Beyond Borders: The Art of Kenro Izu
By Robin Catalano
After three decades of seeking his muse in far-flung locales, from the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria to Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, photographer Kenro Izu is looking for inspiration closer to home — as in, his backyard. The peripatetic artist, renowned for capturing sacred places in dramatic, moody black-and-white images, has just released his second “Lumina Edition,” a collection of photos made in collaboration with his wife, photographer Yumiko Izu, and that shines a spotlight on places and things near their home in Rhinebeck, New York. (Left: “Lumina 10 Cosmos” by Kenro Izu.)
“Living here, in this community, we’re exposed to something different,” Kenro explains. “This work is closer to my life.”
Kenro, who was born in Osaka, Japan, and studied at Nihon University College of Art, emigrated to the United States in 1991. After early success as a commercial photographer, including for jewelers Harry Winston and Asprey, he gained recognition for his “light over ancient stone” images. Most are shot with 14-by-20 and other large-format cameras, which allow him to create supersize negatives and prints that befit their larger-than-life subjects. There is no digital image manipulation—the artist has been known to sit, much to the amusement of locals, for hours, even days, to capture just the right interplay of light and shadow—making the exquisite gradation from light to dark that much more impressive. (Top right: “Indonesia #15” by Izu)
Howard Greenberg, owner of the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City, has represented Kenro for more than thirty years. He relates, “The art of photography is a marriage of craft and vision. . . . From the very first time I looked at Kenro’s photos, I had an excited feeling that he is as good as this can get.”
Though Kenro started out photographing locations, shooting in Bhutan between 2003 and 2007 triggered a shift in perspective. He notes, “I was amazed at how differently the people behaved from the Western world. Every moment of life is integrated with worship. When I saw this, I thought that the sacred places without the people were meaningless.” From then on, Kenro focused on portraiture of people in sacred locales. He has photographed in 35 countries, sometimes going back to a place over several years to complete an in-depth series that speaks to how people experience spirituality and meaning-of-life questions. (Top left: “Tibet, Mt. Kailash” by Izu.)
The “Lumina Edition,” by contrast, is much smaller in scale. For the second collection, which debuted on August 6, the Izus shot on both film and digital, with minimal digital alterations of contrast, color, and lightness. The collection includes beautifully soulful images of rescue horses from Equine Advocates in Chatham, New York (30 percent of sale proceeds of these images benefit the organization); Shaker furniture and interiors, shot at Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts, that have a “living” quality, as if someone might return to these abandoned spaces at any moment; and meticulous still-lifes of natural objects and vintage kitchen utensils. All are remarkable for their fine articulation of tones and texture, and their exploration of depth and form. (Top right: “Lumina 41 Equine” by Izu.)
In addition, the “Lumina Edition” blurs the lines between Yumiko’s and Kenro’s work—and viewer expectations. People often assume that an image with a square, composed character is masculine, or that a loose, more organic arrangement is feminine. So do the photographers do anything to dispel this stereotype? He laughs. “We never tell.”(Left: “Lumina 10 Cosmos” by Izu.)
Kenro is much more forthcoming about his philanthropic work, which was borne out of a life-changing experience. Following the banning of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1993, Kenro traveled to Angkor Wat to photograph the world-famous temples, and was stunned to see the many children who had been disfigured from Pol Pot–era landmines set as booby-traps around the sacred spaces.
The following year, he visited a government hospital in Siem Reap, where hundreds of injured children from poverty-stricken families were refused medical care. Such was the case with a young girl—approximately the age of the photographer’s own daughter—whose father had spent all his money on travel to the hospital. The girl died, untreated, a few days later. He says, “I couldn’t let it go. Is the value of life not the same in the U.S. or Japan or Cambodia? I could not just walk away.”
Instead, Kenro came up with the idea for a free pediatric hospital. He called on friends to contribute funds and expertise to the cause, and founded Friends Without a Border in 1996, to build and manage the hospital. He also founded an annual art auction, Friends of Friends, in 1998, to benefit the facility. A year later,the Angkor Hospital for Children (AHC) opened its doors in Siem Reap.
The auction continues to bring in upwards of $150,000 annually, thanks to donated works by hundreds of photography luminaries, such as André Kertész, Herb Ritts, and Annie Leibovitz. (This year’s auction will take place on December 10 at the Metropolitan Pavilion.) All proceeds go directly to the hospital — which now boasts a staff of 435 and a $5.5-million annual budget — and its affiliate, AHC Satellite in Sotnikum, which opened in 2007. Kenro recently handed over operations and management of AHC to a local NGO, AHC International, though he remains on the board of directors. This November, he and Friends Without a Border will break ground on a third facility, Lao Friends Hospital for Children, in Luang Prabang Province, Laos. (Left: “Bhutan #207” by Izu.)
As the photographer understates, “My time is quite well spent.”
And in between, Kenro Izu continues to create art that is at once accessible and mysterious, familiar, and spellbinding. Says Greenberg, “In our art world right now, it’s more about big names and the new. [Kenro’s] vision is so deeply classical, he’s the antithesis of all that. Not too many photographers can make photos of subjects that have been photographed over and over and get some new essence from it. I find him to be a great artist in that way.”