The sakura trees in Tokyo are once again enjoying their time in the sun, their delicate blossoms marking yet another year. Amid the city’s cold brutalist landscape, those pale pastel blossoms — both joyous and wistful, beautiful yet ephemeral, much like life itself — transform their surroundings like the brush strokes of a master painter bring a canvas to life; soothe us like the sweetest caresses of a loving hand; lift our spirits like the brightest of rose-colored glasses.
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.
There was a time when I loved airports; they promised excitement. I doubt they were ever exciting in themselves but for a young traveler they were portals to lands unknown and served up morsels of exotica.
Things have changed: McDonalds and Starbucks, self check-in and baggage procedures, heightened security screenings and health monitoring. Terminals nowadays are about as exotic as bus stations. Navigating them — for those that can — is a necessary chore. Few that I’ve visited have left an impression. Tokyo International Airport is one.
Haneda Airport, as it’s more commonly called, is a far more pleasant place than Narita, the city’s main gateway. For one thing it’s in the city, sitting on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, with convenient train, bus and monorail access. Even taxis to certain parts of the city are affordable — compared with a Narita–Shinjuku fare of around USD240.
Opened in 1931, Haneda served as Tokyo’s airport until 1978, when the newly constructed Narita became the city’s main international gateway, relegating Haneda to domestic duties. However, in 2010 a third terminal opened at Haneda, dedicated to international flights; since then both airports share the load.
Aside from its proximity to town, I like Haneda for its six-level shopping mall with restaurants that are a cut above the usual airport eateries. Then there are the three rooftop observation decks, that of Terminal 2 offering particularly good views of the runway action and the city’s skyline beyond. The stylish Japanese food court and Isetan cafe that service the departure gate lounge at Terminal 1 are a treat, and the spotless Tokyo Monorail and Keikyu line basement train stations couldn’t be more conveniently located. All of this is complemented by the polite, efficient service the Japanese are renowned for. It’s unlikely to win any architectural prizes, but Haneda is about as good as a modern airport gets.
Tokyo. Summer. Covid waves. The Olympics. Obon. This strange brew gives the city a bittersweet flavor. Oppressive summer days are tempered by unexpected tropic-like rain storms or punctuated by days of drizzle. Police foot patrols and mobile holding cells await non-existent law-breakers. Games volunteers, flecks in the landscape in their co-ordinated synthetic uniforms. International Olympic extras hover in hotel lobbies. Non-socially-distanced lines of residents snake around entrances to vaccine centers. Trains and stations are crowded, but not in the way Tokyoites interpret the word. Restaurants close their kitchens early, yet touts on the streets spruik for late-night establishments. Delivery men and Uber Eats cyclists dash about the streets. Repeated announcements about anti-virus precautions and the incessant whirring of cicadas add eerie layers to the city’s soundtrack. Offices are closed, their businesses conducted remotely, but many more are not. Shops of all sizes have closed their doors for good; others have a thriving trade. And everywhere there are hand sanitisers, thermal imaging cameras and thermometers. And masks, and masks, and masks. In August during a resurgent pandemic, the city hosting an Olympiad, Tokyo’s contradictions are ever more heightened, the place seems ever more surreal.
Taste the Feeling. It’s the real thing. Things go better with Coke. Coke is It! These and dozens of other slogans have saturated the media through the decades to help sell the billions upon billions of bottles and cans, glasses and cups of the sugary carbonated cola drink that have been consumed since it was first developed as a tonic in 1886.
I’m not much of a Coke drinker, but walking around town the other day I kept noticing Coca-Cola delivery trucks so I started taking photos of them. Thinking about it, it’s no great surprise; there are Coke vending machines on just about every corner and of course Coke is sold in all the convenience stores — and there’s practically one of those on every corner too. Not to mention the restaurants and cafes that need restocking.
Coke is pervasive. It’s inescapable. I hadn’t noticed them before, but the delivery trucks brought to mind a recent story concerning Christiano Ronaldo, the very influential, very health conscious football superstar who very intentionally moved a couple of strategically placed promotional Coke bottles during a televised press conference, and made a point of promoting agua — water — instead. While it’s been convincingly argued that his actions weren’t responsible for Coca-Cola’s stock value simultaneously dropping $4 billion, it’s a fascinating example of the modern media and marketing dynamics that are worlds away from Coke’s catchy slogans.
The urban landscape, especially in a city like Tokyo, is a wonderland of architectural delights. Added to the scenery are temporary structures that pop up for reasons creative, practical or more often commercial. These few were recently captured in passing.
Sou Fujimoto’s Cloud Pavillion — a place for everyone — one of two identical art installations in the city, adds a surreal touch to Yoyogi Park.
A temporary police booth adorned with an image of Pipo-kun, the force’s premier mascot, is set up near Harajuku Station to deal with visitors’ enquiries during the Olympic Games.
On the site of the old Subaru Building in Shinjuku sits a seasonal beer garden in imitation of Germany’s Oktoberfest venues.
Also in Shinjuku, under the expansive glass roof of the Sumitomo Building plaza, a monstrous inflatable starfish accompanies a massive video display looping a movie trailer for the just-released The Suicide Squad.
Visually arresting as these temporary installations are they are casualties of the ongoing pandemic; they are not getting the kind of attention they anticipated.
August. Daytime temperatures in the city routinely reach the mid to high thirties. Outside, heat radiates from pavements, buildings, car engines and the exhausts from air conditioning units; it feels hotter still. Outside the air is heavy and it seems you could melt. Unsurprisingly people seek refuge. Seek shade. Head inside, to shopping malls, department stores, indoor plazas, covered passageways. Inside, where the sun is blocked and those heat-expelling air conditioning units work their magic to chill the air, where one can recover a sense of equilibrium.
In 2014, I published Tokyo Umbrellas as a digital photo book. Though I had previous experience in book and magazine publishing, this was an experiment: my first book of photography. The book was the finishing touch on a project I’d been working on for a couple of years, framing it, giving a defining form and end to the project. In August of that year I put the book out there in PDF form — literally giving it away — and moved on.
In early 2021, while sorting through my files for my print archive, I came across Tokyo Umbrellas and, looking through it, realized it wasn’t all that good; there were good photos, and the basic concept of umbrellas shown used in the rain and sun worked well, but the book was — for want of a better word — bloated. Too many pages, too many images. With the benefit of hindsight and the experience accrued in the interim it was fairly easy to spot flaws in the work.
A benefit of digital books is that making changes is comparatively painless. So I took some time to rework my book.
Tokyo Umbrellas has now been re-edited and redesigned. It is now leaner, comprising a more focused 42 pages that feature 33 images. Less, as it’s often said, is more. This new second edition replaces the original book. Click the video below to flick through its pages. For more information and to view and download the digital book, head to the Tokyo Umbrellas page on this site.
A journey of a thousand miles, as it’s long been said, begins with a single step. These days long journeys are, for most people, no more than memories, or dreams. The world, for most of us, has become smaller. I’ve been lucky to be able to travel to just about everywhere my desire took me throughout my life without restriction. I would never have imagined that this would change. But here we are. Borders have been shuttered all around the world. Proverbial thousand mile journeys can be undertaken; actual ones, not so readily these days.
Here in Tokyo, much smaller journeys remain a ritual part of daily life: the never-ending commutes that Tokyoites make on the city’s railway arteries continue. The streams of trains and seemingly countless stations define the dynamism of this city. It can be stimulating; it can be exhausting. The longer you live it, the better you understand the tendency for commuters to doze off on trains. There comes a time when you look forward to escaping it. And so, I’m soon to embark on a journey of almost exactly a thousand miles as I pack up and head to the coastal regions of Okinawa.
This is where we are.
Makeshift job interviews conducted on a balcony; supermarket cashiers wrapped in acrylic curtains; patrons separated by plexiglass screens at bars and restaurants; store clerks taking temperature readings at boutique entrances; closed borders; everywhere face masks and bottles of sanitiser. The new normal. A twisted daily lottery of grim statistics. An underlying, persistent fear of infection and anxiety of an uncertain future. A world simulating bleak sci-fi scenarios.
This is where we are.
It’s easy to get swept up in the gloom, to feel stuck, isolated. We connect to the internet for news, for companionship, for shopping, for entertainment. Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos add to their already outrageous fortunes. On our digital screens we see the world is in pain, is breaking: the environment, animal species, human populations, national economies around the globe all suffering. Politics is in a dark place with the rise of fascist tendencies, the death of humanitarianism and ethical imperatives.
