Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Q & A with Sean Lotman

Sean Lotman is a photographer based in Kyoto, Japan.

How was your recent trip?

Wonderful. It was my second time on the art islands (Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima), but first time with my four-year-old son. Always risky taking little ones to museum or installation spaces, but he mostly enjoyed what he saw. Of course, we made sure there was ice cream at some point in the day.

Are you usually taking photos when you're on these family trips?

I do, but I usually have to let go of a lot of shots. Street photography is composed of very fleeting moments and when you're monitoring your wild kid and attentive to his needs, you just have to say, Oh, well.... But I love photographing my son and I'm working on a long-term project about childhood (probably like every other photographer dad out there!)

Tennbo in Tsuwano

I think your kid is just entering the sweet spot as a subject. The next few years of shooting him will be fun.

Yes, but he knows he has power over me as a subject and can withhold shots without rewards of sweets, haha. Clever kid...

Do you photograph your wife too? Does she photograph you?

I do, but just for fun. It’s not for any projects. And for her it’s the same. We’ve been together for 14 years so we’ve been witnessing some aging. Mostly the photos we’ve taken of each other signify memory and events and eras, which is the primary purpose of photography for most individuals. Maybe once all the years and photos are tallied it will add up to something.

Ariko 2012

How did you get into photography?

My path towards photography was a very tardy one. I did not go to art school and did not own a camera through most of my twenties. Only when I moved to Japan did I really embrace photography as a means of personal expression. My background is in fictional narrative and I continued to write for many years while dallying with photography while traveling. But slowly over the course of years, it became difficult for me to continue narrative— I'd been away from the US (I'm from Los Angeles) too long and the social forces and environments evolved without my fully understanding them. However, I knew I did not want to write about being a foreigner in Japan and I was uncomfortable writing from a Japanese perspective. Gradually, instead of writing I took to long walks to gather my thoughts, and on these long walks I began to *see* patterns which had only been quotidian before. 

I've been here a long time but still struggle with the language. Rather than managing anything close to linguistic fluency, I've discovered a visual vernacular flourishing in its place. Kind of like when one sense is dulled, another becomes sharper. 

So photography assumed the role of language for you? Because you had difficulty speaking in Japanese? Or is that totally off?

No, you're exactly right. Some people are natural linguists, but I'm not one of them. I think learning the language would have been so much easier if it weren't for the pictograms and their thousands of permutations to master (as well as all the complexities associated with dialects, verbal conjugation, and formal vs. everyday Japanese). But interestingly, those beautiful pictograms enhanced my visual literacy. Do you know what I mean? (To give you an idea, I can read about 300+ Chinese characters but you need about 2000+ to be able to read a newspaper. Between studying and printing, by now you probably know what I'm doing...)

Emoji training?

Nah, I’m not a big emoji guy. Too cute. And I don’t have patience for cute.

Kamakura Purple Sky
Who needs cute when you've got photography?

When I began darkroom printing, I really began to enjoy photography on a whole next level. But printing is time-exhaustive and I had to give up writing and embrace photography as a full-time avocation. Maybe one day I'll get back to writing narrative... I miss composing a beautiful sentence and the complexity of forming a story, but instead of lamenting about sacrificing that capacity I have tried to integrate these skills into my photography.

In some sense writing and photography are both inside baseball. The main audience for serious writing is other writers. And the main audience for serious photography is other photographers. It's pretty hard to cross-over and make a splash into mainstream culture. Just my opinion.

I agree. It’s quite a dichotomy when you think about it: nearly everyone enjoys taking photographs but the market for serious photography and photo books is extraordinarily niche. Probably a lot less than 1% of the general population will buy photo books, but those that do tend to be fanatically engaged. It’s a cult almost. I’m a devotee myself. 

Let's back up a minute. When and why did you move to Japan?

I’ve always been politically progressive and in the early 2000s I was really dismayed by the belligerent response to the nascent War on Terror. I marched a half dozen times against the Iraq War, but even in LA you heard nationalistic pablum from otherwise intelligent people. I decided to leave and briefly considered South America (where I thought I could really work on my Spanish —ha!). But I wanted to travel, to see the world, and so I thought I'd live in Japan for a few years. I moved there on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. But two years multiplied when I met my wife, the photographer, Ariko Inaoka. Now I have a life here. But I do miss the US, even though it seems things have gotten more dangerous.

