A Mountain of Choices

JL Tyler Photography

Fuji-san is an icon, not just here in Japan, but the world over. Representative of symmetry, perfection, peace, it is captured in centuries of art, first brushed, then sketched, and etched, and woven, and developed, and on and on…. Whenever I see Mt. Fuji, I get the same inspiration as countless millions before me: I want to, yet again, take another snapshot. I learned early, though, that it is impossible to capture one perfect view of Fuji-san, and therefore repeated impressions are not just acceptable, but required.

JL Tyler Photography

Selecting the right image for portfolio inclusion is at once easy and difficult. On the one hand, it’s easy because I don’t have that many “worthy” snapshots, so the overall lot I have to cull through is limited. On the other hand, when choosing images for a portfolio, relying on “it’s good enough” is setting the bar too low; finding the best of the best is critical to, first, a personal sense of achievement and, second, appreciation of any kind from your viewers. The four I’ve pulled together here please me, for now. I’ve got two over water, and two over land. Clouds are present, and some foreground baubles.

JL Tyler Photography

While the beauty of Fuji-san’s shape and symmetry never vary, and using them make it easy to pull off a color snapshot at sunrise or sunset, since engaging on this B&W journey, I’ve had to begin to appreciate different aspects of a “quality” Mt. Fuji image.  The soft reds of the sun, combined with that iconic shape, are enough to create a memorable image, but you’re relying a lot on the colour and resulting mood. Black and white is nothing if not mood, but you can’t use colours to create it; instead, I find I’m focusing on clouds, and foreground, and contrast (of course!). I’m not saying anything new to someone already skilled in B&W, but for the student of photography, like me, this is new and important stuff.JL Tyler Photography

This last shot, with the split rocks (they’re actually tied together by a barely-visible rope, related to the Shinto religion) and the crashing waves in the foreground is somewhat disappointing due to the muted nature of Fuji-san herself. In the colour version, the sky is a deep, rich blue which permeates the air; converting this blue to monochrome, however, results in a dim, muted background. You can see that the whites of Fuji-san’s cap are much less white than the crashing wave; my first reaction was to amp the whites of that snow to give the same charged feel of the waves, but the effect didn’t work.  It’s background, and needs to feel like background to the viewer. Hmm…. More struggles with what I think is good, and what is good.



A Graveyard for Boats

JL Tyler Photography

Japan is an island, and water is a large part of the culture. I’ve gone on many trips in-country, and was never far from the oceans and rivers and the people that live and thrive nearby. Fisherman are a recurring image in my photos, but the fish themselves are fewer and further between; they tend to show up frozen on a dock, with a gaggle of bidding buyers flailing above. Boats are represented as well, but are usually moored, their character somehow subdued.

JL Tyler Photography

I came upon this boat graveyard in western Hokkaido. Sunk in a field of grass, in an out-of-the-way section of pier, lay a score of abandoned fishing boats. As I walked through the field and noticed the detail of broken mast, punctured hull, twisted netting and bows asunder, I realized these workhorses of the fishing trade had not lost their glory or their bearing. They were not subdued; in fact, they were very much full of expression.

JL Tyler Photography

The smooth slope of hull is as graceful on land as it would have been at sea; you just feel it’s misplaced. The mooring posts still appear strong, as if they are wanting that corded rope to wrap itself around them again. The lines and characters of the names painted on each hull are smudged, faded, but they still feel as if they are providing identity. And the tilt of each boat is no less dignified for it occuring midst the waving grasses. There is still grace and beauty in this field. There is still voice.


Shooting Silhouettes

JL Tyler PhotographyEvery time I see the sun in all its warm, full-bodied glory, I want to photograph it. But without a bunch of ND filters and a lot of gear preparedness, I try the shot and end up with a splatter of white in the frame. What I look for then is something to put in front of the sun, to block it and deliver a resulting silhouette at the same time. This is almost as rewarding, and is definitely more dramatic.


