Friday, November 21, 2014

Q & A with John Sypal

John Sypal is a photographer based in Tokyo, and the founding editor of Tokyo Camera Style.

Can you tell me how you got into photography?

I took a few photo classes in high school when I was sure I'd go to Art School- - it was my first experience in the darkroom, developing film, etc. I entered the University of Nebraska's BFA program in 1998- By then I was sure I'd be an illustrator or painter or something. I remember being turned off by the "process" of photography.

Let's go back a step. You were headed into the arts before you found photography? When did that interest start?

It's always been something I was into- lots of drawing as a kid, then high school was where I was pretty into it all- carried a sketchbook all the time for stuff. Took art classes- 2D and 3D design- all that stuff.

What turned you off about the "process" of photography?

Probably the fact that it took all of 3rd period to do film. Then off to English or Math or whatever it was. Never enough time to get comfortable! But that was always a problem with art classes in schools- time to clean up as soon as you are really just getting started.

I was gonna say, it can take days or weeks to make a painting. Compared to that photography is lightning fast.

Now thinking about an 8 hour printing session is the kind of thing that gets me through the day- painting was something I was able to do more of in college.

Wait. You like printing for 8 hours?

Totally-  I now can get about thirty 11 x 14 Fiber prints done in a session. 


from Nebraska, The Good Life

As for schoolin' in fact I delayed taking my Photography requirement at UNL until the spring of 2001. Then, thanks to an excellent teacher, Dave Read, I got hooked. Sideswiped by it all- man, Photography is where it's at.

Did you get a BFA in photography?

No, actually, I graduated as an "International Studies" major- I studied abroad in Japan in 1998- then again for a year from Sept. 2001 to Aug 2002- - to fund that study abroad program I needed a scholarship for Int'l studies majors. So I took my student file- an actual physical folder- over to the Arts and Sciences office. After returning to Nebraska I needed to get on with school and instead of returning to the Art department asked my advisor if instead of doing a senior thesis, I could instead have a photo exhibition of the work I made in Japan. He said ok and that became my first show.

You did a photo show for an international studies degree?

Yeah- The show was titled "The Japanese" which is pretty unoriginal and rather embarrassing now.

Japanese photographer visits Omaha. Photo show: The Americans. 

I'd love to see that show.

Do you recall your very first impressions of Japan?

I went over as a proto-Anime nerd- - nothing like the hardcore ones today since the internet wasn't what it is now- - it was a lot different than Nebraska. I got there and realized that the actual Japan I was in was more interesting than the one I had seen animated or in comics.

My first trip was in 1998- - The only camera I had was some zoom point and shoot Samsung 35mm compact camera- but this past summer I looked through my albums from then. There was some stuff there I found interesting





I thought you tossed all that stuff? Didn't you trash most of your old negs?

I threw out about 2000 neg sheets of stuff from 2004-2010. The color albums were back in my parent's house in Lincoln-

So it was an accident they were saved? Or would you have saved them anyway?

Good question- - They were spared by distance and time I guess. I don't really need them anymore...

These photos bring up the possibility of revisiting older photos from a future perspective and having them impact you in a way you didn't expect or realize. And maybe choosing different favorites. All the stuff that goes with archival photos. It's the Monica Lewinsky scenario, where you don't realize the importance of a mundane photo until later. Any regrets about tossing your negs?

Not really. I spent two weeks going through each and every neg strip, frame by frame, through a loupe on my light table. It took hours and eventually I was actually dreaming in black and white negatives. But it was more like harvesting than a mass cull- - there were lots of surprises. If a strip had a frame worth keeping, I kept it.

The 1998 trip to Japan was color. I haven't seen much color 35 work from you. When did you switch to b/w?

I've pretty much always shot black and white- exclusively, actually, until I think 2006. . . then I shot a few hundred rolls of color stuff alongside my B&W. I had over 50 albums (4x6) of the pictures- -

I just noticed the date stamp. Were you aware of or influenced by Araki?

No. The 1998 "work" was typical 19 year old Midwestern College Student in Asia snapshots- but instead of iPhoning them to Facebook they were all on film like everyone else in my program was shooting. Cheap color film- the kind of consumer film you could find anywhere then.




Dreaming in black and white negatives? What does that mean?

After looking through that loupe at frame after frame of negatives, it affected my mind, I guess. You know that Gondry film The Letter

No.

It's great. Earlyish (?) Gondry- - it's on the Director's Label special DVD of his work. It's in black and white- and in parts switches to Negative- - that's how I was dreaming then.

You know what I think might be going on? The fact you didn't print contacts all those years. Your mind became used to looking at inversions.

That's probably right. Inversions. Both in time and "color".

The date stamp brings up a sort of related issue. I think you shoot in a Japanese style, maybe subconsciously. And that seems to have developed even before moving to Japan. Am I making that up or is there something there? And if so, how would you explain it?

