Shigeo Anzai


Shigeo Anzai’s photographs of artists are generally small; one might even speak of them as glorified snapshots. This is part of their demythologizing aspect. There’s a sense of the unposed, the contingent—this we expect from the snapshot—but especially of the emotionally contingent, which is rarer, implying a greater “susceptibility” on the photographer’s part. Even when the scene is posed, as in the image of Joseph Beuys, his wife, and teenage daughter facing in different directions (at odds with one another—each like a perpendicular dropped away from the other, and thus emphasizing his or her otherness), the emotional component seems unposed, spontaneously present, and thus devastatingly revelatory. It is as though the subjects did not know what they felt until they knew they were going to be photographed. Similarly, the wonderful smile on Barry Flanagan’s face as he looks up from digging potatoes not only looks unplanned, but seems to surprise Flanagan himself.

Does the situation of being photographed perhaps comprise, unconsciously, the common idea of what it means to be public these days? Here it reveals the unexpected not only to the photographer, but to the photographer’s subjects. It is as though the possibility of being recorded for posterity evoked the greatest depths in the self, or at least brought the most singular sense of self to the fore. Or is it just that the self-consciousness that being photographed generates is compensated for by unconscious expression? This may have been what Anzai meant when he told me that it was the “humanity” of his subjects that mattered most to him—in other words, that he was interested in the human being within the artist, not the artist within the human being. Certainly Hans Namuth’s monumentalizing of artists into totemic figures—like overcooked roasts or stuffed animals, creatures who think of themselves as trophies—comes nowhere near considering the differentiation of identity, which is exactly why his photographs mythologize their subjects.

Claude Lévi-Strauss concludes The Origin of Table Manners (1968) by noting “that the formula ’hell is other people,’ which has achieved such widespread fame, is not so much a philosophical proposition as an ethnographical statement about our civilization. For, since childhood, we have been accustomed to fear impurity as coming from without.” A Diane Arbus seems concerned to show that hell is other people because other people are inherently hellish, impure. But this quickly inverts: if others are hellish, we may be too; the hellish-looking others are simply our innateness turned inside out, ourselves coming to ourselves in the form of the other. Anzai is Japanese; his focus on the other is invariably different from ours, not simply because, according to Takeo Doi in The Anatomy of Dependence (1981), the Japanese see the group before they see the self and the other, i.e., before they hypostatize separateness and difference. The emotional responsiveness and spontaneity of Anzai’s artists are based on their relationship to Anzai; it is not that to be photographed is to have a relationship, but that a relationship exists within which they are photographed. Where Namuth is working for History, conceiving his subjects as Historically Important Artists (he’s also determined to show that he himself is an Artist), Anzai approaches his subjects humanistically, and they respond to his approach, perhaps only because it is novel to them. Levi-Strauss writes: “Sound humanism does not begin with oneself, but puts the world before life, life before man, and respect for others before self-interest.” It almost seems a novelty to put the camera, an artifact of popular technology, to sound humanistic use. The Metropolitan Museum of Tokyo recently purchased some 300 of Anzai’s over 2,000 photographs of artists and art events; one is afraid they may have been purchased for the wrong reasons—as documentation, as if the artists themselves were art, rather than because the images reveal Modern artists in an unexpected humanistic light. The brilliance of Anzai’s photographs is that they show artists standing outside their art rather than as its captives, and appearing all the more interesting because of it. Indeed, maybe more interesting than their art—but few artists dare let themselves be that.

Donald Kuspit