Aug 11 2010, 10:57am

As we were trying to calm ourselves in front of Kishin Shinoyama's office before this interview, a taxi pulled over and out stumbled the man himself. The sight of him staggering up the stairs made us remember that he was made of flesh and bones. It's easy to forget that. The soon-to-be 70 year old is one of the super-heavyweights of the Japanese photography world. Not a day goes by without one of his photographs showing up on the cover of magazines, books, and posters everywhere. He shoots anything from antiques to porn stars. In his career many of his books have reached the scale of full-on social phenomena, and have entangled him in cultural problems way bigger than himself.

One such entanglement was his recent indictment for public indecency and disrespecting a place of worship--the latter a crime that no one had ever even heard of. Something that Shinoyama has been doing for decades, taking nudes outdoors, suddenly became a huge issue that required police intervention. Slightly puzzling unless you're up to speed on the recent Japanese trend of disinfecting all forms of "indecent" expression, and the fact that Shinoyama is more or less a byword here for the relaxation of such norms over the last half a century.

We soon walked up to the office ourselves and were cordially invited into his studio. We sat down and before we could even properly say hello, the interview had begun and we watched him turn into the controlled explosion of ageless energy that we had expected from his overwhelming output and hairstyle.

Vice: The accusation against you was settled a few days ago in the form of a "summary offense." How do you feel about being charged for something that you've been doing for decades?
Kishin Shinoyama:
It was strange in some ways but I personally take the stance, "if that's how people think, then that's fine with me." Although, yes, any other guy would definitely find this whole thing bizarre. It's a strange incident. I've written everything I have to say about this in an official statement so I advise you to read that carefully.

In the statement you said something along the lines of "once freedom of expression is lost, it takes time to recover."
They've been very astute though. They're not making complaints about the final work. What they say is that "there was a problem with the way the photographs were shot," that they "aren't going to make a fuss about me selling the works." But these works were photographed in places that were potentially visible to others. And that falls under the definition of "indecent exposure." So all I could say really, was "Oh, is that right?" They even told me that there were similar precedents.

So you're convinced by the point they made about your act itself being problematic?
I took those photographs because I didn't think it was a problem. But then they tell me that it's a crime unless the place is 100% shut out from everyone's view. What else can I do but to admit it? So I do admit that. But even if it's not a problem for those kind of photographs to come into the world and be sold, the fact that a legal issue like this gets such wide attention may lead everyone to think that it's wrong to take photographs outside or that they might be arrested for it. I do think that there will be this kind of deterring effect and everyone will start to refrain from their expressive activities. A crime is a crime however small the fine may be. Perhaps this accusation against me happened precisely to cause this kind of effect.

But you also had the choice of putting up a fight in court right? Did you not consider that option?
Not at all. They don't have a problem with what I'm expressing, right? They're not saying that what I'm expressing itself is "indecent," but that the way I'm taking the photographs is the problem. I'm bound to lose even if I did put up a fight. There's a precedent, as I said. If you take a nude portrait on a beach, there's always the possibility that it can be seen by someone on a ship offshore right? And they say that that's "public indecency." It's impossible to make any space in a city entirely closed. That's why I responded by saying "OK, I understand" and put an end to it by choosing the simplest method, which was to accept a "summary offense" and pay some money.

Young Japanese photographers may feel this "deterring effect" most keenly. What do you think of these young photographers?
Well, photography acts as a mirror for the times, and as times change new young people emerge to express the world as they live it through photographs. There are lots of interesting young photographers out there. I was part of the selection committee for the Ihee Kimura Prize, and every year there's a good bunch of interesting photographers that make me go "I'd never thought about something like this" or "I've never been able to look at the world like this." It's inspiring.
Do you consciously study things in order to keep up your perceptiveness as you get older?
I don't really study. Well...

The reason I ask is because I read somewhere that you used to collect and studied the magazine Egg.

It's a Japanese girls' fashion magazine read mainly by "gyaru" girls who roam around in places like Shibuya. It has some erotic content too which, by the way, I found quite useful back in the times when I shook hands with the unemployed. Anyway.
Oh, that. I didn't really collect it. It was just an interest for something I didn't know about. I wanted to know why a magazine like that became popular and what kind of people enjoyed its contents. It's interesting you know, to look at things like that. I just naturally respond to things, it's not anything grandiose like "studying."