Yuma, where I’ve been lucky enough to spend few days each winter for the past few years, has given up some great images.  Each time I visit I come away with something new. Something about the thin, warm air and quality of mid-winter light, especially at sunrise or sundown, that brings out the best photos.

These photos are all handheld, with only a CIR POL filter in place. I shoot in RAW exclusively, and tweak in Pshop. In the vertical-oriented cactus shot, you can see a good level of detail in the cactus needles. I chose to not darken the shot (levels or curves adjustment) because I like the texture the extra detail provides.

JL Tyler Photography




To travel to Shikoku and Kyushu, the southern-most islands of Japan’s main archipelago, is to never be far from water. Whether you take the train, fly or drive, water is beside, under and around you. Outside of the urban, concrete corridors of Tokyo, past the monumental and majestic Mt. Fuji, and just beyond the ancient, wooded expanses of worship in Kyoto, you travel across land but you are thoroughly within this world of water.

Some time after returning from a recent trip, I read an article in B&W Photography entitled “How to Shoot Water.” Unfortunately, they don’t have a website of their own (!) nor a link to the article, but the photographer, Lee Frost, does. His suggestions ranged from “work in overcast light” and “use a ND filter,” to “use a wide angle lens to fill the foreground with reflections” and “use long exposures to turn water to milk.”


I can’t say that I followed all the technical advice, since I was more interested in subject matter than technique: what I was after — and found — was images of wide open spaces and singular individuals. These two visual aspects are rare in densely-populated Japan, but they exist; you just have to travel to find them. On the ferry from Honshu to Shikoku, a crane sat  in the water like a rigid but fluid, well, crane. In the backroads of Shikoku, a solitary fisherwoman found foothold in a moving stream. From a bridge in Kyushu, I spotted kayakers navigating the dimpled waters like leaves in a creek.


The beauty of the water, in the backyard of Japan, is undeniable. The quiet expressiveness of the scenes you will meet on this type of trip are thoroughly enjoyable. Sitting and gazing is not unknown in Japan; admiring the beauty of a rock garden or a sumi ink painting is a still pleasure many foreigners have heard about even if they haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing it themselves. But to be able to do so in the not-so-vast outdoors of Japan is a treat you should not put off. Come on in, the water’s fine.


Foreign Photogs in Japan


As an amateur photographer in Tokyo, I get a real charge out of finding foreigners who have crossed over and are making a profession of taking photos. It’s not an easy city to succeed in; I’ve been trying in many different ways for 25 years. And the foreigners who are doing it are not necessarily easy to see. They blend in well, staying just out of the picture, so to speak

But I’ve found a bunch of foreigners who appear to be taking it to the bank, with just their camera, their style, and (I assume) their dogged persistence. I’m going to share more talent in the future, but for now, I highlight five that are worth a look. More power to them.

Benjamin Parks – What I like: his BW portraits (very expressive, the hardluck individuals as well as the boxers); his naked yoga (who wouldn’t?); his website’s structure and presentation.

Alfie Goodrich – What I like: the extensive, varied content that goes beyond photos to encompass everything photographic; his tutorials, a real teacher who seems passionate about what he knows; his tips and techniques.

JÉRÉMIE SOUTEYRAT  – What I like: his sensitive subject matter, even a picture of a concrete house has a softness about it; his excitement (gleaned from reading his blog); his images of Shikoku.

Jacob Hodgkinson – What I like: His muted colours, his mix of eastern and western, his portraits (cool looking stuff).

Joshua Lieberman – What I like: his people shots that combine a figure with a couple details (wow!); his interiors; his professional demeanor (as seen through his website and writings).

Something in the Air

DSC_0549_JTHRFKathmandu had shed its night, the dark that descended as I walked alongside the Royal Palace, the dark that brought out the gargantuan bats, the dark that hid broken sidewalks and breaking streets. But as I walked the sleepiness out of my system that first morning, the monochrome grey light at six AM showed nothing more than small carrion birds fighting with the garbage. The city moved barely a twitch. With no real light, it didn’t seem alive.