Well, for starters, the year abroad (2001-2002) was extremely formative in terms of my putting photography into practice. I didn't know much about Japanese Photography then. My previous first semester in photo at UNL was taught by a fantastic professor, Dave Read- we were encouraged to have a camera and approach the world with it. No Conceptual Plans- just a real influence by Shore's Nature of Photographs and Szarkowski texts. That was the primer for my first serious encounters with the country and really living with photography.

Shoot first, ask questions later.

Yeah. I joined the Camera Club at the university I was studying at and spent a lot of time in the darkroom. It's funny being removed by over a decade from that time now- There are a LOT more cameras on the streets now in Tokyo than there were in 2001. I was in a bubble then, in terms of working. There was no internet or anything to deal with. I'd shoot, print, and that was it. I didn't have a scanner or a digital camera. Just boxes of prints and negs in my suitcase when I returned to Nebraska

Were you aware of Japanese photographers?

Once I got here, sure. But in Nebraska, not so much. Actually, I can't think of anyone I might have heard of then.

You see what I'm getting at? Your style meshes with the Japanese style and I'm trying to find the root. Like maybe that's what took you to Japan. What did take you there, by the way?

I think it was an interest in pop culture- anime, manga, etc. But that was quickly overrun by a desire to figure the place out with my camera during that year-long program. And it was different than Lincoln, Nebraska. That was a big draw. Not having a plan with a camera- an outlook I'm grateful to my teacher for, helped.

But I never opened a book by Daido Moriyama and thought "wow that's cool I want to do that too". Which is I think a popular way for a lot of people now to get into Japanese Photography- - that and switching their X-100 into "Art Mode". . .

What is Art Mode?

My GRD4 has it- you open up the shooting mode menu and select from some pre-existing filters- "Art Mode" is a high contrast black and white Provoke-y way to take pictures. I think that's Olympus's term for it. Which says a lot about how people, camera marketers and engineers in particular, think of Art and Photography.

The Japanese Style. Can I call it that? Of course that's simplified into a mode. There are other elements. But busy, loose, streamy, diaristic are harder to convert into a camera button.

I still don't know how you wound up in Japan.

After graduating I ended up coordinating a Japanese school trip to Nebraska from Nebraska and was offered a position teaching at the school in Japan from 2004. Been there ever since. So I teach 9th graders during weekdays and work on my photography and blogs and magazine feature, etc on the weekend.

What do you teach?

English.

How's your Japanese?

In terms of talking about photography, pretty good I'm told. I've found being able to talk about your work in Japanese helps with interviews and galleries. I don't need a translator or anything when I meet with an editor.  

My photographic introduction was the usual suspects- - slide lectures on Evans, Frank, Winogrand, Friedlander- which set me up for that kind of approach when touching down in Japan. Frank as a foreigner in America probably helped but Winogrand was in 1964 just as much about a stranger in a strange land as he went across the country- I think he was in Friedlander's car for that trip, wasn't he?

Not sure about that but I think not...

I mean, he borrowed Friedlander's car for the trip. Can't remember where I read that. Could be wrong though.

It's possible.

It's funny, I was really into Dan Eldon's collage books before and all through my year abroad in Japan. I made diaries similar to his from 1999- - then my painting teacher showed me Peter Beard's Diary- - wow. I still do those books- - black bound sketchbooks overflowing with collages. I'm up to 26 or 27.


from Dan Eldon's Journey Is The Destination
So that's the diaristic angle...

Much of my color photos ended up into those pages. Probably shot for them too, now that I think about it. Darkroom test strips made up a big part of them too.

I was also stuck on Nikon SLR's... Then near the end of my year abroad I sold most of the Nikon gear and bought a Voigtlander Bessa R2 and a 35mm lens. That camera was a game changer.

I had the approach of being open to everything- but I think I was still in that modernist quest for those few and seemingly rare Perfect Pictures- - and thought that a good series of work was comprised of such pictures. So I would make some sets of good work- and was pretty happy, and take those sets to editors- not looking for work, but to hear what they thought. There are some good editors at camera magazines here- and they'd pull it all apart- "Why are you showing all these kinds of perfect pictures? It's boring to have a full set of photographic highlights" etc

What do you mean by perfect pictures?

Perfect Pictures- - the "hits" when people talk about "hit rates", I guess. Stuff that was- compared to pre-exisiting rubrics- worthy of interest due to form or happenstance-  

You know, I've never ONCE heard a Japanese photographer ever comment on form or structure of a single picture- - instead it's an overview of all of them at once in a set.

So the Japanese editors don't admire single images? What about some perfect moment like Capa's dying soldier? Would they have no understanding or appreciation? The set is more important? That's the diaristic thing? The photographs are more about the photographer than the moment? I think that's one of my hangups with Moriyama or Araki. Few of their photos stand up and say "Look at me. I'm special." It's more of an overall mood. 

I haven't met every editor so I can't really say- but I'd argue that Araki and Moriyama have made plenty of truly incredible photographs that stand alone magnificently- but at the same time, the entirety of their output serves as "work" as much as single pictures do. My photobook collection has one Moriyama book, and 150 of Araki's though . . .

Can I make a dangerous jump to national identity? Does perspective say something about personal identity in each country? Japan is more accustomed to supporting community ideals? American is Me-First-And-Fuck-You?

I think the trouble with the West and Araki is their focus on particular types of his images- ones that fetishize a particular and sexual idea of the country. But I see what you're getting at. I think there's a cultural emphasis on holistically approaching art here in Japan... (Side Note- - I did some writing with an encounter with a Japanese photo editor here)

I'm still intrigued by your comment on "perfect" pictures. What is perfect? In music I'm drawn more and more to imperfect artists. Shows like American Idol or the Grammies are infatuated with perfection and that's a very big obstacle for them. But that world is simple. Photography is tricky. Are Stephen Shore's photos perfect? Yes, in a way. But if they were music they'd never win a Grammy.

I'm no musician, but I suppose it's close to like when The Beat Drops.  The other day in a bookshop I saw Trent Parke's book Minutes to Midnight- it's "perfection" in spades. And to me, just boring because it's trying so hard.  

Hmm. I actually think that book strikes a nice balance between perfect photos and supporting images working together to build something greater than the sum of the parts. A few of the photos are drop-dead killers. But it's also an intricate story of his youthful explorations and then becoming a father and "responsibility" Or at least that's how I read it.

I'll take another look. 

When reading this articleI found this bit quite interesting: 
"That we in the West develop brains that are wired to see ourselves as separate from others may also be connected to differences in how we reason, Heine argues. Unlike the vast majority of the world, Westerners (and Americans in particular) tend to reason analytically as opposed to holistically. That is, the American mind strives to figure out the world by taking it apart and examining its pieces. Show a Japanese and an American the same cartoon of an aquarium, and the American will remember details mostly about the moving fish while the Japanese observer will likely later be able to describe the seaweed, the bubbles, and other objects in the background. " 
As for Perfect, the word I have heard used was cho-ten which means Apex or Perfect. 

Did the editor's comments change your approach? Did you stop looking for "hits"?

I loosened up a lot after that. Not only because of them, but with other photographers here I am learning from. Joining Totem Pole, a local artist-run photo space in Tokyo, helped because then once I started having shows regularly I had to deal with the work in a different, and physical way.

So photographers in Japan avoid choten?

Not all- I mean, there's always room for the Obvious.  Moriyama and Nakahira were trying to stretch the definition of photography- Araki was often pushing limits as well but he always states in essays and interviews that pictures are at their best right before or slightly after the apex- but again this is about feelings more than anything

I do need to make it clear that the whole Araki-Moriyama-Provoke-etc in 2014 no more represents the entirety of Japanese Photography than the Beatles do for Pop Music. There are a lot of photographers though that aim for perfection here- certainly the throngs of amateurs and vast commercial photo world. There's a growing conceptual approach that's unsettling, or at least worth fighting against. 

Wait. Why is the conceptual approach worth fighting against? Can't several approaches exist together?

Sure, but individually I think you need something to work against as an artist- an establishment, a technique, individuals, whatever. I was recently in a bookstore in Shibuya with an extensive import photobook section and every other new book was Idea pictures- it's almost like you see Art before you see the photograph.  Work that painstakingly and obviously came from an idea and set up to illustrate it bores me.  I'm not saying that these conceptual approaches are wrong, but certainly for me they're not how I deal with life with my camera.  I think that in some way black and white photos made from life itself— direct responses to living— are so far off the radar of, or not taken seriously by, the current Art Photography scene there's a great deal of freedom in not trying to approximate what's "in" now.  I don't make or show work trying to playing the art game, anyway.  I suppose that mentally lining up the opposition charges how I choose the photos I do when shooting or printing.  And right now I'm personally more interested in subverting my own ideas of what "perfect" pictures are. 

What does Araki mean that photos are best before or after the apex? It sounds a bit like artspeak, I gotta say. How do you time your photo just before the apex? Or maybe you just find it later on the contact?

Instax Gratification

Phaidon put out an excellent Araki book in 2005- it's full of a lot of his writings translated into English-

Is Araki talking about the anti-moment?

I think he's really all about the actual living moment and using the camera to interact with it. Sontag wouldn't approve! The photo is the reason, but also the by-product of the experience.

But he's after a different result than HCB? He'd shoot the guy landing in the puddle? Imperfect or off center or with problems? Because problems are perfect?

I'd bet that guy'd have at least half a foot in it. There's a short essay where he talks about shooting with the Plaubel Makina- his main camera through the 1980's into the late 1990's- and he said that its framing is "chaotic" so it really makes you work to get a picture. Maybe it's because it isn't as precise as an SLR that the camera-ness of the pictures comes though. That's why I shoot rangefinders, anyway. I don't really like SLR's because they're too precise. I like it when my Leica leads a little.

