Category Archives: Light Reading

Views on photography and on being a photographer

Araki’s latest work born of his fight with cancer

Nobuyoshi Araki: Tokyo Zenritsusengan

I had heard earlier this year that Nobuyoshi Araki was not in good health, and the recent lack of Araki news and new photobooks from the man who has been so prolific up to now seemed to bear that out. Now, on the occasion of his new photobook, Tokyo Zenritsusengan, Araki has revealed to the public at large what only his close friends and associates knew — that he was fighting a battle with prostate cancer.

Diagnosed and successfully operated on in the summer of 2008 , Araki took his plight in typical Araki style, seeing it as a rare opportunity to bring his camera along with him to the hospital bed. It is well-known that Araki lost his wife Yoko to ovarian cancer in 1990, something he documented in the work Winter Journey. But this time it was Araki who was the patient. The result is the just-released photobook Tokyo Zenritsusengan (zenritsusen gan is Japanese for prostate cancer), published by Wides.

Araki used his chance to take photos of the nurses attending him, including the rookie nurse who had to shave his pubic hair, revealed Araki in a recent interview. (She posed while clutching the shaved hair in her hand.) There are also Araki self-portraits of himself wearing an oxygen mask after the surgery was done. While awaiting release from the hospital, Araki would take walks around Tokyo’s Ochanomizu area where the hospital was located, and these snapshots are included in the book as well.

And of course it wouldn’t be an Araki book without some nudes, and these are quite plentiful owing to the fact that he continues to be inundated with requests from women who want to model for him. Says Araki, “Not being able to get a hard-on anymore makes me more passionate. Just joking.”

Araki — who continues to undergo blood tests every two months to monitor his health condition — will also publish an “experimental” photobook at the end of the year with the ironic title “Posthumous Work: Empty 2”.

Tokyo Zenritsusengan is available in the Japan Exposures bookstore.

Moriyama’s Magazine Work from the 60s and 70s

We have created another in our series of video looks at recent photobooks, this time focusing on the two just-published collections of work that Daido Moriyama published in various photography magazines from 1965 to 1974. The two books together collect over 90 different series from a time when seemingly you could not pick up an issue of one of the two major photo monthlies of the time — Camera Mainichi and Asahi Camera — and not find a Moriyama photo essay in them.

I fully admit that sometimes the Moriyama publishing juggernaut tends to overwhelm in its recent Araki-like incarnation, but in this case these two companion volumes are to me completely justified. By reproducing the essays exactly as they were first published, with their original layout, typography, and captions, we get a unique insight into how the Provoke aesthetic of are, bure, bokeh took shape in the mind of its dominant proponent, and what’s more, the books bring us closer to experiencing the vibrant experimentation that characterized Japanese photography at the time.

にっぽん劇場 1965-1970
Nippon Gekijou 1965-1970

Photographs by Daido Moriyama
Published in 2009 by Getsuyosha; softcover with dustcover; 410 plates (365 b/w, 45 color); 26cm x 18cm; occasional English translations contained in the original photo essays are available, but in general the text in the book is all Japanese.

何かへの旅 1971-1974
Nani ka e no tabi 1971-1974

Photographs by Daido Moriyama
Published in 2009 by Getsuyosha; softcover with dustcover; 484 plates (334 b/w, 150 color); 26cm x 18cm; occasional English translations contained in the original photo essays are available, but in general the text in the book is all Japanese.

(You can watch the above video at a larger size at Japan Exposure’s page at Vimeo.)

The camera here and there, and other holiday notes

No shortage of cameras during a Japanese wedding

Autumnal greetings to all Japan Exposures readers; you might be slightly content-starved so to bring things back to normal I would like to share some thoughts on the holidays I have just returned from.

Whenever I travel to where I am originally from, I am surprised to find myself unable to take much photographs there. I have been trying for years and years now, attempted analysing it to find out why, all to no avail. Am I too familiar with it, or after all these years no longer familiar enough to understand and find access? Am I no longer interested in the past, which would be explained by my choice living in Japan instead of back home.

So this year I tried harder and brought back with me 10 rolls of exposed film (Fujifilm Acros, of course); still, that’s not a lot for several weeks but more than what I have managed in the past years. Of course this does not tell us anything about what these photos will be of, they may be interesting or endlessly boring. And to be honest, during the holidays I never really got into the mood of extended picture-taking, but as everyone who ever travelled with family and especially children will attest, this is easier than done. Photography — perhaps, and perhaps only for me — remains a solitary activity.

The camera here and there

Pointing the camera at strangers, even in touristic areas, is an unusual thing to do in Europe and you are bound to raise some suspicion. The camera is a much more prominent thing to handle and use there than here in Japan. Also even the crowded areas in Europe are less populous than a Tokyo street after midnight. You can just disappear more easily.

We [in Japan] have such a huge number of older and younger amateur photographers.”

