Japanophile Monday

Hokusai

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you may have realized that I’m deeply interested in Japanese culture and arts. Even so, I generally don’t consciously seek out Japan focused activities but they do have a tendency to jump out at me. Over the weekend I realized that there are a number of exhibitions and seminars going on at the moment that it would be worth capturing them for anyone else who’s interested.

The headliner of these events has to be the Hokusai exhibition at the MFA in Boston that runs until August 9. Even before I started learning more about Japanese arts I recognized ‘The Wave’ shown above. This exhibition promises to be a comprehensive look at Hokusai’s work from his 20s through his 80s. Check out the MFA blurb on the exhibition here. There is a corresponding exhibition catalog that would be worth a look even if you’re not able to get to the exhibition.

Also at the MFA is the exhibition ‘In the Wake’ which presents the photographic response of 17 Japanese photographers to the Great East Japan Earthquake and the resulting enormous wave of water swept through towns in the Tōhoku (Northeast) region destroying virtually everything in its path including the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The exhibition catalog can be found here.

Finally at the MFA, ‘Playing with Paper’ in gallery 278A looks like it will be fun. This is an exhibition of woodblock ‘toy prints’ that shows how the 19 th century Japanese toys and games were enjoyed.

In New York of Friday and Saturday of this week there is a symposium: ‘Shashin Symposium: Photography from Japan’ that looks to have a good program. Of course the popup bookshop caught my eye – it would be worth going just to get an advance copy of Yoshihiko Ueda’s retrospective photo book “A Life With Camera”.

Also in New York is the exhibition “Life of Cats: Selections from the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection” which runs until June 7.

G.G.A.S.*: Canon 100-400 mkII

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*Galloping Gear Acquisition Syndrome

I am generally happy to remain ignorant of the latest bells and whistles that the camera manufacturers have added in order to sell another piece of gear that no-one really needs. However, of late my head has bean turned by lots of new doodads. The latest in this parade of head turners is the updated version of Canon’s 100-400mm lens. I had the original ‘dust pump’ version of this lens which I eventually retired because it never saw much action and following it’s use I ended up spending a while cleaning the sensor on the body that it was used on. Having said that, there was a certain novelty factor to the way that the lens extended to change focal length. For the weight and number of times I used the lens I decided to leave it on my desk at home and make do with my very much lighter 70-200mm lens.

There are times however when the extra reach can allow you to make the photograph that you have in mind. The image above is a case in point. I’d tried with my 70-200, it really wasn’t working, click on the image below to see what I mean. Nixon_150115_6450

While getting closer was certainly an option I had an opportunity to use the new 100-400 lens and made the image below using the same settings as I had with my 70-200mm. Nixon_150115_6462

Immediately noticeable on the LCD screen on the camera was that the image made using the 100-400 was sharper than that made with the 70-200 even though all the camera settings and lens settings were the same. This in inevitably led me to wonder what if I dumped the 70-200 and replaced it with the 100-400 lens. That way I’d have a nice sharp lens capable of the extra reach when I need it. My only concern is the weight – a chunky albs. We’ll see how I get on!

Ohmu Breakwater

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With all the snow that we’ve been having here in New England you would think that I would have had time to finish working on my images from Japan wouldn’t you? A reasonable expectation but I’m swamped here at the moment. More about what’s going on in a few weeks.

I’ve mentioned here before that I generally take a lot of frames when I’m out shooting, particularly when I’m photographing water. With flowing water each frame will be different and potentially offer something unique. Also worth exploring is a range of shutter speeds – I generally try to keep some sense of motion in the water rather than blur the water completely with a very long exposure.

I’m still working on the image above – I’m happy with this version but will now live with this for a while to learn what I like and what I like to change.

Wherever You Go There You Are

I doubt that I am unusual in having an almost continual running conversation with myself.  One of the topics of conversation with myself when I travel is is to manage expectations for the photographs that I’ll create.  ‘You take you with you wherever you go’, I told myself.

Playing with that phrase over the weekend I came to ‘Wherever you go there you are’, which felt too familiar for me not to have seen it somewhere else.  A quick search came up with the most likely place that I’d seen it before – the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s book of the same name that deals with mindfulness.  Other sources were fun though, particularly Buckaroo Banzai, a cult film from the ’80’s.

The chapter in Kabat-Zinn’s book that is titled ‘Wherever you go there you are’ the problem that I was coaching myself through is described perfectly.  Namely this – we have a tendancy to flee from things, if it’s not good here it will be better there.  The problem of course is that many of the things that we’re running from have an uderlying root cause and that is us.

