'Hiroji Kubota Photographer' chronicles a life of exploration

Hiroji Kubota made a career out of identifying with the dispossessed.

Hiroji Kubota: Photographer Hardcover by Alison Nordström (Author), Hiroji Kubota (Photographer) Aperture 512 pp.

Hiroji Kubota Photographer is a comprehensive retrospective of the photographer’s 55-year career with Magnum Photo Agency. Propelled by his maxim that it is better to photograph what is compelling rather than what is assigned, Kubota has produced a remarkable travelogue of his compulsions. Growing up under the strafing guns of American planes in his native Japan, Kubota immediately rejected war photography. He declares, “I am never unkind to my subjects. I don’t like brutal pictures.” His own story is as compelling as his photography.

The son of a prominent fish merchant, Kubota graduated from college with a degree in political science and a passion for travel. Under the tutelage of famed photographer Hiroshi Hamaya he was led, in turn, to fortuitous associations with such Magnum luminaries as Elliot Erwitt. Armed with a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s seminal book on photography "The Decisive Moment," Kubota was ready to explore. In 1962, he headed for America.

As an Asian man, Kubota was perceived with curiosity by Americans immersed in a black/white divide. He was invited into native American homes, Black Panthers circles, and southern sheriffs’ offices. Still a relatively inexperienced photographer, Kubota explored America with wide-eyed fascination. Photos of urban classrooms, debutantes, and elections share space with civil rights protests and draft card burnings. His American explorations inspired what became his oeuvre: identifying with the dispossessed while acknowledging cultural heritage.

Eventually, tired of covering a country that dominated world news, Kubota looked to Asia to find places with little or no access to outsiders. His prodigious negotiating skills allowed him opportunities in difficult countries, financed by supportive corporations. In North Korea he was the first foreigner allowed to photograph, a responsibility he took on with his trademark thoroughness. He repeatedly traveled to China even during the country's most entrenched era of isolation. He visited Burma (now Myanmar), a country he fell in love with, over 75 times. His compulsion for capturing every detail of a place is what makes his images so memorable.

Kubota’s world is ephemeral – it's the place where the present touches past. His everyday subjects function within the context of their landscapes. As people’s lives shift, so do the rituals on which they build their existences. What remains is the sense of place. Kubota’s photos offer us a glimpse of that transition, rooted in the constancy of surroundings and the inevitability of change.  

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