I like to shoot from the hip for the same reason. I'm too analytical. As soon as I put my eye behind the viewfinder I want to line stuff up. But going from the hip takes the brain out of the equation. It's a nice looseness. I doubt Friedlander has ever shot a photo from the hip.

The catalogue for Araki's big show in 1999 has an essay from the chief curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art- Junichi Shioda- He compared Araki to a Japanese pottery master named Shoji Hamada. I like this bit: 
"Although this comparison may be somewhat abrupt, the camera is to Araki what a kiln is to the potter. The potter Shoji Hamada once said, "I leave the form to the wheel, the decoration to the brush, and firing to the kiln". The potter is not able to control all these processes. Hamada's words suggest that the greater part of the work is left up to accident and natural mechanisms transcending human intentions. This is not a denial of the creativity and subjectivity of the artist, but a recognition that good pots are not produced by these factors alone. He believes that creation is not possible without the intervention of other powers. This attitude is a very Japanese "naturalism".  
I think there's some validity to this thought. 

Philosophy Of The World, 1969, The Shaggs' first and only album
Do you like The Shaggs?

?

Music group from the late 60s. The embodiment of perfect imperfection. No training. No skill. By any standard they were horrible. But they made beautiful songs. I can't get enough.

Sounds good- - Kaol Abe might be similar as well: 

I think their approaches are slightly different. The Shaggs are doing their best to make music that sounds good, but they're so horrible it's impossible. I think Kaol Abe is very capable of making good music but they're venturing deliberately into improvisation and chaos, like Picasso painting a sloppy Taurus or something. But maybe they wind up in roughly the same place in the end.

Are we talking about Wabi Sabi? 

Donald Richie put out a wonderful book entitled A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics. It explains Wabi Sabi well (can't find my copy at the moment though).

My understanding is that it's more of an appreciation of an object's natural simplicity or rustic imperfections than a concept that can be applied to any kind of photographic aesthetic. I'd say it's more applicable to the description of the patina of a black paint Leica M4 than a "flawed" perfection in a photograph.

Wouldn't that apply directly to the Japanese photo aesthetic (Provoke) with lots of grain, contrast, and imperfections affecting whatever's in the photo? It's like silver emulsion as patina. It's a million miles from f/64, for example.

Indeed. I think groups like Magnum or f/64 would be more like trying to make the Parthenon over and over. I think that there's an element of time invoked in Wabi-sabi- - the wear on a door frame, etc. A photograph can capture that as a subject matter but the print, unless it's old and yellowed, probably wouldn't. Provoke was poking around in the mud with some rusty junk. But I'm no expert on Provoke, I'll tell you that! It cofounds me as it is.

Is there an undercurrent of that f/64 perfection in the Japanese photo world? Or is it sort of dominated by messy b/w?

Yes, there are many such amateur clubs, lots of how-to guides, etc. Many people are still after that Perfect Picture. There are legions of older men with Nikon D4s out there taking photos of nature and Mt. Fuji. But I actually like those guys- they've got a hobby and are enjoying themselves. 

But in the fine art upper echelons of Japan. Is there a place for that style?

I think that you get guys like Toshiro Shibata who would fit the bill. He's probably bigger abroad than in Japan though.

Also Sugimoto! Very clean perfect images. What about Kawauchi? Big internationally. But how about in Japan?

Sure- she's big here too. I think it's interesting what photographers in Japan "make it" abroad and which don't. . . There is something approachable in her work that probably also coincidentally fits with what works on the internet.

Yes. She was shooting Instagram-like pictures before that platform existed.

The other might be Shoji Ueda, by about 60 years. 

Don't know him. I'm ignorant about much of Japanese photo history.

He's one of the Gods of Japanese Photography- often photographed his wife and others on sand dunes in Tottori.  He's contemporary with guys like Kimura Ihee and Ken Domon, and if you're a young guy in 1968 with an Olympus Pen, a good source of establishment from which to rebel.

You're talking about Provoke as a reactionary style. 

I think that is what it was- I look at a lot of vintage camera magazines in the used shops here- you see a definite blow-back to the Modernist and Life-ish stuff from the 50's and 60's. The trend kept going- by 70s the monthly photo contest sections of the magazines were loaded with roughly printed super wide angle contrasty black and white images by the average amateur. It was the camera magazines that really kept things going how they did, photography in Japan and all.

So that style became the dominant style to copy. Maybe like dead-pan Mamiya 6x7 color is now in the US.

Oh totally, god, that Mamiya 7 80mm lens. . . you can tell from a mile away.

Great lens. I had one until a few years ago. Fucking tack sharp.

I liked the 65mm f4- - that is a fantastic camera...

My whole kit was stolen from my car a few years ago. Which was fine. It told me what I already knew, that the format wasn't a good fit for me.

Ouch. I'm sorry.

I didn't mean to dwell on Mamiya. But more on the happenstance of a generation following a certain aesthetic perhaps unconsciously. The Fraction Magazine aesthetic?