I really like a lot of things about Japan, but I am definitely not one of those otaku (nerd types). I'm not really into any of the classic traditions, and I'm definitely not into anime, manga, video games, J-pop or Pokemon or any of that time-suck. But I do love traveling the archipelago. I like certain elements and those are what I seek. Wherever you are, wherever you go, you make the best of what you like and do your best to filter out the rest. I guess it’s something like island living, but we all do it no matter where we are.

Yeah, I gotchu. U.S. foreign policy sometimes goes off the rails, and one response is to leave. It's kinda funny thinking back to Iraq now. Even though that war was wrong and boneheaded, at least it was rooted in some cohesive rightwing ideology. The existence we have now, with Trump, is a very dark place. It has no rational basis. No cohesive anything. Just some crazy wacko making decisions on the fly. It's a nightmare! Anyway, not to get too bogged down in politics. But yeah, maybe you're lucky to not be here right now. 

So long as Trump does not start any wars, is hamstrung by the Democratic House and is booted out in 2020, I'd say we dodged a bullet. 

Possibly, but in the meantime every day living under him feels like a bullet. It's exhausting.

Certainly. At the moment, I’m quite wary of his imperial designs on Latin America, particularly Venezuela. 

Are you a Japanese resident?

No, not a resident. I have a spousal visa. 

Was it your wife that introduced you to photography?

She is certainly the biggest influence. She did go to art school, worked commercially for years, published a book, and committed to long-term projects. She only shoots film and taught me color darkroom printing. There aren't a lot of husband-wife photographers, so we've shown a bit together too. If I hadn't met her I'd have definitely moved back to the States (or somewhere else) years ago and it's unlikely I would have developed an aesthetic or my enthusiasm.

from SOL, by Ariko Inaoka 

We both shoot color but we have different interests in photography. The only place where we might intersect is photographing our son.

Tell me a bit about your darkroom. 

My wife built the darkroom in her studio next to the family soba restaurant when we were still living in Tokyo (we reside in Kyoto now). 

So the darkroom is in Tokyo?

No, it's in Kyoto. Next door to my wife's family soba restaurant. 

Oh, I misunderstood. 

No, my bad. The color processor is a CP32. We can print 8 x 10 and 11 x 14. This being Japan, I can ride my bicycle for fifteen minutes to buy developer and fixer chemicals. However, we order Fuji paper from B and H in New York— even with airmail shipping it's cheaper than buying paper here. I love printing. Before I got into photography I was intrigued by old books where dodging and burning could create surreal effects (especially in monochrome like the work of Ed van der Elksen). I could print all day, reprinting an image, tinkering and experimenting, until an accident might reveal a new way of appreciating the image. 

That's one thing which is pretty distinctive about your book Sunlanders. I've printed some in a color darkroom but I'd never realized the artistic potential of extreme burning. When you burn stuff in it doesn't just get darker. It takes on a color cast. Do you dial in certain color before burning? What's the process?

So early on, probably inspired by my frequent trips to India (where I'd been working a novel, still unpublished), I'd become intrigued by the potential of color. I started cross-processing my images early on (when Kodak discontinued Ektachrome in 2013 I bought one-hundred rolls from my local lab). They looked okay when scanned, but were often irritating: too blue or yellow, or washed out here or there. Only when I started printing could I really pilot the colors and tones to a whole next level of chromatic weirdness. I sometimes shoot with normal film as well, and it's much easier printing that as there is often consistency to the roll once you've figured out how much light the image needs, how much magenta, yellow, etc. But with the cross-processed negatives it really is an adventure. The color settings will be all over the place and I need to experiment constantly with burning and dodging to get something unexpected. 

Sunlanders is printed from negatives? Or Ektachrome?

Ektachrome cross-processed into negatives. I'm printing from negatives. The photographs in Sunlanders do not depict reality. For example, the images of the speedos swimmer with a towel on his face and the man on the train reading a newspaper— during both those moments the skies were a very dull white, but I intensified the light while burning to achieve what I like to call "Technicolor" skies (I'm a bit of a cineaste and love the Golden Era of Hollywood, especially the trippy hues from 1940s and 50s cinema). I see photography for myself not as a way to depict reality but to conceptualize surreality. For my personal work, a beautiful strangeness is what matters most, and I'll try anything with colors to get there. 

