We have but a single moment at our disposal. Let us transform that moment into eternity.
A new year, new paths, new dreams, new visions, new photographs. Framed moments, captured, transformed.
Overnight, the Halloween pumpkins and orange signs morphed into Christmas trees, tinsel, colored baubles and glittering lights. Appearing far sooner than necessary, these too will vanish throughout the city, abruptly, on the day after Christmas, replaced by more sober, traditional decorations made of bamboo, pine and straw, to see in the new year.
The new year waits on the horizon, full of promise and surprises. For now, it remains an unwritten book, something to look forward to. It can wait. December is a time to wrap up, and to decompress, reflect, rest, and play. An eventful 2019 draws to a close; so too the first year of my post-Instagram snapshots. This blog has been for the last twelve months a virtual outlet for personal musings, without the pressure, annoyances or restrictions of Instagram and its ilk. My own place to decompress, reflect, rest and play.
And as I wrap up for the year, I look forward to publishing more snapshots in the new year. Until then, happy holidays.
An unseasonally wintery day, wet and icy, bleak. A perfect day to escape to the warmth and stimulation of a gallery. I visited the TOP museum to look at photos by an artist I hadn’t heard of: Eiko Yamazawa.
Osaka-born Yamazawa was a creative pioneer who had a long, somewhat unusual life for a Japanese woman of her time. Born in 1899, she studied painting before traveling alone to America in her 20s, where she took up photography. Back in Japan in the 1930s she established a successful commercial photography practice specializing in portraiture.
She returned to America after the war and, influenced by mid-century modernism and abstract art, she herself started experimenting with photography as abstract art. From colorful work with echoes of Miró and Matisse to quirky still life studies and minimalist monochrome abstractions that bring to mind the suprematist art of Kazimir Malevich, Yamazawa’s photography morphed into art, her photographs’ content became color and form.
In 1960 she shut down her commercial practice to focus on her art. She traveled and studied in the US and Europe and, at an age when most people would be easing up, she continued to hone her vision through the 1970s and 80s with her ongoing What I am doing series of photographs. She worked and exhibited well into old age and died in 1995 aged 96.
It seems that artists make wonderful photographs when adopting the camera as a tool of expression. Cartier-Bresson, David Hockney, Man Ray and Andy Warhol, to name a few, have explored the boundaries of the medium. Yamazawa’s work is no less interesting ― or inspiring.
akibare – 秋晴れ – autumn sunshine
After the scorching summer heat and the relentless typhoon rains, the mild temperatures, blue skies and gentle sunlight of autumn are like some kind of paradise. Akibare. The days are shorter yet ideal for getting out and about. If you have a camera at hand all the better; there’s a lot of beauty in the autumn light.
Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.
— Pico Iyer
I’ve been wanting to read Iyer’s latest book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, for some months now but his is the type of lyrical, philosophical prose that requires a certain mood. The atmosphere of the season appears to reflect the tone of this book, so this seems like a good time to engage with it.
Tokyo reveals its beauty in darkness, when the lights come on. Radiant and seductive, it’s illuminated by colored neon, glowing lights and luminous LED screens; an edgy, high-tech metropolis shaped by a sleek sci-fi reality. A closer look shows it’s also a city of countless pensive, lyrical spaces: atmospheric alleys and contemplative shrines, time-worn storefronts and timeless arcades: places that belong to a simpler past, that color our waking dreams of Tokyo.
Tokyo is one vast time-piece. Its little alleys and great avenues, its forgotten canals and temples, make up the face of a great watch. Its months and weeks are beat out in traffic bearing into the capital from the northern rice paddies. The city’s hours and minutes and seconds are meted out in buildings torn down and the ones that rise; in land reclaimed from the sea. Time is counted out with incense sticks; with LEDs; with atomic lattice clocks. It is measured by the lives of all who move within the Yamanote Line that circles the city’s old heart and the Kantō Plain beyond.
With this lyrical passage, Anna Sherman introduces The Bells of Old Tokyo, a fascinating book in which the author travels across Tokyo searching for the bells that were used to announce the time in the city before the advent of modern time-keeping. During these explorations, Sherman delves into the rich cultural and socio-political history of Tokyo to draw a rich and insighful portrait of the city through the ages.
