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.
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.