This is where we are.
Life feels smaller somehow, the outside world seems rendered with a muted color palette. I wonder if this is the kind of feeling experienced by people living through war. You become fatalistic. Push down the fear and anxiety. Adjust to the new ways of doing things. Lose yourself where you can: in work, in activism, in hobbies, in passion projects, in creative pursuits, in destructive pursuits, in mindless pursuits. You grit your teeth and make the best of a bad situation; keep calm and carry on, as it were.
A stroll down Hachiman Dori, past Piotr Kowalski’s vibrant Sunflower sculpture and into the neighboring Tenoha Daikanyama courtyard, to relax with a coffee among leafy trees and shrubs. A good coffee shop is an elusive thing, a perfect blend of well-made coffee and atmosphere.
This corner cafe fit the bill nicely, but just like that, it’s gone — together with the courtyard, restaurant, gift shop and co-working office space that formed the Tenoha complex. The entire site has disappeared, bulldozed to the ground, like so many places in Tokyo, to make way for a newer, bigger, more profitable construction.
At times when I look back through my archives, look through photos taken in Tokyo over the years, I often see places that I captured, stores and restaurants I frequented, and realize they no longer exist. Of these places there are no traces left. In time even their memories have faded. In the end there are only photographs. The places below that I’ve recently documented do still exist, but I wonder for how long?
Daido Moriyama, 森山 大道, is the ultimate street photographer. He’s been walking the streets of Tokyo with one compact camera or another in his hand for going on sixty years, snapping fragments of the city and its inhabitants from his singular perspective, both capturing and helping to shape the city’s distinctive character.
A nicely curated exhibiton of Moriyama’s mostly recent work is currently showing at the TOP Museum in Ebisu. The images in Moriyama Daido’s Tokyo: ongoing are spread over three rooms. Greeting the visitor in the first space is a large gelatin silver print of the photographer’s iconic Stray Dog, Misawa, placed by a Warhol-esque silk-screened mosaic of cloned lips, half monochrome, half in color, covering one wall like pop art wallpaper. Opposite is a series of striking oversized inky black, high contrast silk-screened portraits, grainy, some resembling pointilist artworks. The larger adjoining central space contains the bulk of the works and also groups images into tiled mosaics, three photos high, monochrome on one side of the room, color on the other. Close up images of hair, legs and signs are mixed in with frames of alleys, pedestrian crossings and other streetscapes. Here and there is the occasional portrait or reflected self-portrait. The effect of juxtaposing so many images is to give a sense of the city’s at times overwhelming kinetic energy, especially in the color photos, many of them quite lurid. A pair of square glass-topped tables frame monochrome collages, formed by layering and overlapping prints at seemingly random angles, hiding and revealing elements of each. Given the visual complexity on show in this space, there’s plenty to take in, so a small third space serves as a kind of decompression chamber. It’s cloistered, hidden by heavy curtains, and features a few black and white frames from Moriyama’s abstract mesh tights series, each incandescent with the backlighting of the digital screen it is displayed on. The atmosphere here is intimate, contemplative, personal, and despite the eroticism of the photos, is more church confessional than peep show.
A good exhibition is always invigorating. In photography, as in all creative pursuits, it’s sometimes hard to maintain momentum. Moriyama himself bid farewell to photography in 1972 with his book shashin yo sayonara. His hiatus was fortunately short lived and he has since applied himself to his art: Moriyama has one hundred and fifty or so books to his name, has been exhibited dozens of times around the world and has received a handful of prestigious photography awards — and he’s still out on the streets with his camera almost every day. The 81 year old photographer is an inspiration.
Note: photography is not allowed in this exhibition; the photo above was taken in 2016 at another Moriyama exhibition in Tokyo.
Tokyo, where the rainy season is fast approaching, where misty grey days will damp the air and violent deluges will blot out darkened skies. Just now it seems a bleak metaphor: the heavens crying for a world out of whack, weeping for Britain and Brazil and the idea that was America.
