Kiyoji Otsuji
Photography Archive



Introductory Notes on Kiyoji Otsuji and the “Seeing Beyond Things” Exhibition

Daniel Abbe


The field of photography in Japan is full of photographers with instantly recognizable styles and brilliant international careers. Kiyoji Otsuji (1923–2001) is not one of these photographers. He has no signature photograph, and his name is not widely known. But the closer that you look at Otsuji’s career, the more you discover a photographer whose work, writing and teaching connect him to an extremely wide range of artists and ideas. This is the first text to be published in English on the website of the Kiyoji Otsuji Photography Archive, so I feel obligated to offer an overall introduction of Otsuji’s work. But there is no way to write a comprehensive text about Otsuji, because he has showed photographs in so many different places, made in so many different styles, and produced with so many different collaborators.

In a 1952 letter, Otsuji wrote: “I want to take photographs, but their shadows are weak, they are powerless.”1 Otsuji himself has cast something of a “weak shadow” across the history of photography in Japan. This is due in part to the diverse contexts in which he worked, often on commission from magazines, or in collaboration with other artists. Throughout the 1950s, he worked as a photographer for various art magazines, and his later installation photographs of exhibitions blur the line between paid and personal work. Otsuji did not hold a solo exhibition until the age of 54, and quite unlike many photographers in Japan, he did not publish a single photobook during his career. Some recent publications, like Musashino Arts University Museum & Library’s own catalog series, have collected his work for contemporary audiences. But until not long ago his work was largely scattered across art and photography magazines, illustrated books of calligraphy materials, scientific textbooks, exhibition catalogs and mass media magazines.

This quality is what makes him fascinating—and also, at times, frustrating. Put simply, there are many different Otsujis, and they don’t necessarily correspond to each other. Once you think you have him pinned down, he wriggles away, off into some other corner of his practice that you had completely forgotten to take account of, and which breaks the stable image of him that you wanted to hold in your head. In any case, that has always been my experience trying to write about him. At the very least, there is Otsuji the Surrealist, Otsuji the teacher, Otsuji the magazine photographer, Otsuji the essayist, Otsuji the conceptualist, and Otsuji the performance documenter. How to begin making an argument for paying attention to someone who is so difficult to grasp?

I’ve been asked by Musashino Arts University Museum & Library to offer a reflection on its recent exhibition, “Seeing Beyond Things: Towards a New Perspective on Photography Archives.” I saw this exhibition during its run, and I have also worked as a Japanese-to-English translator for various texts and publications related to Otsuji that MAU M&L has produced over the years. I’ve also published a longer essay on Otsuji, so I can only write from my particular sense of what matters in his work. Rather than try to account for everything that Otsuji ever made, or even for everything that appeared in “Seeing Beyond Things,” I hope to offer a few reflections on Otsuji to bring him in view.



Kiyoji Otsuji, The Time the Sun Did Not Know (1952)
Copyright: Tetsuo Otsuji. Courtesy of Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo

Otsuji first took up photography as a teenager in Tokyo during the 1930s. He was initially interested in photography as a kind of mechanical hobby, but one day he came across a series of essays on Surrealist photography published in a Japanese camera magazine. Under the wartime conditions of censorship imposed by Japan’s government, it became more and more difficult for Surrealist artists in Japan to practice. Still, these essays by the Surrealist poet and critic Shuzo Takiguchi introduced a wide range of experimental photographs, many from Europe. Although it was not until much later that Otsuji would befriend Takiguchi, this early encounter with Surrealism was extremely formative. Takiguchi’s essays showed Otsuji that there was more to photography than technique; it pushed him to understand photography in terms of artistic expression. Otsuji’s relationship to Surrealism set the tone for the rest of his career.

This image of a lightbulb shows a trace of Surrealism in his work. Lightbulbs were a common motif of Surrealist artists, and the odd location of this switched-on, bare bulb moves it beyond everyday uses. The lightbulb appears to sit recessed within a rough wall. This surface is covered with all sorts of marks—intense weathering, scratched-out characters, cracks of various lengths. The photograph is taken head-on, so it almost takes on the qualities of a painted canvas. Look a bit closer, and you will see that the lightbulb is actually sitting on a small stand that juts out from the wall. What is this building? Why is there a bulb sitting outside of it, and why is it switched on? The photograph will not answer such questions, but Otsuji’s simple discovery and presentation of this illuminated bulb recalls the idea of the “found object,” one important concept of Surrealist aesthetics.

In 1952, Otsuji showed the photograph of the bulb in a two-person exhibition, as part of a series of 10 photographs that he called The Time the Sun Did Not Know. This series offers a wry investigation of the conditions of Tokyo in the early 1950s, when Japan was still under the political control of the United States. Many of Otsuji’s other photographs from the early 1950s explore the strangeness of real life, and he addressed the conditions of occupation alongside his exploration of Surrealism.

Here, it is worth noting that although the photograph of the lightbulb was originally displayed in Otsuji’s 1952 exhibition, there is no surviving print from that time. Otsuji did not make prints from all of the film that he shot, but all of his negatives are held in the collection of the Kiyoji Otsuji Photography Archive. The image that appears in the “Seeing Beyond Things” exhibition (and here on your screen, too) was produced from one of these negatives. This process involves making a digital scan of the negative, converting that data into a metallic plate, and then making an offset print from that plate. A number of prints made from digital scans of Otsuji’s negatives appear throughout the exhibition, so the organizers were quite clear that “Seeing Beyond Things” is less a show of Otsuji’s “work,” and more a display of materials in the archive. In truth, many of these prints could barely be distinguished from darkroom prints that Otsuji had made himself, so the 2023 photographs were shown without frames, to clearly mark them off.



Asahi Graph, Vol. 57 No. 11, March 18, 1953, p. 22

From January 1953, some very unrealistic photographs appeared each week in Japan’s most widely read news magazine, Asahi Graph, as the header of a section called “APN.” Practically all of the photographs were made in a studio, with Otsuji photographing objects made by various avant-garde artists of the time. A number of these artists were involved with Experimental Workshop, a group organized by Takiguchi that Otsuji joined in the early 1950s. In that sense, these collaborations show Otsuji’s continued engagement with Surrealism. The artists were free to create whatever they wanted, as long as the photograph spelled out the letters A, P and N. In the exhibition, the original pages of Asahi Graph were put on display, an important touch to show how these photographs appeared at the time of their publication.

This work is one of Otsuji’s better-known series, and it is not a coincidence that the APN photographs have been re-issued as a set of modern prints that now sit in the collections of museums like the Museum of Modern Art and Tate Modern. But the irony, of course, is that Otsuji produced them in deep collaboration with other artists. As a result, they prompt the question: whose work is it? Each photograph shows a sculptural construction created by one artist or another, working across a range of media. Is Otsuji just documenting these artworks, or is his own artistic “hand” present? Given the diverse group of actors involved in their production—Otsuji worked with seven different artists over the course of about a year—the APN photographs are a difficult body of work to pin down. Of course, this is part of their appeal.



From 1956, Otsuji worked as a photographer contracted to the art magazine Geijutsu Shincho, a publication that still exists today. As a result, he took many photographs of performances around Tokyo. These photographs make up quite a large part of his overall work, given that he was working as a professional. It’s hard to say what makes a photograph of a performance special. In the end, doesn’t it come down to the performers themselves? The photographer can do some technical preparation, but shouldn’t they give themselves over to the people on stage—and, basically, get out of the way? Otsuji’s APN photographs are more obviously artistic collaborations, but I am less sure in the case of this performance documentation. In what I think is Otsuji’s most striking performance photograph (which I am unfortunately not able to reproduce here because of copyright concerns) the dancers Tatsumi Hijikata and Yoshito Ohno perform with a somewhat terrified-looking chicken. Ohno grasps the chicken, while Hijikata stares wildly off into the audience—an audience of one, really, consisting of the novelist Yukio Mishima, who had come to watch the dancers perform and write a 1959 article which Otsuji would illustrate with his photographs. Looking at the photograph, especially in the larger-than-life size with which it was printed for “Seeing Beyond Things,” it feels like you are present in the studio. The photographs that Otsuji took that day document the birth of the dance form known today as ankoku butoh.



“Seeing Beyond Things” exhibition view (“Between Man and Matter” section)
Photo: Yasuo Saji

The 1970 exhibition “Between Man and Matter,” held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Gallery, is recognized today as an important moment for the development of contemporary art in Japan. This exhibition displayed the works of conceptual artists working in Europe and the United States, particularly artists connected to the Arte Povera movement in Italy. At the same time, it also brought together many Japanese artists working in a similar vein, including a number of artists associated with the loose group known as Mono-ha. Many participating artists visited Tokyo to install their work, and so the exhibition became an exciting site of discussion and exchange. Otsuji visited the exhibition a few times, and took a number of photographs on the installation day, and during the exhibit’s run.

