Is the untrained eye, the average viewer, able to objectively judge the quality of a photo depicting Japan? I believe therein lies great difficulty. Those unfamiliar with country, culture and people, and as an additional factor a lacking an ability to reflect on the perception of the world in front of them, these viewers will have no chance to withstand the bias that appears to be inherent in a photograph with a Japanese subject matter.
To illustrate this assertion, visit a popular online forum or bulletin board and look for posts similar to “Photos from Tokyo” or “I went to Japan with my XYZ camera” and the included photographs. You will find that no matter how stereotypical or overworked the subject matter, no matter how unoriginally and conventionally executed and presented, most, if not all, respondents will reply with comments like “great shots”, “Japan is amazing”, “your photos really make me want to go to Japan” and suchlike. What is this magic that can turn the banal into such collective eye candy?
The answer is that these photos meet prior expectations and preconceptions, reaffirm already existing views and assumptions about what is seen in the images. Garry Winogrand, the spiritual leader of all photographers struggling to battle these preconceptions, had no problem walking into new situations and pick out his distinctive viewpoints anyway.
Q: Do you find it easy to go into a strange place and just start taking pictures?
GW: No problem. You know, you’ve heard that photographers talk about how they want to know the place better and so on — they’re really talking about their own comfort. Let me put it this way — I have never seen a photograph from which I could tell how long the photographer was there, how well he knew it. Or if you want to talk about the photographer as a person, maybe — I mean, you can take Diane Arbus’ pictures. How do you know from the photographs — forget all the rhetoric — from the photographs, that she didn’t rush in and make’em, bank, and rush out, like a thief? You know, kick the door open? They’re really talking about their own comfort.
Q: So you don’t think you have to take some time to find out what the place is like, and so forth?
GW: From my experience — I start shooting. I look. I don’t have to know the language, I don’t have to know where to get a good cup of coffee.
“An interview with Garry Winogrand” (By Charles Hagen, published in Afterimage, Dec. 1977)
While Winogrand’s reasoning is totally valid, one cannot simply apply his conclusion to each and every photographer. His rationale is based on an essential prerequisite of prior mental work and a resulting realisation of consciousness: firstly, to be aware of one’s own expectations of what the photo will look like, or at least about a presence of preconceptions about what the subject matter is about. And secondly, having enough courage, mental strength and willingness to move beyond these initial mental images to seek true originality. “When it looks familiar in the viewfinder, I am not pressing the shutter”, Winogrand once stated. Many photographers lack these critical qualities and that is why we see so much unoriginal and derivative work. There is little in the world that has not been photographed, yet there is always room for new points of view onto the same thing.
Ask people around you about their image of Japan and it is almost certain that their view is positive and full of fascination. Perhaps one could even say excessively positive. The West not only loves Japan, it also seems to love to love Japan, almost unconditionally and in a hyper-realistic way. The intensity of this sentiment is only matched and reciprocated by the way how East loves the view of the West, especially America. Japan, that exotic place in the Far East, with all its strange and unfamiliar ways, and while at the same time being such a tremendously appealing culture. What is not to like? A continuously and conveniently maintained stereotypical image of zen, purported spirituality, high-tech alongside tradition, unusual customs and behaviours, manga creatures and samurai honour — the list goes on.
In my opinion, these previously shaped and principally irrational positive views are so strong that the content of any photo depicting the actual subject is becoming all but irrelevant. The mediocre photographer has the wind in his back on this journey, and with an equally biased audience like this, he can hardly fail. It gets a little harder to detect if the photographer is a good craftsman, but when taking away the effects of technique and reducing it to the basics you are likely to come to the same conclusion. Show these photos to someone more familiar and aware of Japan, the place in the real world, not based on fantasy and imaginations from second-hand accounts, the real quality of photograph really starts to become apparent. The complication, however, is that you may not notice it yourself at first. You might even have to fall into the trap before you can realise that there is one. The photos used to illustrate this post are all mine, taken not too long after moving to Japan.
