How the world has changed in 50 years

Story highlights

  • Photographer Hiroji Kubota has traveled more than 3.5 million miles in his life
  • His new retrospective book includes more than 400 photos from his 55-year career

(CNN)Turning the pages of Hiroji Kubota's new retrospective photo book is like spinning a globe or searching an atlas.

With more than 400 images from his 55-year career, you're destined to land on something new each time.
"I think by seeing my book very carefully, you see the state of the world a lot in the last 55 years -- how much the world changed for better or worse," said Kubota, 76.
    Kubota, the son of a fishing merchant from Japan, has traveled more than 3.5 million miles in his life, photographing everything from Jackson Pollock's grave and a U.S. presidential campaign to the Ryukyu Islands and North Korea. He has even photographed one of the most defining moments in U.S. history.
    "My friends working at Newsweek told me in August 1963, 'Hiroji, you go to Washington, D.C.' Without knowing, I went there," Kubota said. "Then (one) early morning ... Suddenly, I heard, 'I Have a Dream' -- that kind of incredible speech and sound of voice. I didn't know Dr. (Martin Luther) King's name at that time -- very embarrassing. I later found out that (it was the) very famous March on Washington."
    Photographer Hiroji Kubota
    This moment changed Kubota's perception of the world and led to his greater understanding of U.S. politics. He then went on to document the civil rights movement. The self-described short and small photographer says that his seemingly harmless appearance, and being an Asian in the United States during that time, likely had a lot to do with his ease in gaining acceptance into different communities.
    A personal defining moment came when he traveled to Burma (now Myanmar) in 1978. It was there where he visited the holy Buddhist Golden Rock at Shwe Pyi Daw (photo No. 9 in the gallery above), marking a significant step into his transition from black-and-white to color photography. He had two Leica M2 bodies with him, one equipped with Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film, the other with Kodachrome 64 color film. He shot with both.
    The color film looked "marvelous, very colorful," Kubota said. "Then, I began to photograph color seriously. And for a short time, I tried to photograph both -- color and black and white. It's very difficult to do both at the same time. ... So, from 1980, I photograph (in) almost nothing but color."
    No matter what he is documenting, Kubota says what remains of utmost importance is earning the respect of every person he photographs.

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    "You have to be sensitive to subjects you are photographing, particularly when you photograph people," Kubota said. "The moment you photograph, that is a very aggressive kind of behavior. It's contradictory: You have to be sensitive, yet you have to be aggressive."
    For Kubota, lighting and composition are most important in terms of making images.
    "No one can teach you how to compose," Kubota said. "Anything you have in a picture, has to, must, interact with each other. Otherwise, it's not a good picture."
    This is evident in the first image above, made in Qingdao, China, by the Yellow Sea and Jiaozhou Bay. Kubota effectively manages to maintain a sense of separation of the people in the image while simultaneously crafting a unity between them.
    Kubota says that in the past 10 to 20 years, he has noticed how alike the world is becoming. People around the world today all wear jeans, for example. And many cities look alike because of the high-rises that have been developed. Kubota believes this has led to the diminishing of unique identities and the loss of "tangible characteristics of local cultures, traditions and songs."
    What he finds particularly saddening and troublesome is the harsh treatment both humans and the environment have endured. Man-made tragedies such as wars and pollution, he says, have led to many detrimental consequences. Despite this, Kubota is outwardly optimistic and infinitely intent that if one seeks beauty, one can always find it -- anywhere.
    "Everything can be so beautiful. It all depends how you look at it," Kubota said. "You don't have to go away, far away. ... You'll find something so beautiful where you sleep, where you eat, so many things. What you can photograph is endless and unlimited. That is a great thing."