Then the sun rose and the color took over. Streetsweepers – mothers tending children – wore bright pinks and reds and greens while they swished filth from the center of the road, their saris more vivid for the browns and greys of this brick and rock city they were set against. Young boys with conical straw baskets tied to bicycles as old as dirt used shovels to scoop it up and cart it away. The women swatted and swept, clucking all the while with each other and to their toddlers, and never lost their feminine dignity in the process.

Schoolgirls traipsed up the road in twos and threes, their ochre saris contrasting with their Nepali faces. Perhaps it was less the Nepali-ness of their faces that clashed with the saris than the youth of them. Round, glowing faces they had, cheeks with a ducky flush, unbeguiling eyes – their faces were young but the dress ages old. A vendor parked outside the gates of their school sold pencils, erasers and limp notebook paper common all over the subcontinent.

The smaller streets came to life. Men brushed their teeth at open taps, children wandered sleepy-eyed out of cave-like doorways, women splashed small pots and tin cups in filthy buckets of slime. The shop clerks started their day, some by rolling up a shutter of steel and opening their storefront, others by squatting on the sidewalk and folding back the cloth that covered their basket of papayas or lettuce or bunched carrots carried in through the night. A butcher hacked away at the carcass of a goat that had the scrawny look of a skinned dog, only recognizable by the cloven feet splayed across the steel cutting table. Underneath, exposed necks of wet, still-feathered chicken corpses leaked blood into pools that drained in thick rivulets down the sidewalk. The scene looked like death.

There was beauty as well, to counter the grim reality of daylight in this grey city. The clerk at the Royal Singi hotel counter. She had none of the round ruddiness of the schoolgirls; instead her face was slimmed by adulthood, with a honey tawniness throughout her cheeks, neck and partially bared shoulders. Her slim nose held a tiny jewel in the side that matched the tikal in her forehead. She asked questions appropriate for a hotel clerk used to catering to foreigners: where are you from, where are you going, how long, why so short, what do you do in Tokyo, when will you come back to Nepal – and I in turn told the bellhop beside us how beautiful she was. She, bolder than I, thanked me directly.

Then the two stewardesses on Ghorka Air as we flew into the Terai. Modest to daring skirt lengths, mascara’d eyes and taut bellies peeking out of sari-styled tops. Each had a slash of red dye in the center part of their hair; alas, they were married. Crouching, they walked the length of a cabin not high enough to stand straight up in, passing out candies to suck and cotton balls to plug into our ears. Their hands were thin, fine like a piano player’s; their nails a dark burgundy.

And the 22-year old mother of two. A shopkeeper in Sauraha on the border of the Royal Chitwan National Park, a tiny, dusty settlement in the southern Terai. She had two rows of clean, even teeth that rivaled the whites of her eyes for brightness. Her youngest sat on the floor in a brown shirt and no bottoms, his own dusky bottom the color of his shirt. Her shop could have been a century old; the shelves were dark rotting wood, the ceiling thatch; the floor uneven concrete. Light came from the open front wall and a three-foot high backdoor her older child stood shyly within. I traded 100-yen bracelets I had brought with me from Tokyo. She had better on her wrist already but liked the newness of my goods, and when she put them on and shook them, her youngest squeaked in excited wonder at the sound they made. She smiled and cooed back at him in her own Nepali baby talk. They mirrored each other’s glee, and I was immediately smitten.

There was something in the sounds of Nepal, something in the light of day; there was something in the air.

[This article was originally published many years earlier.]

The Ephemeral Cherry Blossom

[this post was originally written in 2011 just after the Fukushima disaster, updated here in certain senses.]

Here in Shimoda, along the southern coast of Japan about three hours south of Tokyo, we’re still a ways from spring, but we’re still on the verge of the most beautiful of seasons: that of the cherry blossom.