Not being happy with the photographs you’re taking at home doesn’t mean that the photographs you make when you travel to an exotic location will be too much different.  They will inevitably have your signature all over them, they will be you, that it if you’re doing anything right at all.  For me this means that I won’t suddenly channel Michael Kenna or Michael Levin when I travel to Hokkaido.  I may go to the same places and see the same things but the photographs will be different, either dramatically or subtly.

In fact you should be striving to take ‘you’ photographs, those photographs that are a unique expression of how you see the world, and being doing that whether you’re at home or not.  I, perhaps we, need to get comfortable with that, own it and milk it for all it’s worth. 

Print Your Work!

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I’ve been involved in a couple of conversations recently about the value of printing your work. With most of us now using digital in one form or another there’s an overwhelming temptation to let your photographs sit on the computer, or on the web in one place or another and not be printed.

There are a number of reasons that we could debate for printing – prints have historically been the archival record – when the house is burning down you’re not going to run in and save your server, network attached storage or desktop computer in the way that you might have saved the family photo album. I’m sure everyone has their work backed up both in the cloud and physical drives at a secure distant location so this is less of a concern.

I would argue that printing does make you a better photographer though, whether your intended output is for the web or not. Prints are less forgiving than web and so you have to get it right, sharp where sharp is needed and appropriate and a file that is large enough to support the print size which forces you to ‘get it right in camera’

Even though the cost of ink jet printers has dropped substantially and the resources for obtaining a good print increased in equal fashion, making it quite possible to make good prints yourself at home, there are a number of companies that will make the prints for you. I was experimenting with the print service from Artifact Uprising while I was in Japan recently.

As I mentioned previously I’ve been using my iPhone camera as a tool to help me break out of the rut that I’ve felt that I’m in. I thought that If I could take 250 images that I like over the course of the year it ought to be possible to cull those to make a 50 image book as a record of the year. I’d heard good things about Artifact Uprising and wanted to try them out before I got to the book stage.

One morning while I was in Japan recently I had a few moments to kill and so I uploaded 5 or so images that I’d posted to instagram to the artifact uprising site using their mobile app and ordered a pack of prints. The whole operation took less than five minutes. When I got home from Japan I had a stack of amazing prints (5×5) on really heavy paper stock that I could handout to friends and family and to have as a record of the trip.

Not big prints for sure but a fun way to get my images off my phone and for me to start to look at them and really think about how they work as images. Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.

Friday Inspiration: Nobuyuki Kobayashi

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In continuing my exploration of Japanese photographers I recently came across Nobuyuki Kobayashi. Kobayashi may be most well known for his work in magazines as a portrait photographer or for his humanitarian work but what caught my attention were his black and white landscapes. Landscape might be the wrong word, since for many it evokes the grand view and Kobayashi’s work offers a much subtler take on the land. He feels that he is taking portraits of the Gods and this delicate approach certainly comes through in the work of his that I’ve seen so far.

I find his process intriguing – use of an 8×10 large format camera, film and printing on traditional Japanese paper, washi. I’ve tried printing on washi in the past and found that the heavy intrinsic texture works against many subjects but Kobayashi seems to be making it work. It rails against the increasingly small format, mirrorless digital cameras and yet his choice of materials that should last for hundreds of years supports his goal of using photography as a tool to preserve the beauty of the natural world.

I’m hoping to see more in the book that accompanies this body of work ‘Myriads of Gods’.

Listen to Kobayashi describe this project in the short interview below and watch the longer documentary for a behind the scenes look at his process of platinum palladium printing on washi.

(English sub)Portrait of Nature – Myriads of Gods on Platinum Palladium Prints – from augment5 Inc. on Vimeo.

Permission to Play

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I’ve been feeling overwhelmingly stuck and uninspired over the last few months, perhaps longer if I’m being honest with myself. That’s not to say that I haven’t had my moments but it’s been and continues to be hard going.

The usual advice that you get in these circumstances is to keep going. Work yourself out of the funk, make a lot of work and see where that leads you. My advice to myself was to play more.

After a bit of digging I realized that I was working within a particular sent of constraints that had provided a useful framework at one point but now were stifling. I needed to step back and break the rules that I’d established for myself.

Playing the camera on my iPhone has been enormously helpful in breaking one of my rules – always shoot on a tripod – it also forced me into using a single lens which made me move around and change my point of view to get the shot that I was interested in.

I also pushed beyond the boundaries that I am comfortable with in processing these images, often adding a lot of contrast, a texture, a tilt shift look, really piling stuff on until it was in a realm that was totally alien to me. I think that Brian Eno would do similar things in music production push beyond the limits but then retreat to a useful and usable position.

I’ve been enjoying playing and continue to do so. Here’s a question for you:

What ‘rules’ either acknowledged or not do you follow? How could you systematically break them.

I’d love to hear what restraints you impose on yourself.