I am surprised that my prints sell. They’re not pretty, they’re not those kind of pictures that people easily put on their walls, they’re not that window onto a nice landscape or something. They aren’t.
I don’t have pictures in my head, you know. Look, I am stuck with my own psychology. With my own, uh, with me. So I’m sure that there’s some kind of thread, whatever, but I don’t have pictures in my head.
Garry Winogrand with Bill Moyers, Creativity, WNET, 1982
Several weeks ago I received an email from what appeared to be a established and exhibited European photographer about a series of photos taken in Japan. The email did not explicitly request any feedback, although when someone sends you their web site address pinting out specific work I suppose you are expected to at look at it. And I did. I even took the time to provide a response, but while writing it became clear that this was not what the photographer wanted to hear (abbreviated for clarity):
Those of us living here permanently see images like yours in front of us on a daily basis. Perhaps elsewhere, where these cityscapes are uncommon, these vistas are more engaging than for us, but in effect these photos are the equivalent of showing cobbled streets and brick buildings to Londoners or the Eiffel Tower to Parisians.
I expect a good photograph to be a revelation to me, which could be about the subject matter or the photographer. In most photographs that I see and were taken in Japan I find myself longing for far more of these revelations; or wanting to feel them more intensely.
Take away what the picture is of, and you will find what it is about. If there is anything left, this net result should be a universal substance of quality, the photograph’s essential content and its consequent value.
Given the general reception, Japan is such a forgiving subject. It seems easy to take good and interesting photos in Japan and of Japan that find an excitable and responsive audience. It is, however, extremely difficult trying to break beyond the obvious and create a meaningful visual record of time, places and people. While this may be true for every place in the world, the deceptively easy visual accessibility of Japan may make it just that little bit harder than elsewhere to produce great work.
I have recently taken up a study on the underground photography movement called ‘anti-photojournalism’ and your article has provided much insight.
“The answer is that these photos meet prior expectations and preconceptions, reaffirm already existing views and assumptions about what is seen in the images.”
This could apply to many countries/regions/cities, as you point out later in mentioning London and Paris. Think Las Vegas, Australia, Greenland, Egypt, Venice. It is not exclusive to photographs of Japan.
As someone who shoots Tokyo rather than “Japan,” I would draw a distinction between the two. In saying that Tokyo is not an easy city to shoot, I am not only giving my own opinion but echoing those of well-known photographers who have shot here.
Lastly, to describe Garry Winogrand as “the spiritual leader of all photographers struggling to battle these preconceptions…” is a little too over-enthusiastic.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that the ‘exotic’ image is what most foreign tourists seek in Japan. This also suits the Japanese whom in many cases prefer foreigners to not to see (understand) beyond this cultivated facade.
In actual physical practice, as a foreigner shooting in Tokyo is extremely easy. It’s like photographing fish in a barrel.
The difficulty lies in making work which can hold it’s own in conversation with the history of all other photographs made in Tokyo. That said I don’t think that any foreign photographer has ever really “got” the city as well as the Japanese Tokyo Street Photo greats. They have set the bar incredibly high.
Very interesting article and as Clive said the same is true of any other place in the world, the ‘hackneyed’ image. Japan hold a unique place (for the moment) in that its an exotic culture extremely different from the West yet readily accessible to Westerners.
In a few years time as exotic locations like remote parts or China opens up to tourism the same will be true off these places.
I like your attached quotes from Winogrand, I also just walking to places, often not so safe and just take pictures however as John said, making this stand up as a body off work on its own is a very different matter. The tendency of foreign photographers (i.e. Not native) is to play on the exotic or all too commonly here the poverty angles.
