New Umbrellas

Tokyo Umbrellas

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.

Olympiad

A day after Brazil defeated Germany in the opening round of the mens’ Olympic football tournament, the opening ceremony of the Games of the Thirty-second Olympiad got under way. You’d imagine it would be the other way round but these are strange times.

I’m ambivalent about these Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but I watched the televised ceremony, watched the fireworks, drones and digital projections, the singing and dancing, speeches and pantomimes broadcast from an all but empty stadium. It was a long kaleidoscopic spectacle in need of a cohesive vision; most of it left me cold.

This week I also watched Tokyo Olympiad, Kon Ichikawa’s rightly celebrated record of Tokyo’s 1964 Summer Olympics — games that were in a way the realization of the 1940 Tokyo Olympics that were cancelled due to war.

I have no ambivalence about the 1964 Games of the Eighteenth Olympiad. They were Tokyo’s reintroduction to international society after the devastation of the Second World War. They showcased an optimistic, advanced and determined nation literally risen from ashes — Japan amassed the third highest medal tally in 1964 and grew to become the world’s second largest economy four years later — as Ichikawa’s lyrical documentary shows a simpler time. In contrast to this year’s multimedia prime-time production, the daytime crowds in the arena in 1964 saw thousands of colored balloons and live doves released to the skies. Its competitors were students, carpenters, accountants and mechanics; there were no multi-millionaire professional athletes. The cost of the 1964 games, no doubt expensive for the time, was a fraction of 21st Century Olympic budgets. Still it covered some impressive infrastructure, a legacy that can still be seen in the city today: a monorail line to the airport, overhead highways, the shinkansen bullet train, new broadcast and communications technologies, and landmarks such as Yoyogi National Gymnasium chief among them.

The 1964 games were a boon for Japan. Tokyo 2020 — the most expensive summer Olympics in history — was also meant to help revive the country, to kickstart a moribund economy, to heal the pain inflicted by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami in 2011, to advertise the nation to the world. But no one foresaw a global pandemic. I don’t know what the benefits or legacy of these games will be but I doubt they will match those of the 1964 Olympiad.

Tokyo Redux

Look at the breadth of this city, the height of its buildings, the speed of its trains and the wealth of its people. This city that was once ash, that was then wood, fields of ash and forests of wood, that is now concrete, steel and glass, mile upon mile of concrete, steel and glass.

British writer David Peace returns to Tokyo with his latest publication, the final volume of a trilogy of historical crime novels set in post-war Tokyo that I am very much looking forward to reading. In preparation, I’ve begun re-reading the two earlier novels. It’s been a long time between drinks, as they say. The first book, Toyko Year Zero was published in 2007. Occupied City followed in 2009. Fictionalized accounts of actual murders that were committed in Japan’s Shōwa era, the two books — stylistically and formally adventurous and steeped in dark hallucinatory atmospheres — focus on Tokyo in the years immediately after the country’s surrender and occupation by the American military: 1946 and 1948 respectively. The final book in the trilogy, Tokyo Redux, concerns itself with a murder committed in 1949, but also visits the city in 1964, the apex year of the Tokyo Olympics, and 1988, during the dying days of the Emperor Hirohito and the Shōwa era.

Obviously the bleak city envisioned in Peace’s trilogy is far removed from the Tokyo I know, but Tokyo Redux appeared just weeks before my own impending return to the city, to a place that continues to grapple with the demons of a pandemic that refuses to die and whose hapless leaders struggle to balance economic and public imperatives. In this atmosphere, the book should be a stimulating companion as I reacclimatize to life in Tokyo.

Memories

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.

Tsuyu

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.

Gone fishing

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.

Day tripping

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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.

Decisive moments

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Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.
— Ansel Adams

Twelve is an arbitrary number — ten, fifteen, twenty, all are equally valid — but the idea is well worth considering. Now that we’re all more or less photographers, we each have many hundreds if not thousands of images sitting forgotten on our phones, tablets, laptops and other digital drives. How many of those are significant?

In my attempts to avoid my own potential black hole of digital images I tend to aggressively cull my photos, dispatching many to the trash can, labelling others with star-ratings, sorting and periodically copying what I consider the best of these images to external drives. This month, with time on my hands, I decided to take Adams’ words to heart, going back through my archives to select twelve significant photos from each of the last ten years — and to print them. Significant is a term that’s open to interpretation, which can and did vary as I applied it from photo to photo. Printing is an important last step in the process as it acts as extra filter while selecting images as you ask yourself: Do I really want to print this; is it worth printing?

Some years are easier than others; some are hard to whittle down to just twelve photos. Some projects deserve — and got — their very own dozen; some surprisingly don’t offer any notable photos at all. Then there’s the desire for the images — some of them, at least — to have a thematic or stylistic connection to each other. Still, this trip down memory lane is a satisfying exercise. It’s instructive in that I realize that maybe I haven’t been culling photos as aggressively as I thought. It’s interesting to see the progression of my photography through the years. It’s also nice as I look back to be reminded of my past; places, people, events, memories triggered by images of the many moments I decided to capture through a lens. The photos I selected all exist in various places online, many on the pages of this website, but it’s good in the end to have a small curated archive — 270 photos in all by the end of this year— of tangible printed images that I can easily reference and share with those close to me.