Yeah the colors are pretty bizarre. To me they look quite filmy too. I'm not sure it would be easy to replicate them digitally. But who knows, a lot of stuff is possible in Photoshop. 

No, I'd say it's impossible to replicate in Photoshop. I could never make the images quite so intriguing before I started printing. Definitely, it's a darkroom process and if I had not started printing, I probably would have stopped cross-processing a long time ago. Not properly executed it can look quite garish, gimmicky and obvious. 

Are you changing the color settings before burning? Or is that just a natural burn?

Sometimes I burn a little, sometimes a lot. The sky in the newspaper image was burned for 99.9 seconds at the brightest setting (f2.8). Sometime I'll change the color while burning so the colors mix. It can be a frustratingly long process. Sometimes, the burn is almost natural, especially with dark blacks. These I must be cautious with, as I had to be with the cover image of the back of the man's suit jacket. Otherwise, the black might bleed. So that suit jacket had to be dodged to get it just right!

Sunlanders, Cover photo

You gave him an aura.

Yeah, I like auras, haha. Reminds me of angels. I like that. I like what we cannot see but might only sense.

The local darkroom near Portland just closed. So it's the end of an era for Portland darkroom printers, color shooters anyway. My main memory of using a color darkroom was the intensity of the darkness. I've used a monochrome darkroom for years, and in there you have a red-light which offers some visibility. But with the color process, you're spending a lot of time in complete pitch black which is darker than any other daily experience. I have to admit I never became completely comfortable in that space like I am in a monochrome darkroom.

Absolutely. You need total darkness while printing color. You’re blind really. So you need to trust your hands. 

Can you talk a bit about the experience of the darkroom? What's it like? How does it relate to your general outlook and expression? 

The demise of public color darkroom facilities is a tragedy for the art form. Do you know that in Paris there are no public color darkrooms anywhere in the city? For printing you need to go to Berlin or London. It's nice that Photoshop does so well mimicking film, but it is not darkroom printing. Photography literally means "writing with light." I really feel that, because when I'm printing, my hands are gesturing, almost dancing, between the light and exposed paper. I am writing tones with my hands. And then if I think something needs more magenta or the whole image needs to be a little bit darker, I need to test with a tear sheet and then wait five minutes. Oh, too much magenta, well, let's do a little less, then wait five more minutes. 

It can takes hours to figure out how one photograph might look. And that one photograph can be reprinted and tinkered with in a few weeks and something else discovered. There is an unparalleled intimacy the photographer has with his images working in a darkroom. This is obvious even in the process: you're in a completely dark space, your hands are caressing light, and your heart is beating madly because you have three separate exposures on one image and you need to burn and dodge carefully. It's absolutely sad that most people are unable to experience this anymore. 

I'm hoping I will be able to print the rest of my working life, another thirty years or so, but that is dependent on chemicals production, photo paper, etcetera. 

I don't have access to a color darkroom anymore but I still enjoy printing in a b/w darkroom. I'll use that forever, at least as long as chemicals and film are around.

I probably enjoy printing more than taking pictures.

I enjoy the darkroom process too but for me photography is mainly about the image. The translation of reality into a 2D frame. 

The process is valuable because, the greater history of photography is a history of darkroom printing. If it comes to a point where no one can print color or monochrome anymore because there is no more film, I think we would have to stop calling it photography. Because it would be something else. It already is something else with the way people use their mobile phones.

I don't know. I think photography can exist without darkroom printing. It might use different processes, but the main activity of looking and capturing would be the same.

You’re right the process of looking and capturing would be the same, but the process of making the picture would be completely detached from its historical roots. I like that they continue to co-exist. Don’t get me wrong. I like plenty of work made on digital. It’s about the image in the end. There are many bad film photographs and many excellent digital ones. It’s maybe 25% tools, 75% image, but a lot can go into making that image wonderful. There is no doubt if I photograph a person with my iPhone and the same person at that same moment with my film camera, most likely the printed image will have more character and a stronger personal signature. 

So you do shoot with a mobile phone? What about a digital camera?

I’m old-fashioned, and deliberately avoided smart phones because I observed their powers of distraction, finally buying an iPhone six months after my son was born (in 2015). I photograph him with film of course, but it is easier to shoot everyday stuff with the phone, and to record video. 