Subtitled Travels in Japanese Time (or Meditations on Time and a City, depending on the edition), Sherman’s book touches on people, places and events through time, from the days of the Shoguns to 21st Century Japan, while also investigating time itself as a relative concept. The book’s chapters mix beautifully poetic musings and memories with rigorously researched historical facts, drawing on the knowledge of myriad advisors and written references — listed in the exhaustive notes, bibliography and acknowledgements sections, which offer their own historical nuggets or avenues to further insight. And between her wanderings, Sherman periodically takes time out to share with the reader her chats with the owner of her favorite Tokyo coffee shop.
The Bells of Old Tokyo is Sherman’s first book. Not quite a guide book, not exactly a novel, not really a historical text, nor a book of poetry, it’s a singular creation: a gloriously messy construction. For anyone familiar with Tokyo, it’s a rewarding read, and an engaging addition to the body of work on Japan and its culture.
PHOTO: Bell of Time, Tenryū-ji, Shinjuku
Our bell was different from the other bells, because it rang half an hour before the other ones did. That way the samurai who came to Naitō Shinjuku to play around in the pleasure quarters could get back to Edo Castle before the curfew sounded. It was called Oidashi O-Kane: the Get Back Home Bell.
Kanji, the pictograms borrowed from China that comprise the bulk of the Japanese syllabary, frustrate learners of Japanese with their number and complexity, but are beautiful graphic creations, lending themselves to various exquisite calligraphic interpretations.
A striking example of this is the distinctive station signage created with duct tape by an amateur graphic artist in his sixties, Shuetsu Sato. Sato san is a railway employee who started crafting his creations to help him in his job of directing commuters through the labyrinth that is Shinjuku Station. His kanji have a bold pop sensibility, he mixes blunt edges and curved corners in his lettering, and the use of tape and working to a grid dictates the spacing of the pictograms’ forms. In addition to their beauty and artistic merits, the signs are also easily spotted and read from a distance: perfect illustrations of good signage design. In recognition, the professionals have even given his typeface a name, dubbing it Shuetsu Sans.
Chris Gaul has written a detailed piece on Sato san that contains plenty of examples of his graphic works.
Early August. The midday temperature is 34° My weather app tells me it feels like 44° and the humidity is 64%. Midsummer in Tokyo; a fever dream.
A cyclist turns the corner, and I watch my reflection move across her face visor. The sun on my skin, burning in the relentless heat of the day. Walking in the shade of a park to a soundtrack of invisible chirping cicadas; the air is still. In the welcoming controlled climate of a department store, old folks escape the heat, like the urban climate refugees they are. It’s said that much of south Asia will be too hot to live in by the end of the century. Sweat runs down my brow. In the long afternoon shadows a young boy patiently devours a small mountain of flavored shaved ice kakigori. His mother sits beside him sipping a seasonal fruit frappucino. Elsewhere a mass of people spills out of a train’s refrigerated carriages onto a stifling station platform, the doors impatiently closing behind them.
Are you sure
That we are awake?
It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream.
Dusk. The dark indigo skies are streaked with pink. A waiter splashes bowls of cooling water on the pavement outside the entrance to his just-opened restaurant. Animated voices drift from a rooftop beer garden. Faded paper lanterns hang in a narrow alley, their dull glow diffused by smoke escaping from a restaurant grill. Vibrant pink watermelon slices are dotted with black seeds glistening with the juice of the fruit. Young women in boldly patterned yukata add dots of color to the night. Fireworks beckon. Explosions of shimmering light. The city exhales and I find myself in a maze of empty streets, enveloped in the balmy warmth and calming silence of midnight.
Series of shadow boxes line the walls of a rail underpass by Nakano Station. They often display community information, images of neigborhood festivals, or colorful drawings rendered by local elementary school students. For the time being they’ve become a contemporary art gallery.
Tokyo photographer—and self-described non-fiction writer—Inbe Kawori (インベ カヲリ) has commandeered one wall of the underpass to exhibit a selection of his works.
The edgy urban photographs, gritty environmental portraits of women, sometimes surreal, often eroticized, with faint echoes of Daido and Araki, printed to fill the display cases, are perfectly placed here on the streets of Nakano, with its jumble of old and new restaurants, stores and homes, its congested commercial center, quiet residential areas and lively entertainment district.
I’ve had passing thoughts about this kind of art exhibition, but I’m really impressed with the actuality of it. Here’s to more street art.
Having a nice time. Wish you were here.
Back when people on vacation sent postcards, you could almost guarantee that some version of this message would be penned on the back. On the front, a glossy image of a city skyline, an iconic landmark, or a beach, perhaps a sunset. Romantic visions of faraway places. The typical travel cliches.
The cliches are all around in Hawaii, but it’s no theme park, so too are indicators of social discord.
Sleeping homeless bodies strewn along Waikiki’s luxuriant beach parks. Armed robberies and assaults reported in the local paper. Labor disputes and demands for a living wage in the hospitality industry. Indigenous protests against construction projects. Then there’s the rampant tourism. Mainland Americans in particular make good use of their youngest state, while Japanese visitors seem to consider it an extension of their own island archipelago.
But it’s the romantic visions we aspire to when we travel: the exoticism of a distant land and culture; the romance of following in the footsteps of earlier explorers, artists and writers; the beauty of all those visual cliches.
This glimpse of paradise is what I was looking for when shooting images of the place. Hawaii. Cliches everywhere you look—and frankly, who cares. When all is said and done…
Having a nice time. Wish you were here.
Pancakes, pizza, popcorn, pretzels. Every season some new food fad sweeps through Japan’s cultural laborotary and then spreads out to the rest of the country. These fads are identified by the long lines of patient young customers waiting to get a taste of the latest and greatest. Some, like the now classic pancakes and pizza, are absorbed into the local food culture and enjoyed by all manner of people; others, like popcorn and pretzels, fade back into their relative obscurity as the lines shrink and the specialty shops eventually shutter their doors.
These days people are getting in line for tapioca tea. The popularity of the Taiwanese drink also known as bubble tea or pearl tea, which has been available locally, here and there, for a couple of decades, has exploded as increased tourism and social media platforms like Instagram have fueled its appeal, and it seems like nowadays in many neighborhoods there’s a new tea shop on every other street corner. Worldwide, tapioca tea is projected to become a $3 billion dollar industry within a couple of years; locally, all types of retailers―everyone from convenience stores to the yakuza―are looking to cash in on what appears to be morphing into another Japanese culinary staple.
While the photo above was taken a couple of days ago in Tokyo, the photo below was taken in Melbourne in 2011.
On New Year’s Eve, as the hours gave way to 2012, I snapped a photo of some young women and others in front of a city drink stall.
Another time, another place, and it’s tapioca tea, yes, but this photo is special to me. As I wrote in the introduction to a visual essay that it is part of, this particular photo was instrumental in my journey as a photographer.
Tokyo’s rail system is not only an engineering and logistical marvel, its stations, platforms and carriages are also a photographic wonderland.
Tokyo’s stations, with their adjacent shopping malls, are the town squares of the city and its train lines, more than its streets, are the city’s thoroughfares. Commuting is woven into the fabric of everyday life here—even photographers need to ride the rails. And so, opportunities regularly present themselves to create some visual poetry.
Slipping through the door of a local neighborhood Thai restaurant in Tokyo, I found myself transported through the sights, sounds and smells of the place to the streets and khlongs of Bangkok, back to younger, adventurous days of cheap guest houses, dusty bus stations and idyllic beaches. For a few moments I lost myself in several years of past travels. I was a time traveller.
Travel in any form is a wonderful tonic for the soul. With summer approaching, I felt, however, that I needed some actual travel and ultimately decided to do it in Hawaii. When researching a destination, guide books and websites are good for the nuts and bolts stuff, obviously, but literature helps provide a sense of a place, its culture and history. So, after booking tickets to Oahu, I bought a copy of James A. Michener’s Hawaii.
I hadn’t read any of Michener’s best-sellers before. Hawaii, published in 1959, has a verbose literary style that is dated and, at a thousand pages, could use a good editor, but Michener spins an engrossing epic tale, the kind you happily get lost in. The long chapters’ episodic narratives are linked by the genealogical threads of its many characters and tell the history of the pacific islands, from the violent forces of nature that formed them over millenia, through the arrival of the first human inhabitants by canoe from Bora Bora, to the 19th Century, with the introduction of Christianity and the country’s annexation to America, and the next century, with its world war and the post-war events that culminated in Hawaii becoming the fiftieth state in the union.
The book didn’t just give me some small understanding of the historical currents that shaped Hawaii, it also reminded me of the adventure stories I enjoyed reading as a teen, when I travelled vicariously through time and space: to such places as feudal Japan and 19th Century Hong Kong with James Clavell’s Shogun and Tai-Pan; along the Mississippi River with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; to post-war north Africa with Paul Bowles‘ The Sheltering Sky.
Removing the rose-tinted glasses, it’s clear that travel isn’t what it used to be; today it’s an eight trillion dollar industry, where travelers are herded from place to place, sights and activities are ticked off, and shopping is prime. Still, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of arriving in a new land for the first time.
Books like Hawaii aren’t fashionable these days. Mass tourism, global connectivity, streaming video services and interactive games have deemed them all but obsolete. But their fictions can still ignite the imagination and the books noted above and others like them turn readers into time travellers.
In poetry, slant rhymes are coupled words that don’t exactly rhyme but match rhythmically through assonance or consonance.
Slant Rhymes is also the title of a collaborative photography project and book by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. In Slant Rhymes the couple pair images — one from each photographer — to create visual or thematic harmony or tension, a visual assonance or consonance, a dialogue of sorts between the photographers and their work.
To a certain extent what I do is play with the world, but it’s disciplined play.
— Alex Webb
Listen to your photographs. They are often wiser than you are.
— Rebecca Norris Webb
This visual and thematic pairing occurs in many photobooks, any time there is more than a single image on a two-page spread. It isn’t necessarily collaborative; the images are usually created by the same photographer and the pairing is probably considered in terms of the book’s overall sequencing. Regardless, it’s one of the elements that, when done successfully, greatly enriches a photobook, increasing the drama or poetry on each page.
This pairing of images, it’s something I also enjoy doing.
This was such a Tokyo scene: the dramaticaly sunlit high-tech architecture, the sharply dressed businessman with his headphones and briefcase. I had to take a photo.
Initially I did very little processing on it: some exposure and color adjustments and some slight cropping: the photo above. I returned to it some days later and, looking at all the shapes and shadows, thought the image was too busy; it needed to be simplified. I decided to do a monochrome conversion. This looked a lot better to me; stripped of color the scene had greater focus and drama.
The white screens. On Tokyo‘s streets it’s rare to find such blank space as on those screens. They would typically be plastered in — or digitally screen — advertising. These thoughts led to me consider creating a double-exposure image using advertising imagery. The twin screens‘ resemblance to a pair of glasses started to suggest eyes — and I felt that, while obvious, this was a strong concept. I looked around the city streets for appropriate imagery to shoot. In the end I added some manga-inspired eyes from images decorating the front of a pachinko parlor. I experimented with the idea of combining color eye imagery on the main photo, but it is quite busy visually with its interplay of architectural forms and shadows, even in black and white, so I converted the eyes to monochrome and kept the overlay blend very subtle. I’m happy with the final double-exposure image. I think the modified screens add an evocative futuristic and enigmatic atmosphere to the scene, opening it up to a wider range of interpretations. It should make a nice print.
The construction going on in Tokyo seems to be morphing into art these days. Like some Christo inspired wrapping project, Shibuya’s south side currently has more negative space than buildings as the neighborhoods lining the railway tracks are torn down to make way for some newer and no doubt taller towers. For now the area has the look of a partially rendered graphic environment.
I like stopping by Fujifilm Square when I’m in Roppongi. Aside from all the new Fujifilm products on display and an interesting collection of cameras and films from the various eras of photography, the gallery always has a couple of photographic exhibitions on. Sometimes they’re forgettable, more often they’re impressive.
Currently, the main show is called Gelatin Silver Session, with works by thirty-nine local photographers that highlight the beauty of the silver-halide chemical printing process. There’s a lot of talent on display here, but the standout work for me is the one above.
Stretching along one wall are nine images collectively titled Couvent de la Tourette Le Corbusier, by Mikiya Takimoto. These grouped images of abstract geometric forms are from his project Le Corbusier, a poetic study of the interior of a convent designed by the Swiss-French architect and completed near Lyon in 1959. At first sight, somewhat incongruously in a room full of monochrome photographs, the images look like works of oil on canvas, but in fact they are beautifully colored and printed photos. While a single image would be intriguing, it’s the curation and the juxtaposition of the photos that makes this a striking artwork.
I’ve never been much of a napper; I tend to do all my sleeping at night. Napping isn’t really part of the 9–5 culture of the English-speaking world, despite the “power-nap” that has been adopted by certain corporate circles. People in Mediterranean countries know how to nap. Especially in the summer, when towns and cities all but shut down for a few hours, to avoid the searing heat in the middle of the day, letting people enjoy a leisurely civilized lunch and afternoon nap before they rise refreshed ready for the second part of their day. The siesta is in fact a part of life in many countries with hot climates and some without. In Japan, most of which isn’t all that hot, napping has been elevated to an art form: it’s performed just about any time or place, though quiet cafes, large department stores and climate-controlled train carriages seem to be preferred locations. After all my years here, I’m still impressed by the ease and speed with which locals can fall asleep In public.
Shirokanedai can boast that it once housed feudal lords and royalty. Today it is an unremarkable upscale residential suburb of anonymous apartment towers and other forgettable buildings. But in the midst of this lie 20 hectares of forest, otherwise known as the Institute for Nature Study of the National Museum of Science. Smaller neighboring grounds contain the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, a 1930s Art Deco gem—originally buit as the residence of Prince Yasuhiko—created by Japanese and French designers and artists, and surrounded by lawns and picturesque European and Japanese gardens, the latter featuring a postcard-perfect traditional teahouse overlooking a pond.
Adding to its cosmopolitan feel, this urban oasis also has a modern French restaurant on the grounds and a sleek cafe in the museum annex, both offering tranquil views through their expansive glass walls. The teahouse offers a more traditional experience, hosting a limited number of classical tea ceremonies throughout the year.
The museum is currently exhibiting a series of Surrealist-inspired works in TOSHIKO OKANOUE, Photo Collage : The Miracle of Silence.
We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.
Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
— Junichiro Tanizaki
In Praise of Shadows — originally published in 1933 — is Tanizaki’s essay on the impact of modern life and western technologies such as electricity on Japan’s classical aesthetics and way of life. His essay is both a meditation on the subtlety and simplicity of elements of the traditional culture he praises and a lament for the passing of that way of life.
Tanizaki’s musings are full of lyricism and romance, but the reality is that the world of shadows that he admired was, even then, ceding to the convenience and utility offered by modernization. Now more than seven decades later, that world is all but forgotten.
As much as I love the convenience of modern technologies, as a photographer I can appreciate the antimodernist aesthetics of Tanizaki’s lost world and the beauty of shadows. In photography, as in other visual arts, shadows help to sculpt the light. They can frame subjects in striking ways. They can create depth or construct a composition for the lens. They can create drama or mystery or embellish an image with lyrical patterns and textures. Tanizaki got it right: Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.
It’s that time of year again. The sakura trees are blooming and blossom-viewing fever has gripped the populace as certain parks and waterways and avenues are invaded for hanami. It’s easy to be cynical, but the delicate beauty of the somei-yoshino trees in full bloom and the ephemerality of their blossoms is a major work of poetry — created by nature and repeated verse after verse as the blossom season spreads across the country — and in Japan especially the spectacle has long been an inspiration for the poets.
they fall in the dreams
of sleeping beauty
What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.
Thanks for all
Expressing my gratitude to blossoms
at the parting.
On this topic: a fascinating deep dive by Naoko Abe into Japan’s cherry trees and the culture surrounding the ubiquitous somei-yoshino — or you can dip into a short photo essay of mine from a few years ago.
Cute, adorable, pretty…Kawaii.
In Japanese culture, kawaii is not just for kids; it’s everywhere. In the country that normalized the idea of comics and cartoons for adults, it’s no surprise that kawaii is part of the aesthetic. It’s in the clothes that adorn the ever-popular kawaii miniature pet dogs. It’s in the cute mascots created by all kinds of organizations, from municipalities to the armed forces. It’s on billboards, safety notices and other signage. It’s in fashion and industrial and graphic design. It’s in advertising and music and art. And of course, it’s in manga and anime, where it likely all began.
Tokyo has for decades now been considered a driver of global fashion trends. Designers and shoppers alike are inspired by its street culture and styles. Considering the city’s various cultures and subcultures and the increasing globalization of youth culture these days, when it comes to fashion, practically anything goes.
