Interview: Kishin Shinoyama

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold


Kishin Shinoyama is a cultural phenomenon whose popularity reaches far beyond the world of photography. Recognizing the value of the name and the power of self-promotion early on he has invested in his persona just as much as in his ever-evolving and often extremely polar photographic works. While constantly pushing the boundaries of what's publicly acceptable he never crosses the line, tap dancing on the edge of mainstream and obscene.

We meet at Shinoyama's spacious office facing Tokyo Midtown, his studio is conveniently located downstairs. The location itself is a testimony to his remarkable commercial success. Piles of photo books and magazines featuring his works cover large square table in the middle. He often picks them up for a quick reference carefully monitoring people's reaction. Ranging from the signature nudes to the portraits of Tohoku earthquake victims with every Japanese celebrity in between, there is a photo bank worth of them. Today is his 72nd birthday.

Photographer Kishin Shinoyama with his new book, GENBAKISHIN

Photographer Kishin Shinoyama with his new book, GENBAKISHIN

  • ABToday is your birthday, any plans for later? What is the present you wish for the most?
  • KSNo plans at all! [Laughs] Just keep working as usual. I’ve got two photo shoots later on and have already finished one earlier. Birthday present... Well, I prefer love everyday to birthday presents once a year. It's not only today that’s special. Yesterday was special, tomorrow will be special. There is no need to celebrate, my birthday is all year long!
  • ABDo you ever get tired of shooting naked girls?
  • KSI don't actually shoot nude, I USE nude to express different themes. It could be an “erotic” theme, or a “Tokyo” theme... Nudity can be used to express all kinds of ideas and moods. In that sense, I can never get bored with it.
  • ABYou always appear to be trouble-free, do you even have a dark side?
  • KS[Laughs] You know, most photographers shooting dark imagery have darkness in them, but I’m happy! I’m doing great. Always.
  • ABSo it's not like you shut the door behind and just go “Arghhh”?
  • KSNot me. I’m always happy.
  • ABPhotography was an accidental choice for you (Shinoyama famously failed the exam and chose to study photography by a chance). Who do you think you'd become if it wasn't for that?
  • KSI didn’t have anything planned. I thought, well, I’ll get into a good university, then, into a good company and become a salaryman. That was my line of thinking, but I failed the exam. A normal person would go “ronin” (a school graduate who hasn't enroll university yet) and study for another year to re-take the exam, but it made me think, “Why am I studying so much? It's silly!” That's when I saw an ad for a photography school and thought to myself, “Why don’t I try photography?”
Kishin Shinoyama, Momoe Yamaguchi, 1977

Kishin Shinoyama, Momoe Yamaguchi, 1977

  • ABWhat is your favorite body part?
  • KSOh no, you can’t say which body part is your favorite. You can’t rank your body parts. We must love our whole bodies equally and unconditionally. So you really can’t say which part is better or worse.
  • ABIs it “aura” then that interests you?
  • KSWell, no, not exactly. [Laughs] Ears, breasts, every part counts. You couldn’t say your ears are more important than your nose, could you? [Laughs] Every body part is equally important.
  • ABYou often use a rather unusual for portraits wide angle and harsh direct sunlight, any story behind it?
  • KSI just wanted my style to be “style-less.” I guess that's what happened—“No style is my style!”
  • ABYour “no style” is very consistent!
  • KSIt's amazing, right! [Laughs]
  • AB“Professional” photographers probably go “What? Direct sunlight? For portraits?!”
  • KSThat's right, I’m amazing! [Laughs] Shinoyama=amazing!
  • ABWho came up with Santa-Fe idea?
  • KSIt began when Rie Miyazawa turned 20. Jokingly, I told her mother “Why don't I take her nude photos?” To my surprise she replied “Hmm, if we’re going to do it, why not do it over a weekend in May?” I didn’t think she'd take it seriously first, but when I heard her say that, I thought “It could actually happen!” That was what we say in Japanese “A horse that comes from a gourd” (something meant as a joke actually happens).
  • ABWhy Santa-Fe?
  • KSBecause Rie was a virgin at that time, or at least that's what she told me. This made me think of a saint, like the Virgin Mary and I decided to take her to the sanctuary of photography, Santa Fe, the place where Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz have lived and worked. I thought it was perfect for Rie and because many famous photographers used 8x10 cameras, I also brought one along. To the sanctuary. To take pictures of a “saint.”
  • ABWhere you aware of the impact it would have?
  • KSNot at all! It took me by surprise.
  • ABIt was the first time, when a mainstream star posed nude, right?
  • KSYes. The most surprising part was when I saw a full page ad for the book in the newspapers. I opened the papers one morning and went “Whaaat?!” From there it all got out of hand. It was a full page, you know.
Kishin Shinoyama, Rie Miyazawa, Santa Fe, 1991

