Seiji Kurata - Photographs London Wednesday, May 17, 2017 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • Provenance

    Acquired directly from the artist

  • Exhibited

    Tokyo Night Dwellers, Canon Photo Gallery Amsterdam, 3 - 24 March, 1978, for the present lot

    Street PhotoRandom Tokyo 1975-79, Nikon Salon Ginza, Tokyo, 6 - 11 November, 1979
    Japanese Contemporary Photography and its Origin, Comune di Bologna Galleria d'Arte Moderna, 28 January - 28 February 1979, Comune di Milano Ripartizione Cultura e Spettacolo Palazzo Reale, 22 March - 29 April 1979, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels, 6 June - 31 July 1979, I.C.A. London, 10 August - 16 September 1979
    Floods of Light: Flash Photography 1951-1981, The Photographers Gallery, London, 10 December 1982 - 29 January 1983
    20 Year Anniversary TOP Collection: Tokyo Tokyo and TOKYO, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, Tokyo, 22 November 2016 - 29 January 2017
    For other prints

  • Literature

    'Seiji Kurata SNAP-2 Ikebukuro', Camera Mainichi January 1977, p.84
    Reflextions, Amsterdam: Canon Photo Gallery, 3 March 1978, cover, variant crop
    Flash Up: Street PhotoRandom Tokyo 1975-1979, Tokyo: Byakuya Shobō, 1980, cover, pl. 92
    Floods of Light: Flash Photography 1851-1981, London: The Photographer's Gallery, 1982, p. 71
    Beyond Japan: A Photo Theatre, London: Barbican, 1991, p. 14
    G. Badger and Martin Parr, The Photobook: A History, Volume I, London: Phaidon, 2004, p. 305, variant crop
    Flash Up 2013 , Tokyo: Zen Foto Gallery, 2013, pl. 68
    TOP Collection: Tokyo Tokyo and TOKYO, Tokyo: Case Publishing, 2016, pl. 33

  • Catalogue Essay

    或る瞬間が 永遠となることが
     あるだろうか もし あるとしたら
    私は奇跡と思うし やがて時の流れと
    ・・・・そして愛 という言葉を想う
    或る場の大気が 地上の他者たちが生

    東京 2017年4月

    Can a certain moment become an eternity
    If so, I would feel it’s a miracle
    With the passing of time, eventually...
    Should the air of a certain place
    Meditating on the word of love
    connect with the air under the same sky where others on earth live
    then I will … accept the world

    Seiji Kurata
    Tokyo, April 2017


    When Seiji Kurata was 30 years old, he took a life changing gamble. Drawn to the possibilities of photography, he quit his job at a small thermostat factory and gave himself one year to pursue fully his new-found passion. His frst interest was taking 8mm films, which he had kept as a hobby while working at the factory, and it was around this time that he was introduced to photography by a friend who was deeply interested in the medium. This friend taught him how to photograph with 35mm film and work in the darkroom and also told him about Daidō Moriyama. Wanting to see Moriyama’s work, Kurata would visit his local second-hand bookshop for back issues of popular photography magazines like Asahi Camera and Camera Mainichi.

    It was during this one-year hiatus, which would become a 40-year career, that Kurata joined the independent photography school WORKSHOP, featuring faculty photographers Shōmei Tōmatsu, Eikoh Hosoe, Masahisa Fukase, Daidō Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki and Noriaki Yokosuka. Spearheaded by the leading photographers of the time, both the school (1974-76) and its eponymous quarterly periodical (1974-76, 8 volumes), were highly influential. A student could choose which photographer’s seminar to take, and for him, the choice to study under Moriyama was clear-cut. According to Kurata, what he took away from this experience was the greatness of the Japanese proverb「芸は身を助く」 [Gei wa mi wo tasuku], which translates to ‘Art brings bread’, meaning ‘Learn a trade, for the time will come when you shall need it’.

    Tattooed Man

    In summer 1975, while taking Moriyama’s one-year seminar at WORKSHOP, Kurata began photographing the seedy streets of Ikebukuro in north-western Tokyo at night, using a medium-format camera (Asahi Pentax 6 x 7 cm) and a strong 15 x 20 cm strobe. Focusing on the underbelly of Japanese society, his subjects included yakuza, strippers, transvestites, prostitutes and their clients. Tattooed Man – the powerful and provocative photograph offered here – presents a heavily tattooed yakuza in his loincloth, with neck extended and samurai sword in hand, standing on a building rooftop. This captivating photograph was taken in October 1975 during Kurata’s first year of nightly adventures in the entertainment district of Ikebukuro where he encountered scenes he described as ‘whirlpools of excitement’. Writing in 2013, Kurata recalled his indelible encounter with the yakuza that resulted in this iconic photograph:

    The town is bright with streetlights, pubs, game centres, cafes, restaurants, arrays of neon and spotlights. Two tall men call out to me. They look and act like playboys.

    – Hey you, that’s a big camera, huh? I bet it takes good photos. Take one of us!
    – Huh, black and white? Are you broke?
    – What, don’t you even have colour?
    – Not even a studio?
    – Money! Sure, we’ll pay you.

    As if following a script, they keep up their big talk. I try hard to break in, saying I can’t do it in the middle of a crowd of people, or that I might be caught by the police, but in the end I promise to photograph them three days later. There are no nice landscapes, no skylines or good scenery, and we decide to make the top of a building our studio. On the emergency staircase the two play for ages with their swords like actors in a samurai film and tell me to make them look like [the actor] Ken Takakura. They also tell me to show them all the photos taken, and to make big prints of any that are good.

