From Louis Vuitton‘s latest campaign with Rihanna, to controversial shoots for Comme des Garçons and Helmut Lang, Keizo Kitajima changed the perspective of photography in the fashion world.
Before Keizo Kitajima, fashion photography was intrinsically associated with the idea of perfection, represented by cover images. The fashion industry that these photos represented focused on exclusivity and luxury, creating a desirable image that reflected the status to which readers aspired. This ideal representation of fashion was characterised by gorgeous gowns, dazzling lights, Haute Couture shows and a social life of parties reserved for a select few, which had continued at least until the second half of the 1980s.
Breaking this repetitive and glossy pattern was Kitajima’s Comme des Garçons SS94 campaign. But let’s go step by step.
Keizo Kitajima was born in Japan in 1954 and studied photography under Daidō Moriyama, who encouraged him to photograph scenes and people, often considered squalid or somehow undesirable, on the fringes of society. Thanks to this approach, Kitajima caught the public’s attention by photographing the protests against a US Air Force base in Okinawa: rather than capturing the protests themselves, Kitajima chose to capture the effect the military base had on the nearby town of Koza and the illicit trafficking that took place in the red light district.
He became famous in the 1980s for his series of photographs entitled ‘Photo Express: Tokyo‘, a project documenting Tokyo’s nightlife and youth culture. His images are bold, provocative and capture the energy and vitality of the urban scene in the Japanese metropolis. The catalogue still represents an anthropological document of great importance for the Country.
In the late 1980s, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons proposed him to shoot the SS87 collection campaign. Often, when fashion brands collaborate with photographers who are not associated with fashion photography, their work exemplifies the identity of the brand. As it happened, Kitajima travelled to New York, yet to be redeveloped and rehabilitated from crime, in the late 1980s, capturing the filth, fury and grace of the city’s streets.
While Kawakubo created unstructured and asymmetrical clothing, Kitajima’s photography bared people and places in the extreme. Without frills, without the glittering patina that the fashion industry and magazines had accustomed readers to until then: Keizo Kitajima broke through the rose-tinted glass behind which the fashion world had hitherto hidden.
The campaign conveyed a sense of rebellion and challenge to fashion itself, Kitajima played with lighting, contrasts and unusual angles to create an extraordinary visual impact. He captured Kawakubo’s creations in unexpected ways, emphasising the structured shapes, asymmetries and innovative lines of the garments. A new world opened up for Keizo Kitajima, the world of fashion photography: an unconventional, realistic and authentic approach to which no one was yet accustomed.
Even Helmut Lang gave him carte blanche for his ‘Artist Series‘ project; the campaign featured three portraits of Kitajima depicting New York City in 1986.
In 2020, he shot Prada’s Resort Campaign: the models were immortalised in distracted poses, walking at a run, their faces turned as if pushed by the wind. Natural poses, scenes that could be witnessed in any large city, all carrying flowers wrapped in newspaper showing another photo from the campaign. In 2023, the new artistic director of Louis Vuitton Men’s, Pharrell Williams, asked him to create the first campaign of his direction: the choice of testimonial for the men’s line was perfect: Rihanna.
Kitajima shot a nocturnal campaign, where the only elements of light were the colour of Vuitton’s Speedy bag and the Pop Star’s face, luminous and looking away, distant but present to herself, to the function of the campaign.
Kitajima’s photographic style, unlike many fashion photographers who preferred a more controlled and regulated approach, was documentary. He captured authentic and spontaneous moments, avoiding overly constructed and artificial poses. His images were able to convey a feeling of reality and everyday life, creating a more immediate connection with the audience.
His quest for authenticity led him to capture the reality and authenticity of people and situations. He often used non-professional models or chose to photograph ordinary people for his fashion campaigns, bringing a remarkable freshness and diversity, unlike many fashion photographers of his time, who aimed to create ideal and perfect fashion images with luxurious subjects and settings.
Kitajima helped push the boundaries of representation in fashion, embracing the diversity of bodies, identities and lifestyles, with an almost scientific exploration of diversity. He gave voice to subjects often overlooked or marginalised by the fashion industry, seeking to break conventional stereotypes and promoting a more inclusive and representative image.
Rejecting clichés, avoiding pre-packaged styles and models, and instead seeking to create striking and original images, has made Keizo Kitajima‘s fashion campaigns unique and memorable. He has helped redefine the standards of contemporary fashion photography, opening up new perspectives and inspiring generations of subsequent photographers.