Kishin Shinoyama, Rie Miyazawa, Santa Fe, 1991

  • ABWhat is it about nudity that constantly draws both, artists and public to it?
  • KSWell, I guess because we're always clothed we reveal something personal, the “inside” when we take clothes off. Feelings, spirit... all kinds of things. I feel it unveils person's true nature, the raw state. That's what really interests me in nude.
  • ABI often see you with Ellie (the member of Chim↑Pom), shall we expect a photo book soon?
  • KSNo, not really. [Laughs] We talked about taking her nude and she likes the idea. She even discussed it with other Chim↑Pom members, their resume—only if we can take Shinoyama himself nude, which I don't mind at all. Anyway, it's only talk for time being.
  • ABWhat do you think of them?
  • KSI think they’re great. I really like what they’re doing and how they portray the present.
  • ABI helped them with their Turning Around show at Watari-Um, did you see it?
  • KSSure, I photographed them there.
  • (Brings a copy of Quick Japan magazine with the pictures he took)
  • ABI didn’t know you took these.
  • KSYes, look.
  • ABAny other Japanese artists you like?
  • KSMakoto Aida! [Laughs] He’s great isn’t he?
  • ABWhat is the most memorable picture you took?
  • KSI forget easily. When someone asks me “Which one is your best work?” I always answer “The next one! Please check the next one.”
  • My next book is actually amazing, it's about construction sites. (Brings a dummy of his not yet published at the time of the interview photo book, GENBAKISHIN)
  • ABI want to go there!
  • KSSure, why not, but it's hard to get into! This one is under the airstrip of Haneda Airport. These look like ruins, but will be like any other highway once it's completed.
  • This one is about the earthquake aftermath, isn’t it great? This one here is taken in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture. It was severely damaged by the earthquake, everything was destroyed. This, is my NEXT work.
Kishin Shinoyama, Yukio Mishima as St. Sebastian, 1966

Kishin Shinoyama, Yukio Mishima as St. Sebastian, 1966

  • ABYou once said you have to persistently “train” your taste, what is your favorite exercise?
  • KSHmm... I read the newspapers every morning, news, sports, economy... I think reading newspapers is really good. Of course, it's important to see interesting things, eat sophisticated food. I think it shows in my works. Naturally, I get to meet many interesting people, I’ve met most of the greats in the past decades! All because of this job! And you, you’re also one of those people to me. [Prolonged eye contact]
  • ABYou know Yokoo-san, right?
  • KSI’ve known him for the last 50 years.
  • AB(Pointing at the large painting of an alien hanging over Shinoyama's desk) This reminds me of him.
  • KSOh, that? [Laughs] That's Taro Chiezo’s artwork. And that figure over there is Takashi Murakami’s. He gave it to me.
  • ABIt's kind of small... [Both laugh]
  • ABIs Japan now at its most conservative on your memory?
  • KSYes perhaps. Gradually more so. I started to photograph in the beginning of the 50s, Japan was still a poor country back then and just started its economic progress, but there was this atmosphere of going upwards, this energy in the air. When I started my career it was definitely more interesting, we wanted to change things. Japan seems to be playing safe nowadays and in that sense you could say it became more conservative and boring. But then again, there's no such thing as the “better era,” it simply doesn't exist. People always complain, or get frustrated regardless of the time they live in, don’t you think? People from the 50s would probably say “Wow, you have such a luxurious life!” For us however it became a standard of living we're no longer satisfied with. And that's ok, it's normal to be dissatisfied.
  • ABYour generation also seems to cross over into the global culture easier than the following ones.
  • KSI believe so. I guess young people are too content with what they have from the start, they're not motivated. The time nurtures artists. Certain art can only be produced in certain times. The new generation will come along naturally. Time itself will generate new artists.
Kishin Shinoyama, Mako Oda, Before/After, 2011

Kishin Shinoyama, Mako Oda, Before/After, 2011

  • ABIs there a distinctively Japanese style of photography?
  • KSI guess foreign photographers usually come up with a concept first, then take photos. Japanese photographers on the other hand are more likely to depend on their intuition. They feel something’s interesting and build on that, the concept comes afterwards. I guess I’m one of those photographers too, deciding the concept first bores me.
  • ABDid you get around Instagram yet?
  • KSNo.
  • AB...?! You always seem to be up to date.
  • KSWell, that's because I understand the outcome of using a certain technique, or I want the final result to look in a particular way which requires using it. The end result, that is what I'm after. Sure, you can dig into the technical side, but it's not my thing, I just focus on WHAT I want to do. I don't set up the cameras, my assistants do it for me. I'll say “I want to take it like this” and they'll take care of the settings, then I'll take a photo and say “No, that's not the way I want it, it has to be more like this” and they'll make the adjustments. So it's more a matter of understanding how the final image must look like.
  • ABWho would you recommend to interview next?
  • KSYou’ve already interviewed everyone, even Makoto Aida!
  • ABYes, I really enjoyed talking to him.
  • KSWhat about Ellie-chan?
  • ABAs a Chim↑Pom member. Yes.
  • KSHer too? Well, then you can stop now. [Both laugh]

* * *

Translation: Shoko Tanaka