Pussy Riot’s threat to Russia’s moral underpinnings reminds us of punk’s shock ‘n’ shuck glory days before its gritty aesthetic was absorbed by the mainstream.
However, prime-time punk’s improvisatory promise is revisited with a fervour of velvety, grainy formlessness in Photo Express: Tokyo, Steidl’s recent reprint of Keizo Kitajima’s legendary zine-like booklets of 1979 featuring images culled from the Japanese photographer’s nocturnal peregrinations through Tokyo’s demimonde.
Kitajima wanted photography to have the Sex Pistols’ crash-and-burn, no-way-back immediacy. He’d display his work as quickly as possible after processing it—enlarged images of blitzed-out party people or blurred street scenes that merge with ad iconography—in a rough, grid-like fashion on the walls of Camp, an independent gallery he co-founded in 1976 in Tokyo’s Shinjuku District. To add a performative aspect to his installations, Kitajima would at times treat Camp as a darkroom, projecting fresh images directly onto bromide paper covering the walls, with the photographer smearing on developer and fixer before his audience.
Steidl’s reprint replicates the monthly 16-page booklets—each his “self-reflector,” in Kitajima’s words—that the artist published alongside each gallery show; these are now hugely sought after by collectors. The replica boxed set includes a 13th booklet that functions both as an introduction to the set and as a Kitajima primer.
Kitajima’s work reflects his awareness of the newsy, neo-realist photography of Daido Moriyama, the prolific, more senior Japanese photographer. (Indeed, Moriyama was a mentor of Kitajima’s, as well as one of his partners in Camp.)
But replacing Moriyama’s unblinking social criticism is Kitajima’s obsession with young Tokyo’s morally ambiguous hedonism. The work’s insidery, gossipy attitude and its subjects’ posey fashion-awareness are highlighted by the photographer’s strategic obfuscation of subjects with his painterly, processed swipes, daubs and playful, shadowy gobs. In booklet No.4 April 1979, a young woman caught in motion while clubbing is seemingly affixed to a cross.