Kenro Izu – Impermanence

Review by Wayne Swanson 

At first glance, Impermanence seems an unlikely title for a monograph honoring the 50-year career of a master photographer and platinum printer whose work has stood the test of time. And quite a substantial book it is, weighing in at more than seven pounds and featuring 220 quadtone images lusciously reproduced on 12 x 13-inch pages.

But the way Kenro Izu sees it, capturing and celebrating impermanence is central to his work. “I had always been drawn to the beauty in the impermanence of things — from the subtle vulnerability revealed in a flower just as it begins to wilt to the striking deterioration of a building after thousands of years of decay,” he writes in the book’s preface.

Impermanence: The Spirit Within, A Fifty Year Journey surveys the broad range of subjects he has photographed during his career, beginning with early works that presage his mastery of light, shadow, and composition. From there the book presents a roughly chronological overview of the bodies of work that have earned him wide acclaim.  

We see images from his classic “Sacred Places” series, for which he traveled the world with his custom-made 14 x 20-inch Deardorff view camera to create platinum prints that capture the spirituality of many of the world’s most famous ruins. In “Flora” and “Orchard” we see his distilled forms of flowers and fruit. “Body” and “Blue” are figure study series, one capturing the grace of the human body in classic platinum and the other in cyanotype over platinum. 

More recent work includes pieces from “India: Where Prayer Echoes,” which focuses on environmental portraits of Indian society, and “Requiem,” a haunting portrait of the volcanic ruins of Pompeii, Italy. “Fuzhou: The Forgotten Land” is perhaps the most literal interpretation of impermanence. It explores what remains in an area of China’s Jiangxi province after construction of a major dam.

The book ends with the initial images of his latest project, “Mono no Aware.” It’s the first project he has photographed in Japan, and it began when he encountered a private collection of Noh theatrical masks, some dating back 600 years. The project title translates as “the pathos of things,” and to Izu “It refers to the often subtle but sensitive and exquisite feeling we experience in reflecting the depth — and sadness — of our awareness of the impermanence of things.”

The through-line in all these works is a sense of the spiritual. “His reverence for light and its visual effect on all the substances of our world achieve a spiritual quality similar to the ancient stones, and flowers, and human forms he photographs,” writes gallerist Howard Greenberg in the book’s foreword.

Whether he is capturing the pyramids of Egypt or the people of Bhutan or wooden theatrical masks, we sense a reverent and emotional connection with his subject. He is a true master photographer, with the technical skill to capture a scene at first light, last light, and anything in between, as well as to create rich, platinum prints with gorgeous detail. But more than that, he has the vision to imbue each image with a deep personal and spiritual presence.

Throughout, we sense a confluence of Eastern and Western aesthetics in his work. Izu was born in Osaka, Japan and came to New York in 1971 at the age of 21 because it was the only place at the time where photography was taken seriously as an art form. He began working in the world of fashion photography, but a fortuitous introduction to Hiroshi Sugimoto inspired Izu to follow a fine art path. For the next 50 years, the United States would be his home. He has now returned to Japan to live, and his current work with ancient Noh masks “reminds me of what I inherited from my native Japan and is still alive in me, even after fifty years in America.”

The book itself is beautifully produced by Veritas Editions, which specializes in publishing high-quality photographic art books. The tactile feel of the cloth covers and the thick matte fine art paper, as well as the rich reproductions of Izu’s prints, do a fine job of showcasing Izu’s work. Introductory essays provide excellent context. Additionally, short, engaging passages by Izu are sprinkled through explaining his thought process or the logistics of getting a certain shot. In addition to the standard trade edition, the book is also offered in high-end limited edition and fine press editions featuring additional prints and unique enclosures.

In all, the book is a substantial and lasting record of a career based on impermanence. As renowned Japanese photographer and Izu’s longtime friend Eikoh Hosoe notes in the book’s introduction, Izu’s career is “the result of an unwavering commitment to looking through the lens and seeing not only the beauty of the subject in front of him but something deeper still, the beautiful impermanence of a singular moment.”

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Wayne Swanson is a Contributing Editor and a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.

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Impermanence: The Spirit Within, A Fifty Year Journey, Kenro Izu

Photographer: Kenro Izu, born Osaka, Japan, resides in Japan 

Publisher: Veritas Editions (Woodinville, WA, USA, copyright 2022)

Epigraph, Nicholas Vreeland; Foreword, Howard Greenberg; Introduction, Eikoh Hosoe; Preface, Kenro Izu

Text: English, Japanese, Chinese

Cloth-covered hardcover book with tipped in cover image, sewn binding, offset printed in quadtone on Japanese fine art paper, 220 images, 324 pages 12 x 13 in., printed by Graphicom S.p.A., Verona, Italy  ISBN: 978-0-9892099-9-1

Photobook designer: Gregory Wakabayashi

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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