John Sypal is a photographer based in Tokyo
|Photo by Blake Andrews|
Blake: Here’s something I’ve been wondering about lately. I’ve been using flash a lot over the past year or so, and I’ve noticed I’m usually the only one out there doing this. I think what's happened is that the iPhone wave has eliminated amateur flash photography. Maybe 10 years ago you’d see average folks shooting flash photos at parties or weddings or whatever, while "serious" street shooters followed the Cartier-Bresson dictum of available light only. But now I rarely see casual shooters use flash. Meanwhile, the use of flash has perhaps picked up among serious pros/hobbyists/amateurs. So it’s almost a reversal of the previous situation.
John Sypal: I think you’re right, but it’s kind of a reversal back to how it used to be. I collect amateur / found snapshots and finding ones from the 1940s with a flash are, at least in Japan, rare. But like you said, after that flash was standard. In Tokyo you’ll see all kinds of tourists and people taking photos for social media —no flashes there. It’s funny. Apple engineers think they know what people want and their technical “solutions” affect how pictures of an age look. It’s always been this way. But it’s not that we’ll be looking back with nostalgia on iPhone X photos in twenty years. Who’s gonna scroll down an Instagram account that long then? Your thumb will get tired before you get to 2027.
Hard to say for sure. I agree few people in the future will scroll through Instagram to see old photos. In fact I seriously doubt IG will be around in 20 years, but something else will replace it, and at least some of these iPhone photos are likely to stick around in some form. Probably in a format that we can’t yet visualize. And when those future Earthlings look back on the late 2010s they might wonder why all of the sudden there are no flash photos. They might also wonder about why children stopped venturing out into public photos, or why it was usually bright and sunny out. I guess the basic lesson is that photos tend to lie. But we knew that.
Lie? Or maybe it’s a different kind of truth? It’s weird, off the top of my head I can think of a lot of photographers here in Tokyo that use flash almost all the time— so I haven’t noticed a downtick in flash pictures, myself. Personally, I keep a small flash in my bag and it goes on my camera once it gets dark.
One reason flash has become slightly addictive for me is that it injects an immediate level of uncertainty into every photo. I look through the viewfinder, but with the knowledge that flash is going to change what I see in some way that I can’t exactly predict. And I find that idea stimulating. I find myself wanting it more and more, just to see how it transforms the world, even scenes which might be better untransformed? Maybe it’s a crutch or interior defect? I dunno how to self-analyze it.
I don’t think flash is a crutch or defect at all. It’s essentially an “unseeable” light and think about how fascinating that fact is. By “unseeable” I mean, sure, you see it but not long enough to really get a proper look. It exists in a photograph- and so it’s something that can only be seen in photography. Since it changes how things look it changes how we can see.
It’s interesting that most photographers in Tokyo use flash. That’s definitely NOT the case here, at least not in Eugene. I’m out shooting most days, and I honestly can't remember seeing another photographer here use flash in public. But maybe that says something about Japan, and the different approach taken there? I think photography generally is much more deeply embedded in the culture there, and small flash point-n-shoots are quite common, along with most other cameras. I mean, Japan invented them. Whereas in the US they are more of a specialty item for film nerds.
Personally, I also like how flash is kind of a bright middle finger to this idea that “proper” photography is this thing where a narrow depth of field is ideal. That it’s somehow more “real”. Well, give me flash magic any day.
I’m not exactly sure what "proper" photography is. But whatever it is, I’m against it :-) I think Japanese photography has generally steered in a similar direction, against “proper” photography. The Provoke style, e.g. There seems to be more of an appreciation for imperfection and casual shooting there. Maybe that goes beyond photography to Wabi Sabi ideals? Or national ideals? Or Zen? Or who knows?
There is a tremendous amount of “proper” photography in Japan. I’m thinking of both the never ending stream of hobby photographers and photo-contest winners and crisply realized large digital prints you’ll find in the photo museum. Proper is probably mostly about perspective and scope. The Provoke movement was over 50 years ago, right? A lot has happened since then.
