, USA, 30 years ago, and the whole set with lens, tripod, file cartridges, and other parts to travel, weighs 150kg.

And the printing paper is not commercially available. I need to hand make printing paper, by brushing a sensitiser of platinum and palladium mixture over a specially treated watercolour drawing paper.

These days, photographers with small cameras who wish to make large platinum prints for their beautiful quality can obtain enlarged negatives, or digitally generated large negatives.

To me, I believe genuine platinum prints without any process in between the original negative and print is the purest form to portray life, and I have followed my process for the past 30 years.

What did you find most challenging about this project?

Once I start a project, I have to continue to observe the stages of life. I must be able to sense the moment when I communicate with the subject.

Technically, with the gigantic camera, the depth of field is very narrow, maybe within few centimetres. Particularly in the body study, live bodies cannot stand still perfectly, and often move out of focus, or even out of the frame of the picture. Flowers, on the other hand, stay still, but the dimensionality of the flower itself is somewhat challenging to get in focus entirely.

You have travelled around the world, where have you had the most impressive experiences?

My first visit to Egypt, the Giza pyramids, was very impressive, as well as my trips to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Machu Pichu in Peru.

Bhutan and its people also impressed me a lot. Learning the Bhutanese's selfless attitudes towards their lives was quite a refreshing experience.

Mount Kailash in western Tibet, a sacred mountain, touched my heart deeply.

Tell us about Friends Without A Border in Cambodia.

During photography trips to the Angkor temples in Cambodia in 1993, I encountered cute children in the temple, and found many were injured by land mines or unexploded shells left from the war.

In the following year, I visited a hospital in Siem Reap and saw a girl dying in a bed. I have a daughter the same age as her, and felt the pain of the father watching his girl die helplessly. For the first time in my life, I could not pretend I didn't see or ignore the pain in my heart.

After I talked my friends and colleagues in Japan and the US, I was able to found Friends Without A Border in 1996. As I did not know how to raise the money needed to build and run a hospital, I decide to sell my Angkor photographs, and donate all proceeds to the organisation I founded.

Then I called my photographer colleagues to support the Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, and organised a photo auction in New York. The auction will continue in its 15th year this December.

At the end of 2012, Angkor Hospital for Children is going to be independent from Friends Without A Border after 13 years of successful operation, and we will be starting a similar children's hospital project in Luang Prabang, Laos.

About the author

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Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer