If you aren’t already familiar with photographer Frederic Aranda, you’ll at least recognize one of his portraits. His latest show presents a series of works documenting the Japanese art form, Kabuki.
Aranda has photographed all the big hitters in politics, popular culture and fashion (Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Yohji Yamamoto) – and even snapped members of the Royal Family. Over the years, he’s acquired a variety of awards, become a regular contributor to prestigious fashion publications and put together successful exhibitions, the most recent of which is due to take place this March in London entitled ‘Kabuki’.
The Swiss-born Oxford grad emigrated to the UK over a decade ago to study Japanese at University. During his course, he spent a year abroad in Tokyo working part-time at the Kabuki Theatre. Kabuki, a type of stylized Japanese dance-drama, dates back to the early 1600s. The exclusively all-male cast wear highly decorative costumes and apply elaborate makeup to tell their tales. Aranda was lucky enough to be granted unprecedented access to this fantastical backstage world during their visit to London, and the unique privilege of taking pictures of Kabuki’s biggest stars. Many years later he has decided to put this rare and captivating imagery to good use by auctioning them off, with all proceeds going to the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami Relief fund.
i-D online caught up with Aranda to find out a little more about the exhibition and what the future holds.
Can you tell us briefly how the Kabuki exhibition came about? What is it that originally fascinated you? While living in Tokyo I needed a part time job and my nerdy enthusiasm for the language paid off when I became an “English Earphone Guide” at Tokyo’s Kabuki theatre. I basically got to watch Kabuki for free for a year, having to translate the plays into English and record an earphone commentary for tourists to understand. I loved it because it’s so provocative, what with the costumes, the wigs, the all-male casts, but mostly the verbal and physical language of it all. The plays struck a chord with me as they’re very relevant to anyone, regardless of nationality. I also got to go to rehearsals. This is how I discovered Kabuki, and when they came to London in 2006 and 2009 to perform at Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican I asked if I could go backstage in my politest Japanese. I then put the pictures away for 5 years and forgot about them, until I saw what happened in Japan last March, with the earthquake and Tsunami. I thought these pictures could finally be put to good use and raise money for charity.
Were there any similarities between these Japanese actors and your usual fashion and celebrity subjects? Yes, I meet a lot of people who are passionate about what they do and do it well. The country, language, context might be different each time but it’s all for passion.
Was it hard to capture the atmosphere of the theatre space in a photograph? I love the theatre. The lighting is always good, the spaces have a story to tell, and everyone is there to fulfil a role… There’s also an extra veneer to it all, as the theatre is in many ways a sacred place, almost church-like in that you should largely remain silent unless you’re the centre of the action. I think the weight of that silence adds something extra to the way people move and interact with the space.
You travel a lot, especially in Asia. What is it about this part of the world that most appeals to you and keeps you going back? My friends. I have a lot of dear friends in Asia and that’s the main reason I go there so often. I also happen to love the energy and food there, but it always boils down to the people.
Do you still paint? Not since I started taking pictures. My paintings and drawings were always very photo-realistic anyway, so I think I was always looking through a lens, even when I was painting.
Do you have a hero? My friend Pelin who’s always been in a wheelchair but who still goes out on the town more than most, and has a very successful career as a singer. Basically, someone who doesn’t limit themself.
What are working on next? I’m working on a book over in the US about a couture collector whose collection spans 30 years and am pushing her to model all of it in the locations where the clothes mean something to her.
Kabuki: A Photographic Exhibition by Frederic Aranda runs 9th-16th March at The Hospital Club.
Text: Michael Stephens
Photography: Frederic Aranda