It's interesting how those things happen. I guess it's close enough to the 8x10 work by New Color guys that students could make do with it.

I saw an Araki show today-  at the Shiseido Gallery (backed by the cosmetic manufacture/corporation). He's got four up in Tokyo at the moment.

So he puts out 500 books and has four shows at a time. WTF?

He's 74 years old. Also has the covers of two fashion magazines this month in addition to several different serializations in other magazines.

Does he have a gallery manager or someone coordinating all this activity, or is it him?

Yes, he has a small staff- - it seems casual, and probably isn't like how big names in Pro Photo in the states do it... I don't know the details, but he has a lot of people looking out for him. I'm not anywhere near any of those orbits. But most guys have an office at least. Moriyama's manager is his nephew. Nice guy.

You said you have 150 of Araki's books. Is he your guy? Your main influence?

If there was a continuum, and this is just for me personally, I'd put Araki at one end and Friedlander at the other. They're my two go-to guys. My interest in those artists lies in how they approach the world, really deal with it, with their cameras. I don't think I can re-read the Friedlander interview in the Smithsonian series Maria book enough. . . .Thanks to you I found out about that new Friedlander family book.

Chris Rauschenberg puts Atget and Friedlander at opposite ends of his favorite photographer spectrum. One (Friedlander) is the height of precision and gimmickry. The other (Atget) is the height of natural, non-manipulated approach. I think your Araki/Friedlander pairing might be similar.

That sounds good. Araki started out as a commercial photographer- I think his skill set from that period of his life has long served him well.

So you view Araki as the manipulative pole? I put him on the other end.

I guess he could be anywhere on the spectrum as needed or desired. He is able to very skillfully blend technical skills with being open to what's there.  Speaking of Atget, you know, Araki often called himself the Atget of Tokyo for his series in the 1970's, "Tokyo, in Autumn".  It's a fantastic set of photographs…


Tokyo In Autumn, Nobuyoshi Araki

I think many photographers shoot their families just in the course of daily life. But Araki and Friedlander are two of the few who've been willing to go public with a very wide band of material. Most people keep it more hidden. For understandable reasons.

I agree. Do you have the book The Model Wife? It's really well done- looks at male photographers and the photos of their wives. Stieglitz, Weston, Callahan, Gowan, Friedlander, Fukase, Furuya, and Nixon.

From In The Family Picture, by Lee Friedlander

I don't have it. Why are there no female photographers shooting husbands? Sally Mann?

Right? There should be more. I'd like to see them. The one star review for The Model Wife on Amazon is worth thinking about, even if it's a bit narrow minded. There is a Japanese photographer who photographed her husband in a lot of the same ways. That's the cover of her book.

What did you find the photobook store today?

Three copies of Like a One Eyed Cat in two shops- -$200, $150, and $60. Didn't go home with any of them though.

$60 is a decent price.

I have that eighty-pound MOMA book- the yellow one...so I guess it's all in there.

Yeah, that's good too.

I really am digging all the recent Friedlander books out over the past few years- the design is great with that solid color and crazy typography. New Cars is like $70 new here so I've held off. But In The Picture is one I keep coming back to over and over.

Some of them are nice but I think he's gone a little overboard. It's like 2 or 3 books a year. It feels a bit like an old rocker putting out B-Sides.

That isn't fun?

It's fun but it dilutes the good stuff.

I guess I'm a little obsessive when it comes to stuff I like...The more the merrier, and all that.  If I like something I tend to get as much of it as I can. But of the recent Friedlander, I wasn't so interested in the recent Nudes or the mannequins in the windows book. 

The Mannequins book! That was awful. 

It wasn't one I got excited over. But I see how and where Friedlander probably finds interest in them.  I do want his Cherry Blossom book someday.

What do you like about Friedlander's photos?

His 60's stuff still just hits you upside the head something crazy. BAM. Pure photography for photography's sake. And they exhibit such intelligence- I can't get enough. No one on cell phones then in them, either. But it's his dedication to the Photograph as a Photograph above all else that excites me, pictures about pictures being pictures...

Have you read that 75+ page MOMA interview with Szarkowski?

Is it Szarkowski interviewing Friedlander? Or someone interviewing Szarkowski?

It's an interview by MOMA Staff with Szarkowski. (No Lee, sadly) There's this part where the interviewer asks him what he thinks about photographs on screens- digital stuff- this was in 1997 or 1998- and he just gets to talking, and - this is a transcription, by the way- he gets distracted by a rare bird outside the window- so they talk about that and then go on to something else. It's kind of funny.

So the idea is he didn't care for screens?

He actually said he was cool with them. 
SZ: Books on computer screens. How is that ever going to work with photography?  
JS: It'll work fine, depending on what you expect it to do. I don't have to make this speech to you.
SZ: I don't know if I know what you're going to say. I know what I think about it. 
JS: A computer's a computer. I don't think I write any worse or better. In some ways it's easier. It's just another way of...in publishing, as part of a system of reproductive techniques it has a lot of uses. 
SZ: I was thinking more as a presentation.... 
JS: What is that out there? Oh. He jumped. I thought...there was a bird out on the.... [Laughter] No, no, I'm sorry. It's true, it was a bird. There was a bird on the rail and then he jumped. I think he probably flew before he got to the bottom. It looked green to me. Green birds at this latitude are rare. 
SZ: I know almost nothing about birds. I know what a hummingbird looks like. I have one in the country that comes. 
JS: You have a lot of birds in the country. You should get yourself a Roger Tory
Peterson. 
SZ: I have one. 
JS: You do? And a pair of glasses? 
SZ: No. 
JS: Get up early in the morning, especially this season, when all the leaves are out, you have to get up early.  
SZ: You know when they really sing? A couple of weeks ago there was that huge storm? When the storms are over they just talk to each other. I guess they're sort of saying, "Are you okay?" 
JS: Sure. That's why they sing in the morning: "You get through the night all right?" [laughter].
What does that have to do with Friedlander?

Sorry, I got off on a tangent- - Friedlander reminded me of Szarkowski, etc.

OK. I thought it was about the photograph as a photograph. For that thought my man is Winogrand.

Szarkowski was all about Photography as something separate from the rest of Art due to its intrinsic nature. Winogrand and Friedlander's modes of operation synced in with this nicely. Art on its (photography's) own terms, anyway.

What were the other photo shows you saw today? 

D'agata's show at the Leica Gallery- I have no way to mentally deal with his work. It confounds me to the point that I just end up shrugging it off. I respect it but I don't know what to do with it. Then I saw a show by Keiko Nomura at the Nikon Salon in Ginza. That was real good. The Leica and Shiseido shows are up for a few months maybe- The Nikon Salon shows are on the week or two-week schedule.

The idea that shows there last a week and done. I can't wrap my head around that still. Time there is at a different rate I think. Is the pace in Tokyo absurd?



I did a two-man show in November- hung it on Monday, opened Tuesday, and took it down on a Sunday evening. One week.

Why though? I guess it's due to a few things. First, there're a lot of photographers here. Shinya Arimoto, who teaches at a Photography school in town, told me that about 20,000 kids graduate photo programs in Japan every year. And that's not even including the amateurs who drive the camera markets. There're a lot of people taking pictures here in Japan.

Second, the week long shows are often run in small galleries that dot the city- there's a slew of them near Shinjuku station. The one I'm a member of, Totem Pole, is fairly typical. It's held together by a small group of dedicated people- there's 9 of us, and we put in each month to cover rent and utilities. Someone- usually the one showing work- goes in to open the gallery at noon and close it at 7. We have no staff- no director- no real budget. But it is a rental gallery, so if another photographer wants to rent the space for a week or two, we can make that happen if the work is worth it. Most small photo galleries in Tokyo are rental galleries. Totem is $1000 for six days and that's probably the cheapest of the ones I know of. Of us nine members, we each have a few shows a year- then you have a week off in summer, and two weeks in winter- so that leaves some chances for rentals.   

But that's not our business plan or anything. Neither are print sales because no one really buys prints at this tier of the photo "scene". The bigger commercial galleries, sure- but not really at Totem Pole, or the other Shinjuku galleries. I suppose the idea of an artist paying to show their work comes across as weird or unfathomable in the west. Here in Japan it's just how it is done. I've heard that concert venues charge bands to play- and then the bands try to recoup their finances through ticket sales. I do think though, having witnessed it in person for so many years now, that paying to play isn't that much different than any other part of making photos. After being here for so long the idea that a guy might drop $5000 on a camera is ok but not to want to pay a single dime to show the pictures is odd to me. It's an extension of working. A Summicron lens equals a gallery space, or something.

I wasn't asking as much about the financial aspect but the timing. If you want to see a specific show a week isn't much time. I mean I have a hard enough time seeing all the monthly shows around Oregon. It takes a while.

Tokyo is actually fairly compact- believe it or not. And having a dozen galleries near Shinjuku station- and another dozen in and around Ginza - - you can see a lot in a day if the spaces are a few blocks from each other. 

Do you see most of the shows each week?

Not most- -not even half... mostly a time issue. I've been putting photos on Tokyo Camera Style of the promotional postcards for the shows.


Araki Promo Card
That's my point. You're into photos. You're the target audience. But you don't see some shows due to time constraints. That seems like a problem.

Hmm, well, those promotional cards help as previews. Some aren't worth seeing, honestly. But I have a few galleries I hit up on free evenings that I know will deliver. But as far as a target audience- - there are a lot of people who go out to see exhibitions.

Unlike America.

Man. . . it's unreal here sometimes. Photography is legit.  

Were there any photo galleries where you grew up in Nebraska?

The Sheldon Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska had some photos from time to time. And the student work in the halls was often good. But no dedicated photo galleries or anything, ever. So getting to Japan, needing to go to the Nikon Service center for a Nikon F2 battery cap and peeking in the gallery next to it. . .that opened a lot of doors....mentally, anyway. One thing led to another.

I haven't had a show in a while but when I was showing regularly I developed the strong sense that the show isn't for the outside audience much at all. It was usually for me, a deadline and a project statement to help me edit and nail down a specific sequence of photos. If anyone saw it that was gravy.

I can't agree with that outlook enough.

It's true but sort of sorry.

Totem Pole Gallery by John Sypal

That's kind of how me and the other Totem Pole members work. My process is to deal with the pictures- I have about three shows a year under the title "Zuisha" that are only of pictures made since the previous show. My Zuisha shows are 20 pictures each.... because that's how many 16x20 frames we have. And how much wall space that can support them. 


What is Zuisha in English?

It's not even an actual word in Japanese- I made it up. It's from the Japanese word Zui-hitsu,  a type of essay- a train of thought, quickly intuitively written. Zui means to lead, and hitsu is "writing". Donald Richie said it's "not the mind that leads, but the brush itself" so I cheekily swapped out "writing" with "photography". Interestingly enough, it makes sense in Japanese since the language is so elastic. Japanese visitors say they get it right away.

Sha is photography?

yes- 写真 Sha - Shin. Sha means "copy" or "reflect" and Shin means "truth". How about that?


from Zuisha, Volume 6
That's a whole fucking mess right there —associating photography with truth. Dangerous path! Reflect Truth? In Greek it's Light Writing (Photo + Graph).

"Light Writing" leaves a lot more of the concept open, doesn't it? Implying fiction as a possibility, anyway.

Yeah. That's the whole point I think.

There's probably a Linguistics Grad student paper there somewhere... We were talking about Winogrand- - I see some correlations with his approach and Araki's, actually- both have separately referred to how photography operates as "puns". Both leave a lot of it up to the camera...

What else is similar?

Wasn't it in that 1981 interview with Barbra Diamonstein where he said "I don't hafta worry how the picture's gonna come out- I leave that up to th' Camera"?  Araki also says that it is the camera that makes the picture-  Did you read that Papageorge interview where he referred (lovingly) to Friedlander and Winogrand and Arbus and Frank as "Lunatics" ? I think that's pretty apt with some of the guys in Japanese photo history... "Maybe it’s simply a case of finding a number of interestingly tormented people. Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander - they were all lunatics." It's from this interview in 2008: 

Hmmm. OK you can blame the process on the camera. But let's reckon with their photos. They were/are after very different things I think. Araki's photos don't look much like Winogrand's.

Araki's New York book from the 1970's is pretty close- at least in subject matter. I think an editor could, with the right resources, put together a book of Araki and Winogrand's stuff that would work pretty well. I wish a Japanese editor could do a Winogrand book.

What would it look like?

I want to see some 300 page tome with about 1500 pictures in it. Winogrand's archives are good for it- three photos leading up to that woman with the ice cream- three more after that fact.

Winogrand Contacts. There's your project. I think Moriyama put out something like that recently. And Kawauchi.

Yeah, Labyrinth. It's a different approach I guess. I'm not a huge Magnum fan, but the contact book they have seems to be about locating The Shot instead of appreciating all of them holistically...

That seems like a Japanese outlook. It's a project that examines each photo in the context of a story and what it says about the situation and diary and narrative, etc. Rather than the Western Approach which is take 300 pictures until you the THE ONE. Then ignore all the rest. THE ONE being the choten.

Right. I find the Japanese one more interesting, for all those "misses".

Getting back to imperfection and The Shaggs. But anyone can shoot imperfect photos, right?

I guess then it comes down to how they're put together. I collect vintage snapshots- there's this antique shop that I'm a regular at with a box of snaps taken from albums that I go through pretty intensely... It's a kind of editing too, I guess.

I'm going to reduce your dichotomy to two people. Bryan Formhals edits with the Japanese outlook. I edit Western.

Is he the Photographs on the Brain guy?

Yes. You don't know Bryan? He's a good guy but we have an ongoing argument about shooting, street stuff, etc. I'd say he's less tuned to choten and more to the stream.

I see- yeah, I enjoy his tumblr.  He blogs somewhat angsty photography quotes that I resonate with me as well. I think he and I are concerned about a lot of the same things surrounding photography today. I'll have to check his site more often. 

I'd rather see how people work- really see the world-  than their Best Shots, anyway. One thing that this editor told me a while back was to include "noise" in my work- - as in, "filler" pictures to adjust the tempo of a show or set of pictures on the wall. My pal in Tokyo Mr. Microcord HATES this stuff. But I think there's something to it. So when I have a show I purposefully include some lame stuff to mess around.

For me there's a very big difference —an insurmountable wall— between this or that random frame on a roll, and certain rare frames that WORK. Those ones are the ones. There's no arguing or diary or anything. It either works or it doesn't. It's very divisive.