I didn’t meant to imply that Provoke was still the dominant aesthetic there. But I think it has had some lasting influence, maybe in roughly the same way that f/64 has influenced American photography long after its passing. Or am I totally off?
|Haruto Hoshi at Place M, Tokyo|
|Meisa Fujishiro at Book Marc, Tokyo|
There are undoubtedly reverberations around if you look for them. Whether those ripples exist outside of the Ricoh GRD™ “art-mode” presets and Street Photography™ online communities, I’m not sure. I know they’re not as common in museum shows of contemporary photographers. Anything you’ll see with a #ProvokeStyle tag online is closer to fan art or cosplay than Photography… Then again I run around with a film Leica and a wide-angle lens on the street. Maybe cover-banding is where we're all at now.
|Nobuyoshi Araki at Rat Hole Gallery, Tokyo|
The imperfection that I am drawn to in Japanese photography, as I understand it, is a lot more subtle than high-contrast blur. It’s an acceptance of imperfection, of “noise” —in sequencing— of a small gap in understanding. An acceptance for something not being quite “right”. One example could be the tremendous amount of photographs you can see in a solo show.
Do shows in Japan tend to feature more photos than in the US?
I don’t really know what an average photo show in America looks like. I’m going to guess a row of well edited pictures matted, or at least framed, in a line around a gallery. A majority of the exhibitions here are such —that’s how I do my Zuisha shows— but there is an acceptance or maybe celebration of doing whatever you want to show pictures. I’ve been to shows with one picture on the wall and I’ve been to one with over 7,000. Somewhere in the middle is Takahiro Mizushima, a member of Totem Pole. He will tape a bunch of prints of different sizes up and have a slideshow of them running on a projector or old TV. His shows are wildly good examples of how one can just do what they want. Stakes are low.
|Takahiro Mizushima at Totem Pole Gallery|
Do you agree that there’s a high threshold for “imperfection” in photography in Japan, however you want to define that?
Maybe what I’m considering it as is an appreciation of effort, or perhaps the artist’s hand. An approach where the effort, or the materials, are allowed to exist, or even celebrated. Fumiko Imano is a good example. She has this wonderful series of self-portraits where she presents herself as a twin. There’s no Photoshop involved. She takes two photos standing in different parts of the frame and then cuts them apart and tapes them together to make a single image. It’s all very apparent, and charming. You get it right away but they’re still interesting.
This is kinda off-subject, but job applications in Japan are all hand-written. You don’t print off a few dozen resumes and mail them away- you go to a stationery shop or your local 7-11 and buy a pack of official resume forms and then sit down with a black pen and start writing. Handwriting is seen as a reflection of character and is factored in when people are deciding who to hire.
That’s amazing. My handwriting is awful. I’m basically the only one on earth who can make sense of it. So I’d probably have a hard time getting a job anywhere with a handwritten application. I think handwriting is instructive for photography, and for all art forms. Everyone has their own unique writing style. Which is by nature inherent, inevitable, inimitable, and identifiable. But of course it’s unconscious too. There’s no intention behind it, no artistic stance. No artifice. Purely natural. I guess I’d like to get to a point where my photographic voice feels like that.
I think you’re pretty close. I can tell what’s yours right away. Your “signature” is all over the photos.
Maybe handwriting is still alive in Japan (due to the complicated iconography of the written language?) but in America it’s dying. I don’t even think my kids have taken a penmanship class in school. Handwritten signs are largely disappearing from the vernacular landscape. The main place it’s still alive is community bulletin boards and the occasional sale sign. But even in those situations it’s rare. I find the rarity attractive. I read every handwritten sign I encounter, and I wind up photographing most of them. Maybe that’s the lame nostalgic collector in me. Just shooting old things before they disappear, which is the root of a lot of bad photography. Oh well, can’t help it.
If advertisers were smart they’d put their messages in actual handwriting. It would take some intern five minutes. Instead companies often use faux-script, which is a huge turnoff for me. I won’t consume or acknowledge any message in that form. But I realize I'm not the target market for any advertisement.
I think we’re conditioned to believe printed text. If all that garbage on twitter were just handwritten post-its, we’d recognize how worthless all those messages basically are!
But back to photography shows in Tokyo, I guess exhibition methods could be seen in a similar way. It’s not just the images themselves. There is craft and character in showing them…I would contrast this with what I assume is an expectation in the West where a photograph in a show is a Serious Artwork — you know, Precious and Important.
