Rummaging through stacks of old photographs at flea markets, photographer Kensuke Koike is endlessly inspired by neglected objects from the past. Finding novel ways to bring new life to discarded relics, he affectionately alters vintage photographs, injecting them with new meaning. After he finds a photo he likes, Koike carefully cuts into the image, rearranging the pieces and turning the photograph into an abstracted, interactive optical illusion that invites his viewers to do a double-take. These reformulated objects make up his series Single Image Processing, a project Koike describes in simple terms: “Vintage prints, nothing added, nothing removed.”
While the alterations at first seem simple, the steadiness and meticulous accuracy involved in Koike’s work cannot be glossed over. Using a blade to carry out precision cutting, it’s easy to imagine the photographer bending over a table in his studio, splicing his one-of-a-kind market finds with mathematical accuracy into a number of perfectly-puzzled final products. After he collects the original objects, Koike sits with them until his desired outcome becomes clear. He then has one shot to carry out his vision for the piece.
Drawn to this novel and material approach to reviving historical photographs, editor Cat Lachowskyj spoke to the artist about how his ongoing project first began, the ethics surrounding the alteration of archival photographs, and his collaboration with seasoned vernacular archivist Thomas Sauvin.
LensCulture: How did you begin working with archival photographs in particular?
Kensuke Koike: Before I used archival images, I was shooting photographs on my own and altering them. But because I had the negatives and originals, I could make mistakes in the cutting and altering of them—I could just print another copy of an image and start all over again.
All my materials come from flea markets. I don’t necessarily look for a specific scenario in the photos because I make them special by transforming them myself. Normally, people who come to flea markets don’t buy portraits because they are not attracted to posed images of strangers. I often find the photos in very bad condition, having been neglected and ready to throw away.
I began to use archival images because I wanted to try something more challenging and delve deeper into the meaning of an image. More risk means that I have to think twice before cutting the originals, and that is important.
LC: Your work involves a fair amount of planning to create your patterns and reconstructions. How did you first become interested in these alterations, and how do you develop new methods for modifying your pieces?
KK: Altering a unique image requires more preparation, and the images I work with are chosen randomly from my mixed archive box. It’s always a challenge and surprise for me to discover the potential hidden in each image.
When I first started this project, I would put different images together to create a new one, which led to some interesting effects. But then I started thinking: what would happen if the alterations were all re-composed without increasing the contents of the original photograph? The result is a totally new image, composed completely from the original piece.
LC: A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to the thought of cutting up what are now considered to be historical photographic materials. What are your thoughts on the ethics of altering the state of unique objects? Why do you think it’s an important way of working with photographs?
KK: I began this work by using neglected images. It’s easy to think about how the people in the photos aren’t alive anymore, and how the photograph I have in my hand might be the last existing portrait of that person. But altering images and redefining them causes the viewer to be more curious about the person in the photo; I believe my alterations give the subject a new life. Also, most of my works can be returned to their original state because I don’t actually eliminate or discard any pieces. However, I also use non-vintage photographs, such as postcards, which can eliminate the pressure of irreparably damaging a photo with a new experiment.
LC: Thomas Sauvin is another artist working with found photography, most famous for his expansive collection of negatives, prints and projects that make up his archive called Beijing Silvermine. You recently collaborated with Sauvin on the project No More, No Less, and I was wondering what you learned from each other’s practice, and how this has helped inform your approaches to your respective future projects.
KK: This project with Thomas was my first collaboration ever. He’s an excellent explorer and found and approached me. I usually love to work alone, closed up in my studio, meditating on the photographs for a long time. But it’s not always good to work alone—you often lose control of your sense of time.
Thomas’s approach is really about rescuing large amounts of images and putting a selection together to create a new narrative, without physically altering them. I tend to create a new narrative, through physical intervention on a single image. So, we combined our approaches in order to create our No More, No Less series. From original negatives in Thomas’s archive, we made new gelatin silver prints. Then, with a simple blade and adhesive tape, I deconstructed and reinvented the images, respecting one single formal rule: nothing is removed, and nothing is added—“no more, no less.” Within this context, we were able to blend our freedom and constraint, meticulously exploring the possibilities of an image made up entirely of itself.
LC: Finally, why are you drawn to the photographic medium as a creative outlet?
KK: Photographs are a reflection of the real world, and by altering them we can create other images, but they will always be based in realism. I like when the normal becomes abnormal; when it transforms into something special.
—Kensuke Koike, interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj
Editor’s Note: If you want to find out more about Koike’s wonderful projects, check out his personal website. See also the story of a brilliant photobook experiment that allowed 3 different creative publishers to design and produce 3 very different books that all present the same stunning material in new ways.