    During the three-hour rooftop shoot that began at midnight, Kurata photographed mostly in colour at the request of the yakuza who wanted to capture the rich colours of his extraordinary tattoos. (Kurata preferred to shoot in black and white as colour film was more expensive in those days.) When he did switch to black-and-white film, the battery of the strobe was running low. In this one photograph – referred by Kurata as ‘a miracle shot’ – taken as the final frame of his film, only a moment before the strobe battery died, Kurata cut through the darkness with his bright flash to reveal the pride, courage and determination of this yakuza. When he first saw this photograph in the darkroom, it took him by surprise and he realised then that he had ‘the shot’.

    Publications, Exhibitions & Collections

    After a year of documenting urban marginality, a selection of the resulting photographs were published for the first time in 1976 when they were featured in the 8th and final issue of WORKSHOP under the title ‘謹写∙池袋の夜’ [Kinsha ∙ Ikebukuro nights]. Kinsha loosely means ‘to photograph with respect’ and Kurata’s choice of this word speaks volumes about his outlook on the act of photographing and the subjects he encountered. The present photograph Tattooed Man was first published in 1977 for the January issue of Camera Mainichi, the monthly photography magazine. Famed editor and curator Shōji Yamagishi had selected this work along with other Ikebukuro images by Kurata for a three-part feature titled Snap, published in the December 1977, January 1977 and February 1978 issues of the magazine. Soon after this publication, Kurata turned his camera and strobe on the darker side of Shinjuku – on the invitation of a nightclub owner in Ikebukuro who also had a club in Shinjuku – and expanded his subjects to include right-wing politicians, bōsōzoku [motorcycle gangs] and delinquents.

    Four years into his series in 1978, Kurata held his maiden solo exhibition Tokyo: Night Dwellers, which took place in Europe at Canon Photo Gallery Amsterdam. Tattooed Man was chosen as the cover image for the accompanying publication in which Kurata wrote, ‘What I want to do is, to observe them. I want to see as many persons as possible as precisely as possible…It is a must to keep tight the surface tension of the world’ (p. 5). The lot offered here is the actual print that was exhibited in the show.

    Kurata’s first exhibition in Japan Street PhotoRandom Tokyo 1975-1979 was held the following year in 1979 at Nikon Salon Ginza in Tokyo. As the exhibition title suggests, Kurata’s relationship with his rapidly changing city rested on chance and random encounters: ‘My Camera’s range randomly expands. Now, I follow instinct. Take whatever comes. I yield. Yes. At random, an exotic sequence. Yes. And yes again’ (2013). The print of Tattooed Man that was included in the Nikon Salon Ginza show is held privately.

    This exhibition title soon became the subtitle of his seminal photobook Flash Up: Street PhotoRandom Tokyo 1975-1979, which was released in 1980 to high acclaim. Including 190 black-and-white images, Flash Up was the culmination of five years of recording the urban underbelly. The title refers to Kurata’s method of using his strobe to bring to the surface things that occurred in the shadows – his ‘flashing up’ of man’s hidden desire, appetite and lust. On the back of the book’s obi, endorsements were written by Shōmei Tōmatsu, Daidō Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki. In the same year, Kurata became the recipient of the 5th Kimura Ihei Award, one of the most coveted photography awards in Japan. In The Photobook: A History Volume I, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger commented that ‘Seiji Kurata, a student of Daido Moriyama, has a unique photographic voice. Flash Up, his first photobook, is…one of the best debut publications since Nobuyoshi Araki’s in the 1970s’ (p.395). As the cover image of Flash Up, Tattooed Man epitomised the raw and gritty underworld of 1970s Tokyo. In referring to his photographs taken in 1975-79, Kurata recently remarked, ‘If you asked me to take these pictures today, I couldn’t. Those things that were previously hidden were all brought to the surface.’

    Kurata continued to publish notable photobooks, including Japan (1998), an anthology of his photographs taken in Japan that won the Kodansha Publishing Culture Award in 1999, and most recently in 2015, he launched Toshi no Zokei, a collection of Tokyo cityscapes, published by Super Labo. Kurata’s work is held in such prominent institutions as the International Center of Photography, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. Both the Brooklyn Museum and the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum hold modern prints of Tattooed Man, 1975, in their respective collections.

    Phillips Photographs extend our sincere thanks to Seiji Kurata for sharing his candid and insightful recollections.

    ‘Kurata is for sure Weegee and Arbus’s illegitimate child.’
    Nobuyoshi Araki

    ‘I smell blood in Kurata’s photographs.’
    Shōmei Tōmatsu

    ‘I am deeply happy that a photographer like Seiji Kurata has appeared, but at the same time, I am envious.’
    Daidō Moriyama



入墨の男 [Irezumi no otoko] Tattooed Man from Flash Up

Gelatin silver print, printed 1978.
Image: 53 x 42 cm (20 7/8 x 16 1/2 in.)
Sheet: 61.7 x 50.5 cm (24 1/4 x 19 7/8 in.)

Signed in rōmaji, dated and annotated ‘1975 taken’, ‘1978 printed’ and ‘池袋 文芸坐通りビル屋上’ [Ikebukuro, building rooftop on Bungeiza Street] in Japanese/English in pencil on the verso. 

Printed by Kurata in 1978 for his first-ever solo exhibition, the present work is one of only two signed early prints of this image in existence. The other print, printed in 1979 for another exhibition and similar in size, is held privately. Aside from the two signed early prints, only six early prints of this image – three small press prints and three exhibition proof prints – are known. All six prints are held by the artist and are not intended for commercial sale.

£15,000 - 25,000 

Sold for £56,250

Contact Specialist
Genevieve Janvrin
Co-Head of Photographs, Europe
+44 20 7901 7996

Yuka Yamaji
Co-Head of Photographs, Europe
+44 20 7318 4098


London Auction 18 May 2017