Sharing Japan with architect Kengo Kuma


Traveling to Japan always makes me feel like I am living in the past-present-future tenses collectively. I corral my thoughts as if I am assembling all of  life’s facts with fairy tales that spirit me away to a galaxy of alternative universes. What is life for if not the better dream. That is how I enter Japan.

I have  in the past lived vicariously through the lives of Japanese giants: The famed writer Yukio Mishima, film director Akira Kurosawa and Godzilla early on lanced my emotional heart. They helped me dream words in my reality. Mishima’s Hari Kari, Kurosawa’s revenge and Godzilla’s nuclear reactions are  lives past-present-future I learned from. Their lives apprised me of the  fights to be had: self, family and nation.

But sometimes the smallest of stories races through you and inspires a small flame of ideas to rage grander in your mind. A commission early in the career of the Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe  to photograph Yukio Mishima slammed me emotionally. It is a fabulous coming of age story. A budding photographer reaching greater heights in the moment of a shutter-speed. It is a great story that has fed my passion in photography for decades. The story is for another blog.

I met Kengo Kuma for the first time in my New York studio. I photographed him for my book Portraits of the New Architecture 2. We clearly didn’t know each other...but like so many architects who have sat for my camera, I got to listen, and talk a bit. As Kuma sat on my pink Florence Knoll bench with my cat MAX, I watched him unfold into our conversation. We addressed his work. Nothing is better for a photographer than hearing what might be an architect’s vision, before you set out to shoot. When I saw his building in Aix-en-Provence for my book, it was  riveting to hear his voice in my ear. To hear what needs to be heard from the architect? Photography becomes an assemblage of thoughts that levitates your visual game. There is an elixir that mixes an understanding of what might be, and what will be.



A year later we spoke about how we might work together. His Olympic stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics  became a focus of our conversation. Many months later, I received the invite: “Shall we begin?”.

You travel around the world for a thousand reasons but what is paramount, is that it is not a rudderless journey. Nothing should impede your desires. You are driven by desire but accomplishment reigns.


My assignment with Kengo Kuma began in Tokyo. It is such a thrilling city to shoot in. I wanted my camera to devour the Japanese urban life. You espy a color a light at every corner. It is a perfect mixture of Tokyo’s culture breathing life forces into my eyes. It is exactly what photography should be. The days afloat on the streets become a magnet for discovery.


After a few days of architecture hunting angles for Kuma’s architecture, and thrilling street shooting, Kengo Kuma called me to possibly add to the commission. He had designed a series of buildings in southern Japan, Yusuhara. He wanted me to photograph them not as his designs but as I saw them.

It turned out to be a journey I dreamed about as a kid: to enter a land of uncertainty. What a sensorial gift it turned out to be. To cool my jets and for a few days to see what nature allowed me to see. Anomalies rained on my known perspectives like a firefly flight. I was not yet prepared to enjoin urban and rural identities. But I did.

Familiarity raced away into the distance. I was in heaven. It became an amazing opportunity for my imagination to work in overtime. I realized I could explore boundaries beyond my photography’s known universe. Photography is at its best when you have to learn to speak a new language because your environment dictates so. Kuma’s assignments dared me to see beyond the Sagittarius A*. 

Yusuhara is one of those charming cities that time has forgotten. The encroaching natural surroundings are like an orchestral performance by the flora and fauna. There was a song with every vista.

Kuma’s works invite secret rites of passages. They are more like guidance systems. A photographer just needs to see the right sequence, as designed by the architect.

So with the accompaniment of a full orchestra of music, I began to choreograph the journey through this magnificent lost world. I was free to feel nature’s influence on my shooting decisions.


Five or six designs Kengo Kuma designed. Each one had a footprint that linked my eyes to the landscape. I felt a bit like a Tolkien creature rummaging through nature. The designs were treasures. I merely needed a way to make the material stand on its own and yet belong to Yusuhara.

I tried to think what Kuma would want. But I also tried to call on one of his heroes, Kenzo Tange. I tried to meld  their ideas utilizing my Rubik mentality. My goal was to capture  their visual dynamics. I tried to tether their works into a single thought. I found some hidden treasures. 


Photographing Tokyo and Yusuhara became some sort of my manic truth. When I arrived back in Tokyo via the “Bullet Train”, my eyes were softer and more alert. I was ready for more Kuma.