At the end of the statement you ask the question "What kind of photographs will I be allowed to take in 20 years time in Tokyo?"
In the old days it was fine to take snap photos in the city, but now with people shouting about portrait rights, and the TV covering up people's faces with mosaics, it's no longer possible to do that. You could even take young girl nudes. But that's not possible either with the current child pornography laws. And now they're saying things about "public indecency." Regulations are getting tighter and tighter. The question is what are we allowed to photograph. Maybe some day we'll only be allowed to take photographs of the sea and the sky.

But haven't you also said in the past that it's better for photography to be subjected to some measure of regulation?
Well, I just think that there are no countries or periods in time where there are no regulations. Even now, there are countries where women have to wear a veil and are not even allowed to show their faces. For nudes, some countries say that you aren't allowed to show pubic hair or nipples while others are fine even with the nether parts. It's just the case that different regulations exist at different countries, places and periods of time.

How did you shoot that huge photograph over there?
That's what I call a "Shino-rama," and it's shot using three cameras simultaneously. That's one of the photos that will be exhibited in Taiwan. I'll be showing my photographs from the 80s in this exhibition. The reason why I used Shino-ramas in the 80s is because, the 80s was the period in which the Japanese economic bubble was at its most flamboyant and I couldn't capture the energy of that era with just one camera. Though it wasn't something that I was doing consciously, thinking, you know, that I had to capture the times. No, there was not much thinking involved, it's more a sense of being taught by the times and the city and responding to it by taking photographs instinctively.

So you don't subscribe to the style of having a concept first and then taking a photograph afterward. You just let your sensitivities reign?
Yes, exactly. I take photographs instinctively relying on my sensitivities, without any concepts, so in a way it's a mess, but it also lets a weird sort of photographic "strength" emerge. It's not about transposing a concept onto a photograph, but about taking photographs of those interesting things that swirl around in the times. It's completely different from the way Westerners take photographs...

Is there a reason that despite your wide range of subjects, you've never done any journalistic photography? The reason I don't do things like that is because I find lying more interesting. Photography doesn't capture the truth. Things look completely different according to the camera or depending on whether you position the camera horizontally or vertically. Taking a photograph of a part of reality is basically lying. And what I try to do is to lie in many many different ways. For instance, I would take a photograph using a model choosing a place where a model would never normally be. I now see Tokyo as neo-futuristic ruin. And if you were to have a naked girl standing in this city, wouldn't you say that that's an improbable scene? People never really question the cityscape of Tokyo. But if there was a foreign object there, then they would realize what a mysterious place Tokyo is. That's why I placed a nude as an object in 20XX Tokyo.

20XX Tokyo

But why did you choose to use a female nude instead of an object?
I told you, I wanted the nude as an improbable object, and it also gives greater impact to the photograph, you see? You might tell me that a dummy might do just as well. But I think that something more delicate, like a human being, a robot, or even a replicant is far more interesting.

You just mentioned 20XX Tokyo. One of the models in this book, who was also charged with you, became a porn star soon after right?
Yes. If I may just briefly explain, when I photographed Saori Hara what I wanted to achieve was again that sense of the female nude as a replicant. So I did tell her that laughing or being playful and such things were unnecessary. The reason why I use porn stars is because they work with the premise of taking their clothes off and there are no regulations against them doing so. It's a nightmare trying to get some actresses to do the same. So there's simply a greater degree of freedom working with porn stars. Finding a porn star who's beautiful and who matches the image I'm looking for--you can't do much better than that.

No joke. Can you tell me about your latest work?
I recently photographed Kabuki. Kabuki-za (the principal theater for the traditional kabuki drama form) was demolished in April this year, and I photographed a documentary of its last three months with Bando Tamasaburo, who's the most celebrated onnagata (kabuki actor specializing in female roles), as a navigator. It's an interesting book that documents a human being by capturing every inch of the Kabuki-za.

So that wasn't about capturing the times but more about the person...
No it wasn't. Kabuki itself is a lie. A man plays a woman for instance. With white makeup and all. It's a world of lies. And Kabuki-za which creates this world of lies is some kind of labyrinth. Being a documentary of the last three months of this labyrinth, it's probably a bit different from a normal reportage.