I’m sure I could get more harrowing images of poverty in my native Scotland than here but people tend not to notice what is around them all the time. Therefore the exotic angle is always used by visiting photographers.
people wish to record with their camera the things they find interesting, more often than not those things are the things that are not readily available in their home land. i don’t fault anyone for that, there’s loads of audiences for that effort and some commercial demand for it too if your snobbery doesn’t put you beyond travel photography.
the problem i have with this post is that you really don’t know what you care about. You throw around a bit of a rant and practiced a bit of name dropping, but you’ve not really extended the real agenda, the agenda of the communicator and the audience.
let’s hold constant the variable of the communicator and explore the audience domain. i’m going to make a sweeping assumption that the audience domain we’re interested in is the fine-art audience, those with tastes more sophisticated than the informative, but predictable results attached to travel and tourism photography. i assume we’re sitting in an audience where we want to walk away from a photograph with more questions than answers; we want to be intrigued, invoked, or moved emotionally.
i’m also going to further constrain this audience to the sophisticated fine-art appetite of the Western World. Although i personally love work from Daido Moriyama, i like it with my Western taste, i could not tell you why the Eastern audiences like it, if they like it at all.
so there’s our audience, now let’s talk about those that wish to communicate to those audiences, let’s talk about people that wish to do so through the paradigm of a specific place, let’s talk Tokyo. What is the photographic author trying to convey?
let’s compare and contrast Chris Steele-Perkins effort with Sobol’s effort. Although i’ve got a lot of time for Chris i didn’t buy his book Tokyo Love Hello, for me it was pleasing and the captions were just fantastic and the imagery full of all the household requirements like ambiguity and tonality, but it just didn’t speak to me, it was like fine-art travel photography. i really don’t know what he was trying to convey to his audience other than this is a really exotic place to a westerner. And maybe that’s enough and i’m sure there’s an audience for that. So, Do you consider that work a Japanese photography success?
But then you take a book like Sobol’s I’Tokyo, Me personally, i love Sobol’s approach, he was a westerner and he made it his point to make Tokyo his own, his own very intimately, he some how negotiated in a short period of time a level of intimacy that said “hey, here’s a westerner that’s surmounted the road blocks and here’s a segment of people that are both appealing to look at and appealing to think about”. Maybe it’s his process that fascinates me just as much as the images, but i really love that book and i look at it all the time. So, Is this a Japanese Photographic Success?
Interestingly, you don’t really learn anything new about Tokyo from Sobol, but i want to go there more because of Sobol’s communication than because of Perkins effort. It’s much more alluring with Sobol’s view of the ‘place’
i’m sorry, but i think making a post with this topic without at least taking the more recent western offerings of the place is really disappointing. If you live there you could really redeem this weak-effort-post by letting us know what a resident of Tokyo with a Tokyo mindset thinks of Sobol and Steele-Perkins efforts, now that could really be quite revealing.
not sure why any of the above comments qualify as ‘rants’. They are simply peoples observations on the posted topic
I’ve seen the Sobol book in one small imported bookshop in Tokyo and can’t imagine that it has had any impact on the Japanese photo scene. Not many Japanese are honestly interested in seeing how non-Japanese see Japan (unless it fits what they want shown) and even then I don’t think that many want to see Japan in an aesthetic that so many other Japanese photographers already use.
However I think it’s a good example of what Dirk was trying to get across- It’s playing into already pre-set expectations albeit for a far narrower demographic: Western Photography Enthusiasts. Instead of the Pagodas and Kimonos and rows of vending machines that almost everyone already knows about, “I Tokyo” mimics the overly done Moriyama look with it’s harshly textured urban details, women and stray cats that most people into photography recognize as “tough”. But it’s the same look and subject matter that everyone into photography in Japan has known about and grown familiar with since the 1960s.
I understand that he won an award in Europe for his work, but such pictures are in such abundance in Japan that it’s again like showing pictures of a cobblestone street to an Englishman. Place M, a gallery in Shinjuku seems to almost exclusively deal in this aesthetic and it’s something that many photographers in Japan are influenced by. Olympus even offers an “Art” setting which grants the user an Instant Moriyama with one simple click on their new digital camera. Check this out here. I think a lot of people confuse a particular and easy to emulate “Look” with “Instant Meaning and Authenticity”. It’s style over substance. (Whereas Winogrand was all about Form vs. Content!)
