For decades, the legendary photographer Hiro has become highly regarded for his fashion, beauty, still life and portrait photography for Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, Rolling Stone and many other publications. In the 1980s, as a purely personal project, Hiro photographed dazzling fighting Betta Splendens fish and powerful male game fowl. These photographs, charged with brilliant colour, violent movement, and high emotion, reveal Hiros genius in discovering beauty in the unexpected. In places where one could not imagine finding it. His work is characterised by surprises, abnormalities, unusual lighting, surrealism, and an astounding vision. To look at a photograph of Hiros is to come face to face with a picture rife with unusual lighting effects, surprising angles, juxtaposing elements and bold colours.
The Fighting Fowl series comprises 26 black and white images photographed in either 1981 or 1988. The photographs make an astonishing visual statement of the ferocity of animals. In these bodies of work, taken over ten years, Hiro marvels at the survival instincts of these creatures. As noted by Susanna Moore in her essay for Fighting Fish/Fighting Birds, the images are reminiscent of early Chinese literati paintings and eighteenth-century Japanese paintings known as the Kano school. And especially those paintings of ink on paper by the Buddhist, Jakuchu, who was famous for his love of chickens.
The animals react as nature tells them and thus are unreceptive to the photographers arrangement. The speed at which the birds engage in their fighting causes them to become indistinguishable from one another in some images. In others, anatomical details like the eyes and feathers become more visible. Before a fight, the animals are particularly magnificent and warrior-like. In their aggression, the birds also demonstrate agility and grace. These cockfights are reminiscent of contact sports, such as boxing, in which human athletes display strength, skill, courage and instinct.
The photographs are provocative. The emotionless, monochromatic cocks and the sensual fish are emblematic and even illuminating. Nature, in the end, whether it manifests itself in the seductive display of beauty that in the fish is both solemn and gaudy, or in the cold workaday belligerence of the rooster, will always have its way. Nature is unsentimental
so too are these photographs
One does not feel pity or revulsion looking at them, but a kind of humble recognition
We are not the fish. But we are, as are the fighting fish
governed by our own dance of survival. (Susanna Moore)
Known for the originality of his photographs, Hiros photographic career began at Harpers Bazaar in New York as a fashion, still-life and portrait photographer. Shortly after arriving in America from Japan in 1954 with his memories of China, where he spent most of his childhood, and Japan, both of which have a place in the genesis of his work, Hiro landed an apprenticeship in Richard Avedons studio. Avedon soon sent Hiro to legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch after he proved too talented not to work independently, and within a few years Hiro had risen to extraordinary fashion photography heights. Hiro began working under Brodovitchs direction in 1956 and in 1963 he became the only photographer under contract at Harpers Bazaar, a position he kept for the next ten years. Now in his 80s, Hiro continues to take assignments with the magazine. Richard Avedon described Hiro as a visitor all his life, enabling Hiro, neither completely Eastern or Western, to document both cultures in his work with a perception that only comes from a certain detachment.
Hiros work is published in three monographs and is held in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, George Eastman House, New York, the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Tate Modern, London, Musee Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, The J. Paul Getty Museum, LA, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Kobe Fashion Museum, Japan, amongst others.