I’m not sure what “Serious Artwork” is. It's just as mysterious to me as “proper” photography.
Maybe they're the same thing? Something precious that adheres to established standards and ultimately exists as an enhancement of an agreed-upon reality. And maybe recently, politics. Beautiful things presented beautifully. And with a message. Or if it’s art school, maybe those dry, deadpan pictures of appropriately homely middle-class people standing outside in an empty lot or sitting in a room with a colorful wall and a north-facing window.
I read an article recently about the city of Kyoto banning public candids in certain parts of the city. I guess the Geishas had become a big photo target for tourists. So it’s an attempt to limit that photography. What are your thoughts on this?
The last time I was in Kyoto was nearly ten years ago, so I’ve not experienced the current foreign tourist influx there. But from what I’ve heard from photographer friends who have been there recently —on vacation, not Geisha Safaris— the Gion photo ban is something that was a long time coming. It’s not Japanese people, it’s foreigners apparently. On The Street TV reporting of tourists behaving badly is a staple of the news. Here’s a 5 min clip of a Japanese news program reporting on this issue. You can clearly see how bananas it is. The reporter says that there are reports of foreigners who follow these women for blocks, even into private homes. And a local restaurant owner says that foreign tourists will even open the door to his business to lean in and photograph the Geisha while they eat. That’s horrible.
The Good Stuff that’s in Japan —norms and manners and aesthetics— exist because there’s a mutual understanding of its preciousness, and that people overstepping what’s agreed on end up ruining it for everyone else. A tourist snapping an iPhone shot of a Geisha walking down the street isn’t going to be fined. No way. A guy with a big DLSR rig and a flash who keeps popping shots off and getting in the young woman’s way through…
Now as for the subject matter, the Geisha, I dunno. I think it’s a bit like Shibuya Crossing, an exciting thing the first time. But anytime after it’s only an exciting thing for boring photographers. What I mean by that is not that you can’t, or shouldn’t make a picture there, but rather making a picture explicitly “about” those things as a way to “tell a story” is boring a reduction of a country or culture to a trope. It’s less about photography than it is a mind gummed up with corny preconceptions or a desire to get clicks n’ hearts. On the other hand, after seeing the footage of the swarms of tourists that go after these ladies in Gion, I think that spectacle would be the more interesting subject matter than the stereotypical “geisha walking in the old quarter” lame-o Travel Photography kind of shot.
I’ve spoken recently with Ed Templeton on this very matter. He’s snapped Geisha and tourists in Gion, and done pretty damn well. I mean, look!
|Kyoto, 2018, Ed Templeton (with permission from the photographer)|
Haha, this Templeton photo kind of goes back to my initial question. It looks like he’s the not the only photographer using flash here.
The flash assists with clarity of vision! That’s more along the kinds of pictures I find interesting. Ed mentioned that the city does sell itself in part with the image of these women. It’s kind of complicit, but seeing the ravenous mobs after them thought that the establishments where they work need back entrances or something. Maybe something like the city hiring women to dress the part and be on the street as “decoys” could work. It’s not like tourists or Travel Photographers are truly after authenticity, or recognize it when they see it in Japan...
The Geisha tourist ban seems like yet another step down the slippery slope to a complete ban on public street shooting.
That’s something I’ve been thinking a bit about. Going back to Japanese TV, out of concerns for privacy a lot of stuff gets blurred out. The clip linked above is a good example. Depending on the program, when shooting in neighborhoods, it can be entire streets if the subject of the story is a non-famous person. When a photograph of, say, a celebrity in high school is shown, they’ll blur out the faces of everyone in the picture except the actress. I saw this one show about this old woman and they showed a photo of her in 1932 as a preschooler and they blurred out the other kids’ faces. These people would be in their eighties now. What’s the point? It’s weird though- no one questions the countless security cameras you see everywhere.
Hmm. Didn’t realize the blurring was so prominent on Japanese TV. I see that sometimes on reality shows here, but I think it’s relatively uncommon. It reminds me of street photography in certain countries which have strong privacy protections. The photographers jump through hoops to avoid showing faces, and it winds up steering the photography into a more formally oriented style. I think Germany is like that?
I’ve heard it’s pretty tough there. Some of the stories German friends have told me about shooting on the street are unsettling. Again, why don’t people feel the same about security cameras?
I think with security cameras the surveillance seems less personal. It’s just a big dumb camera sucking up everything in its path. Whereas when someone singles you out in public and points a camera at you, it feels different.
Maybe- but at least then you can see who’s behind the lens…
Back to the Gion / Geisha thing, I’ve read (and it’s mentioned in that TV clip) that Kyoto has an app that if a person gets within 1 km of the Gion district will send a message to your smartphone. A window will pop up to request that you not only refrain from taking photos of Geisha without permission, but to not touch lanterns, sit on fences, or stop in the middle of the road. That’s one side of it. If manufacturer liability is an issue, I can easily imagine a future where corporations or governments work with say, Apple, or Nikon or Canon to disable digital cameras in places they don’t want pictures taken. Recognition software, too —there could be a day where the camera recognizes and simply blocks certain subject matter as a violation of the user agreement. Shoot film, indeed.
I don’t know how best to navigate privacy concerns. When you have photographers shooting public scenes, and citizens who’re increasingly wary of sharing information about themselves, there is going to be tension. I think all photographers need to think carefully about this. But there’s no clear way forward as far as I can tell. Personally I have a pretty wide latitude about what I share online. I’ll post just about any photo I like, even of strangers, so long as it doesn’t malign or humiliate the subject. Am I ethically in the clear? Who knows.
“Doesn’t malign or humiliate the subject” is good. Benevolence in Street Photography™ is underrated. Not trying to be pious or anything, but to me those flash-face street pics that get hashtagged-up online are more about the shock-element of how they were taken than the images themselves. To me that sort of stuff isn’t interesting to look at or contemplate. Then again neither is that schmaltzy “candid only” stuff either. Well, it’s a big photo world. Room for everyone, etc. That’s what I keep telling myself.
It’s hard for me to categorize flash-face photos, or any other type of photography, as good or bad. Because I think good (and bad) photos can be made under just about any circumstance. It just depends on the scene and the moment, and ultimately the photo. I like a lot of the old Gilden photos, and Cohen and Wallace and De Keyser, and a lot of others who are right there flashing folks in the face. So I dunno. I like to keep an open mind. I’d probably rather look at those than another boring photo of people lined up just right near a poster or something.
BTW, I finally have begun printing stuff from my Tokyo trip last April.
I saw some pics on Instagram. Really looking forward to seeing more!
Just getting into the first several rolls, should be busy with that stuff for the next few weeks at least. What I see on the negs so far is a huge sea of people on every frame. I think it took me a day or so there to get my bearings and figure out how to cut through the noise. I was just gut reacting to the energy. But not really making good photos at first. Hopefully they get better…
Our photowalks in Tokyo were a lot of fun. That was a good way to shoot, just meander around together and at a landmark say “hey let’s meet up here at 5”. Shooting with one or two other people is the best. Large groups of people meeting up for the first time to shoot is a gamble. I don’t do those any more. But I do some walks with close friends. Well, I call them walks, but I’ve heard them called “Death Marches”. 20 km (12 miles) tromping all around the city on a Sunday afternoon is my idea of a good time. We don’t pick a spot and meet up somewhere later. We keep moving. A flow around town. But far, far more often I do it alone. Thing is, while I like the solitude I don’t find it entirely conducive to making interesting photographs. There’s something about being with other people while shooting— more interesting things seem to happen. Encounters and so on. Stuff that wouldn’t happen if you’re just a man alone with a camera, you know? One guy might be suspicious but two or three guys are pals. It’s even better if you’re with a woman. You can shoot anything then.
If I’m shooting crowded, busy scenes I generally like to shoot alone. It’s easier that way for me to remain somewhat invisible. And I also find those situations require concentration, and another friend nearby is too big a distraction. I also don’t like to “share”. Like, if I spot something unusual, it’s Mine!
I can’t be invisible in Tokyo, so I don’t even try. So being in a small group seems to help. By the way, here’s a pic I took that has you in it. Which is more interesting, a poodle in a stroller or Blake in Tokyo? The correct answer is C, “both together”.
|John Sypal, Tokyo, April 2018|
But as far as “sharing” subject matter on the streets, that’s something that comes up over and over when talking with photographers. It REALLY bugs some people. But for some reason I can’t get upset over it. If anything if I’m snapping the same thing alongside a friend, I want to see what they got, and how their photo “works” with or compared to mine. It’s part of the conversation. Did you get a snap of this poodle?
Nope, didn't get the poodle. I like flying solo in busy settings but if I’m on a random photowalk in Eugene, during which I’m usually shooting less frenetic situations, more social landscape, it’s fun to go with others. During my Eugene Grid Project lately I’ve been going out with my buddy Chris. It’s fun to have some company, chat, and make some photos along the way. They’re not really death marches. We usually go out for 2-3 hours. And we always wind up shooting very different material so it never feels like we get in each other’s way.
Despite what I said above, for the most part the guys I shoot with don’t meet up regularly to review what we found in our prints per walk. We all shoot apart far more than together, and once you whittle down your negs to prints it’s rare to print the same shots. But we do meet up from time to time to look at prints. But yeah, shooting together at the same stuff….the more I think about this the more I like it. It’s like near instant re-photography. Maybe, “co-photography”?
Co-photography. I like that. I think your situation in Japan as a tall caucasian presents some unique challenges. Usually when I go out it’s fairly easy to blend in. But as you say, that’s almost impossible for you. I wonder how that affects the photos. I’m sure it does. But it’s interesting to think about how exactly.
I think this relates to the central question of familiar vs. exotic, and feeling which one generates which type of photos, and which might be better or worse. As someone who spends most of my phototaking time, just due to life circumstance, circling around the familiar, I have a sort of ever-present hunger for the exotic. Which I think is maybe common, especially among street photographers. But who knows. On the other hand there’s definitely something to be said for photographing things you know well. You can probably get below the surface there in a way that’s difficult with foreign subject matter.
“Exotic” is all on a point of view. I mean, some people run around calling themselves Travel Photographers and on their Instagram account I see a pic of a street five minutes from my apartment. Like, that’s not TRAVELING, that’s me going to the station… Maybe that’s in terms of the audience. These guys don’t shoot for locals. The West has always had an insatiable interest in pictures of Exotic Japan and there are always been (often foreign) photographers like them not just happy to supply such pictures but unable to see anything else. It’s understandable when it’s someone in the country to pad their portfolio but to see long-term non-native residents doing so… well, it’s not very interesting.
Japanese friends and gallery visitors who see my work are always more interested in my Nebraska pictures than things I take in Tokyo. The most common compliment or observation I’ll get is that my pictures “look like a Japanese person took them”. Maybe that goes back to what we were talking about earlier in regards to “imperfections”. Imperfect preconceptions is fine with me… The last thing I’d ever want to do, particularly as a westerner, would be to try and tell some sort of story about Japan or the Japanese people or politics or whatever. I’d rather just see and show, not tell. That’s what I like about your work, Blake. Location-wise it’s often literally all over the place- but always about Photography itself. That’s harder to do, and harder for people to appreciate. I think it’s one of those narrow-but-deep things. It might not appeal to everyone, but to those it does, it does so deeply.
Do you agree that your pictures “look like a Japanese person took them”?
That’s something I haven't quite figured out. I mean, I see where Japanese viewers, particularly those who love/know photography, are coming from but it’s not about subject matter, explicitly. Maybe something in them reflects what they see in their pictures compared to how Western photographs are understood in Japan? Then you get into this unknowable realm of who knows what about what and how well. I’d konk out if I dwelt on it too long. There’s a set phrase Japanese people will tell foreigners who show enthusiasm about their culture Nihonjin yori Nihonjin da “You’re more Japanese than a Japanese person”. It’s a meaningless ego-boost employed as appeasement… You learn quickly not to assign value to that phrase. But after almost twenty years of looking at photographs in Japan, both in books and in person, among people, I am sure something has seeped in.
How is the Trump impeachment playing in Japan?
I haven’t watched the TV news lately- I’m sure they’re reported on a bit but the bigger National news is that an actress was caught with 0.09 grams of MDMA- and the news has been covering this non-stop over the past few days.
Yikes! I think I need help to contextualize this news story. To me it seems like the biggest “who cares” thing imaginable. But perhaps in Japan drug offense are perceived differently? Or is it something to do with celebrity? I think even in the U.S. such a story wouldn’t get much play. The fact that some movie star might use X or Y drug. I can’t imagine something like that getting much media coverage here. But maybe I’m just reading the wrong news outlets. Of course MDMA has been hopelessly demonized in the media here, and it looks like in Japan as well.
I read somewhere that Martin Parr figures the only way to organize a photobook collection is by country. How are your books kept?
For a while they were very loosely organized, mostly by size and how they fit on certain shelves. And most of my newer acquisitions were near the end of the shelves which was the most convenient place to stash them. But just last year I did a big re-organization. I bought some new metal shelves and rearranged all my books alphabetically by author. Not only is it way easier for me to locate books now, but the alphabetical order imposes its own strange random quality on things. Books acquire neighbors on the shelf which have nothing in common, and like that chance aspect. Duance Michaels next to Boris Mikhailov next to Ken Miller, etc.
That’s great! I do it like Japanese bookstores —several shelves of Araki, then Other Japanese Photographers. That second section is loosely divided into “wives” and “streets”. Nearby is my “MOMA shelf”, where guys like Friedlander and Winogrand and Szarkowski sit next to Shore and Frank. The usual suspects. Come to think of it the only European photographers whose books I have are Lartrigue and Juergen Teller...
For my photos, the best organizing principle is by date. I label all of them by month/year/roll#. It’s the best way I know to keep track. I think you do the same? In fact some of your photos have the date imprinted right into the image, if I remember correctly?
The color pictures I take are done with a date-stamping compact camera. So filing those is easy. For the most part I divide my black and white work, both negs and prints, into two halves. One is pictures of my girlfriend and the other is Everything Else. I have over twenty binders of negatives (each packed with maybe twenty negative sheets holding seven-strips of negs each) of her alone. Everything Else negatives are kept in binders divided by per year. I only shoot about 200 rolls of “everything else” a year, so they fit in one volume each. Workprints are 5x7s RCs- you know the drill- and those I keep in boxes labeled by year and season. So, “Spring 2019” sits under “Summer 2019”, and so on. Exhibition prints I file by groups of shows, but it’s kind of a mess. I need proper shelves but more than anything I need the space to install them. Prints pile up.
I sometimes try to separate my photos by subject matter, as you do with pictures of your girlfriend. The trouble comes when subjects overlap. Like, what if the girlfriend is standing near a dog? Does it go in the girlfriend box? Or the animal box?
Exactly. But we have a cat. I actually have a box of just her and our cat, and have recently been putting pictures of the cat into the print boxes of her. She’s fine with this.
I have quite a few boxes by now, and mixed subjects seem to happen with most photos. And especially with negative sheets, which might cover 10 different things in one contact sheet. In the end I guess my solution is a nonsolution, just leave prints unorganized on the shelf near my desk.
Do you number your neg sheets? I labeled the first sheet I made after moving to Japan in 2004 as “ 1 “ and then in December of 2009, with sheet 2,234 or whatever, I thought “this is crazy”. So from 2010 I started labeling them with the year, and then roll of the year. I develop film in batches of 40 - 60 rolls, and I have no qualms about splitting up strips to fill my 7-strip negative sheets. So roll 19-73 could have six strips of negatives (6 wide) with another at the bottom to use up space. As long as the negs are within a month or two together, that’s good enough for me. My print list is even more detailed- since I bulk roll film the frame numbers are all over the place. So, when I print a neg I have it written as something like 19-73: 3-15A, which would be frame number 15A in strip 3 of roll 73 of 2019.
I keep negs in binders which I label by date. I’m kind of anal about keeping them in chronological order as best I can. But I usually have 3 rolls (3 cameras) going simultaneously so there's some overlap. Anyway...within each binder I number the neg sheets in order, 1, 2, 3, and so on… So each negative gets assigned a binder date and roll number. I don’t worry about frame number because with only a few dozen images on a contact sheet it’s usually not hard to spot one. Most photos are easy enough to track down. But of course there are always troublesome negs which get misfiled or mislabeled or lost or can’t be found for some reason. But that’s just inherent in the archives of any film photographer. I think I’ve read anecdotes somewhere about Winogrand complaining about tracking down negs.
It’s work but it's a luxury, in a way. No one’s asking me to do it.
Nowadays I write the neg information on each work print. But I only started doing that in 2006, which is when it first dawned on me that my negatives were growing too plentiful to deal with just in my head. Before that I only wrote down the date, no roll number. So negs from before 2006 can be a real pain in the ass to track down. Oh well, I guess it’s ok. I don’t really assign much mental space to past pictures anyway. Gotta keep moving forward. What did Satchel Paige say? “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”
Yeah, I know what that’s like. I think I our last chat here I talked about the two-thousand sheets of negs I threw out...
Just found the book Ravens and Red Lipstick in the university library here, where I learned that the Japanese word for photography Sha-Shin, apparently comes from the words Copy-Truth. Or something along those lines? If true, I like it better than Photo-Graph, from the greek Light-Drawing.
Is that the one with the white cover and a round red bowl top-down on the cover? Good book. Photograph: 写真. Indeed, 写 means copy- - same as in 「複写」fukusha which is used in “copy” as in, “photocopy”. Next, 真 means “truth”. There’s probably some stuff here for grad students in linguistics and Art History to write about here. I used the same kanji in my book Zuisha- I read about the Japanese literary tradition of zuihitsu, which is an essay where- ah let me just paste in the wiki intro:
Zuihitsu (随筆) is a genre of Japanese literature consisting of loosely connected personal essays and fragmented ideas that typically respond to the author's surroundings. The name is derived from two Kanji meaning "at will" and "pen." The provenance of the term is ultimately Chinese, zuihitsu being the Sino-Japanese reading (on'yomi) of 随筆 (Mandarin: suíbǐ), the native reading (kun'yomi) of which is fude ni shitagau (“follow the brush”). Thus works of the genre should be considered not as traditionally planned literary pieces but rather as casual or randomly recorded thoughts by the authors.
So I took the “follow the brush” part and replaced “brush” with the “sha” from the first part of shashin- so, “follow the photo”, or lens, or Copy, or something. I don’t go out there with ideas. Thankfully the Japanese language is malleable in such a way that a foreigner can make up new words like this to suit their needs. Japanese friends and strangers who’ve come to the shows say they all immediately “got” the title. Well, it works. I don’t really like thinking of titles… I’ve never been comfortable with the Finality of them.
What is your process for photographing Tokyo? I know it’s an enormous city, impossible to cover entirely.
It’s a generous place, so I just carry a camera around my neck wherever I go. There’s always stuff to see. You know, the density of it makes it seem a lot bigger than it is. The “real” part of the city, what fits inside the Yamanote loop line, is about as big as the city limits of Lincoln, Nebraska, a midwestern college town. Of course the sprawl goes out a ways west. But it’s mostly residential urban sprawl that I’m not interested in.
Do you make an effort to explore new areas when you go out? Or do you find yourself shooting the same familiar areas, maybe part of your daily routine or whatever?
Certainly the daily routine finds itself in the pictures. There aren’t really any “new” spots for me anymore. I’ve never gone about trying to find new stuff. Tokyo has been photographed so much, so there’s a rich and ongoing photographic conversation concerning it. I’m not talking about avoiding cliches or trying something never-been-seen. The issue is this: how can you add something worthwhile —a rapport— to the past? So as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more interested in the bigger picture, so to speak. My interest in rephotography works as a means to get to places I normally might not visit, or to visit familiar places with eyes attuned for a particular spot. I know the city and I know photobooks of Tokyo, so it’s great fun to match this stuff I see in books in and “real” life with a camera. It’s a thrill, and again, something to do.
|Daido Moriyama, Journey to Nakaji (Sokyusha, 1987)|
|Nobuyoshi Araki, Tokyo-Sei (Core Magazine, 1995)|
|John Sypal, Shibuya, Tokyo, February 2018|
|Tatsuyuki Yokokawa, Tokyo Matchbox, (image from 1970s/1980s), Published 2008|
| John Sypal, Shinjuku, Tokyo, June 2019|
|Nobuyoshi Araki, Bokuto Eros, (Kobunsha, 1994)|
|John Sypal, Mukojima, Tokyo, August 2018|
| Kineo Kuwabara, Sensouji Temple, 1945-50|
|John Sypal, Sensouji Temple, Asakusa, August 2018|
|Kineo Kuwabara, Ueno station, 1945-50|
| John Sypal, Ueno Station, August 2018|
|Nobuyoshi Araki, Tokyo-Sei (Core Magazine, 1995)|
|John Sypal, Suwa Shrine, Nishi-Nippori, February 2017|
Locating these spots —and I’ve done dozens if not over a hundred— gives me a thrill and satisfaction that I can’t quite describe. But I have zero intent in these digital “covers” as being anything other than means to simply see how a physical place has changed. There’s no trying to match the originals in feeling or depth. I just like looking at them on a monitor and seeing what’s gone, what’s been replaced, and what remains. That’s it. How do I put it?... I don’t rephoto anything with my Leica. But I shoot on the way to and from these spots. The search is an avenue to find my own work.
Are there particular areas on your current prospects list, that you’ll be shooting soon?
I’ve got a rough list of spots to re-photo. If I recognize a spot in a photobook I’ll take an iPhone snap of it. I’ve got a folder in the phone, and when I’m out and near a spot, I use the iPhone snap as a reference and take the re-photo with a digital compact camera.
I love your Tokyo rephotography stuff. Reminds me of a point earlier in this discussion when I mentioned the difference between Eugene and Tokyo. In terms of rephotography Eugene is almost the polar opposite of Tokyo, where notorious photos are sprinkled around the city. Here I have the sense I’m the only person making photos. I don’t think any local landmarks have ever been documented in any prominent photo. There are other photographers here, of course, but they’re mainly focused on non-Eugene subjects, natural settings or portraits or whatever. I almost NEVER see another photographer while out shooting. It's an interesting contrast to your Tokyo Camera Style project where you’re constantly bumping into other film shooters. This isn’t really a question, just an observation. Making photos here I feel like an explorer at ground zero. Rephotography? Ha! Maybe someone else can pick that up in 30 years.
Maybe not “someone else”, but you? If not you, who?
Maybe me, if I’m still in Eugene and physically able in 30 years. We’ll see.
There are more people out taking pictures than ever, but I don’t find a proportional rise in really interesting contemporary work. Most of my favorite books this year were newly printed collections of pictures taken forty or thirty years ago. This dovetails with my interest in Rephotography. The subject is fascinating, and I’ve always loved anything you’ve written on the subject here. Just like with my other obsession with collecting vernacular snapshots, it helps me learn more about the medium, figuring out what it does. The more you see, the more you see.
I think people are always making interesting photos. They’re happening now, just as they did in the past, and will in the future. Maybe part of the reason old photographs can seem more appealing is that they’ve been filtered by time. Only the very best ones typically survive to the present. The percentage of crappy photos was probably just as high 50 years ago as it is now. But the crappy ones are mostly lost to history. Compare that to the present day. When we look at photos being made now, all the good ones and crap are mixed together without much separation. History hasn’t had a chance yet to sift them out, so the percentage of crap seems higher.
This kind of goes back to the beginning of our conversation. When we say Photographs, are we thinking about stuff that’s “properly” made by well intending people with cameras who make prints, or the 95 million (!) digital captures uploaded to Instagram each day? I actually just looked that up. 95 million! That’s incredible. Spending a second looking at each picture would take 1,100 days.
There might also be an element of nostalgia at play too. Photographers seem especially susceptible to the romanticization of the past. After all, the past is our basic resource. Where we mine all the goods. So maybe we see it through rose colored glasses sometimes.
I see what you mean. But my interest in old photos isn’t centered on a rosy-romanticism of the subjects pictured in them as much as it is this generosity of the medium at work. To me this goes beyond a good/crappy dichotomy- Friedlander’s quote about a million pebbles and a peeing dog in the frame with an aunt and uncle comes to mind. It’s all there waiting for us! But so is the world outside. Again, these are good problems to have. It’d be no fun to have answers come quickly, if ever.