It’s not that Sobol is a poor photographer or that his book is bad. I liked the book, but it falls into a long line of a very particular and sanctified aesthetic of “street photography” which can’t seem to get out of Moriyama’s shadow of Tri-X. The fact that it has “I” and “Tokyo” in it’s title smacks of an attempt to capture some of that edgy Araki magic.
That said, there are countless books by Japanese photographers of Europe (with cobblestone streets aplenty) so it certainly goes both ways.
With or without a camera, for the most part people really only want to see what they already expect .
I hate to sound too harsh on Moriyama here- the thing is that while a lot of people’s pictures look like Moriyama’s, his don’t look like that of anyone else.
Good Post John. Thank you.
i still think we’re blurring the lines of what you wish to say with how you wish to say it. And this goes much further than photographing a specific place, it just so happens that photographing a space is what surfaced the issue.
if you think about styles of photography as different forms of poetry you see there are different approaches to saying something and even eastern and western approaches to poetry styles. i think a set of photographs at its best is a visual poem (not a photo essay!!) And thus you need to look at both the ‘technique’ and the ‘message’.
it’s not easy, but it is possible to weigh and measure the different ‘techniques’, maybe someday just ‘art’ settings, to convey visual information. But for me, i’m a bit of a message-maniac, i don’t favour anyone one technique and my book case would evidence that, i do find that i favour work that attempts to achieve something, i like it more than just the perfection of a technique, i want to see technique applied to actually message something. And i don’t mean literally say something, for example the book that’s typically next in line for me after Sobol’s is Roger Ballin’s Shadow Chamber, it delivers drama, but no ‘real’ real storyline.
going back to Sobol, i think his mission was to lay some claim of entitlement to Tokyo, when you read this in the first couple of pages it’s like an immediate story-arc in the book before you see the first page. Sure it’s that archetypal travel-diary story-line and of course his technique is as recognisable as the structure of a haiku. And it’s an effort served up in the same way that loads of moody efforts are served up: Tri-X style, but at least it seems to have some narrative, some point, some internal drama, some universal conflict of ‘man against his environment’
in the end we’re likely all going to agree we like or don’t like the same ‘calibre’ of photography, there seems to be a natural migration of tastes as you digest more and more photography. i do also think we as photographers may be very literate with regards to ‘techniques’, but i think as a generalisation, we as photographers find it very difficult to discuss what a collection of photographs actually accomplishes above and beyond technique: basically we’re very illiterate to photographic messaging.
You know, the more i think about this, the more i think all the photographs I’ve ever taken were pretty pointless.
On a positive note, John, what Japanese photographer’s book would you recommend to me? Thanks in advance for the suggestion.
If more people would have had a look to William Klein’s “Tokyo”, their comments about pictures from Japan might not be so forgiving and positive. In my opinion it’s not so much the preconception of an ‘exotic’ country but people’s untrained eyes, which make them accept even mediocre, stereotypical images. But then again there are not so many photographers to give them a lesson in what photography can tell about Japan -and any other country. We need more Winogrands, Kleins and alike!
There’s a good thought in Barthes’ Camera Lucida discussing photography of travel and foreign places, he says, “photographs of landscapes (urban or country) must seem habitable, not visitable” (page in goog books).
For me this quote separates the photographs (even very nice ones) of things you might see if you visited there, from the mood, impression and details you might get from living there. Barthes wants these photos not to idealize the place but to give him a sense of a second life in that place, a path not taken.
Joe- I personally think that A Map of the East by Leo Rubinfien is a good take on photographing Asia.
As for Japanese photographers- the variety is so wide it’s hard to suggest one particular book or photographer. I am partial to the Phaidon published Araki (Self Life Death) for the articles and reproductions of his early work.
I’m not sure that attention to “meaningful” is quite on the mark. Images (to my eye) have meaning, if the intention of the photographer was clear. It’s this clarity of moment that has meaning.
Thanks John, I’ll check out those items you mention.
You have just opened the eyes of a beginner photographer! I have realized that my best shots were the ones actually free of cultural and such cliches! I hope I’ll be able to apply those rules to shots of St.-Petersburg as well! Love your articles!