Who can say what is important in a photograph at the moment it is taken? As time goes on, certain details or information that we take for granted today might become very important later. Almost all the photographs of this exhibition that circulate in publications are in monochrome. The few color photographs that Otsuji took of “Between Man and Matter” are the only ones to show what color the floors and walls of this museum looked like. This is of course a minor detail, but it brings the exhibit to life.


Kiyoji Otsuji, The 10th International Art Exhibition of Japan (Tokyo Biennale ’70): Between Man and Matter, 1970
Copyright: Tetsuo Otsuji. Courtesy of Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo

Some of Otsuji’s other photographs of the exhibit don’t even bother showing the work that was displayed, but focus instead on the reactions of spectators in the rooms with the art, or the rather chaotic scenes of artists trying (sometimes in vain) to install their work. They go against the clean, almost sterile installation photographs that we see so much today, where nothing is out of place. Otsuji’s installation photographs bring a playful sensibility to the space of contemporary art.



Kiyoji Otsuji, A Crumpled Ball of Memo Paper, 1974
Copyright: Tetsuo Otsuji. Courtesy of Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo

But Otsuji was not simply a man with a camera who happened to attend a lot of really great performances and exhibitions. He has his own, extremely distinctive sense of photography which I think came out most strongly in the mid-1970s. Take this piece of paper, a series of scribbled and crossed-out notes that shows Otsuji working out the title to a photograph, which would eventually be called Meaning That Cannot Be Seen with Meaning That Is Not Seen. In this document from the archive, Otsuji’s notes show him experimenting with different options: should it be “Meaning That is Seen with Seen Meaning”? This is one of the most enigmatic titles that he gave to a photograph in his entire career. The finished title plays with a double meaning of the preposition “with,” to suggest that the “Meaning That Cannot Be Seen” sits alongside the “Meaning That Is Not Seen,” while also suggesting that the second term cannot be used to see the first. The photograph shows a photograph (on a table) of a photograph (on the same table).

Kiyoji Otsuji, Meaning That Cannot Be Seen with Meaning That Is Not Seen, 1977
Copyright: Tetsuo Otsuji. Courtesy of Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo

Many of Otsuji’s titles from this period, around 1975, take on almost comical lengths. For example, some of his photographs have the following titles:

A Set Including Mexican and Italian Souvenirs I Received from Friends, Clock Innards That for Some Reason I Can’t Throw Away, A Molar That Fell Out Last Fall, and Some Other Things
Photograph of a Plastic Model That I Have Not Touched for Eight Years Because I Would Like to Make It Well.
A Barometer and a Jet-Propelled Boat That a Friend Gave To Me (The Boat Is Valuable, So the Seal Is Unbroken).
Envelope with Important Data That Was Torn, Thrown Out, Then Recovered

And my personal favorite:

Although Only Casually Pinned Up, When Bounded by a Photograph It Results in a Surprisingly Good Photograph.

Most of these photographs simply show objects that were sitting on Otsuji’s desk, or photographs tacked up on a wall of his working space. But in giving them such elaborate, over-the-top titles, Otsuji makes light of the relationship between words and images. Actually, this kind of effort aligns him with the kind of conceptual art that he would have seen at “Between Man and Matter.” In Japan around this time, artists like Jiro Takamatsu were exploring the possibility of making art out of language alone. Some of Takamatsu’s work took the form of somewhat austere conceptual art, but the one time that Takamatsu made photographs, it resembled Meaning That Cannot Be Seen with Meaning That Is Not Seen, down to the placement of a photograph on a table with the wood grain quite visible.



Kiyoji Otsuji, Neighborhood, 1974
Copyright: Tetsuo Otsuji. Courtesy of Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo

The openness of this 1970s work sets Otsuji apart from many of his contemporaries in the world of photography. In the 1970s, he stopped trying to control what appeared in the frame of his photographs. Instead, he threw himself open to chance encounters in the outside world. Take the series Neighborhood, a number of color photographs that Otsuji took wandering around his corner of Tokyo. He clicked the shutter at almost random times, and seemed content to live with whatever ended up there. Of course, in a certain sense this is still an operation close to Surrealism, in that he left himself open to chance, or unpredictable elements that might enter the image. Displayed all in a row in the space of the exhibition, these photographic sequences show a certain daring quality on Otsuji’s part.