But Tokyo has a unique fashion history and Google’s Arts and Culture site has an interesting bit of cultural anthropology presenting fashion trends in a fairly detailed timeline from 1980 to 2017, looking at both imported western trends and home-grown looks and how these have evolved through the decades.
A few facts:
Edo, a small fishing village, grew to become the center of power in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s.
Edo was renamed Tokyo after the Emperor Meiji was relocated to the city in 1869.
Today, the greater Tokyo metropolitan area is the richest on earth; it’s also the most crowded.
Tokyo city houses more than eight million people, Tokyo prefecture more than 13 million, greater Tokyo more than 38 million – or close to a third of Japan’s population.
Metropolitan Tokyo covers some 845 square miles, greater Tokyo sprawls across 5240 square miles.
On average, around 16,000 people are crowded into each of these square miles.
Despite this, nearly half of the households in metropolitan Tokyo comprise just one person; in the central city regions more people live alone than not, and by 2030 it’s estimated that the number of single-person households will surpass 18 million.
Regardless of the demographic, social and economic reasons, these seem to me to be tragic numbers.
The visual density of Tokyo was overwhelming. In the first few weeks I just walked around in a daze, a lone foreigner bobbing along in neatly dressed crowds of dark-haired people, taking everything in with my eyes, before I learned how to speak properly or read. I just walked and walked, often losing my way in the maze of streets in Shinjuku or Shibuya. Much of the advertising was in the same intense hues as the azure skies of early autumn. I realized now that the colors in old Japanese woodcuts were not stylized at all, but an accurate depiction of Japanese light. Plastic chrysanthemums in burnt orange and gold were strung along the narrow shopping streets to mark the season. The visual barrage of neon lights, crimson lanterns, and movie posters was matched by the cacophony of mechanical noise: from Japanese pop tunes, advertising jingles, record stores, cabarets, theaters, and PA systems in train stations, and blaring forth from TV sets left on all day and night in coffee shops and restaurants.
Ian Buruma’s observation about his first time in Tokyo in 1975 was one of many that resonated with me when I read A Tokyo Romance. It could just as easily have been my own description of the city two decades later when I first wandered around Tokyo’s streets alone in a kind of hallucinatory daze, uncomprehending yet stimulated by the seemingly endless stream of sights, sounds and movement around me. Buruma’s book unlocked a nostalgia in me for those sensations, ones that cannot be relived; I’ve become all too familiar with the city—and it is not the same city that I, or Buruma, first encountered. It’s still a beguiling place, but with its prevalent foreign-language signage, tourist information booths and money exchanges; its proliferation of international tourists and workers; its imported and home-grown global brand stores and ubiquitous Starbucks and McDonalds outlets, it has in this more globally connected era at least a veneer of familiarity, even for the first time visitor.
But there was something theatrical, even hallucinatory about the cityscape itself, where nothing was understated; representations of products, places, entertainment, restaurants, fashion, and so on were everywhere screaming for attention.
Chinese characters, which I had studied so painstakingly at Leyden University, loomed high in plastic or neon over freeways or outside the main railway stations, on banners hanging down from tall office buildings, on painted signs outside movie theaters and night clubs known as ”cabarets,” promising all manner of diversions that would have been hidden from sight in many Western cities. In Tokyo, it seemed, very little was out of sight.
Everywhere, cranes pierce the skyline, shroud-covered buildings appear or disappear as if in a time-lapse, new utilitarian concrete and glass cubes replace old timber and tile back-street dwellings, blank fenced-off voids disrupt the visual rhythm of city blocks. In Shibuya, entire neighborhoods have been razed and are being rebuilt. Wherever I look it seems the city is being pulled apart and put back together anew. Tokyo has never been a sentimental city — redevelopment is nothing new to a city defined by its dynamism — but this current chapter of construction leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics feels like the adrenalin-fueled, last gasp of a gambler throwing in all his chips on his lucky number.
While I can appreciate the romantic notions of winter, I barely tolerate its harsh reality. And so with the initial stirrings of spring, things start to look a whole lot better.
Risshun (立春)—according to Japan’s traditional calendar, the one that famously comprises 72 micro-seasons that poetically label natural transitions throughout the year—is the marker that announces the start of spring in early February. Right on cue, the sun has upped its intensity a notch and temperatures have risen slightly, while the plum trees have already started to blossom and the days are noticeably a little longer. Although it’s too early to pack away winter coats, it feels good to know there are some increasingly pleasant days ahead. These photos of jizō statues and ume blossoms at a local temple were taken during risshun.
