November 2008

Kenro Izu

Addison/Ripley Fine Art

Washington, D.C.

A sitting monk stares placidly into the middle distance. A monastery clings to a mountainside like a swallow’s nest. The subject of this quietly dazzling exhibition was the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. But on a deeper level, Kenro Izu’s subject is Buddhism. The 24 photographs here, all taken after 2002, captured worship and its place in Bhutanese society with a humble ceremoniousness. The work seemed strangely of a time not our own.

In creating all but two of these images, Izu employed the platinum-palladium technique, an expensive and physically demanding way of taking pictures that involves lugging around a 200-pound camera that uses custom-made film. That would be tough enough in New York, where the Japanese-born photographer is currently based, but in mountainous Bhutan, it required an even higher level of commitment.

Platinum-palladium gives Izu’s prints a grainy texture and impressionistic haze that bring to mind watercolor on newsprint. What he loses in sharpness, Izu more than makes up for in the mesmerizing sensuousness of the pictures’ gray hues. This quality reaches its greatest effect in the images of prayer flags, rows of flapping banners that punctuate the Bhutanese landscape. In the long exposures, they seem to dissolve into the fog and clouds.

In all his work, Izu transcends the mere documentary to impart a richly atmospheric sense of the terrain and its inhabitants. Some of his most compelling images are of people in painted, carved-wood masks. They leave a vivid impression of how the Bhutanese people have maintained traditions in the contemporary era with dignity and a complete lack of self-consciousness.

–Roger Atwood