Do I Have the “Ki”?

Having the opportunity to go through my files and select photographs for submissions has often been enlightening. On some occasions I find my self frustrated and despondent either because I can find few images that weigh up to my expectations for the article I have prepared or because I realize I have left many of the photographs I had hoped to use back in Canada. More often, though (and thankfully so) I discover something about my photography that makes me feel good about my work. Over the last few months I have had very little opportunity to go out and make new images. This has given me more time to think about what I hope to be achieving with my photography and enjoy looking at photographs in books, magazines and on the Internet, particularly on Flickr. With regards to Flickr I have been awed, astounded, amazed, floored, stunned, and delighted to a point of near delirium with some of the images I have found there. It has also been to a lesser degree a hard lesson in learning that there are so many extremely talented individuals out there in the world who are producing work of such high calibre, and that many of these great works were captured not only in my home stomping grounds of the mountains of western Canada, but some even in the mountains that stood outside my living room window for 24 years of my life.

Before I digress into the theme for another post I will steer back on course. Marvelling at some of the photographs on Flickr has made me feel inferior because my photographs do not have the same quality of light and colour and lack the impact that these images have. I realize that many of the images I have admired were captured with digital cameras and that some editing in PhotoShop took place. My film photographs cannot compete with digital manipulation. I have also noticed that digital cameras render light differently from film cameras and often the light seems softer and the atmosphere richer than with film that has not been heavily filtered. If I am to compete with such light and imagery how can I hope to using a different medium altogether?

The temptation to digress has arisen yet again so let me steer clear of Flickr for a bit. During my years photographing in Canada the source of most of my inspiration came from photo art books of the Canadian and American landscape. As a result of studying the images in these books year after year my own personal vision developed. I learned to see the landscape through the eyes of Canadian 35mm photographers and American 4×5 photographers. After having lived in Japan for a few years I returned home once for Christmas and looked through my slide files in order to select which images would go to my stock agency in Tokyo. I had also just gotten a book for Christmas of Canadian landscape photographs by Janis A. Kraulis, a renowned Canadian photographer whose work I had studied often during those early days of my photography. I was surprised to see how many of my photographs resembled the works of Mr. Kraulis in approach. Clearly his work had left its mark on me.

Returning to Canada, this time for 15 months, at the end of 2004, I had the idea that the approach to landscape photography of different photographers was inspired partially by their respective cultures. I did some searching on the Net and found some supporting evidence in the field of painting. I wrote up an essay of about 1,800 words and gave a few copies out at slide presentations for anyone to read who might be interested in my hypothesis. Recalling my first exposure to Japanese landscape photography I was sure that Japanese photographers had a different approach from western photographers. It was hard to explain but I summarized my feelings by saying that it seemed that photographs by Japanese photographers had some kind of spiritual sense. On a Web site I found that Asian cultures, particularly Chinese, Korean and Japanese, viewed nature as a living entity that was both an integral part of human life and a higher form of spirituality. As if to concur with my conjecture, a Japanese mountain guide working in Chamonix commented on the photographs of Mont Blanc by Takashi Ono saying that they were different from those photographs produced by European photographers and that Japanese photography seemed to have “Ki”.

Well, what is “Ki” exactly? I think it is hard to describe but I can understand what that guide was saying. There is something spiritually different from high level Japanese landscape and nature photography. It was something I noticed many years ago. Those words inspired me to rewrite my idea and then condense it to suit the submission guidelines of a photo magazine and send it off. A couple of days later I was thinking about “Ki” and I was looking through a book called New Zealand Landscapes by Andris Apse, a prominent panorama format photographer. The cover photo is a moody and impressive image of green mountain slopes reaching the sea while clouds swath the forested slopes and spots of sunlight light up patches of green, grey and silver. The thought suddenly occurred to me: What if I didn’t know this photograph was captured by a Latvian born man who spent five years in a refugee camp in Berlin before immigrating to New Zealand at the age of six and if instead I was made to believe that this photograph was captured by a Japanese photographer? Would I then nod knowingly and say this image had “Ki”? While it might be that Japanese photographers have “Ki” in their work could it be found in the works of non-Japanese or non-East Asians? An interesting experiment, I thought, might be to put a Japanese photographer and a Western photographer together in the same location for the same period with the same equipment and see how similar or how different their resulting images would be.

Considering whether or not it could be said that some photographs by westerners have “Ki” brings me back to looking through my own files. The other night I was choosing images from the Rockies for a submission to a Japanese magazine. Once I had pulled all the best images from my files here in Japan and placed them on the light table I then asked myself what images were my favourites and what images might most likely be chosen by a Japanese editor. As I looked through my work I found it fairly easy to choose images that were similar to what I had seen in Japanese publications. Why was this? The bulk of the photographs from the Rockies that I have here in Japan are from a trip I made in December 2003 – after I had already lived in Japan four and a half years – and from a trip in September 2005 – after I had lived in Japan for five and a half years (I returned to Canada in December of 2004). Had those years of looking at Japanese landscape photography secretly influenced my vision? Did my photography have “Ki”?

I looked at some of my older work for clues. If I could find similar images from my trips in 1999, 1995 and 1993 then possibly it could be said that I already had a sense for the Japanese approach to landscape photography or possibly I was simply drawing conclusions from half-baked ideas that lacked any real knowledge. Unfortunately it was difficult to tell. During those earlier trips I had had little luck with the weather and only one trip had not given me clouds and rain. Furthermore, on some occasions I had actually been off to photograph in the Prairies and had only stayed overnight, shot a few scenes in the cloudy or misty morning and then abandoned the Rockies for some future date. Any decent images that I had captured and brought to Japan were mostly sitting in the files of the stock agency in Tokyo. Despite that, I was still able to find one photograph that might be said to have “Ki” if anyone knows how to identify it. Without a clear definition any claim is contestable.

The pleasing news from all this searching through my photographs is that I have put together a very nice selection of photographs for my submission, one that I feel proud of. I also discovered that even though I don’t shoot images with the quality of light that I see on Flickr sometimes, I did find some unique photographs that I had not considered before. I also have concluded that it was never my intention to produce images with that quality of light anyway. The artists whose works I admired and whose styles I attempted to emulate and adopt are of the film medium and when I consider my best works and the works of those artists I have admired for years I can see that I have achieved their level of artistry on occasion. I think I have been doing alright.

Now the question remains, in my striving to elevate my work to a higher level should I go for light and colour impact, or should I be trying to capture “Ki”?

2 responses to “Do I Have the “Ki”?

  1. It’s a fascinating question – do Japanese photographers perceive, and take different shots as a result, to Western photographers? And if so, is it something “genetic”, something cultural, something to do with the uniqueness of Japanese landscape, or to do with their being influenced by other Japanese photographers?

    A few months ago, the husband of a friend (a professional photographer) was looking at some of my shots, and apparently said “These don’t look like they were taken by a foreigner”. I should really try to find out what he meant by that, I think it would be intriguing.

    I smiled at your comments on digital images, as I see it from the other side – I’ve never shot film, but look with awe and some envy upon many film-produced photos – there’s a warmth and tone that digital just cannot get close to.

  2. The day after I posted this, someone on Flickr said my photographs had “soul”. The timing of the comment was really good because I was wondering if “Ki” could be identified in the works of western photographers and whether or not I could acquire it in my photography. That night I was selecting images for a submission to a Japanese magazine and I started looking for images that were similar to what I was used to seeing by Japanese photographers as well as my “Canadian” style.

    When it comes to film and digital, I still prefer film prints and usually film photographs in books and magazines, but for computers and the Net, digitally captured images often look better than scanned film.

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