Though it is only February, this coming weekend marks the first real blossom-viewing weekend for us in Shimoda. We are blessed here to be home to the early-blooming variety of blossom called variously “mountain cherry” or “Kawazu cherry,” which blooms in February instead of April. This weekend, given the warm weather, will bring out the first large scale blooming in parks and along water ways, and will be the first of maybe three weekends where we call friends, meet in large groups of those we see regularly and those we don’t see often, and drink and tell stories and gaze at the flowers.

From all these trees

in salads, soups, everywhere

cherry blossoms fall

I like the image of this haiku, of blossoms falling into your soup or salad. Basho’s words, written 320-odd years ago, reveal a very modern sensitivity. With my friends it is much more often a glass of sake or beer that gets hit, but this is no less a pleasant experience. I get the feeling Basho would have approved.


The oak tree stands

noble on the hill even in

cherry blossom time

The image I see here is stoicism, a trait many people in Japan have to exercise regularly. The oak tree, long a symbol of strength and longevity, is also now a symbol of the Japanese person up in Fukushima, Miyage or Ibaraki, who has been uprooted, shaken to the core, and now, in the brightest of seasons, must stand stoic and deal with that which nature has wreaked.

No blossoms and no moon,

and he is drinking sake

all alone!

This is a sad one. In a time of catastrophe, how can you see the beauty of a flower when your friends or family may be gone? How can you appreciate a new season when you can’t even imagine what the next day will bring. Those people now forced to live in refugee centers, surrounded by others, crowded together,..  yet some of them, irreversibly alone.


The cherry blossom is a symbol of beauty in Japan, particularly because of its frailty and ephemeral quality; it only lasts a few short days before it is gone. In this season of change, the concepts of ephemeral and poetic cherry blossoms and the people of Japan are tied tightly together. This season, let friends gather and laugh and appreciate the cherry blossoms,… and a moment later grow quiet.

Elephants on the Web


Remembering things: elephants do it well. We learn to do it young and some do it well. Some don’t do it well, and some, well, some lose their edge at some point. The Internet however, now she’s a machine when it comes to memory.

I’ve been actively online since 1994. I used to build websites; I used to be an active reader and commentator; I was a editor/writer/blogger for some time as well. I *know* there are traces of me scattered higgly-piggly all over the Web. So I shouldn’t be surprised to see that The Machine has remembered some of my words here and there.

A while back, for kicks, I put my URL into Google. As I expected, links to most pages within my site came up. But a few unexpected links came up as well, content and comments that I hadn’t intended for publication or distribution. Here are a few of the hits returned (and to my great relief, nothing embarrassing or unsavory, since, well, who hasn’t posted something like that at one time or the other):


  1. Doublesquare, a company associated with the developer that built an earlier website, using that site as an advertisement for their design services. I like the showcase theme of this link, and the number of detailed images they highlight, like the logo and key photos. They’re “representin’.”


  1. Bookreview.com, a review of my novel, from 2006. This tickles me to no end. The only distribution for my novel came from word of mouth, and me plying friends and relatives with free copies, so to see a still-living page… saying of the novel: “Excellent!” and “the characterization is suberb” is rewarding in countless ways.


Finally, a video I put up for the benefit of a bunch of palm enthusiasts (that’s the tree, not the upturned hand). I’m an amateur grower, and being in Japan, it was great to find this program on a local channel highlighting not only a Japanese artifact (the brush shown at the end) that I have in my own home, but the fact that it’s made from palm fiber in little cottage-industry shops in rural Japan. https://youtu.be/54xXYqssiIQ

Two Weeks in India


To say it was eye-opening is an understatement. To comment on the weird, ugly, gross, dirty aspects of India is really easy because those things are everyday, in your face, and memorable, but it also does a disservice to the country and people, which have so much more of what is good and great. I’m trying to come to terms with ”how” to describe something — anything — in a pithy way that doesn’t just come out ”the place smelled like human excrement, but the people were always smiling.” Saying it that way gives the impression of a lone Indian squatting on the tracks beside the train taking his morning dump in front of God, Shiva, and everyone, and smiling like a fool as a trainload of passengers rolls by.


