Wednesday morning I went to Ginza to bring photographs to my stock agency. I hadn’t been there since January 2007. My visit was long overdue, I reckoned. How I came to work with that particular stock agency and the details about stock photography are worth a post of their own, however, today I want to write about the three topics I discussed with the staff and my observations and opinions about those topics.
The photographs I brought down were only a selection of my 35mm slides captured over the duration of 2008 and 2009. I have not yet organized my medium and large format transparencies. On the top of the stack of slide sheets, held in a very full binder, were my photographs from New Zealand. The foreign landscapes drew immediate interest from the two women staff members and they called over a male colleague whom I had never met before. There was much buzz about the images and comments were made such as, “The air is so clear, the atmosphere so alive,” and, “There are very positive feelings in these images.” To which I mentioned that my wife and I were married in New Zealand and the photos were captured during our honeymoon.
“That’s it! Your photographs exude happiness and love,” said one of the female staff, beaming at me. “Yes, look at this series here – there is a very positive outlook toward a bright new future,” the other woman chimed in.
“I guess it’s like the beginning of a new and happy life,” I ventured. A chorus of agreement came from all three staff. The man added that my photographs contrasted greatly with the photographs of a much older photographer whose work they received. His work was dark and moody, expressing finality and demise, the opposite of what they were seeing in my work.
“You shoot with the same film and maybe even the same camera, but as a foreigner there is a noticeable difference in the images you produce,” I was told.
I agreed that I had noticed a difference in styles between people of different nationalities (I have actually written a 1,600-word essay on the topic of how cultural differences show in landscape and nature photography, and it has been rejected by two western magazines so far), but what interested me more were the comments about the mood and emotion expressed in my photographs. As I mentioned to the staff, New Zealand has cleaner air being in the Southern Hemisphere due to there being less continental land mass to contribute dust, volcanic ash, and pollution from fires or human industry, and that New Zealand’s much smaller population means there is more space for natural and rural landscapes. They claimed, however, that even though New Zealand was naturally so well endowed, my photographs had a distinct stamp on them.
It is not the first time that Japanese people have commented on the emotional expression of my photography. One person I had never met once left a comment for me saying that from my photographs she could tell I was a sincere and caring person. All the years I spent interacting with the camera clubs of the Greater Vancouver Area back home in Canada, or during the five dozen or so slide presentations I gave to camera clubs, outdoor clubs, nature clubs, and at libraries in the same area, no one ever mentioned the emotional content of my photographs as a reflection of myself. I wasn’t even aware that there was any emotional content. People would ask about the technical aspects (what film, what filters, what time of day, what location, etc.) or comment on the quality of the light or any peculiar features in the subject, or say how a particular image made them feel. My own approach to photography is simply to seek out things I find interesting or beautiful and record them on film as well as I can, and when the occasion presents itself, capture beautiful moments in natural light as well. When I was first ever asked if I had made some conscious effort connect a spherical rock with the moon or the earth and if I had had cosmic visions while making the photograph, I felt it rather anticlimactic to respond with, “No, I just thought the rock looked very nice.”
The way many Japanese people have responded to my exhibited or published work has sometimes left me feeling as though I am still standing in shallow water, unable to see the depths of my own soul that apparently comes out in my photography at times.
After everyone had calmed down about New Zealand, the man returned to his work and the two women continued to pour over my slides, the rest being all Japanese landscapes, mostly from the three ranges of the Japan Alps. I inquired about the number of people shooting digital and the demand for digital photography. I was told that some photographers they represented used digital exclusively, some used both film and digital, and many others continued to strictly adhere to film use. There is still an appreciably large demand for film images from photo editors in Japan, they said.
I expressed my concerns about purchasing a digital camera: the cost being very high for a top-notch model which would be rendered obsolete in a few years. One of the two women included the cost of a personal computer as part of the cost of digital photographer, and I brought up other associated costs as well, which I mention in the post preceding this one. I told them that I would hesitate to pay 400,000 yen for a top-of-the-line model when I could still make great photos with a less expensive model. But how would it look in a photo credit to see that my photograph was captured with an 80,000 yen camera? What would people think? “Oh, he’s only using a Canon Kiss (for example) so he must be just an amateur. A real pro uses a Canon 5D II,” or whatever is in the hands of the real pros these days.
