Hiroji Kubota (born 2 August 1939) is a Japanese photographer, a member of Magnum Photos
who has specialized in photographing the far east. Born in Kanda (Tokyo), Kubota studied politics at Waseda University, graduating in 1962. In 1961 he met the Magnum photographers René Burri
, Elliott Erwitt
, and Burt Glinn
. He then studied journalism and international politics at the University of Chicago, and became an assistant to Erwitt and Cornell Capa
, in 1965, a freelance photographer.
Kubota photographed the 1968 US presidential election and then Ryūkyū islands before their return to Japan in 1972. He then photographed Saigon in 1975, North Korea in 1978, and China in 1979–85, and the USA in 1988–92, resulting in books and exhibitions. Kubota won the Mainichi Art Prize in 1980, and the Annual Award of the Photographic Society of Japan in 1981. Three of his publications won him the first Kodansha Publishing Culture Award in 1970: "Black People", and essays on Calcutta and the Ryūkyū islands.
Hiroji Kubota sounds a little over-the-top when he insists his "life is meaningless"
without photography. But a glance at his latest and 19th book will convince you he is absolutely right, given how his life has been intertwined with some of Magnum's legendary photographers, like René Burri, Burt Glinn and my father, Elliott Erwitt. He started out working with some of them as a fixer and translator, even though he refused payment at first. "I was brought up comfortably and didn't need it,"
He did, however, accept a beat-up Leica
M3 from Burri. His life changed when he got the first edition of Henri Cartier-Bresson
's The Decisive Moment
a month later. "When I opened it, I said, 'My gosh, what is this?"
he recalled. "That motivated me. That's when I became serious."
His fate was sealed when Burri showed him a Swiss magazine that featured his Gaucho pictures. "It shocked me like crazy,"
he said. "I knew then I wanted to be a photographer."
The results of those personally decisive moments are evident in Aperture's Hiroji Kubota Photographer
a retrospective covering 50 years of his work. I met Hiroji almost that long ago, because my father, Elliott Erwitt, sponsored him when he first came to America, even picking him up at the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport. They had met when Hiroji worked as a fixer on one of my father's early trips to Japan, in 1962, to illustrate Robert Donovan's book PT 109
, about John F. Kennedy's World War II exploits. Hiroji was my father's translator when he photographed the captain and crew of the destroyer that famously cut Kennedy's boat in two.
That kind of work led to his meeting other influential photographers who would encourage him, eventually bringing him to New York, where he became a familiar figure at the Magnum offices. Back then, the agency was a small, international and slightly dysfunctional family that was accessible if you met the right people, which he did.
Cornell Capa, a Magnum photographer, "adopted me literally, not legally," he said. "He had no children, so he needed a son, a fairly well-behaved son who could cook for him." Capa, who entertained "big shots" at his Fifth Avenue apartment, helped Hiroji make a few extra dollars by having him cook. Burt Glinn also hired Hiroji as an assistant to help him get by. Hiroji showed similar ingenuity when he spent the better part of a year photographing in Chicago, where he ran an ad hoc Japanese catering business every other weekend to help pay the bills. By 1967, he was a successful photographer firmly ensconced at Magnum, and it was time to return to Japan.
He has proved to be a remarkably tenacious photographer who immerses himself in a story and returns to it until he is satisfied. He has managed to get to places others can't - like his unlimited access on many trips to China, when travel within the country was still limited. He would talk government officials into allowing him the time and access he needed to achieve his purpose. Same with North Korea; he has made countless visits - at its invitation - at a time when it was essentially a closed country. -- By Misha Erwitt
Source: The New York Times
During a visit by Magnum members to Japan in 1961, Hiroji Kubota came to know René Burri, Burt Glinn and Elliott Erwitt. After graduating in political science from Tokyo’s University of Waseda in 1962, Kubota moved to the US, settling in Chicago, where he continued photographing while supporting himself by working in a Japanese catering business.
He became a freelance photographer in 1965, and his first assignment for the UK newspaper The Times was to Jackson Pollock’s grave in East Hampton. In 1968, Kubota returned to live in Japan, where his work was recognized with a Publishing Culture Award from Kodansha in 1970. The next year he became a Magnum associate.
Kubota witnessed the fall of Saigon in 1975, refocusing his attention on Asia. It took him several years to get permission to photograph in China. Finally, between 1979 and 1984, Kubota embarked on a 1,000-day tour, during which he made more than 200,000 photographs. The book and exhibit, China, appeared in 1985.
Kubota’s awards in Japan include the Nendo Sho (Annual Award) of the Japanese Photographic Society (1982), and the Mainichi Art Prize (1983). He has photographed most of the Asian continent for his book Out of the East, published in 1997, which led to a two-year project, in turn resulting in the book Can We Feed Ourselves?
Kubota has had solo shows in Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, New York, Washington, Rome, London, Vienna, Paris and many other cities. He has just completed Japan, a book on his homeland and the country where he continues to be based.
Source: Magnum Photos