Hiroh Kikai

Hiroh Kikai (1945 – ) has, for more than 40 years since 1973, called over passersby within the grounds of Sensō-ji (Sensoji Temple), a major tourist attraction in Japan, to take portraits of them using the iconic temple gates as the backdrop. Marked with the date the images were taken, he has published collections from 1987 to 2014 so far of what is considered to be his ongoing life’s work: ‘Ōtachi no shōzō: Sensō-ji keidai’ (Ecce homo: Portraits of kings)’ (1987); ‘Ya-Chimata: Ōtachi no kairō (Ya-Chimata: A gallery of kings)’ (1996); ‘PERSONA’ (2003); ‘Asakusa Portraits’ (2008); ‘Tokyo Portraits’ (2011); ‘Seken no Hito’ (2014).

The people who end up becoming his subjects have something about them; a presence akin to performers on a stage. Since Kikai accompanies the images with their stories, occupation or situation told to him at the time of shooting, occasionally inviting us to imagine their past and their future. The power of Kikai’s words that resonates side-by-side with his images are backed up by his eyes trying to read something from the appearance, subtle expressions and gestures of those, chosen from observing countless people, who stand in front of his camera. Turning the pages of the photo books, there are occasions where the same people appear a few times; re-encountered twice and even three times, each encounter separated by the passage of time. Along with the power that draws people to Sensō-ji, the passing of time and the connection forged between Kikai and the people he captured rise from the images.

Taking a closer look at the images of ‘The man who tells me he is a bookbinder’: the first photograph is of a smiling elderly gentleman dressed in running gear and pants, whereas a few years later he appears in a traditional Japanese dress before going for a more feminine look by taking to wearing a wig and being adorned with accessories (1990, 1991, 1992).

A man who tells me he is a bookbinder (1987 – 1992) PERSONA (Soshisha, 2003) © Hiroh Kikai

Through his dress and belongings of that era, the changes in the way he stands, where he faces, his gaze, expressions and gestures, only increases the mystery of this ‘man who works as a bookbinder’. Kikai’s feelings over the years can be imagined by layering the images over one other. The first image has the subject facing the front, fingers out of view due to the arm resting, the hands level with the body just like when wearing traditional Japanese clothing, the gestures of the hands along with the way the wrist is bent and the angle of the neck appears to show someone who may be the talkative kind. The gestures made by the hands attracts the eyes of the person looking at the image. And although the hands of the ‘bookbinder’ draw the attention, the enigmatic gestures remain mysterious. “The photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” is a quote by Diane Arbus which has greatly influenced Kikai; although while Kikai’s work is full of these secrets, he brings these people to life.

Mika Kobayashi

Photography researcher

Active in many fields including conducting lectures and workshops on Japanese and international photography, planning exhibitions and contributing to magazines.

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