Tokyo, where the restrictions of lockdown lite have been officially lifted, where the department stores have raised their shutters, high school students have once again donned their uniforms and life on the sidewalks has become more animated. And yet…
Tokyo, where in a reverie I recall a hypnotic film I saw many years ago. Almost forty years old, Koyaanisqatsi seems made for our times. Pairing time-lapse and slow motion visual techniques with the pulsating music of Philip Glass, it attempts to convey how we’ve created a world out of balance; the Frankenstein story writ large.
If you fall down the various rabbit holes of online photography forums, you‘re likely to get ulcers or develop anger management issues. Many forum contributors have very strict rules and definitions about the rights and wrongs of photography and they type out their resolute assertions in the endlessly scrollable online debates. But the thing is, aside from photojournalism and other documentary practices that strive to present truth, there are no rules in photography. It’s an art, a medium, a process whose countless practitioners show that it can be explored with all manner of tools and pushed any which way. And if you work at it, you may just end up with something worthwhile.
Ok, but my photography doesn’t always fit into neat, coherent projects, so maybe I need to roll freeform around this world, unfettered, able to photograph whatever and whenever: the sky, my feet, the coffee in my cup, the flowers I just noticed, my friends and lovers, and, because it’s all my life, surely it will make sense? Perhaps. Sometimes that works, sometimes it’s indulgent, but really it’s your choice, because you are also free to not make ‘sense’.
And hopefully I will carry on, and develop it, because it is worthwhile. Carry on because it matters when other things don’t seem to matter so much: the money job, the editorial assignment, the fashion shoot. Then one day it will be complete enough to believe it is finished. Made. Existing. Done. And in its own way: a contribution, and all that effort and frustration and time and money will fall away. It was worth it, because it is something real, that didn’t exist before you made it exist: a sentient work of art and power and sensitivity, that speaks of this world and your fellow human beings place within it. Isn’t that beautiful?
British photographer Paul Graham penned these thoughts for the graduating students of the Yale (MFA) Photography program in 2009, in a brief but illuminating essay, Photography is Easy, Photography is Difficult.
These pictures: more digital polaroid explorations; local street signage and other found graphic elements framed to create still life compositions; character studies of a neighborhood.
In the weeks since, my explorations have found a focus and taken shape and I’ve been able to develop a photographic series, one I expect will be organic and episodic in nature as it evolves.
And the one nice thing about photography is it teaches you to look.
So said Saul Leiter In Tomas Leach’s 2012 film on the photographer In No Great Hurry. He also said in interview that he thought that mysterious things happen in familiar places, that there was no need to run to the other end of the world to create his art.
Saul Leiter lived in the same apartment building on 10th Street in New York’s Lower East Side — later to become the East Village — for some sixty years, and true to his word, much of his extensive body of work was created within walking distance of his apartment.
I haven’t lived anyplace anywhere near that long, yet it’s surprisingly quick and easy to turn a blind eye to our most familiar surroundings, to become desensitized to our immediate environment, to see through things. Losing mobility, even in Tokyo’s lockdown lite situation, for all its inconveniences has a way of restoring one’s vision. Everything old may not be new again, but one develops a new appreciation of the old neighborhood streets, sees the effect of changing weather on its vistas, notices picturesque elements in the landscape.
These images resulted from a number of recent walks around the neighborhood, visiting the supermarket, stretching my limbs and — despite being masked up and just a little bit anxious — getting some air and respite from being cooped up inside, and with my camera, looking at the neighborhood with fresh eyes.
Looking out windows and looking into screens, engaging with the world vicariously from our sofas. This is where we are, but the internet has proven itself a wonderful resource during these times when most of us find ourselves in some kind of enforced isolation. Among other things, I’ve been dipping into a series of videotaped interviews with photographers.
Martin Parr — renowned British photographer, prodigious producer and collector of photobooks, member and former president of Magnum Photos — sits down with other photographers at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, for some casual chats focused on his guests’ work and careers.
The conversations on his sofa — the sofa sessions — are relaxed and make for easy viewing, Parr’s encyclopedic knowledge of the medium and insight into his guests’ work ensuring he deftly guides the discussions throughout the twenty or so minutes allotted to each session. The filmed chats are engaging, but for better context and understanding I would like to see some photos from the projects, books or exhibitions that are being discussed.
Still, it’s good to have another addition to the recorded history of photography. Parr is however approaching this project at a leisurely pace; he’s only filmed a dozen sessions since the first one a year ago. Most recently, this chat earlier this month with Alec Soth.
