Born in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1933, Kikuji Kawada rose to prominence on the strength of his poetic, symbolically charged photography. This diverse and prolific body of work may be seen as articulating Kawada’s evolving appraisal of Japanese national identity, and its historical trajectory in the turbulent post-war period.
As a co-founder of the VIVO collective in 1959, Kawada shared a creative vision of photography’s expressive, individualistic potential with other members including Eikoh Hosoe, Ikko Narahara, Shōmei Tōmatsu and Akira Satō. Kawada held his first solo exhibition in the year of VIVO’s formation, before exhibiting The Map (Chizu) in 1961 at Fuji Photo Salon in Tokyo. Today, The Map is recognised as one of the most important examples of Japan’s unique post-war photobook culture, incorporating text, abstracted surfaces, and fragmentary images to compose a complex and meditative elegy to pre-war Japan. It was recently cited by Martin Parr as 'the ultimate photobook-as-object.'
His most famous series, The Last Cosmology, was conceived during the last days of the Shōwa imperial reign in 1989. Kawada drew upon traditional divination practises, observing the skies for astrological insight into the future, and using recently developed photographic technology to record his results in these dramatic, unexpected images of the moon. He was particularly interested in engaging with abnormal and calamitous weather conditions which occurred during this period of heightened historical suspense, recording the impact of gales, cloud-patterns, electrical storms, and violent downpours on the night sky. Kawada's use of multiple exposures to document the passage of time through the changing faces of the moon illustrates both his technical acumen and his ongoing fascination with photography's capacity to capture traces of history.
Kawada has taught photography at Tama Art University in Tokyo since 1967. He was one of the fifteen artists selected by John Szarkowski and Yamagishi Shōji for the seminal exhibition New Japanese Photography (1974) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2011, Kawada received a lifetime achievement award from the Photographic Society of Japan, underscoring his international and domestic acclaim, and he was honoured with a solo display at the Tate’s exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography (2014).
In 2022, the Museum of Fine Art Boston announced the acquisition of Kawada's original Chizu/The Map eighty-seven prints used in the book, including their negatives, Kawada's binders and a rare first-edition of the photobook. His work is also held in the permanent collections of institutions including the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Japan, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California, Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, and the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.