The beach. Sun and sand. Holidays and fun. Solitary strolls. Midnight dips. All good, baby. All good.
The beach. Sun and sand. Holidays and fun. Solitary strolls. Midnight dips. All good, baby. All good.
Find me a photographer who doesn’t love photos that require a second look?
I’m not talking about trick photography. A simple detail shot isn’t always obvious about what it’s revealing, requiring the viewer to look again, or a little more carefully. A broad environment shot (as above) can be equally interesting, after careful consideration.
Patterns are equally intriguing, when they’re taken out of the natural or manufactured world. Do you have a favourite pattern or perspective shot?
Hokkaido isn’t all grey seas and skies. Flashes of colour are few, true, but enjoyable when they come. You can see the brilliance this field of yellow sunflower brings, catching my eye from the highway as I speed through a recurring thunderstorm.
But sometimes the colour appears, and nothing else. Take this second picture, for example. That’s a brilliant sunset happening midst a grey, growling sea. And the dragon-shaped outcropping of rock is a dramatic counterpoint and foreground. But this wasn’t just a scene I stumbled upon; this is a man-made shot.
As I was driving along the coastal road on a western peninsula of Hokkaido, the sun was setting and I got a shot of the dramatic rays of light piercing the clouds and the sea. But that was it: a great sky, and a fairly boring everything else. Then, about 5 miles down the road, the dragon rock appears, but by now, the sky’s rays had disappeared, so the backdrop to the dragon was, well, a boring sea.
With a little creative layering and blending, I produced the shot you see there. The images were taken 11 minutes apart, on the same stretch of road and in the same forboding twilight. The shape of the dragon is very real, and is, I learned, a landmark on this stretch of road. But the combination of sky and rock wasn’t happenstance. And the dramatic splash of sea, sky and colour, of my own making. The creative thrill of photography isn’t just looking through the lens.
For this series of portraits, I’ve divided the group into two; today I’m putting up the vertical images, and in a future post I’ll put up the horizontal images. It’s for consistency’s sake that I do this. I’m sure you’ll agree the consistency is easier to browse (no re-orienting of your monitor required). But there’s another aspect of consistency, and this time a lack of it, that I want to point out. In these four you’re looking at now, two of them are shot from down low (and I really do like the effect), one is shot with a wide-angle lens, and the fourth is shot straight on.
This inconsistency is due to my style, which isn’t studio-based. I grabbed all these shots on the run, as it were, while travelling in India and the US, while drinking with friends in Japan. The series wasn’t conceived as a set; rather, the images were pulled together after the fact. Given my ‘druthers, I would love to act more professionally and create a series from scratch based on a consistent style, but I fear then I’d have to sacrifice the subject matter to achieve the style. Imagine trying to find a cow to stand high for me in a studio as I go low with the camera….
Now this last shot stands out, again for a lack of consistency, but this is something you the viewer can’t see. Let me briefly review what you can see: the subject is of course the first boy with penetrating eyes and a Mona Lisa-smile; then slightly back of him are two friends with serious trepidation written in their brows.
On the left side are railway tracks leading first to a cross, then to curves heading elsewhere,… these tracks help in leading the viewer’s eyes through and eventually out of the picture. But what you can’t see is the next minute of time after this shot was taken, and this is what I like: the boys break from their trepidation and wonderment and turn into laughing and giggling urchins mugging for the foreigner with a camera as they walk home from school. They are filled with fun and boyish charm, but none of the mystery that you see in the image. There is a complete lack of consistency in their behaviour – that which is captured here, and that which I retain in my mind’s eye.
Perhaps a lack of consistency is a good thing. Sometimes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
[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
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.