Kenro Izu: A Photographer’s Footsteps

By Erica Chang

(Courtesy of Phil Zabriskie)
Izu posing in front of his 300 pound Deardorff camera.

Kenro Izu prepares his 300-pound Deardorff camera with the ease of a master photographer. He tinkers with the exposure, turning knobs on the wooden frame and cranking the accordion-like camera that stands nearly a foot taller than his five-foot frame. Peering through the viewfinder, Izu gazes at the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. They stand poised and magnificent, even as colossal trees spread their roots over the ruins like melted candle wax.

“When I encountered this tree, standing upon the temple with such authority, I was filled with thoughts that surpassed such mundane notions as life or death,” Izu writes in his travel log. “I felt when I encountered a moment, wondered of my own existence, this tree may have an answer.”

Izu strives not only to photograph the scene itself, but also to capture the very aura that evokes a response within him. He refuses to let the spirit of a subject escape his camera, and often spends hours searching for the perfect moment. The slightest change in the air, or a minute adjustment in the angle of light may alter a photo from a purely aesthetic piece to one with a resounding heartbeat. He observes the subject patiently and often relies on one decisive shot.

Like the 19th century master photographers before him, Izu specializes in platinum print photography, a monochromatic imaging technique that is acclaimed for it’s vast tonal range. This technique was most prominently used during the 1800s, when photographers set out westward to document the exploration of the American frontier. Unlike a black and white print, the paper surface of a platinum print is lined with platinum, giving the photo a warm and deep character, and a permanence that can last thousands of years.

In 1983, Deardorff & Sons in Chicago custom made a Deardorff 14×20 camera for Izu, which he continues to use to this day. It is a one-of-a-kind camera, built to take 14×20 inch negatives that are equal in size to the final product. The body alone weighs about 40 pounds, but with four lenses, 120 sheets of film, a tripod, six film cartridges and other miscellaneous accessories, the total weight amounts to roughly 300 pounds. Izu usually only brings around 100-160 sheets of film for a two-month photography excursion because the sheets are so heavy.

“You should see me in the airport, pushing two luggage carts together loaded about eye level, in a sweat trying to navigate the carts through crowds,” said Izu. “You will say ‘I don’t know this crazy guy.’” But that isn’t even the most difficult part of Izu’s excursions.

(Courtesy of Kenro Izu)
Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

Because Izu primarily photographs “sacred places,” such as the ancient temples of Giza or the Easter Island Moai statues, he often shoulders all of his equipment through difficult terrain. And at the age of 63, this can be quite a task. Several years ago, when Izu was photographing Bhutan, he had no choice but to trek the steep slopes of the Himalayas with his cumbersome equipment in order to reach the Buddhist country.

“It’s kind of crazy in these digital days. You can even make a negative digitally to look like a platinum print,” said Izu. “Everybody else is choosing more convenient, readily available processes. But I like the craft part of the photography. I kind of feel it is a mission to pass the great things of the past to the next generation so that such a precious culture will not die.”

Izu was born in Osaka, Japan in 1949, and remained there throughout his childhood. He often dreamt of becoming a doctor, like his childhood hero Dr. Hideo Noguchi, a renowned researcher who fought throughout his life to find a vaccine for yellow fever. When Izu was 14, he moved to Iwakuni, Yamaguchi prefecture. During high school in Iwakuni, Izu took a biology class where the students would use microscope cameras to snap photos of bacteria and other microorganisms.

As he recalls those memories, he begins to chuckle. “My grades in math were so bad, that I had to give up my dreams of attending medical school.” So instead, Izu removed the camera from the microscope and began taking pictures of the landscape and various subjects around Iwakuni. “Maybe because of this start in microscope photography, I am always looking into the details of the subject. Each grain of stone, each blade of grass.”

After briefly attending the College of Arts in Tokyo, Izu spontaneously decided to move to New York City at the age of 21. He did not speak a word of English and had not secured a job prior to his arrival, but he eventually found work as an assistant to a commercial photographer.

“It was so different from mono-cultured Japan back then, and I was fascinated. I thought a big door had opened in front of me,” said Izu. “In New York, photography was already recognized as an art. The MoMa had a photography department, there were several art galleries that would buy and sell photography as art. This was unthinkable in the 1960’s in Japan.”

While gaining experience assisting a number of different photographers, Izu began exploring other mediums of photography- specifically film. He became enthralled with the optic and chemical reactions used to create an image with real substance, instead of pixels. “I don’t even know what pixels are made of,” Izu jokes.

Many professional photographers today take hundreds of shots of their subjects from countless angles. They then forage through the photos in search for the perfect shot, but Izu is different. “I like to observe, think and digest,” he said. “Then aim, wait and decide, with only one chance to shoot.” Four years after he moved to New York City, he established Kenro Izu Studio.

“I was very impressed with Kenro and I have a high regard for how he quit his college in Japan to move to New York City,” said Akiko Arai, Izu’s long time friend and former photo assistant. “He started from scratch and worked in Japanese restaurants until he eventually established himself as a photographer, which was his original goal.”

Izu’s portfolio is primarily comprised of culturally and historically distinct landscapes and subjects, all shot in a monochromatic print that harbors every possible shade between black and white, from a smoky charcoal gray to a subtle shade of reddish brown. His two greatest bodies of works are titled “Sacred Within” and “Sacred Places,” and they have both been exhibited worldwide. The black-and-white portraits and landscapes have a surreal and dreamlike quality to them, but are in fact much more rooted in realism.

Because Izu uses such an old-fashioned camera, he does not digitally alter or edit his photos. Using a truly intimate printing process, Izu makes direct prints and does not enlarge the negatives of the images he takes. Therefore his photographs are 14×20 inches, a hallmark of his work. To complete the process, he brushes a thin coat of carbon pigment onto the surface, adding a velvety texture to the prints.

(Courtesy of Kenro Izu)
Borobudur Temples, Indonesia

In a photograph of the Borobudur Monument in Indonesia, a statue of Buddha sits on a stupa while gazing at the temples beyond. The temples and the Buddha look like shadows against an intensely radiant sky, and although the Buddha faces away from us, he looks to be lost in thought. Izu quietly flips through his prints.

“Photography to me is rather personal. I consider it to be my footprints of where I walked, when I walked and how I walked. I like to share with the audience the feelings I had when I took the photo,” said Izu. “And hopefully, it will have enough energy to move them, to change something within them.”

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