Mariko Takeuchi, last year’s guest curator the Guest Curator of the Paris Photo fair in an interview with Ferdinand Brüggemann

When going to some family events and activities, especially a fun fair, I was surprised that hardly anyone took photos of their children on the rides. In Japan parents would be all over them with cellphone, compact and huge SLR cameras (plus, at times, a video camcorder in the other hand) to capture the doings of their beloved offspring. Obviously this can extend to what sometimes feels unhealthy obsessions; many a parent is seen only watching the event on an LCD screen, unable to look up and observe the real scene. And who will be able and interested to watch all this footage one day? Maybe that obsession with capturing images in Japan is having the consequence that nobody questions the presence of a camera and someone using it to take pictures, even pointed at strangers. Well, almost, the exception being suspicious behaviour around ladies with short skirts or similar.

However, that suspicion is much more easily triggered in Europe it seems. Taking the camera to your eye and pointing it towards someone is quickly detected and people are generally not pleased having their picture taken. Unlike Japan they will have to reservations making their displeasure known to you. And suspicion it is: I was suspected to be documenting food safety issues for the authorities or at times taking photos for the local newspaper (the scene was hardly newsworthy, but perhaps photographing in public is associated with reporters).

The camera here and there

So you have to be quick with your camera and get the shot before they get you. Or choose subjects intoxicated enough to have slow reflexes, but then they may have also less reservations to smack you or the camera. It makes street photography in Japan look like child’s play, but after years of photographing in Japan the reverse seems to me more comparable to guerrilla warfare than some relaxing street shooting. Nonetheless, after a while the pressure or thrill of getting away with it, or not, adds some extra spice to the game and will keep you on your toes. Perhaps that’s also what opportunist burglars or car thieves say.

So what are the conclusions of this slightly fluffy article? Firstly, that photography and the camera operates in social contexts and cultural history. In Japan there seem nothing except benign associations with a camera and taking pictures; in the West it may be seen, to a varying extent, as an offensive instrument and method of intrusion into society and as an activity that deserves suspicion. Secondly, that photographing the totally familiar and totally unfamiliar may actually pose the same challenges. And lastly, once again, that what matters most to a photograph is what is behind the camera.

Japan in the 60s and 70s – through 4 Photobooks

As many of you are no doubt aware, there is a wealth of wonderful photography books being published every year in Japan. Trouble is, they don’t come cheap, whether you are lucky enough to find them on your side of the world or you order them from places like the Japan Exposures bookstore, especially when shipping costs are factored in. This makes it difficult for many people to take a chance on books by unknown photographers — and frankly that’s a shame. Recently I’ve been wondering if there isn’t more we here at Japan Exposures can be doing to, er, expose these books more.

This is the impetus for this video look at four new or recent publications, three of which are by photographers I feel comfortable in saying are unknown to the majority of our readership. All four books share in common the fact that the photographs were taken in the period of the 60s and 70s, and while each in its own right is a wonderful book, they seemed to resonate off of each other particularly well. In order of discussion, the four books featured in the above video are:

The Village Story: Kitagami, 1963-1973

Photographs by Hirokazu Ishida
Published in 2009 by Sokyusha (ltd. run of 700 copies); hardcover; 84 pages/77 plates (all b/w); 23cm x 24cm; includes English translations of afterword and photographer profile.

The Blue Period 1973-1979

Photographs by Akiyoshi Taniguchi
Published in 2009 by Sokyusha (ltd. run of 500 copies); hardcover (cloth) in slipcase; 64 pages/53 plates (all b/w); 23cm x 25cm; includes English translations of afterword and photographer profile.

Photographs by Daido Moriyama
Published in 2009 by Tosho Shinbun; softcover with obi; approx. 200 pages/190 plates (all b/w); 30cm x 21cm; Japanese text only; includes DVD (Japanese only) slideshow with brief footage of interview with Moriyama.

Photographs by Alao Yokogi
Published in 2006 by Ascom; softcover with obi; approx. 344 pages/320 plates (all b/w); 30cm x 21cm; essay in Japanese only (photo captions include English). (Unfortunately out of print. Please contact us if you would like us to try to find this book for you.)

(You can watch the above video in HD and/or at a larger size at Japan Exposure’s page at Vimeo.)

Credit where credit is undue

Temple Scene

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.

Kyoto, JapanAsk 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.

Camera Shock

Camera Shock

I am trying to stay principled about my photography, I really do, but more often than not I feel overtaken by reality or some other realisation catching up. To counterbalance my previous insights about keeping things interesting here is another aspect well worth noting.

When we are younger and finances are tight, there is quite naturally a limitation about changing things around in your photo world. A new camera, a bigger camera, multiple cameras, these things are a financial impossibility and we had to save for a long time to purchase that one single camera we wanted. That also made us think thoroughly whether it would be the right move and a lasting choice. Nowadays with slightly more money at disposal (subject to wife approval of course) and also rapidly declining prices of classic film cameras and used digital cameras, it is a lot easier and tempting to jump at a piece of new equipment on impulse.

If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras. Changing cameras means that your photographs will change. A really good camera has something I suppose you might describe as its own distinctive aura.

