The Young Portfolio Acquisition Program at the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts

Yuko Yamaji, Curator, Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts

These works by five photographers—Tokuhiro Ishikura, Issui Enomoto, Yohei Kobayashi, Naoko Takahashi, and Isao Hishinuma—are among the recent acquisitions made by the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts through the annual Young Portfolio program. This initiative, one of the most central of our museum’s defining principles, supports young photographers worldwide by inviting submissions that are then juried for induction in our permanent collection. Applicants must be thirty-five or younger; works must measure no more than one meter on the longer side and, since they will be housed in the museum’s permanent collection, be in a print format suited to long-term conservation. Otherwise there are no restrictions placed on either subject or previous history of publication. The major feature distinguishing this program from competitions is that photographers may apply as many times as they wish up to their thirty-fifth year. If, for example, someone enters every year between ages twenty-five and thirty-five and ten prints are purchased each time, then over ten years the museum will have amassed one hundred works by that individual, enough for a future solo exhibition. For the museum, too, the system provides a valuable means of building its collection.
The Japanese photographer with the most works as of now in the Young Portfolio is Ryo Kameyama (1976–), winner of this year’s Domon Ken Prize. The program first accepted his work when he was twenty-three, and a total of 133 acquisitions were made from then until he reached thirty-five. In between those years Kameyama traveled with his camera to Mexico and Israel; afterward he would venture to the Congo and elsewhere in Africa to portray the victims of civil strife, giving shape to a body of grippingly intense photographs. The Young Portfolio offers a clear view of this artist’s development, from a single modest root to the first outward branches to the formation of a robust trunk—and that is its core appeal. Participants have noted that having their works bought every year let them pay for photographing trips or that the program deadline encouraged them to complete works on that schedule. Every time I hear such comments, I cannot help but wish that even more young artists will come to know and take advantage of the Young Portfolio program.

Photographer Issei Suda served on the Young Portfolio selection panel in 2009. His Fragments of Calm exhibition, which just closed at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, offered the opportunity to view Scarlet Bloom, an early series never before shown to the public. In the exhibition catalogue Suda had this to say about the series, which he himself had reencountered for the first time in three decades: “[These were works] I had kept on taking as the impulse drove me, with no prospects for their presentation . . . It sounds silly when I say it myself, but [looking at them] I was pretty moved. It wasn’t a question of them being good or bad, it was because they let me see myself again as I had been at the starting line. ‘Never forget the spirit with which you began,’ the saying goes. Simple words are sometimes the most stirring.”
Suda seems to speak on behalf of all those we wish to support through the Young Portfolio. The program was begun by our museum director, photographer Eikoh Hosoe, who through working overseas in the 1970s was awakened to the significance of original prints. Early works are extremely important, yet are all too easily lost; and this, together with his firsthand knowledge that the greatest support artists can receive is to have their works be bought, inspired him to create the Young Portfolio. Ordinarily, photographers must hold exhibitions, be published numerous times, win a prestigious prize, and so on before museums begin to consider their works for acquisition. Public institutions are laying down taxpayer money, and so it is only natural that candidates for collection would need to accumulate certain credentials. The Young Portfolio, by contrast, places no such prerequisites. Approval by the selection panel—three active photographers including Director Hosoe—is the only condition that need be satisfied for a submission to be purchased. Galleries are not involved, and neither are agents. Everything about the program is remarkably radical in the sense that it runs exactly counter to the conventional process.

From the opening of the museum in 1995 to last year in 2012 the Young Portfolio has accepted over 100,000 submissions from 73 countries, out of which it has acquired roughly 5,300 works by 700 artists from 43 countries. A complete online database of Young Portfolio works is set to be unveiled in spring 2014, but we at the museum meanwhile also believe that in this digital age, the concurrent preservation of vintage prints will come to possess ever more meaning.
The pleasure of the Young Portfolio lies in going around the gallery and feeling the air hum with the energy given off by the struggles of young artists everywhere around thirty to formulate their take on the world into works of photographic expression—truly, you have the sense it’s all coming at you live. Because the majority of participants are collected not only once but over multiple years, viewing their works over a certain span makes it possible to trace their perspectives as photographers gain focus and deepen. Jurors cast their votes in favor of a submission if they recognize in it the artist’s potential to blossom. Is that power really there, deep down at the root? Trying to see through to the answer is incredibly challenging, and past jurors have agreed one and all that the selection process made them feel as though they were the ones being tested. Now about to enter its twentieth year, the Young Portfolio has grown into a truly special collection unlike any other in the world. We invite everyone to visit our exhibition of 500 selected works to be held in August 2014 in the B1 gallery of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
In the nearly two decades since 1995, the technology of photography has undergone a revolution, and so too have its works. Long gone is the stereotype of the poor but aspiring artist, who might not be able to feed himself but still keeps on wielding his camera; nowadays even younger people seem quite savvy about balancing art and livelihood or being reviewed. At the same time that it has become commonplace to appreciate photographs in museums as art, the Internet has made it possible for anyone and everyone to publish their works online. These days, when one need only plug data into a printer instead of standing for hours in a darkroom, it is perhaps more difficult to put as much heart into that single material object called a print. What does it mean for a photograph to be good, to possess a high degree of perfection, to be able to speak to its viewers? What does it take for an artist to keep on going with his career over the long term? While all must struggle to find their own way, it might do to bear in mind juror Hiroh Kikai’s advice at one review session that “the important thing is to walk with your sights set far into the distance, instead of just right ahead.” Here at the Young Portfolio program we seek to continue supporting precisely those artists who may seem at the moment to be walking along at a relatively lagging pace. To keep on extending this support over the long term is, we moreover believe, what counts above all.

( Translated by Chikako Imoto )

Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts website