Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.
— Neil Gaiman
Windows themselves can be like short stories, inviting the imagination to enter other worlds and dreams and to travel to the far side of the universe.
Travel. Not too long ago it was a pedestrian experience; these last years it’s become impossible for many, less than pleasant and wrapped in the paperwork of pandemic-fueled bureaucracy for those who can. And still, even now, with travel can come moments of delight. For me, one of the small pleasures of arriving in a new destination has always been the anticipation of what lies behind the door of a new hotel room: the space and light; the furnishings and decor; the bathroom facilities. And then going to the window, perhaps looking over the balcony: sometimes delighted; at other times disappointed, but always gifted a new and different view.
The camera through history has often looked through windows, peering into rooms and also looking out. Recently I’ve been able to do a little bit of traveling, stay in a few hotel rooms, and with my camera look out their windows.
Since Japan was defeated in the Second World War the US military have maintained a presence in the country. Nowhere is this more evident than Okinawa, a prefecture that comprises less than one per cent of Japan’s land mass yet houses around seventy per cent of America’s Japanese military facilities.
It seems somewhat ironic then that this year — today, in fact — Okinawa celebrates the fiftieth anniverary of regaining its sovereignty, control of its lands transferred back to Japan in the Okinawa Reversion Agreement of 1971 — the transfer occurring on May 15, 1972. Something, it should be noted, that was achieved twenty years after the rest of the country. During that period Okinawa was practically a foreign nation: not only was the place governed by the Americans, the US dollar remained the prefecture’s official currency and locals needed a special travel permit to visit other parts of Japan.
Unsurprisingly, Okinawa has a complicated historical relationship with both the US military and Japan’s central government. The prefectural government, which feels both misunderstood and taken for granted, has a fractious relationship with both. While there’s an understanding of the strategic security benefits of the island bases and the population generally feel no antipathy to their American neighbors, who have over the decades had some impact on the islands’ culture, there are mixed feelings and resentments towards their bases given concerns about environmental damage, accidents, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, aircraft noise, crowding and crime. As for Japan, which annexed the independent Kingdom in 1879, Okinawans march to the beat of their own drum, a recent survey of residents showing that some seventy percent of people identified as Okinawan more than Japanese — something unthinkable in other parts of a country that has a unwavering sense of national identity.
Wherever I lay my hat
Home. Melbourne, Sydney, Tokyo, Osaka, Okinawa, for a few brief moments the Greek island of my ancestors, all have been and are in some sense home. Most recently, my base has been Melbourne, my original home, the city often rated the world’s most liveable. At certain times of the year it more than lives up to its reputation. When the weather is fine, the city’s glorious outdoor spaces, a kaleidoscope of greens, are pockets of paradise, and eateries across town, both big and small, serve up meals and drinks whose serious quality is tempered with a typically casual professionalism. The city’s streets provide a feast of visual stimuli. In Melbourne these last months I’ve been busy, but have found time to savor both the outdoor oases and the eateries. I’ve also managed to enjoy Melbourne’s streets and to make a series of photos of the city that has become the latest addition to my Wallpaper gallery.
Photography is by its nature a medium of record, framing and preserving fragments of the world around us: from personal milestones and historically significant events to this morning’s coffee and our latest sneakers.
Photography is also literally writing with light and there are photographers that are concerned more with the mood and expressiveness of their images than with any documentary aspects. Many of the lyrical images of photographic artists such as Rinko Kawauchi, Narelle Autio and Laura El-Tantawy verge on the abstract: luminous poems more than lucid documents. Sometimes it really is simply about capturing the beauty and intensity of the light.
8:57am Chatan Okinawa
Waiting for the shuttle bus to Naha Airport.
2:44pm Haneda Airport Tokyo
Arrived in Tokyo and caught another shuttle bus to Narita Airport.
4:04pm Narita Airport Chiba
Waiting for yet another shuttle to take us to our airport hotel.
5:46pm Narita City Chiba
After checking in at the hotel, headed to Narita station for some dinner.
8:45am Narita Airport Chiba
Back at an all but deserted terminal to check-in for our international flight.
11:22am Narita Airport Chiba
A handful of passengers get ready to board the plane. In all there are seven passengers and seven flight crew.
The bureaucracy and preparation for a trip during these times of reinforced international borders is far from a pleasant experience. Travel in times like this is best avoided. Sometimes, it can’t be. And here we are.
The Poetics of Space
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard’s philosophical meditation on architecture, concerns itself with memories, day-dreams, poetry, imagination; all tied to the spaces that we inhabit and experience, particularly the home. A photographer’s eye is attuned to these perceptions; it also regards the play of light, the juxtaposition of shapes, the interplay of lines and the presence of objects. And its gaze looks beyond the home to all spaces we inhabit and experience, inside and out.
The beach and the sights and sounds of summer. Swimwear: vibrant daubs of color on the sun-bleached sands. Umbrellas and beach tents scattered throughout. In the water, gorgeous inflatables: rings and tubes, seats and animals. Splashes and squeals of joy. Bursts of laughter and animated voices. Music drifting from a beachside bar and the muffled roar of jet skis offshore. Not this beach. Not this summer. Not this officially decreed state of emergency.
O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.
Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air—
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.
It’s only been ten months, yet it feels like…maybe not a lifetime, but it certainly feels like I’ve lived a life here. New routines were formed, friendships made, regular haunts frequented, notable destinations explored, local idiosyncracies discovered, seaside locales enjoyed.
It’s been a peculiar time to be here on Okinawa, the level of social and commercial activity repeatedly recalibrated under successive states of emergency, the place for the most part devoid of tourists, unusually quiet as a result. I’m heading to Tokyo next month. I’ll be there for a while — a few weeks, possibly longer — and there’s plenty to look forward to in Tokyo, but while I’m away I’ll miss life on this island with its easy rhythms and simple pleasures, its blend of cultures, warm weather and easily accessed beaches, an absence of crowds and a wealth of luxuriant open spaces. Needless to say I have plenty of photos to tide me over until my return, and memories too. So I won’t say sayonara; rather, ja ne.
One of the features of Okinawa’s subtropical climate is the sheer amount of rain that falls on the island throughout the year. While it’s manna to the local flora, and can make for a refreshing change from the plentiful dry, sun-drenched days that grace the place, at times Okinawa is unrecognizable from the idyllic travel posters that bear its name.
The tsuyu rainy season, which officially began early last month, is one of those times. The early rains delivered a fair soaking to the island but soon gave way to drier days. This week, though, tsuyu picked up where it left off with a vengeance. This week’s dark stormclouds brought heavy incessant downpours and with them came an oppressive humidity.
With the beaches closed under the current state of emergency, the only respite to be found was inside well sealed, air-cooled rooms.
Summer days, the light and heat of the sun filters that dull the senses. Glimpses of shimmering waters, softly floating cloud formations, graphic shadows and silhouettes drift across one’s consciousness, fragments floating out of a fervent dream.
Fashionable Hokkaido-based fishing brand South2 West8 recently collaborated on a Spring collection with über-streetwear label Supreme. Down at the other end of Japan, fashion is the last thing on the mind of Okinawa’s considerable fishing community. While you’ll struggle to see a branded fishing vest or wind breaker, it seems that along the shores and in the shallows everyone’s rocking a rod and reel. The appeal of fishing is global, and it’s so evidently popular here, embraced across genders and generations. It’s not a pursuit I ever got into but I can appreciate the appeal: the communion with nature, the meditative aspects of the activity or the chat and cameraderie — the National Health Service in Britain is prescribing it for patients with mental health issues. Then there’s the artistry: the crafting of flies and the deceptive simplicity of casting a rod that belies a long road to mastery.
A weekday getaway. South along Route 58, past Okinawa’s compact capital, Naha, past the airport, turn off at Tomigusuku. Just off the coast, Senagajima, a tiny isle by the southern end of the airport runways. The highlight here is Umikaji Terrace, a multi-level construction of tourist-focused shops, casual eateries, paths, stairways and terraces, facing out to sea with front seat views of arriving planes, bringing to mind whitewashed hillside villages in the Mediterranean. A little farther south is ASHIBINAA Okinawa Outlet Mall. An open-air two-level complex, with over a hundred stores, typically a magnet for visitors to the island; in covid-tainted 2021 it’s all but deserted on a weekday. Not far away, Chura Sun Beach, Okinawa’s largest, with white sands, green parkland, orange sunsets. A trip.
Drive north along Route 58 past isolated resort hotels and villages and you eventually reach Cape Hedo, the northernmost point of Okinawa island. A visit here is a to-do list item on many tourists’ itineraries; the Point has expansive views of the South China Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. To the south, lies the lush green hilly topography of the island. The rugged clifftop landscape has been tamed somewhat with simple tourist amenities, paths and fencing, but the natural beauty of the national park it lies within and the power of the sea below the cliffs are nonetheless revitalising.
Flickers in time
What I want to talk about today is a certain kind of time and sequencing of images that shapes the way time is experienced within photographic books and I’m kind of calling this Real Time vs. Storytime.
Photographer Alec Soth has started a series of YouTube presentations that combine his professed love of teaching and an attempt to show books — and share his love of books — online. His approach is a digital show and tell as he takes viewers through various books from his extensive library, flicking through them to show links and similarities and variations on his chosen theme. The books in his hands are filmed from above while he’s inset as a talking head facing the camera in the corner of the screen. Not exactly exciting cinema, yet engrossing due to his knowledgeable enthusiasm for the photography he’s showing and the wonderful variety of his eclectic library. Soth humbly describes his sessions as rambling talks, and he may meander at times, but preparation goes into each session. He assembles the books he shows beforehand and has at least a sketched out narrative, so there’s a nice flow to his talks. So far, he’s given fascinating insights into photo albums, the use of images with text, and the work of William Eggleston and Kim Kardashian among others. The session linked to here, from which I’ve taken the quote above, is about expanding on Cartier-Bresson’s single decisive moment to show images that Soth describes as increments of momentary observation or stutters or flickers in time.
In a previous post I linked to a YouTube video in which Martin Parr talks to Alec Soth in one of his Sofa Sessions. Parr’s sessions are likeable enough, but in terms of the art of photography, these sessions by Alec Soth are so much better.
Real Time vs. Storytime – a talk by Alec Soth Copyright Alec Soth / Little Brown Mushroom 2021
A walk by the sea
A walk, an exploration, a camera. A record. A type of cartography.
The idea was to walk along the coast of Chatan, the town I curently call home. And, while walking, to look around and to photograph scenes that catch my eye, frames that capture the character of the place. Chatan has six coastal districts, each with its own character, that border a total of some ten kilometers of the island’s central west coast. A series of walks then, starting with the subject of this post, Kitamae, the town’s southernmost district.
The idea was that once I covered Chatan’s other five coastal districts, the combined images would become a photographic record of a place in time. The resulting photo essay — Coastal explorations — is a topographic map of sorts.
A series of walks, explorations, a camera. A record. A type of cartography.
Jazz. How do you picture it? For me, the music is visualized in the stark black and white Jazz Loft photos of jamming musicians, taken in New York City in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Eugene Smith; or else it’s the striking duotone tinted images and funky graphics of dozens of mid-century Blue Note record sleeves also created in New York at around the same time by Reid Miles. Iconic: it’s an oft-used, often misused word, but it’s the perfect description of Miles’ work for Blue Note. As art director, he designed the covers — based on photos by Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff, or at times his own — for hundreds of classic jazz recordings, and in doing so defined not only the look of Blue Note but also the look of jazz.
Borrowing Miles’ visual look, I decided to play with a few photos taken at some of my favorite local cafes and bars, processing them to give them a Blue Note vibe.
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
— George Bernard Shaw
Play. A fundamental activity that kids totally get; get lost in; find focus; tap creativity; forge friendships; spark joy. Play is the realm of youth. It’s a tonic, a source of a lightness of being. For grown-ups play is more complicated. It’s often transformed into competition; it’s driven by goals; bound by rules. And tied up with money. The focus, creativity, friendships and joy are still all there, yet something — the purity, maybe, the spontaneity — is lost.
Still, it’s March. Here, at least, the winter lockdowns are over. It’s great to be outside. It’s Spring. It’s the perfect time to once again start to play.
Auguries of Innocence
A quarter of the land on Okinawa’s main island houses American military bases, 32 of them, and there are more than 30,000 US military personnel living on the island, many with migrated families.
This presence doesn’t go unnoticed. Where I‘m living, in Chatan, tacos are as commonplace as sushi, and there seem to be burgers and steaks on menus everywhere. The patrons at nearby restaurant tables are as likely to be American as Japanese. The local Irish pub screens American football matches and plenty of places play nothing but American rock music. At times it can feel like there’s a glitch in the matrix.
Yet it’s in the skies that the presence is most imposing, where fighter planes’ thunderous roars routinely echo above as pilots perform their aerial training drills, flights of raven colored helicopters make their rounds, blades thwacking insistently, and huge military transporters disappear with a low rumble behind tower blocks on their descent to land.
Coming of Age Day — 成人の日 seijin no hi — the annual celebration of, and by, Japanese who have reached the legal age of adulthood, marking their newly found independence and responsibilities. The second Monday in January, this year was an outlier.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic that is playing havoc around the world with most people’s lives has managed to upend the seijinshiki celebrations, with events around the country cancelled or dramatically altered. Locally, groups gathered briefly and took photos in the village in a relatively low-key affair. I read that Yokohama was one city that did go ahead with a series of modified ceremonies for thousands of attendees, with the theme of ‘budding flowers’.
This year is also unique in that it’s the last that 20-year-old men and women in Japan will be recognized as coming of age. As of 2022, citizens who turn 18 will no longer be minors, they will be officially regarded as adults. It’s they who will be the budding flowers that don exotic furisode, evocative hakama or sharp suits, attend local government ceremonies, party into the night and celebrate their new status.
ProRAW & the mechanics of digital photography
Last month Ben Sandofsky, a developer at LUX Optics, published an informative article on the new camera software enhancements that were recently released for the iPhones 12 Pro and Pro Max.
As we dug deeper into ProRAW, we realized it wasn’t just about making RAW more powerful. It’s about making RAW approachable. ProRAW could very well change how everyone shoots and edits photos, beginners and experts alike.
Sandofsky’s article is a great primer — technical yet accessible — on digital photography in general and RAW photography in particular. Not surprising, considering Lux Optics is the company behind one of the finest iPhone photography apps on the market: Halide, a manual camera that has seamlessly incorporated ProRAW technology.
As the author says early in his piece: Grab a coffee, because this is a long read.
Photos captured with Halide camera and ProRAW+ using the 52mm equivalent lens on an iPhone 12 Pro.
The child was not observing; he was at rest in the very centre of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through.
Peter Matthiessen, reflecting on a memory of his young son communing with nature and illustrating the Zen spirit that comes so easily to young children.
More than this, maybe the most wonderful thing about kids is that they represent the future. They have their entire lives ahead of them, each with an uncharted journey full of the dramas and joys of life to look forward to. And as a group, they will one day shape our world in their image. That’s no bad thing; the various messes we’ve created have taken us down a dark road. Last year alone was an unforgettable SOS distress signal. Our ship really does need saving. Now it’s a new year, with the latest installment of their stories — and ours — yet to be written. A new year always feels like a good place to wipe the slate clean, to take a fresh approach, tackle new challenges, rearrange priorities, make those resolutions; to look to the future and dare to be optimistic.
Happy New Year
There’s a new world comin’, and it’s just around the bend.
There’s a new world’s comin’, this one’s coming to an end.
There’s a new voice callin’, you can hear it if you try.
And it’s growin’ stronger, with every day that passes by.
There’s a brand new mornin’, rising clear and sweet and free.
There’s a new day dawnin’, that belongs to you and me.
Nina Simone: New World Coming Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Songwriters: Barry Mann / Cynthia Weil
What a year. The ground beneath our feet turned to quicksand. Grim news everywhere we looked. I am more than happy to see the end of 2020.
Still, the theater of life goes on; as much as they can, the rituals that serve as our anchors continue, encouraging markers amid the turmoil of this current life. In the village, the kitsch Christmas decorations appeared weeks ago, playfully lightening the mood, alluding to a normality we once took for granted.
And amid the grim news stories, there are glimmers of light in the world as the sun prepares to rise on a new year. Here’s to a better 2021.
Kei jidosha. Micro cars. A quintessentially Japanese product that dates back to the end of the war, the kei car is small in dimensions, low in power, in price and in running costs — but offers big savings in taxes and insurance premiums as well as on petrol bills.
Though they began life as cheap alternatives to motorcycles for a relatively poor populace, through the decades there have been some impressive offerings among kei cars, such as the Mazda R360 coupé (1960) or the convertible Suzuki Cappuccino (1991) and the Honda S660 roadster (2015), but today the go to vehicles for kei buyers are micro vans like the Honda NBox, Daihatsu Move, Suzuki Palette and Nissan Cube3.
Statistics state that more than 30% of cars sold in Japan are kei. I don’t have formal data on Okinawa, but empirically — stand on any street corner or walk through any car park and look at the cars — the compact kei van is the vehicle of choice for a great number of local drivers. To each, his or her own, and there are of course economic imperatives that underlie this state of affairs, but for me, it’s dispiriting to see the place teeming with soulless cookie-cutter metal boxes on wheels.
Some years ago, on a trip to Okinawa, I found myself in the basement car park of the hotel I was staying at, where I came across a wonderland of parked vintage cars, some fifteen or twenty of them: old Ferraris, Porsches, Aston Martins and the like, all in pristine condition; enthusiasts’ cars gathered for an event of some sort I guessed. Stumbling upon such a concentration of design ingenuity and beauty — and rarity too — was delightful. It was as close as most of us get to cars like this. But that doesn’t matter. For the brief time I spent admiring them, I was like an excited kid in a toy shop, totally absorbed, a smile on my face — and I left that car park feeling pretty good. Those old cars, designed with care and passion, and consequently cared for and loved by their passionate owners, have delighted people for decades. So different to all the disposable metal boxes that will end up at scrap yards. Not all cars can be Ferraris or Porsches, but even at the other end of the spectrum there have to be better driving solutions than these.
There are islands and there are islands. There are places of postcard perfect Instagrammable beauty that take your breath away:
Santorini in the Aegean Sea with its cascading whitewashed cliffside villages of Oia and Fira;
Boracay, a gem among the thousands of Philippine islands, with its flawless tropical white sand beaches;
Kauai, Hawaii’s garden isle with its its lush rainforests and spectacular canyons and cliffs.
Okinawa is not that kind of island. It doesn’t come close. Yet it does have its charms, even if they are man-made.
Mihama American Village is a tourist precinct that looks like it was created and built by the Disney art department — it could easily be mistaken for one of the company’s satellite theme park attractions.
The area was farm land before World War 2, then used by the US military until it was returned to the Japanese in 2003. Work on the commercial and entertainment precinct and a respectable collection of neighboring sports facilities began soon after.
The village comprises a number of multi-storey buildings sandwiched between the East China Sea and a series of open air car park lots and the island’s main highway, Route 58. The place is a warren of paths, passages, staircases and terraces, that connect eateries, bars, cafes and stores. There are countless places to sit, many with sea views. A couple of compact resort hotels flank the neighborhood, while an amusement center, movie theater and Ferris Wheel complete the theme park ambience. On weekend afternoons musicians play sets on the promenade and at night the place is lit up like the magic kingdom, crowned by weekly fireworks shows.
Residents and tourists alike flock to the village. It’s a cartoonish, fabricated place that should be soulless and cheesy, but it’s not. Despite the name, businesses are almost exclusively local and, refreshingly, chain stores and global brands are notable by their near absence. It’s in turn laid back and lively, a kind of fantasy land that puts a smile on visitors’ faces. This constructed island oasis is a rare example of a tourist development done right and by my reckoning it’s a huge improvement on what was here before.