I was told that the most important thing for art directors and photo editors was file size. They don’t care what camera was used. The question always asked is, “How big is the file?” Expensive cameras come with many bells and whistles, most of which I would never use. I was told that I didn’t need to splash out for the fully loaded model. As the most important thing is file size, a cheaper camera that can shoot around 12 mega pixels is fine. If I put the same care into capturing digital images as I do with film images then the work should speak for itself, I was told. Though I am not in a position to buy a digital SLR yet, it’s nice to feel that I don’t have to eyeball the cameras that cost as much as a five-year-old used car.
Having brought only 35mm photographs, I had to ask about another issue that has been on my mind a lot recently, so much so in fact that I am working on an article in Japanese for submission on the topic. I mentioned that in Japan there is a great preference for medium or large format photography over 35mm photography. One of the woman responded by saying that for photo editors in Japan, the final presentation of the published images is of paramount importance. The focused areas in an enlarged photo should appear tack sharp. For that purpose, medium format (typically 645, 6×7 format, or panorama formats) or large format (usually 4×5 inch) are preferred. Harkening back to the discussion about large digital file sizes, I could see how size mattered.
I mentioned how for many western photographers, what mattered was capturing the moment. Many pros, particularly those who had to travel on foot up mountains, made their careers using only 35mm in the days before digital. Galen Rowell is an excellent example of a guy who always believed it was better to travel as light as possible and even forwent a tripod at times, using other tricks to ensure sharp images. He felt it was better to travel lightly and swiftly and not miss the moment as opposed to weighing oneself down with a heavy pack of camera gear and missing out on shots.
I told them about my dilemma with carrying a pack full of cameras and gear. In the days when I traveled with only a 35mm body and two or three lenses, I shot so many images. The camera was quick and easy to use, and the zoom lenses gave me a broad range of focal lengths from which to choose. I rose an hour or less before sunrise and reached my sunrise photo shoot location, often scouted the day before, and as the light of daybreak progressed, I was busy swinging the camera round on the ball head capturing shot after shot. When the show was over I could pack up quickly and move on down the trail to the next location.
Now with three camera bodies – 35mm, 645, and 4×5 – and a selection of lenses, I struggle up the mountainsides and try to reach camp and set up before sunset so I can get over to a good viewpoint to shoot the evening light. In the morning I sometimes wake up two hours before sunrise and climb to a vantage point in the dark. I have to study the possibilities before the sun comes up and make a plan for equipment use, and arrange my gear on the ground accordingly so it is easy to grab. I find I am shooting fewer images and spending more time handling my gear. I also have missed some superb moments because I was either struggling up through the forest with a heavy pack, resting longer than I had budgeted for due to the fatigue of carrying such a heavy pack, or because the time it took to prepare the larger cameras for the shot was longer than the duration of the light I had hoped to capture.
With a mountain trip coming up this weekend, I have been deliberating which cameras to bring. The 35mm only would liberate me to shoot fast, easily, and plenty but would not bring me any larger images to slide under the noses of the Japanese photo editors. Adding the 645 would mean having a camera nearly as fast and with three fixed lenses, but also it would add weight. Or should I go with the 6×7 to get larger slides but with fewer options with only two lenses and a shallower depth of field? Or should I stop being a wimp and encumber myself with the 4×5? In my alpine weekly calendar there have recently been two very good examples of reasons to shoot with a 4×5 camera over smaller formats. But what if I bring it like always and end up exposing only a few sheets of film, like on my last few outings? Is it worth it to haul that much weight around?
The two women at the stock agency told me that the 645 should be just fine and I didn’t need to concern myself with how even bigger transparencies would possibly mean more sales for me.
When those discussions were over, it was time to finish up my visit and head to work, and on the train back to Saitama I was turning the days discussions over in my mind.