Sofa Sessions: Conversations with Martin Parr – Alec Soth Copyright The Martin Parr Foundation 2020
The cool thing about photography on the streets is that it’s a jazz improvisation. The photographer sets out on a visual exploration of a chosen environment, has some ideas – perhaps about how to use the light or perspective and framing choices – but doesn’t know where this exploration will lead. The photographs that are made are the result of an interplay between the photographer, the camera, the surrounding elements and some serendipity. When all the right notes are hit and it all comes together, the experience and the resulting photos are magical.
This is how I like to approach photographing on the streets and other public spaces, reacting to and working with the changing scenes that unfold before me, aiming for a little magic.
But there’s another approach: to focus on a single scene, treat it as a studio of sorts, explore its visual possibilities through space and time. A few years ago, the photographer and writer Teju Cole, on his Instagram feed, published a series of frames of a bus stop (somewhere in Europe if I remember rightly). Each day he added a photo taken from a new angle or distance, showing a facade of the structure or else a small detail. Banal as the subject was, the images as a series worked as a kind of mediation on that particular structure and on seeing in general.
These photos were taken during three visits to Tokyo’s Shibuya station, in a section of the concourse connecting the Shibuya Mark City complex. The colorful mural visible in some of the photos is Taro Okamoto’s 1969 masterpiece Myth of Tomorrow.
This focused, more studied approach – perhaps a necessity in these times of confinement – can also yield interesting results in a single session and a more confined space, say a kitchen.
Transience and impermanence are hallmarks of life, from the changing elements of the seasons to the changing seasons of our own lives. Nothing lasts forever; it all fades away. This is the pathos of life, the mono no aware.
Mono-no aware: the ephemeral nature of beauty – the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life – knowing that none of it can last. It’s basically about being both saddened and appreciative of transience – and also about the relationship between life and death. In Japan, there are four very distinct seasons, and you really become aware of life and mortality and transience. You become aware of how significant those moments are.
— David Buchler / Fiona Macdonald
The most celebrated example of a natural phenomenon rich in mono no aware is the spectacle of cherry blossoms.
— The Book of Life
Reading the latest developments in this unfolding drama, it seems like we’re living in some kind of prequel to Twelve Monkeys.
Deadly pandemics have wreaked havoc and taken lives in the past: the Black Death killed some 50 million people in the 14th Century; the 1918 Spanish flu possibly many more; more recently, HIV/AIDS has taken around 30 million lives. This new COVID-19 outbreak has thankfully not been anywhere near as deadly, and with optimism we can expect that with 21st Century medical technology a cure will be found before too long.
But the certanities of a few months ago have deserted us, and here we are, worrying about family and friends, and trying to live our lives as best we can in a continually shifting landscape of closed borders and mandatory quarantines. Here in Tokyo, while schools and museums have been shuttered, things don’t look all that different on the surface, but the inordinate prevalence of face masks and hand sanitizers, relatively empty train stations and carriages, dearth of tourists and mostly deserted stores belie our new reality. It’s like some kind of virtual simulation of its true self. We don’t know how bad it will get before it gets better. We don’t know when it will get better. But as they say, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. It will get better.
The urge to create. Music. Monuments. Machines. Mathematical equations and scientific theories. Poetry and literature. Art. Photography. The compulsion to give our existence meaning and to creatively express our experiences and impressions is deeply ingrained in us, evidenced as far back as 20,000 years ago in those celebrated late Palaeolithic era cave paintings created at Lascaux in south-western France.
As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept that there is no grand design. Particles are not endowed with purpose. There is no final answer hovering in the depths of space awaiting discovery. Instead, certain special collections of particles can think and feel and reflect, and within these subjective worlds they can create purpose. And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward. That is the noble direction to look. It is a direction that forgoes ready-made answers and turns to the highly personal journey of constructing our own meaning. It is a direction that leads to the very heart of creative expression and the source of our most resonant narratives. Science is a powerful, exquisite tool for grasping an external reality. But within that rubric, within that understanding, everything else is the human species contemplating itself, grasping what it needs to carry on, and telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story carved of sound and etched into silence, a story that, at its best, stirs the soul.
