National Gallery exhibition pays tribute to Japanese photographer Kan Azuma

“These photographs were taken a long time ago, but the memory of them is still fresh. I don’t feel like time has passed much.”

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Kan Azuma’s decision to move from Tokyo to Vancouver was more impulsive than carefully formulated.

It was 1970 and the 24-year-old Japanese photographer’s plan A was to move to California. However, two weeks before Azuma’s flight, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo denied his visa application because he had participated in anti-Vietnam War protests in Japan.

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What was I going to do except come up with Plan B?

“I already had a ticket to North America and the travel agency changed the destination from California to Vancouver,” Azuma told a crowd this week at the National Gallery of Canada through an interpreter.

“I decided to go with the flow,” Azuma said. He was initially granted a tourist visa to stay in Canada for three months, but he ended up living and working here for a decade.

Fast forward to 2024, when photographs Azuma, now 78, took while living in Canada are included in a large solo exhibition at the National Gallery. Titled Kan Azuma: A Matter of Place, the exhibition consists of more than 160 black and white photographs, often bleak and striking, of Canadian landscapes, people and more.

“They are extremely poetic, extremely beautiful… They envelop you in this world,” said Jean-François Bélisle, the gallery’s director and CEO. He spoke to Azuma in person this week as the photographer and his wife had flown more than 10,000 kilometers from Tokyo to Ottawa for the exhibition opening.

“These photographs are a kind of conversation between people and places,” said Kenji Yamanouchi, Japan’s ambassador to Canada. Yamanouchi placed a hand on his chest and said that Azuma had “enormous power to penetrate your emotions.”

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Azuma said the photographs in the exhibition reminded him of “a wonderful and joyful time in my life.

“These photographs were taken a long time ago, but the memory of them is still fresh,” he added. “I don’t feel like time has passed much.”

Trained as a photographer at the Tokyo Institute of Design, Azuma adopted a photographic style known in Japanese as are-bure-boke, which encompassed the production of grainy, blurry and out-of-focus images to convey immediacy.

When Azuma landed in Vancouver, he didn’t immediately work in photography, said Euijung McGillis, assistant curator of the gallery’s photography collection. She, along with Andrea Kunard, senior curator of the collection, are responsible for the exhibition.

Partly because of his limited English, Azuma initially worked as a house painter and did odd jobs, McGillis said. He eventually became a darkroom technician at Abbott & Tincombe Photographic Services, a Vancouver company that still exists. He later moved to Toronto, where he worked in the darkrooms at York University and even taught an introductory photography course there.

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“He didn’t like that very much,” said McGillis, who interviewed Azuma in 2022, via email, as part of his job.

“For me, photography was inevitable,” Azuma said in Ottawa.

He told McGillis in their email exchange: “If you ask me why I took photographs, I can only say that it was solely for personal reasons because I enjoyed the process. I have freedom and fun while working on my photographs, without anyone dictating to me.

“At that time, no one knew that this artistic process was good for mental health, reducing stress,” he said. “For me, photography was a world in which it was okay to not be successful. I was sure that my creative sensibility would wither and dissipate in 10 years, so I thought I should take as many photographs as possible and have other people evaluate them.”

While Azuma lived in Canada, he sometimes traveled with photography purposes in mind. In 1973, he took photographs in Point Pélee National Park, in southwestern Ontario, which were brought together in his Erosion series.

“I have never experienced nature so intensely before,” Azuma told McGillis.

In 1975, Azuma traveled to Peggy’s Cove, NS, attracted by its rocky, timeless landscape. What he saw there rubbed off on him and led him to create his Other Land series, which reflected on the effect of time on massive rocks, which would eventually turn into sand.

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Azuma also took pictures of people. His 1975 Dodge Away series consisted of curious and whimsical portraits of people in Toronto who Azuma told to pose as if they did not want to be photographed.

“He told me he had a lot of fun taking pictures (in Canada),” McGillis said.

Years later, after returning to Japan, Azuma took photographs of people who, like him, were on a special pilgrimage. Some of those images are part of the 88 Shrines Pilgrimage series, taken in 1995, and are part of the gallery’s exhibition.

Azuma returned to Japan in 1980. His mother’s poor health was a factor. She subsequently died. For the pilgrimage that Azuma undertook, the promise to the pilgrims who visited the 88 shrines was that they would be visited by deceased relatives. Azuma “tI thought that after finishing his pilgrimage he would be able to see his mother’s face,” McGillis said.

While Azuma lived in Canada, his work was exhibited several times, including a 1974 exhibition at a gallery on Kent Street in Ottawa. Around this time, the National Gallery acquired around 70 of Azuma’s works for its collection.

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After Azuma returned to Japan, he worked as a photographer, sometimes taking photographs at concerts for music magazines. He retired when he turned 55 years old.

“Regardless of whether my experience in Canada was a success or not, it was the beginning of a fulfilling creative pursuit,” Azuma told McGillis. “When I look back at my later works, I see that I am honest rather than trying to please people.”

Just a few years ago, the National Gallery’s interest in Azuma’s photographs increased after the curiosity of a Japanese intern was piqued. Gallery staff tried to find Azuma and eventually contacted him through Facebook, McGillis said.

Now, not only will Azuma’s work be on display until mid-June at the gallery, but he has also donated more than 300 prints, contact sheets, negatives and notes to the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives.

Azuma’s solo show, McGillis said, is “what he deserves and it didn’t happen when he was here.

“We didn’t get a chance to hear his voice when he was active in Canada,” he said. “We were a little late, but not too late.”

Kan Azuma: a question of place
That: a solo exhibition by a Japanese photographer who lived in Canada in the 1970s
Where and when: National Gallery of Canada until June 16
Also: Some of Kan Azuma’s photographs will remain on display at Clarendon Court in ByWard Market until March 31, 2025.

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Kan Azuma National Gallery of Canada
An untitled photo in the Kan Azuma exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada until mid-June. Photo by Kan Azuma /National Gallery of Canada
Kan Azuma National Gallery of Canada
An untitled photo in the Kan Azuma exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada until mid-June. Photo by Kan Azuma /National Gallery of Canada
Kan Azuma National Gallery of Canada
An untitled photo in the Kan Azuma exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada until mid-June. Photo by Kan Azuma /National Gallery of Canada
Kan Azuma National Gallery of Canada
An untitled photo in the Kan Azuma exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada until mid-June. Photo by Kan Azuma /National Gallery of Canada
Kan Azuma National Gallery of Canada
An untitled photo in the Kan Azuma exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada until mid-June. Photo by Kan Azuma /National Gallery of Canada

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