Japan’s taxis are an iconic part of the visual landscape of its cities. Nissan Cedrics and Toyota Crowns like the one above have shuttled passengers to their destinations since the 1990s. They were subsequently joined by Toyota’s Prius and some other makes and models, but Crowns still make up the bulk of Japan’s cabs, their boxy bodies gleaming red, yellow, aqua, green, grey, blue or black on the city streets.
A couple of years ago a successor to these classic cabs was introduced. The Toyota JPN Taxi is a squat, high-roofed, hybrid fueled hatchback that looks like a sleek, compact and thoroughly modern reincarnation of London’s traditional black cab. With its distinctive silhouette it’s set to become a future transportation icon, but I’m going to miss those colorful sedans.
The best artists are auteurs, their work easily recognizable. And so, budding image makers are often advised to develop an individual style. I’m not convinced true style is something that can be manufactured; I believe it comes with practice and experimentation and time.
To this end, it’s rewarding to study the works of visual artists who have mastered their craft and have a distinctive style, whether it’s Salgado, Leiter or Addario; Caravaggio, Hopper or Banksy; Tarantino, Kubrick or Ozu.
For instance, Yasujiro Ozu’s unique intimate films show a remarkably coherent and disciplined visual and narrative style. Recurring themes, elliptical story structures, formally framed shots, limited focal lengths, minimal camera movement, particular editing transitions and pacing, deliberate compositions and use of specific colors—red is a favorite, and what are known as the “pillow shots” that punctuate his narratives: contemplative frames or sequences of objects, empty rooms, views through windows, architecture, natural elements, and so on that are placed throughout the narratives to convey subtext or emphasise emotions or themes within the films.
In photography, such meditative still-life shots can add similar texture and depth to photo essays and books. With all this in mind, I went out to take some photos. Of course, without a narrative for context, the photos can’t serve as pillow shots, but as a practice, the task becomes an interesting exercise in creating from another point of view, in this case an effort to see through the eyes of Ozu.
I’ve seen this view of Shinjuku countless times, but the afternoon light on this occasion gave the scene nice depth, so I snapped a single frame with my iPhone.
I enjoy editing photos on my phone: I like the simplicity, the immediacy, and the tactility of the process. When editing I rarely use presets unless I’m doing monochrome conversions. They often lack subtlety and look artificial. There are exceptions. RNI Films is one. Their adjustment presets resemble analog films from Agfa, Fujifilm, Ilford, Kodak, Polaroid and Rollei. I couldn’t say how accurate these film emulations are; in fact, I don’t think fidelity to analog rendering is important, but I like their subtlety and how an image can be further tweaked by various editing sliders, including one to reduce a preset’s strength and one to add grain.
The above image was enhanced with an RNI Films Agfa Vista 100 negative film preset. The images below show Fuji Astia 100F, Ilford Delta 100, Fuji Instax, and Kodachrome 50’s presets. All images have had additional minor adjustments made in the RNI Films app.
Late last year I began looking for a compact camera that I can carry around with me when out and about: dining at a restaurant, wandering in and out of shops, or running errands. Times when a bigger camera can be an annoyance.
I appreciate the ease with which I can use my iPhone for spontaneous photography: its size, connectivity and choice of built-in editing apps are wonderful, but no phone yet beats a large camera sensor in image quality. So I researched and searched for a small camera with an APS-C sensor. As a fan of Fujifilm cameras, I had my heart set on an X80 with a 24 MP sensor, but that camera never materialized. (I think it—or an X100 mini—should). I then thought about a used X70, but the local prices are now similar to what it cost two years ago when new. A Ricoh GR II was also a consideration. As were the GR III and Fujifilm XF10, but I felt both were disappointing when announced.
In the end, I picked up a cheap, used copy of Fujifilm’s old X-M1 in excellent condition. With an XF27mm pancake lens it’s not much bigger than an X70 and has a narrower focal length, which I prefer for an all-purpose lens, and it features a similar X-Trans CMOS sensor that is capable of delivering beautiful images. It lacks a viewfinder but has a useful articulating screen. It comes in handy when I’m out and about and unexpectedly see a photo I want to take, such as these two, captured recently while I was out to lunch. It’s a wonderful little instrument and I think I’m going to enjoy using it a lot.