— Brian Greene
Human creativity is a wonderful thing. Ballast amid the chaos. I’ve chosen photography to reflect on my world, but I used to paint and draw and there was a time I used words to contemplate my feelings, experiences and impressions. Not long ago I came upon an old notebook — a diary of sorts — that was full of poems penned by a much younger me. I’ve begun to collate the analog writings into digital book form for archival purposes and in the process have rediscovered thoughts, emotions and impressions of people and places I’d long ago encountered and in time all but forgot. For instance this poem, a portrait of a woman I knew in Sydney in 1998.
And her quiet space
her wistful face
a sadness draped
throughout the room.
against the gloom.
From a quiet place
such a tender face
leaves a subtle trace.
The photograph should be more interesting or more beautiful than what was photographed.
— Garry Winogrand
I have always loved the amateur side of photography, automatic photographs, accidental photographs with uncentered compositions, heads cut off, whatever.
— William Klein
To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.
— Elliott Erwitt
I fell in love with the process of taking pictures, with wandering around finding things. To me it feels like a kind of performance. The picture is a document of that performance.
— Alec Soth
While I continue to explore the possibilities of digital polaroid photography, in a happy coincidence I read about Belgian photographer Anton Kusters‘ 2020 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize nomination. Kusters’ installation The Blue Skies Project references the Holocaust, in particular Nazi concentration camps, and was created with the help of contemporary reference books, Google Earth — and a Polaroid camera.
His use of self-processing polaroid photographs — 1078 of them to be exact — adds to the creative adaptations of the unique analog medium. More importantly, it adds a deeper dimension to his pensive, conceptual work, as the photos are apt to degrade and fade over time — much like memories of the Holocaust.
It’s a commentary on how we deal with memory. If we lock it away, it might be protected but never seen. And if we show it, it might fade and evolve into something else entirely.
I first came across Kusters’ work almost a decade ago when I saw his compelling Yakuza project. His approach to photography has since evolved from using a camera to document what interested him to expressing ideas through — as he puts it — photographic processes. The work resulting from this new approach is no less compelling and I think quite worthy of a Deutsche Börse prize.
Polaroids, the original instant, shareable photography; high-tech yet lo-fi; perfect for spontaneous snapshots yet a valuable tool for professional photographers and also loved by visual artists for its creative possibilities; disposable and collectible, a fun and serious platform.
Edwin Land’s first self-developing camera appeared back in 1947 and one of the first artists to see the potential for this type of photography was the legendary photographer Ansel Adams, who soon became a consultant for the company, helping to refine the product. In the decades that followed, Polaroid cameras were used by many established artists, among them Andy Warhol, Wim Wenders, William Eggleston, Linda McCartney, Robert Mapplethorpe, Dennis Hopper and David Hockney.
Instagram, when it appeared in 2010, helped to establish the smartphone as the Polaroid camera of the digital age. With its stream of exclusively square photos, it was instant, sharable, high-tech, lo-fi, comprising shots of pet cats and cups of coffee as well as striking images with artistic merit, a platform both fun and serious.
Instagram has changed greatly in the decade since it first appeared in Apple’s App Store: there are more pet cats and artistic images than ever before, yet the original simplicity – and the fun, I think – has been lost. But there are apps, though not too many these days, that reinterpret polaroid photography for a digital medium and provide that simplicity and fun.
One of these is the InstaLab app. An alternate Android version of the app is still known by its original name, Polaroid FX, the Polaroid name licensed from the people who bought it from the company after its bankruptcy early this century. But subsequent owners have ressurected the company – both the Polaroid name and its dedication to instant analog photography – and it seems that to maintain the brand’s integrity, licencing rights are no longer being sold or renewed.
Regardless of the name, InstaLab offers a pared-down photography experience. The photos it produces have a Polaroid aesthetic and – at least in the free tier of the app – options are limited: you open the app, frame and shoot. You can then choose to change the frame, add an effect, color filter or some text, make some basic exposure or saturation adjustments, and save a low-resolution image, ready for sharing. Once saved no further editing is possible. I’d be happier with even fewer editing options but the experience very much reminds me of the early days of Instagram. The app’s appeal to me is that its limitations and low fidelity aesthetic take the preciousness out of creating photographs but also offer challenges and opportunities to create more than snapshots. This type of photography may even get me back to using Instagram.
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 laboratory 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 dramatically 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.
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.