They are like a drug for sure. I've had a smart phone for about 2 years. It is very useful for some things. But I also find it a major distraction. 

Of course smart phones are incredibly convenient, but I have mixed feelings about them. Here in Asia, it seems nearly everyone between the ages of thirteen and sixty are staring at their screens. It's a disaster for street photography because to me there is nothing more boring to observe than a person looking at his or her phone. A good subject is someone engaged with their environment. When I see a dude on his phone he's usually playing video games or scrolling cat pictures on Instagram and that's boring and depersonalized. Oh, man, no one's daydreaming anymore. Or reading books. 

What's the difference between someone hunched over a phone or a book? It's nearly the same pose, and same non-engagement with the environment?

Well, you’re right.  Perhaps I’m prejudiced. I associate books with learning and the acquisition of knowledge, while the internet is more about information. I always get excited when I see someone reading a book. But to be honest, I don’t photograph them. I just feel the world is a better place for their reading. Anyways, I feel these devices are powerfully addictive and disastrous for our imaginations, but I digress, alas... 

I'm curious about the weird colors and surreality of your work, the conscious remove from "reality". What is that about? What are your photos trying to say about the world, or about you?

Junku, Tennbo, Tractor

I mentioned cinema before. And books. And invented realities. Ideally, this all comes together with my work. I want a photograph to have narrative— either something has happened, is happening, or is about to happen, or at least, how did we get here? I believe it's important to stay off-kilter, to surprise the viewer, to make them consider novel forms of reality. 

I call my aesthetic "psychedelic humanism." I'm still formulating what this means on a textual level, but generally, what I am trying to do is subvert reality with color (and hopefully tableau vivant), in order to provoke an imaginative response to our environment. Because imagination is closely linked to humanity. Perhaps animals and birds and even plants have the capacity to imagine —we don't know— but humans certainly do and it is through imagination we discover our greater potential as human beings. Not to kick the dead horse, but mobile phones, constant news feeds, and social media is destructive for the imagination, because they distract us from knowing ourselves intimately, which can only happen when the mind wanders. So, I am trying to provoke imagination with my photography, because it is only through our individual daydreams that we can find our true individual selves in an increasingly over-saturated mediated environment.

Do you think animals have imagination? I'm gonna say plants, no. But I could be wrong. With animals, who knows?

I really have no idea if animals do. But they might. Plants are a lot more sentient it seems than most of us know. If you watch the 1970s documentary Journey to the Secret of Plants, you really begin to wonder…

Photography is a strange beast. It's quite dependent on the world but it also requires imagination. You have to escape the here and now to think about how a scene will look in the future, as a photograph....which then recedes quickly into the past. Sorry, rambling....

You are definitely using your imagination out in the street. You are looking for patterns, considering weather, following different paths, angling for the best viewpoint, saying to oneself "yea," "nay," and "meh." Using imagination and trusting yourself, because you usually have just one chance on capturing your subject so you better think it through but do it fast.

Do you think Japan is generally more tuned in to the tactile, craft-based side of photography, and art in general? I know it's a very techy society but it seems to have an strong craft tradition too. Just wondering how your experience in Japan might relate to your thoughts on analog process and anti-phone, etc.

Japan is marvelous for its sub-cultures. It is a lot more old-fashioned than how it is perceived overseas. Many people in Tokyo might be obsessed with tech, but even there and elsewhere people are still doing things as they've always done. A lot of crafts are dying because they are in the countryside and heirs to family welders, kimono makers, basket weavers, ceramics makers are leaving their hometowns to work in Tokyo. But then young people eager to keep traditions going are leaving the city for the countryside or small towns to apprentice and keep these cottage industries going. And Japan has a very strong tradition in photography with many masters. A lot of sensitivity is put into materials and printing. I would probably be against phones wherever I go because they don't discriminate in their capacity to distract. I love literature, and old page-worn books, and scribbled notebooks and vinyl, and stacks of DVDs. I like to collect things and I don't feel like I own anything when it's in digital format. Obviously I like tactile things, which is one of the big reasons I also like printing. There's a world's difference to holding a print in your hands and viewing it on a screen. There is digitalization and then there's a real object, handmade and taking real space in the world.

That's one of the things which appeals to me about photography (at least the type I do). It forces you to engage with the real world. You've got to go outside, look around, interact with things. Even if you don't find any photos, it's always worthwhile to spend some time walking and looking and being present.