Come to think of it, that’s exactly what you might see on any given morning. So I think about specific places and what I experienced there, and how to balance the beautiful with the bizarre in the retelling. At Jaipur, for example, also known as The Pink City because of the ordinance that all exterior walls of all buildings (within the old city) must be painted pink, we saw 400-year old palaces (pink ones!), we saw the world’s largest sundial, built 300 years ago by a Raj genius and keeping time to the minute even today, and we saw a dead dog in the middle of a busy backroad lay untouched and swelling in the Indian heat for two full days while cars continued to drive around it, people stepped around it, children played around it.


There was a lot of that, and it’ll take some time for me to learn how to tell the stories. I think I have to go back.



JL Tyler PhotographyI was in Tunisia in September 2001, and despite the short period, saw much that impressed me. I’d wondered about Africa for years, not knowing what it held, and yet wanting to see it – any of it, all of it. The little I saw I’ve turned into a few vignettes which I hope you enjoy.

I have not included the entire text as these stories will be published in the near future. If you wish to read the full text or enquire about publishing rights, please contact me here.

1. Necessary Evil

The Oriental Palace Hotel wasn’t the most impressive hotel in Tunis – that distinction belongs to the strangely inverted Grand Hotel du Lac (a structure resembling a pyramid stood on its point) – but it was listed as “five star” in our guide book and, with exchange rates, was affordable. We booked a room from Italy and looked forward to Mediterranean Africa’s first class treatment.

2. The Spice of Life

Tunis is a quiet place, saccharine even, a market town of amber hues and the scent of sandalwood. Habib Bourguiba, the main boulevard, is a tree-lined concourse illuminated in the night by art-nouveau fixtures (think: arches over entrances to the Paris Metro); they turn the city a golden-orange like the Saharan sand. Lining the avenue are moderately-priced hotels, artisan collectives, the city’s only mall, and an off-beat church or two.

3. Attacking Carthage

We walked in Tunis, and it was always hot. We left the Hotel Carlton and walked west. It was mid-morning. At the newsagent stands alongside the road – little cardboard kiosks catering to walkers and drivers pulling over to the sidewalk – the glossy magazine covers were rippling and warped from the blistering, direct sunlight.

The train was stifling, a poorly-ventilated local linking Tunis to Carthage and beyond. Despite the rich, eastern suburbs it eventually served – La Marsa, Sidi Bou Said, Le Corniche – it shuttled a motley crew to points prior. We passed through areas with names like La Goulette (the gullet), Le Bac and Le Kram, where locals got on, sweated, and got off. At Le Bac, the doors smashed open beside us, and a grizzled face with one pulpy socket empty of its eye poked in. He was filthy; his hands were scabbed and black from grime. He held fast to the doors as he swung his head inward and about. When he entered the car fully, the doors rattled shut behind him and he moved through the crowd muttering prayer, or curse, or entreaty.

4. Cafe Life

Tunisian cafes are dark and suffused with a smoky moodiness, and though they lack the life and light of Paris, they are no less integral to one’s day. The Cafe Ezzitouna is within the medina and is dark and oaken rich in color. It is quietly respectable (its name means “The Cafe of the Mosque of the Olive Tree”), and its customers are Medina shop clerks on their breaks. Dim yellow lights light wooden benches along the walls; some are covered with flat, green cushions, some are bare. Every few spaces there is a round pedastle table with copper inlay, and on each is an ashtray. The wet heat of the room is barely disturbed by the dark fan rotating against the carved ceiling, a pattern of squares and crosses. People talk softly if they talk at all.