In recent years, traditional kimono are rarely seen on the streets of Japan. Typically, they’re refined uniforms for bar and restaurant hostesses, ceremonial wear for weddings, funerals and the like, and the dress of choice for certain aficionados. But each year things are quite different on the second Monday in January. Seijin no Hi. Coming of age day, when all the twenty year olds in Japan are officially celebrated as adults; when the men don smart suits or the occasional haori and hakama ensemble and the women, their hair elegantly coiffed, join them at the local city halls and after-parties in their gorgeous furisode, parading on the city streets like exotic birds of paradise. The day is a holiday throughout the country, and it’s a perfect day to be out strolling.
Since 645, Japan’s history has been marked by the various eras which signify the reigns of its emperors and empresses. This year, on April 30, Emperor Akihito, who has reigned since 1989 in what is known as the Heisei era, will abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne, and a new era will begin with the ensuing enthronement of his son and heir.
The striking lobby gallery of the Tokyo International Forum is currently the site of a small but evocative exhibition that showcases the imperial enthronement ceremony of Emperor Taisho in 1909. It also features artefacts, dioramas and traditional aristocratic ceremonial dress from past Japanese eras.
Ben Smith is a British photographer. In September 2015 he started a podcast called A Small Voice, the title taken from W. Eugene Smith’s well-known quote:
Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or a group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought.
Ben Smith would probably consider himself a small voice in photography, but in this podcast series he has exchanged his camera for a microphone and initially every week, then fortnight, he has given voice to a different photographer and has in the process created a unique collection of thoughtful aural photographic portraits.
Unsurprisingly, practitioners of photojournalism and documentary feature widely, but the series – currently at 95 episodes – covers a range of disciplines and Smith has interviewed all kinds of photographers in various stages of their careers.
What I like about these interviews is that they have an honesty and unpretentiousness to them: No doubt Smith puts a lot of work into researching and producing these but his interviewing style is such that it feels like two photographers are sitting around chatting about one’s work and life for an hour or so, and when listening it feels like I’m in the room with them. Kudos to Smith for this project and I wish him nothing but success with his entertaining and though-provoking photographic masterwork.
Some of my favourite interviews are with Matt Black, Christopher Anderson and Laura El Tantawy. The Year in Review 2018 is the latest episode and is a good introduction to the series as it contains snippets of interviews conducted throughout 2018.
Blade Runner and Akira, two sci-fi classics of the 1980s, are both set in 2019. Despite the way things seem to be heading, our 2019 is fortunately nowhere near as grim as the worlds of those movies.
These pictures, showing imagery from Akira, which is set in Tokyo, were taken in Shibuya at the site of the old Parco building. I thought it would be thematically fitting to give them a sci-fi treatment, and made some minor color adjustments, then added some light flare and fog filter effects.
Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.
－ Robert Frank
Hope and despair. Politics these days. I bought myself Frank’s The Americans this year as a Christmas gift. A gesture of hope. Don’t know why I didn’t buy it any sooner. It’s arguably a masterpiece of visual storytelling. At the very least it’s an insprational resource.
New year in Japan, and it seems like everyone is at a shrine or temple. Hatsumode. A gesture of hope. Inspired, I took some black and white photos at Harajuku’s Togo Shrine.
This website exists as my portfolio, a place to display private photographic projects, galleries, writings and other works. It was never intended as a blog; hence comments and ‘like’ buttons have been disabled. Over the years, other social media platforms have complemented this portfolio, allowing me to post spontaneous works: snapshots, quotes, musings.
The best of these platforms was Instagram. I used to really enjoy Instagram. It was frictionless, immediate and fun. Lately, not so much. The last year or so I’ve been tolerating it, but now that my tokyo.grams project is completed, I no longer need to. So I’ve been looking for a replacement. But there isn’t one. Not for me. And so, with the dawn of a new year, I’ve added this blog to my site as a place for more spontaneous publishing: a place for phone snapshots and photos that don’t fit into more considered long-term projects, for photographic items of interest and interesting quotes, for unformed ideas and brief musings.
And in the spirit of social media I’m going to add ‘like’ buttons and comments to the posts in the hope that some interesting, civil discussions can unfold in the posts to come.
Happy New Year.