I’m with you there. It’s healthy for mind, body, and spirit.

Why do you use the word "psychedelic" to describe your aesthetic? Psychedelic humanism. Is there a drug component? 

from Psychedelic Humanism

No, it's not drugs but about what drugs can do, which is the expansion of consciousness. The root of the word "psychedelic" is "psyche," which could mean our vital life force, our inner spirit, or even our subconscious. Perhaps because I'm a lapsed fabulist, I hope I can still tell narrative with photography. Instead of just depicting people on the street, or those I know intimately, I'm hoping through wild tweaks of color and setting that a person's humanity can be novelly observed in a radical mise en scĂ©ne. I am deeply influenced by literature and cinema— but it is a lot harder to tell stories with photography because the storytelling element can be so subtle and interpretative. So to sum up, "psychedelic humanism," is a subject's life force made vivid with color and composition. 

I visited your hometown Los Angeles last week. Not sure which part you're from but was staying in Silver Lake. Then exploring all over from there...

I'm from Woodland Hills, in the West San Fernando Valley. Luckily I don’t have a Valley accent, but my laconic California origins are self-evident when I speak Japanese or Spanish, making me obviously gaijin and gringo.

Did you ever take photos of LA?

I did not take photos until I left Los Angeles. As I mentioned, I did not even own a camera until my late 20s. Those were different times. People just had moments, enjoyed them, and that was it. You remember them or you don’t. Memory will affect your present understanding of a place no matter how much its changed. When I was growing up Los Angeles was very dangerous. Gangs, kidnappings…I vividly remember the LA Riots in ’92 and the tension it wrought in my high school. My mother would take us to Hollywood to enjoy live theater and I remember seeing homeless and prostitutes everywhere. In the few times I’ve been back in the last 15 years it seems so much more of an adult playground these days. 

Everyone there seems kinda magazine pretty.

Yeah, LA seems so safe and sanitized now. And picture-perfect. Very different from when I grew up there in the 80s and 90s.

Probably depends where in LA you go. I think some parts are more sanitized than others. But if you're talking about Hollywood and West LA, I agree they're getting tamer. I never spent much time there in the 1980s but I get the sense it was a lot seedier. It's all kinda one big photo op now. 

This arc from seediness to sanitization is probably true of most North American cities. That’s both good and bad. 

You called LA "picture-perfect", and that seems like a literal part of its identity. The city is image-conscious to the core. Everything and everyone is a photo op. When I was there last week I kept stumbling on movie sets and light reflectors and location shoots. I found a weird pink wall on Melrose which was a continual selfie stop with hordes of young people posing there taking photos. And of course there's Hollywood Blvd which is photographed millions of times every day. So maybe there's something inherently "photographic" about the culture there. Its self-identity is mediated by photos/film, one step removed from reality.

Definitely Los Angeles is a lot more "picture perfect" now than it was when I was a kid. There was some serious urban neglect happening between the mid-1960s and mid-1990s (roughly from Watts until Rodney King riots), especially in Hollywood Boulevard. Even when I was in my mid-20s around the Millennium it was still pretty nasty there. The change in Hollywood Blvd is a lot like Times Square. Things got much safer, but at the expense of character and characters. As late as early 2002 I was living a few blocks from the lake at Echo Park for just $400 a month (it's probably quintupled in price). I used to jog around the neighborhood and it had a nice Latin element, but at night there were almost always helicopters hovering with search lights overhead. So I do think in Los Angeles the photographic culture is more suggestive of the times we live in than a natural historic quality.

I think Japan might have some of that same dimension, with its self-identity tied up in photos. What do you think?

To be honest, I don't think Japanese are too gross with selfie-stick use. They were the caricature of camera-toting tourists for decades, but in reality they are generally humble and don't feel overwhelming inclinations to photograph themselves everywhere they go. On the other hand, I've observed Korean women being obsessive about it. Not surprising, when you consider they are psychological victims of some major beauty campaign ads, particularly regarding unnecessary reconstructive surgery on eyelids and noses. I guess selfies then would be part and parcel of a return on investment.

Personally, I am happy that I don't need many photos of myself and can go an entire month-long trip without taking a single image of what I looked like. Anyways, I subscribe to what Dorthea Lange said, "Every picture I take is a self-portrait."

(All photos © Sean Lotman unless otherwise noted.)