Photo by Sam Hellmann.

the unlikely creative partnership of a 74-year-old artist and a 25-year-old photographer

Artist Aki Kuroda and photographer Sam Hellmann discuss the beautiful illustrated portrait series they created together after a chance encounter in a café one morning.

by Ryan White
30 April 2019, 7:00am

Photo by Sam Hellmann.

When 74-year-old Japanese artist Aki Kuroda and 25-year-old French photographer Sam Hellmann struck up a conversation in a café in Paris a few months ago, it marked the beginning of an interesting, if unexpected, creative union. “If I remember right, you were sat one morning at Café de Flore at the table next to my mom’s,” says Samantha. “I was asleep when she called me and said ‘you need to come, I just met someone very’…”

"…Very weird!” says Aki. “And then you arrived, and I saw a luminous woman! Without pretension.” Aki isn’t in the business of striking up random acquaintances. “If I don’t feel a connection straight away, I don’t have time -- time is very important to me, as I’m at the end of my life,” he says. But recognising how their different backgrounds and shared creative interests could come together to create something unique, Aki invited Samantha to take portraits of him in his studio; images he then painted on top of.

Born in Kyoto but based in Paris for the last 50 years, Aki rarely gives interviews. The work he’s best known for is his abstract expressionism; a maelstrom of different colours, shapes, brush strokes across vast canvases. But over the course of his career, he’s experimented with many different mediums and disciplines, collaborating with everyone from ballet dancers to engineers on projects that bring together a spectrum of different ideas. Samantha, who lives and works in Paris, shoots a mixture of different stories, but focuses keenly on close, intimate portraiture.

Here, the pair discuss the story behind the beautiful images they created together, and the importance of always pursuing unlikely creative collaborations.


Aki: Now that I’m at the end of my life, I am excited and have a lot of energy, yet my body is becoming more and more tired, which is why I need the energy of others in my work. Meeting people gives me energy, which then explodes in my art. If I only spend time working alone in my studio I go off, you know... Which is why working with you was very interesting.

Sam: You had some prints with you and I remember asking you if I could see them. I remember you told me you worked at your studio in the 14th arrondissement and I said I would love to come take photos of you there because you mentioned you liked to paint on big canvases. But I wanted you to contribute to it and be active in the process. As if you had entered one of your own paintings. Your work seemed to be very much about taking the audience into your world so it felt natural to portray you inside of it.

Aki: If I work with someone, I can go even deeper into my art and discover things about it I didn’t know... I discover things about myself. The world is changing so fast and I am changing too so I cannot stay in one place. We must change, move forward constantly, try different mediums and be interested in other art forms to enrich ourselves. The collaboration you wanted us to do was very interesting.


Sam: I show you how I see you, then you add how you see yourself. We see ourselves through each other’s eyes and, like you said, using this in art is a way to evolve.

Aki: Especially because we are from very different generations, we have different backgrounds, different sensitivities, even different genders… and all those differences are what makes the collaboration so interesting. It’s like the rock meeting the wood. It’s an assembly that becomes an object of art.

Sam: The bigger the difference, the more interesting it is to collaborate... then 1 + 1 = 3.

Aki: A collaboration has to be an encounter but it also has to be a choice. The meeting of two strong energies that are very different. If they are too similar then nothing new is created.

Sam: I think it’s also about trust and to know that there are certain things you can’t control and shouldn’t want to control. I had no idea what you would paint on the photos and I didn’t want control over it at all. I was so excited to see what you were going to do with it.


Sam: It’s such an interesting way to work… to always challenge yourself by working with people who seem different from you and finding what connects you both. Are people what inspire you the most?

Aki: Yes... but in terms of inspiration, we now receive a huge amount of information all day long. So what truly matters before your style, before the medium, before everything, is what you want to say. There comes a moment when you have to forget all of it and just express what you want to say inside. Forget the movements, the trends, what’s fashionable… the second you think about that you’re done.

Sam: It’s quite difficult though for young artists, I think, to not be dictated by what’s in and what’s not... Especially now that everyone seems to be a photographer.

Aki: Everything that is fashionable is already over. The most important things to remember are sensitivity and energy. Those are the only things that remain. The rest is unimportant.



Photography Sam Hellmann and artwork Aki Kuroda

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

sam hellmann
aki kuroda