Whatever her mood, Rinko Kawauchi says that taking pictures is as natural to her as drinking tea. A statement inferring her photography gives her comfort and sustenance and is, in some sense, ritualistic, the Japanese photographer’s choice of metaphor cleverly echoes key themes permeating her life’s work.
Often using quotidian subjects as her focus – a burning candle, the sun streaming through a woodland, a close-up view of netting so frayed it’s just about to break – Kawauchi invites us to recognise the poetry found within those everyday scenes. Finding the extraordinary within the ordinary is nothing new in photography and a trope we’ve seen more and more of in major exhibitions of late – perhaps to reflect the zeitgeist of our time: our constant connection to the world and the hectic interference that comes with it. What sets Kawauchi apart from the majority however is her distinct style.
Full of wonder and purity, and often lushly coloured, while Kawauchi’s subjects might appear on cursory look banal, her imagery is by no means passive. They stay with you. The photographs' continuation in your mind is unobtrusive and, if open to their quietness, possesses a healing quality. Often praised as beguiling, dreamlike and meditative, Kawauchi’s images go deeper than just aesthetics. The weight of her work is seen through her interest in Shinto, Buddhism, ancient literature, cultural traditions, and the profound cycle of life.
Bringing discretion to each frame she captures, her unique sensibility has led to great acclaim, including the 27th Kimura Ihei Award in 2022 and the International Center of Photography’s eminent Infinity Award in 2009. In 2012 she received the 63rd Ministry of Cultural Affairs Newcomer of the Year Award as well as the 29th Shashin no Machi Higashigawa Native Japanese Artist Award. Her work has been shown internationally, including exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and Rencontres d'Arles, as well as Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery.
Adding to her successes is her most recent recognition as the Sony World Photography Awards 2023 Outstanding Contribution to Photography recipient. To mark the accolade, Kawauchi will present around 20 images in Somerset House’s East Wing. The display will be a substantial mix from her career, including highlight works from her series Utatane (2001), AILA (2004) and Illuminance (2009) – which all exemplify her idiosyncratic style.
The exhibition also features work from Ametsuchi (2013), a series originating from a dream Kawauchi became fascinated by ‘noyaki (burning field)’, a 1000-year old traditional where farmland is burned before replanting. She has made numerous trips to southern Japan, where, using a large format camera mounted on a tripod she has captured these fires, contemplating the idea of the ritual cleansing of the earth, and her own rebirth.
Commenting on her acceptance of the award, Kawauchi says: ‘This award is recognition of my work, and will encourage me in my future activities. The exhibition brings a body of work that not only characterises my practice, but also presents an ambitious series created with a different method and approach. Through my photography, I seek to create works of art that act as a signpost for me to examine more closely the experiences I am living and what I am looking at.’
Kawauchi is the 16th Outstanding Contribution to Photography recipient, an award that’s given to a person or group of people that have made a significant impact on the photographic medium. Previous awardees include Eve Arnold, Edward Burtynsky and Gerhard Steidl.