November. The stinger nets have been gathered and stored. The jet skis and inflatable amusements will soon follow. Cleaning operations are underway. The beaches are officially closed. Japanese like to tell visitors that their country has four seasons, and the culture places great emphasis on marking their arrival – think of nation-wide hanami cherry blossom viewing parties in the Spring and late Autumn koyo pilgrimages to witness the kaleidoscopic colors of forests of dying leaves. This is a land of many customs and rules; often the two are interchangeable. There’s a great respect for them, a rigidity and lack of flexibility when it comes to them. And so, though the weather in Okinawa may still beckon beach-goers, it’s November, the time for swimming has passed, and — keeping in mind that exceptions can be found and rules will be broken — the beaches must be closed.
Early this year I began making digital polaroids during my outings around Tokyo — fragments of walls, windows, signage, graffiti, and the like; details that drew my attention. Details that captured the character of the place. These individual images gradually developed into the series Tokyo Wallpaper.
Happy with the results and wanting to develop the idea further, I saw the potential of capturing details of different places using the same tools and aesthetic, expanding the Wallpaper gallery. To that end, I’ve just added a new series — one in which the digital polaroids capture the character of my current surroundings — Okinawa Wallpaper.
The skies over Okinawa are spectacular: ever-changing canvases painted by wind and cloud and sun. The cloud formations are endlessly fascinating, whether monumental sculpted cumulonimbus masses, smudged impressionistic stratus layers or wispy painterly cirrus streaks. The skies are of course at their most dramatic as the sun is setting, the blue and grey vistas charged with gold. By the shimmering sea is the best place to witness them and the first impulse is to photograph them.
I stood on the beach and did just that, framing a section of the sky over the sea as the sun was low over the horizon. I took a photo — the photo above — and immediately wanted to take more. I decided to make a series of similar photos, to capture and highlight the changing skies. It’s far from an original idea, but I decided to take a photo each day, for a week, framing the sky above the sea from the same spot and at the same time as that first photo: 6:22.
Each day, we’re gifted beautiful variations on a theme, but the best part is the encore that comes after the sun slips below the horizon. On a good day, if the clouds are right, the sky is transformed into a series of breathtaking canvases tinted with a spectrum of crimsons, oranges and pinks that gradually fade to black.
Nowadays I love riding my bike. In the city it wasn’t always so: sidewalks thronged with pedestrians and cyclists going every which way, roads packed with cars but devoid of bike lanes, city air, long riding distances between destinations in such conditions, and parking was difficult. My bike didn’t see much action; I usually took the train.
Nowadays things are different. Living in a small town that is scaled to human proportions, cycling is a joy.
Nowadays parking isn’t a problem. In the backstreets there are few cars or pedestrians or even other cyclists to contend with. Along the seashore the air is clean. The place is easily navigable; I can get most places I need to go within fifteen minutes. The Okinawan climate ensures I always work up a good sweat, but here, where there are no trains, a bicycle still seems the perfect mode of transport.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
— Robert Frost
Tokyo is home to around 14 million people, while the greater Tokyo area houses some 37 million residents. Space is a rare commodity and horizon lines are even rarer. The world’s most crowded urban agglomeration is dynamic, exhilirating, stimulating, endlessly fascinating … and often exhausting.
Okinawa has a population of around one and a half million people. The seaside town of Chatan has fewer than 30,000 residents. Half the area is occupied by US military bases, fenced off no man’s lands accessible only to military personnel, their families and local base employees. The rest of us enjoy a collection of compact coastal neighborhoods that lie along a part of the west coast of Okinawa’s main island, facing the South China Sea. It’s almost nothing but endless horizons. These vistas put an honest perspective on our place in the world and are a striking showcase for the forces of nature. Their expansiveness is meditative, soothing and restorative.
No man is an island
Like the fisherman perched on a tetrapod barrier preparing to cast his line into the sea or the woman on a promenade wall staring into her phone, alone with her thoughts, I find solitude therapeutic. I enjoy walking city streets with just my camera or sitting in a cafe alone with a book or keeping my own company riding my bike by the sea. But this new socially fragmented world of enforced health precautions we find ourselves in — where handshakes, hugs and kisses are now forbidden pleasures — drives home just how much we are social beings; for all the contentment that can be found in solitude, we need to make connections and to share moments with other people. And these days, encounters that would hardly have been noticed a year ago seem so much more precious, and hopeful, whether it’s two friends aimlessly chatting on a sea wall or a cafe waitress doting on a customer’s pet puppy.