The photos here are my final selection — my significant crop — of photos taken in 2011. Ironically, I could only find half a dozen photos worth printing, but that year marked my return to serious photography and I was active for only the last few months of 2011. While they’re not photos I would necessarily rate today, it’s interesting that they all show photographic elements I still favor a decade later: urban landscapes, architectural textures, dramatic light, and interesting street compositions — a fascination with public space and people interacting with their environment.

True north

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

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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.

Blue notes

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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.

Playtime

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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.

Icons of photography

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Photography is fascinating, not only because it’s a seductive pursuit that engages with something elemental within us as it stops time and preserves memories, it also has a rich history populated with many photographers with fascinating histories of their own. There are plenty of resources available that illuminate the lives and works of those who have helped define the history of the medium.

My latest discovery is a series of beautifully written profiles of legendary photographers of the Twentieth Century. The author, Peter Silverton, has an intriguingly sparse online presence: an abandoned twitter account, a handful of years-old blog posts about books on Elvis, and details of a handful of his own published books — including one on Elvis.

Silverton has, over the last few years, also used his literary skills to craft the perceptive and engaging portraits of photographic masters such as Walker Evans — You could almost say that it’s Walker Evans’ world and we only get to look at it; Annie Leibovitz — She captures wealth and power — from the inside, with the love, admiration and wit of a favoured courtier, a court jester even; Diane Arbus — She lived the life she photographed, hanging out on Manhattan’s social fringes, having sex on the back seat of Greyhound buses with strangers; Eugene Smith — Paid to photograph Pittsburgh for three weeks, he took three years on the job, amassing 21,000 negatives and getting beaten up by the very workers he sought to heroise; and William Klein — He won his first camera, a Rolleiflex, playing poker.

The profiles of these photographers and over two dozen more who helped shape the art and craft of the medium can be read on the United Nations of Photography website.

Presence

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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.

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Budding flowers

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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

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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.

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Fast forward

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

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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

Christmas

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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.

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Kei

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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.

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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.

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American Village

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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

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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.

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Okinawa Wallpaper

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.

6:22

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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

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.

Divergence

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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost

 

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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

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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.

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Exodus

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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.

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Stasis

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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.

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Traces

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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?

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Daido ongoing

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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.

Rainy day blues

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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.

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Still lifes

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.

Views from the ‘hood

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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.

Sofa sessions

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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

Confinement

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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.

Impermanence

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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.

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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

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Pandemic

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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.

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Soul food

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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
over
inner grace.
Her stillness
moves
throughout the room.
Her strength
a wall
against the gloom.
Her warmth
fragrant
summer blooms.
From a quiet place
such a tender face
upon which
melancholy
leaves a subtle trace.

Fujifilm X100V

Beauty, it’s said, is in the eye of the beholder. To me, Fujifilm’s X100 series of cameras is nothing if not beautiful. It’s also said that true beauty is more than skin deep. The latest iteration, the X100V is especially so.

When the original X100 camera was released in 2011, so too was a Japanese promotional film. As far as ads go, this film — less than a couple of minutes long —is a work of art. Its implied message: this is a camera for artists, for modern-day Moriyamas and Franks.

Fujifilm Finepix X100 video copyright 2011 Fujifilm Corporation

I badly wanted an X100 back then, but that beauty was flawed, and it wasn’t until the third iteration, the X100T, that I bought into the series. It served me well for a time, but the X100V has further refined the original X100 concept to achieve something remarkable. More so than any other camera, it’s a chameleon. Within its sleek compact form exist a number of cameras. It can be used in its purest analog form, with its optical viewfinder, exposure triangle and focus dials and rings to approximate the tools of Cartier-Bresson and his generation. It can be used as a modern touchscreen imaging device, the dials and buttons all but ignored. Or it can offer various blends of the two. The camera’s interactive choices are unparalleled and with a little customization it can become the camera that many different photographers want.

This blog doesn’t often touch on camera gear and I wouldn’t consider myself a gear head but I love good industrial design, and this latest version of the X100 is something far greater than the sum of its parts. As good as it looks in photographs and its specifications and design choices look on paper, it’s even better in the hand. The finishes, the ergonomics, the tolerances, the features, all perfect. It’s a highly complex technological imaging device wrapped in an elegantly simple body. It’s a seductive piece of industrial design and shooting with the X100V is nothing short of delightful. It’s quite possibly the best compact camera ever made; it is a truly beautiful camera.

On the street

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The photograph should be more interesting or more beautiful than what was photographed.
— Garry Winogrand

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I have always loved the amateur side of photography, automatic photographs, accidental photographs with uncentered compositions, heads cut off, whatever.
— William Klein

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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

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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

Blue skies

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.

Polaroid effects

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.