Kiyoji Otsuji, Uehara 2 chome, 1973
Copyright: Tetsuo Otsuji. Courtesy of Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo

Otsuji also took an interest in experimenting with media beyond photography. In 1973, he used a movie camera to make a work called Uehara 2 chome. He simply set a camera up on a tripod outside his house, and let it record video and audio for a set amount of time. People come and go, children shout and scream, a few cars pass by in the distance. To me, it seems like an inverse of the photographic sequences he was making as he walked around. Instead of moving through space and taking still photographs at regular intervals, Otsuji let the flow of time imprint thousands of images onto the film.



In 1954, Otsuji wrote an essay in which he offered up a very capacious definition of “avant-garde photography.” Put simply, he called for the open-ended pursuit of experimentation, without any specific goal. “Mt. Everest had to be climbed because it was there,” he wrote. “But avant-garde photography does not have any mountains that need climbing.”2 The history of photography is full of photographers who operate as mountain climbers—or explorers, or hunters. Otsuji is much less heroic.

Seen in the broadest way possible, Otsuji changes the criteria of how to evaluate a photographer. I don’t doubt his technical skill, because studio works like the APN series show that he was able to pull off quite intricate experiments. Still, most of his work will not wow an audience with overpowering photographic technique. Much of his later photographs are snapshots, where he takes a more or less irreverent approach to the thing that he’s there to shoot. This comes across strongly with the photographs of “Between Man and Matter” — you would think that he went there with a brief to photograph the works on display in their finished state, and he did take some photographs like that. But there are so many photographs where the exhibited work doesn’t even appear, and Otsuji instead looks at the spectators who fill the gallery, as they observe one of the works there. What sort of photographer does this?

Today, we can see that Otsuji was quite purposefully turning towards the people in the space. How the photograph looks, its particular composition, is secondary, or maybe even irrelevant. In fact, some of his later snapshot photographs are called Resultant Composition, as if to show that the composition of the photograph was really just left to chance. Of course, someone else could argue that Otsuji was an aesthetic genius. Go right ahead! But I am drawn to him because he piles up these playful gestures, one after another. Take the extended titles of his photographs of things, showing you how much of a gap exists between language and image. Or the repeated clicking of the shutter as he walks down a street. Or the long take of the film in his neighborhood. These all point towards possibilities for photography. See, you can give your photograph a 32-word long title. See, you can look elsewhere. See, you can stay put in one place and let the world come to you. See, you can play with the ideas of seeing and being seen. They are only gestures, with no strained effort, no goal in mind. Otsuji really was a photographer without a mountain to climb.
  1. Kiyoji Otsuji. “Takiguchi Shuzo ate shishin shitagaki (Draft of a Letter to Shuzo Takiguchi).” In Otsuji Kiyoji no Shashin: Deai to korabureshon [Otsuji Kiyoji: Photographs as Collaborations], edited by Kinichi Obinata and Yuri Mitsuda, 34. Tokyo: Film Art, 2007.
  2. Kiyoji Otsuji. “Zen’ei shashin ni tsuite (On Avant-Garde Photography).” Tsukue, July 1954, 9.
Daniel Abbe
Daniel Abbe is a photography historian living in Kyoto. In 2023, he received a Ph.D. from the Art History department at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2021, he published the article “Re-Staging Postwar Japanese Photography: Otsuji Kiyoji, APN and Straight Photography” in the British journal Japan Forum. He has worked as a Japanese-to-English translator for the Kiyoji Otsuji Photography Archive since 2016.

ダニエル・アビー氏は、2016年より武蔵野美術大学 美術館・図書館の「大辻清司フォトアーカイブ」プロジェクトにて日本語テキストの英語翻訳を担当されています。同時に、写真研究者として大辻清司に関する論考を執筆されています(“Re-staging postwar Japanese photography: Otsuji Kiyoji, APN and straight photography,” Japan Forum, Vol. 34, Issue 3, 2022)。

武蔵野美術大学 美術館・図書館「大辻清司フォトアーカイブ」担当