Koji Kitagawa, Photography – Collector Daily

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Area Books (here). Softcover with paper jacket (black print on blue/green paper), 150×210 mm, 800 pages. Includes an English/Japanese artist statement on a separate card, along with a list of zine/project titles. In an edition of 250 copies. Design by Bureau Kayser/Colin Doerffler. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Photo zines are an underrated method of delivering photography to an audience, and as a genre, they deserve far more respect and attention than they typically receive. Zines can be inexpensively designed, produced, and distributed, making them an ideal vehicle for risk-taking, experimentation, and exploring smaller projects. Art students, emerging artists, and others who wish to take a stance contrary to the wider photography establishment have all embraced the guerrilla effectiveness of zines, turning them into an underground phenomenon. Often published in small handcrafted editions, they seem to appear and disappear with startling rapidity, influencing those who are lucky enough to come across them.

For about 15 years, Koji Kitagawa has been an incredibly prolific zine creator. Working alone and in collaboration with Daisuke Yokota and Naohiro Utagawa in the SPEW collective, Kitagawa was apparently constantly busy with photographic experiments. Leveraging the simplicity of the zine form, he obsessively created dozens of lightweight publications, constantly experimenting with both process ideas and visual approaches.

For those in the United States and Europe, following Kitagawa’s efforts from afar hasn’t been easy, as the zines he creates come and go so quickly. A more enduring solution to this transience has recently been provided by Area Books, in the form of a dense compendium of Kitagawa’s zines brought together in a single anthology. The modestly titled Photography brings together the contents of a total of 29 recent Kitagawa zines, in a thick brick of a book weighing some 800 pages. As aggregated evidence of Kitagawa’s almost maniacal zine-making, it is a valuable reference volume, literally brimming with concentrated ideas, tests, essays, and investigations.

In Photography, Kitagwa’s zines are literally shown end to end, with only a few blank pages here and there to provide separation; usually they flow from one to the other in an endless series. And although a list of zine names is provided at the end of the book, no identifying names are found in the flow of the imagery, so it is almost impossible to be entirely sure which titles make reference to which body of work.

Many projects address the themes of visual technology and digital graphics, exploring how these systems break down when intentionally distorted or deconstructed. In one series, the typed word “blue” fills an entire screen, only to be distorted, twisted, and turned into an almost unrecognizable abstraction of smudged letters. In others – all of which are constructed from abstract technical or computer motifs – the stripes twist and dance; thin blocky patterns accumulate and recede; high-contrast horizontal lines create shifting streaks; and black and white pixels clump together and scatter. And in a mysterious sequence, the image of a goat iteratively dissolves into a digital texture, the enlarged fragments of the image becoming increasingly unidentifiable, almost like a moving topographical map.

Paper and multilayer photocopying is the basis of several other innovative projects. Crumpled and torn pages of Japanese advertisements open the anthology, each page turn leading to a new formal twist and reworking of similar content, with text patterns and graphics being bent, bent and broken into new shapes sculptural. Dense layers of Japanese graphics pile up in another sequence, becoming increasingly unreadable with each iterative layer, almost like a hopelessly interwoven carpet of numbers and characters. And in the third series, layered photocopies of ingredient information (some for a mysterious Nutri-plus gel) become increasingly ghosted and overlapping, again to breaking point. In these projects and others like them, Kitagawa explores the ephemeral limits of visual readability, testing how aggregation and reformatting alter the nature of printed information.

While it’s hard to be completely sure of the kinds of approaches, methods, and processes that Kitagawa uses in his zines, several of the projects seen are activated by chemical washes that create surface drops, puddles and dislocations above imaging. . In one series, a single image of the space shuttle on a runway (perhaps seen on a monitor?) was multiplied in a sequence, each image covered with a different arrangement of wet veil. In another, various images of undergrowth thickets are brought into dialogue with each other, some with negative inversions, others with what look like areas of solarization. A round loudspeaker or dated intercom provides the subject of a third series, again with each sequential frame interrupted by different types of darkroom drops and flares.

Even when Kitagawa takes straight photographs, he seems to be constantly searching for patterns, settings, and repetitions. It shows us footage of plants in planters, plastic hangers resting on black fabric (like specimens), pelican beaks, glowing animal eyes (rabbits or other furry creatures), and a mix of textures composed of woven bags, nets and various leaves and branches. Towards the end of the book, Kitagawa switches from black and white to color, giving us a parade of formal discoveries and pairings brought to life by splashes of vivid color, almost as if he is relearning to see all over again.

If there’s a line through all these very different projects, it’s a commitment to generating deliberate ambiguity, and to the possibilities that can emerge by encouraging systems to delegate. As seen in his zines, Kitagawa is clearly an intelligent photographic risk-taker, who is willing to actively push the boundaries of photographic convention. While an anthology-style investigation like this substantially alters the dynamics and feel of the original zines, it provides the important service of both archiving much of its output (during this recent period) and provide it in a more robust format. Kitagawa deserves to be much better known here in the United States, so I hope this well-produced volume expands the universe of those who are aware of his consistently obsessive photographic spirit.

Collector’s point of view: Koji Kitagawa doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at this time, so interested collectors should probably follow the artist directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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