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A Singular Full Of Plurals — Ken Kitano

Profile by Yu Hidaka for Japan Exposures. Please also see our extended gallery of Kitano’s work.

Note: click on images to see large

The photographs of Ken Kitano are both extremely concrete and highly philosophical at the same time. Kitano, whom the critic and curator Vince Aletti picked as one of current five photographers in the world to watch in the April, 2009 issue of Modern Painters, recently published his second book, Flow and Fusion this winter. This book attracted attention this past Fall at Paris Photo, an international art fair held every November in Paris, where Kitano has continually been a big hit. This warm reception follows upon Kitano’s 2008 appearance at the same fair, where “Flow and Fusion” was short-listed for the Paris Photo BMW Prize. His “one day” series was similarly nominated and showed during the 2009 fair.

In the series “Flow and Fusion,” Kitano captured the cityscape of Tokyo by means of a slow shutter speed during the 1990’s, which was a kind of apocalyptic period of such events such as the bursting of the bubble economy, the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and the terrorist actions of the Aum religious cult . We can read Kitano’s photographs as a trajectory of his deep meditation on our existence as human beings and the world we live in.

Kitano’s way of fusing such plural existences together into one trace of light is his consistent and unique style.

In that sense, “Flow and Fusion” should perhaps be looked at in detail first in order to understand Kitano’s whole photographic vision. In “Flow and Fusion”, the use of long exposures causes people as plural existences on the street to melt into one flow of light. Kitano’s way of fusing such plural existences together into one trace of light is his consistent and unique style, and can be seen through all three series of his photography, “Flow and Fusion”, “our face”, and “one day”.

In responding to the chaotic conditions of society at the young age of 20, “Flow and Fusion” undoubtedly became the starting point for Kitano’s search for who he is, and what the border or contour of a person is, and what divides him or her from others — that is, how a photographer can grasp the identity of each person. He resorted to the seemingly contradictory idea where people’s rigid contours, which as depicted in photographs can be seen as something endorsing identity, are put in danger of disappearing by melding them into one trace of light. In this time of people swinging and living in an unstable social environment, how can a person exist as a solid being with actual feelings for his existence? — that seems to have been a crucial question for Kitano at that time.

Even after the chaotic upheaval period of the 1990’s had apparently passed, Kitano continued to explore the difficulty of seeing our contemporary life clearly with actual feelings. The series “our face” shows the next stage of his search for human conditions in this contemporary world.

Ken Kitano, from our face, 24 guards in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 2009
Ken Kitano, from our face, 24 guards in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 2009

Kitano widens the field of his photographic investigation from the cityscape to the globalized world in this portrait series. He superimposed finely detailed portraits of each subject located in a specific region and situation in the world into one collective portrait photograph, and named it “our face.” The choice of “our face” for the series title represents the conflicting union of the plural idea of “our” and the singular form of “face.” He seems to be waiting for the emergence of a new form of our identity in his photographs that is beyond contradiction. Although such qualities as the fine-grained of his photographs reveals his desire to see things in atomic level as a cold realist, “one day” also presents a hot visionary artist keen to envision the image of our identity in a difficult time, and one eager to believe in the solidity and graveness of our identity.

Kitano has continued to pursue this portrait project as he attempts to superimpose people in different parts of the world, a sort of endless and perhaps impossible journey to capture all of us. This epic idea of photographic research might remind us of that of the great photographer August Sander, who tried to represent the “Citizens of the Twentieth Century”.

Ken Kitano, from one day, Classroom, Kanagawa Kenritsu Soubudai High School
Ken Kitano, from one day, Classroom, Kanagawa Kenritsu Soubudai High School

Kitano’s newest series, “one day,” is a landscape series and a work-in-progress that he has been pursuing off-and-on throughout the last decade. In this series he captures, in a single long exposure photograph, a full day in various places, both common, everyday sites like a high school classroom, as well as historical sites in Japan. Here Kitano expands his study of the human condition and further moves us from that territory which we can grasp consciously into a place beyond our consciousness.

Furthermore, he investigates the identity of photography in this process. He transforms the concept of photographic moment to a prolonged and continuing time. He accumulates moments of time and weaves them into a singular landscape. “One day” invites us to read something overlooked and underlying as a vision of our world. The landscapes of “one day” and the people in “our face,” the origins of which can both be traced to “Flow and Fusion,” might be read as a coupled mirror with which to see our life in this world.


Yu HidakaYu Hidaka is an Assistant Professor at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University, where she teaches on visual culture. Her book, Reading Contemporary Photography: Toward Democratic Vistas, was published by Seikyu-sha in June, 2009. She has written on photography and other forms of visual media for various Japanese publications, including “Studio Voice” and “Asahi Camera”. She received her MA in the Course of Culture and Representation from Tokyo University.

Ken Kitano Gallery

The medium of photography was invented out of our strong desire to create a likeness of our reality — and ourselves in it. We then learned that the camera would see what our eyes never could — time being brought to a standstill. However, in actuality during the early days of the medium the relationship of photography and time was quite the opposite; long exposures, often using all of the daylight of a full day, had to be used to record a visible image onto the light-(in)sensitive material. And large format photographers to this day know of the tragic mistake of accidentally inserting their film holders more than once and recording multiple exposures involuntarily, spoiling the image. Ken Kitano masterfully takes us back to these immutable properties of photography creating images that we may have had already relegated to history. Images with deep substance, but with no detectable moment.

The terms flow and fusion ring ever so true when looking at these images. The flow of time, an hour, a day or even more, fusing in an eternal cosmic moment. The flows and traces of different lives of distinct individuals, unified in what could be the very essence of a human being.


Japan Exposures is honored to have the opportunity to present an extended gallery of Ken Kitano’s work. Please also see our profile of Kitano.

Kitano’s book our face is available in the Japan Exposures bookstore. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Kitano’s Flow and Fusion, please contact us.

Ken Kitano — from One Day

Ken Kitano was born in Tokyo in 1968, and graduated from Nihon University’s College of Industrial Technology in 1991. Since 1993 he has been a freelance photographer. Kitano came to prominence with the release in 2005 of his “Our Face” series of group portraits made by combining many individual portraits into a single work, and won the Newcomer’s Award from the Photographic Society of Japan in 2007. For the last three years Kitano has been one of the major hits of the prestigious Paris Photo art fair, and in both 2008 and 2009 was among the short-listed candidates for the BMW Paris Photo Prize. The critic Vince Aletti last year picked Kitano and one of five photographers “to watch”, saying “Kitano…isn’t working with ideas, he’s working with people, and his faces are mesmerizing — strong enough to draw me in from across a very crowded room.”

This coming May, Kitano will be an artist-in-residence for three months at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing, where he will continue work on his “Our Face” project.

The above photograph comes from Kitano’s most recent series “One Day” begun in 2007, a series of landscape works which attempt to capture a given location from sunrise to sunset in one long exposure. You can see more from this series, as well as Kitano’s two other major series “Our Face” and “Flow and Fusion” in a special gallery we have prepared. Please also see our profile of Kitano.