Nobuyoshi Araki

While it may give us new creative impetus as I have written in the past, I have recently also noticed a very negative effect which will make me a lot more cautious in the future: Camera Shock. When I get interested in a new piece of equipment, a new technique, a new subject matter perhaps it disrupts my previous work to a great degree.

Now, this is not always bad, but imagine you have been in a good creative groove for a while, followed by a slight natural slump when you could argue the real work is starting. At that point, when things get a little sticky, it is tempting to divert your attention to something new. It is the path of least resistance. The problem is that New will absorb your energies for a time to come as you will immerse yourself with the new and naturally interesting, with the consequence to loose track of what you have been working on previously, before it had a chance to become your best.

As photographers the search of the most suitable piece of equipment will never be separable from the medium of photography itself, but unless we are fully aware of the implications and carefully manage ourselves consciously it may do more harm than good and hold us back in our overall development.

Obviously all this is easier said than done, but perhaps our ability to maintain the required discipline is an indicator of how serious we really are about our photography, whether we see it as our mission to produce imagery to show to the world, or whether we are simply entertaining ourselves.

The C Feature

This camera probably has 'it'.
This camera probably has 'it'.

If you had asked me about the importance of my camera’s appearance ten years ago, I would have probably laughed at you. As we know, most photographers are technically-minded people; they have to be. The camera is our primary tool to work the technical medium of photography and generally speaking people need tools to work well, and not look good.

In the past all I cared for were functionality and features. And more features. And if a camera with ‘better’ functionality came along, well, it seemed time to think about upgrading. And that was even before the age of digital and its unprecedented accelerated pace of technological evolution.

Nowadays when looking at a camera I always look for the C Feature first: does it have a sufficient amount of on-board charm for me to bother trying to commence a productive relationship with it? Is it possible to add or enhance that feature, perhaps with a nice case or strap?

Just how did I get to the stage where this aspect was worthy any consideration by me? Perhaps I am getting older (inevitably a viable explanation for many odd preferences) and consequently less interested in the rational characteristics of such things. But more importantly over time I have finally realized that, like almost everything in life, photography is a mind game: if you kept your mind in the right frame as it were, the good photographic ones should follow not too far behind.

The first time I became conscious of this was when starting out with street photography several years ago and after a while switching to a Leica camera. I remember walking out of the shop thinking “What have I done? So much money spent on a camera without any features!” But soon after everything would suddenly be different. Me and this machine seemed to get on well, very well. Obviously, this is just a trick of the mind as the Leica does the same (in fact, probably a lot less!) than most 35mm cameras would do, and exactly the same what your Nikon, Canon etc. does for you. Nonetheless I felt different about taking photos with it and, in my view, produced better work than before. What usually happens next is that you try convincing others to make the same choice as you did. Attempting this would ignore the important distinction that this was only the right choice for yourself and only at that point in time. It is likely to be totally different for others (or for myself at an earlier or later stage) so we should not bother evangelizing, although I am as guilty as anyone.

Digital camera prints in ten minutes - not from this camera, surely!
Digital camera prints in ten minutes - not from this camera, surely!

Many readers of Japan Exposures are enjoying John Sypal’s Tokyo Camera Style, also accessible via our front page (or look to the right in the sidebar), where you can see several examples of cameras that Tokyo photographers have chosen to go out and take pictures with. It is a fascinating sight and probably unique in the world. Where else would you see such camera diversity “in the wild”? What catches your eye, however, are that very often these are cameras with personality – yes, there is such a thing. Because why, if not for The C Feature, would you chose something older or different from the current mainstream? A cynic would say that that fine cameras have been demoted to mere fashion accessories, but I would disagree. The visual appeal of the many classic cameras is undeniable, just ask a camera collector, or even better, the advertising agency that created the above advertisement for camera store chain Kitamura, advertising digital printing, ironically.

PIE 2009PIE 2009

Suppose that charm is composed of appearance and behaviour. If it looks good and you enjoy dealing with it, you’re in business. Most mainstream cameras of the last ten years or so, never mind if digital or not, are a far cry from the true characters of the past. When your primary creative tool has the charm level of an unpaid electricity bill, perhaps you will be open to the discovery that there is something out there that is more enjoyable to operate than your streamlined automata. Perhaps it is not the love of film that keeps film alive, but the cameras that need it are still receiving attention and use. Contemporary camera designers and engineers have yet to create anything close to those charm bombs of the past. And many photographers are longing for it, how else would you explain the strong desire to use manual focus Leica M mount lenses on a digital body like the Lumix G1 or the attention paid to a potential digital Olympus Pen?

“Having secured a light-tight camera and suitable lens, there is no more important quality than ease in mechanical working. The adjustments ought to be so simple that an operator may be able to bring it from his satchel and get it in order for making an exposure without a conscious thought. Each worker will have his own idea as to which style of camera comes nearest to perfection in this respect, and having made his choice he should study to become so intimate with it that it will become a second nature with his hands to prepare the camera while his mind and eyes are fully occupied with the subject before him.”

J. Craig Annan, as quoted by Stieglitz in The Hand Camera — Its Present Importance, The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1897.