I know that wall you're talking about, believe me. "Those ones are the ones". I feel this way too. 

If I can't pick out a moment from my contacts it's all garbage to me. I can't make sense of it.

But it's all YOU in a sense- - the photos-

But which ones do you print?

It's a feeling. . . but what I'm really interested in is TIME now... so I know all the photos in the previous shows (helps that they're in a print box or two) so that memory informs my selection. I shoot where I am so a lot of the same places come up.

What do you mean you're interested in TIME? How do you show that photographically?

I shoot where I am, and I am often in the same places. So a picture of a place two years ago can relate to a picture taken last week, especially if it's in a series of photos.  I love Winogrand but disagree with his take on not wanting to take "the same picture", saying there's nothing to learn from- to me I learn more by photographing the same people, the same places, over and over. This is something I think I've taken away from Araki. We have to exist in the flow of time so the way pictures work by capturing time are like waypoints tracking where you've been.

Do good frames tend to clump in places on the roll for you? Or is their timing random?

Good question- Usually they're across a roll of frame. Rarely will I not print at least one picture from a roll. I used to fire off three or four or five frames at a subject or situation and have over the years learned that it's almost always the first frame that nailed it. I don't stop and survey approaches or anything on the street- I figure that when something catches my eye it's best to shoot it straight from that very point. I shoot pretty quickly. It's about taking pictures, not making them. 

How do you pick out the frames that work for you. What are you keying on?

Having an open-ended and ongoing series has been useful. Previous images inform what I react to with my camera, in terms of what I point it at, anyway. The process is a big part of it. I shoot, I soup the film, I file the negs. I look at them through a loupe, then make contacts, then carry those contacts around before I can print again. Then I write up a print list and set up my darkroom. Then I start printing. By this point I've dealt with the pictures several times. It's all pretty intuitive- - and with each instance of handling the negs and contacts, I get a feel for them. Then I print thirty or so 11x14s and after three sessions I take the prints to 7-11 and make photocopies of them- 50% smaller. 

I don't understand the 7-11 part.

They have the best photocopier. I edit with photocopies because I can't "live" with 11x14 fiber prints on the trains and in my bag. I need to be able to manipulate the pictures- so photocopies are where the magic happens. I shuffle through them- bam bam bam and put them into three piles. Yes, Maybe, and No. "Yes" are without reservation- I don't dawdle on it, a show isn't a masterpiece, it's part of the experience of it all. If there aren't twenty yes-pictures, I'll put in a few Maybes to fill it out. 

So it's what we were talking about earlier. The SHOW is for you. It's shaping your edit and your vision and your idea of what you're working on. Not the other way around.

Right- and when I'm shooting, I know what might work . . . so I try it. Often the "maybe" pictures I show in the Zuisha exhibitions end up being the ones I find most interesting. That initial slightly sure/unsure feeling energized them, or taught me something.  I utterly and ABSOLUTELY do not try to make pictures telling the story of "The Japanese People" or whatever- - Travel Photography is an even worse term than Street Photography.  "Japan in the eyes of a foreigner"... There's more to it all than that… 

My film/neg process is roughly similar to yours. I am always shooting. Every few days I develop film (4 roll tank) but I don't do much with it immediately. I put it in a binder, make contacts, then it sits for about 10 months, which is my current backlog. I print in the darkroom a few times a month for about 6 or 7 hours, when I go through my negs in chronological order, making a work print of anything that looks promising. Right now I'm printing from last February. I don't mark the contact but this is my most essential editing stage, when I decide whether or not to print something. If I don't print it at this stage it's basically lost forever. Using two enlargers and an RC processor (zero downtime) I can make 60-80 5 x 7 prints in a session, which is maybe 15 or 20 sheets of negs. Every month I take my workprints and winnow them into a pile of 52 to show my photo group, which I guess is my lame equivalent of exhibiting. Then they go in storage boxes. 

Do you have a dedicated darkroom? I have to set mine up in my apartment every time I do a session. 

I use a rental darkroom in Portland. Mostly out of habit but also because I often run into people there and it's a bit of a community.

Great. Yeah, that community aspect is so important. In Shinjuku there's Place M- it's two dedicated photo galleries and a rental darkroom. Everyone is photographically related somehow. There is a place in Yokohama called The Darkroom International that a few years ago had to move to a bigger space to meet the demand. 

For me that role is filled by my monthly photo group. I generate all these photos each month. But I don't edit them or file them away until I've shown them to at least a few people, which is a core of 8 or 10 friends who can give me some feedback. Or sometime no feedback. But even then it feels a bit like they've circulated a little. 

That sounds great- Jun Abe does a photo viewing event in Osaka every month- Too far for me to go but would be nice. I get some photographers together here from time to time. That human interaction is so important...

Yeah. I used to put mine on Tumblr too but the feedback was very inexact. It was hard to know what to make of it.

(All photographs above by John Sypal unless otherwise noted)