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.