© Rinko Kawauchi
Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi’s new book Illuminance (Aperture, 2011), the internationally recognized artist’s first collaboration with a U.S. publisher, opens and closes with two images she made during a total eclipse of the sun. Made in quick succession, a short moment differentiates the images, a metaphorical passage of time. “I thought, ‘It looks like our life,’” says Kawauchi, who also notes that a total eclipse lasts only three-and-a-half minutes. “It’s really short, our life. . . . There are a lot of metaphors in the book.”
Renowned for her ability to make compelling images from the raw material of everyday scenes, Kawauchi may also be hinting with her eclipse images at the temporality of beauty, or that all of the scenes found in the book might exist simultaneously in each moment, perhaps in every moment, if we could just find a way to see them.
Kawauchi, 38, studied graphic design and worked as a photographer for an advertising agency as a young woman before focusing on her artwork full time. (She still shoots the odd advertising job, she says.) She began printing her black-and-white photographs at 19, and by 24 she was printing her own color work. Though she handmade books for herself, she didn’t publish a book until she was 30, and she first exhibited her work in Tokyo in 1998, the result of winning a photography award. Her design background is evident in her eye for composition, and it undoubtedly plays a role in the way she edits and sequences her images in her books, which gained her notoriety first in Japan and then internationally.
Rather than setting out to explore a particular theme, topic or idea, Kawauchi creates her images instinctively, reacting to what she sees in her surroundings. She uses a Rolleiflex, which she settled on after experimenting with several other cameras when she was young. “Usually I focus on just shooting first, and after that I’m editing and then I’m thinking why I’m curious about the subject,” she says. “Then I realize why I’m curious about the subject and I analyze why,” she says.
In editing and sequencing her images, which she does alone, she finds new ways to look at and think about her photographs, and through this process she recognizes meaning and significance. “Making sequences is really creative,” she relates. “If we make a sequence it’s going to expand our imagination and our world.” Kawauchi says that choosing which images to exhibit is easier after she’s had an opportunity to sequence a new body of work for publication.
In Illuminance, which shows previously unpublished work, we see a web-like, circular net opposite a person trying to shelter beneath a malfunctioning umbrella; we see colorful slivers of light shooting from a loose diamond, opposite a large drop of water gathered in the crease of a leaf; we see a shaft of light beaming through the canopy of a pine forest juxtaposed with a close-up of a tiny frog (a baby?) sitting in the palm of someone’s hand. Similar shapes and patterns recur in pairs of images and throughout the book.
Kawauchi’s project with Aperture, her first book with a U.S. publisher, came to fruition while she was renting an apartment in New York City two years ago. She had previously met Aperture publisher Lesley Martin and discussed working together, and when the two met again at an event at the Aperture Gallery, they decided the time was right. Kawauchi says she created Illuminance as she normally does, editing and sequencing on her own and then working with the book’s editor—Martin in this case—to make small changes and incorporate suggestions. Kawauchi calls Martin “really smart,” and says she hopes she will make future books with the publisher.
Kawauchi says she does not “want to push my thoughts” on readers, but she is interested in showing how she sees our collective experience. “The photographs in Illuminance are personal images, but there are universal things behind the images; that is very important for me.”
An exhibition coinciding with the publication of Kawauchi's monograph will open at The Gallery at Hermes in New York City on Friday, May 20 and run through Saturday, July 16, 2011
The Gallery at Hermes, 691 Madison Ave., 4th fl., New York, NY 10065