Pink Ball Portraits

I often volunteer for the Run For the Cure organisation (https://www.facebook.com/RFTCJapan), and this year decided to do something a little different: creating portraits of the guests, with pink being a prominent element of the photos. I strived for something simple, classic and human.

 

 

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Shichimen-San Adventure

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Awe-inspiring experiences typically start in mundane ways, and this was no exception. Our trip started with a train out of Tokyo, bound for Shimobe Onsen. Three hours later, my friend Nicolas and I arrived in the town, a place where many things seem frozen in time.

Venturing into the basement of the inn in search of the baths, we had a feeling of being watched by ghosts; there were lots of dark, narrow hallways leading to unknown rooms. Finally, we located the baths, which reeked of sulphur but were soothing to slip into after a long day on the train.

The next morning, we awoke and started the long ascent to the top of the mountain. For five hours, we dragged our weary legs upward…and upward…and upward, wondering why on earth someone would carve a path into this mountain.

Arriving at the top, however, we understood: first we were greeted with the sight of a gorgeous emerald-green lake (a dragon is rumoured to live under the surface), and then with a stunning view of Mount Fuji. It was almost as if we were standing right next door to the famous mountain. We also met our guide, Genga-San, a monk who lives on top of the mountain.

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Our accommodation for the night was a Buddhist monastery with many long hallways and sliding doors; I almost expected a Kung Fu fight to break out, it seemed like the perfect setting! We were ushered into a large room, the walls and ceiling of which were covered with complex gold carvings, chandeliers, pillars and special drawers. I asked Genga-San, ‘Why gold?’ and he responded, ‘Because gold is eternal.’ Then followed ninety minutes of sutras – a seemingly endless, ocean-like wave of sound as fifteen monks ‘sang’ their sutras in guttural voices, occasionally banging a gong or beating a drum, led by a powerful-looking monk in a conical hat. When they had finished, we were ready for bed. Genga-San asked us, ‘What time would you like to get up?’ I responded, ‘4:30 AM,’ not realising what consequence this would have. The next morning, at exactly 4:30 AM, we were awoken by the sound of drums. The sliding doors were swiftly opened and three monks entered, demanding our futon, and in its place quickly putting a pot of green tea and some cups. All of this happened within fifteen seconds, and by the time they left I felt as though I were still dreaming, but the steaming pot of tea confirmed that it had all, in fact, been real.

Climbing to the Fuji viewpoint in the dusky light, we slowly became more and more aware of a droning sound, like thousands of mosquitoes. As we got closer, we saw five-hundred teenage girls, all clad in white robes (similar to karate outfits), facing the sun as it slowly started to peek above the horizon, and passionately chanting a sutra.

It was hypnotic and surreal, being in this spot, seemingly removed from the rest of the world, surrounded by hundreds of chanting girls, the clouds spreading away from us as far as the eye could see, like an endless ocean; and the sun slowly rising, almost like an actor slowly emerging upon a stage.

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Journey in Hong Kong and Beijing

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I recently visited both Hong Kong and Beijing on an assignment, and while in both cities managed to do some personal images as well.

While in Hong Kong, I stayed in Kowloon, instead of Hong Kong Island. Unlike Hong Kong Island, which is much more Westernized and upscale, Kowloon has a certain grit and roughness that can be both charming and overwhelming. Coming from Tokyo, Japan, where the streets are spotless and people go out of their way to be polite, Kowloon felt a little rough. As you walk down the street, you are bathed in thick folds of humidity, and your nostrils are filled with a particular smell, a combination of garbage, fruit, and vinegar; or at least that’s what the odor smelled like to me. You pass by stores where giant chunks of raw meat dangle on hooks in the hot air. The streets are filled with workers – people making things, grinding, sawing, nailing and so forth, in a flurry of activity.

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I love the unpredictability of human beings. The dog in the photo below, however, doesn’t seem so amused. When I came upon the chess players in the next picture, I wanted to explore the scene in more depth but was brusquely waved away by one of them. Hong Kong people can be rather rough sometimes, and as a photographer you have to learn ‘when to walk away.’

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Water and humidity are everywhere in Hong Kong. Every time I stepped outside of my hotel, my camera lens would immediately fog up, and beads of ‘sweat’ would form on my camera body.

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Kowloon, like Hong Kong Island, is a very vertical city – the buildings are generally ‘skinny’ compared to buildings in other cities I have lived in, and they soar up and up, almost impossibly tall. The skyline is almost like a who’s-who of Japanese corporations.

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Beijing, on the other hand, is a very different city. Very flat and broad, with many nondescript office buildings. People of all ages bicycle everywhere, and often two or more people share a bike, seemingly unconcerned about the danger! There’s a striking contrast between the ‘modern’ areas and the older thoroughfares, which are much more lively.

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These two cities are strikingly different. Both really inspired me, and like all great places, posed more questions than they answered. I’ll definitely be returning in the future and continuing my adventure!

 

YouTube Video Creator Portraits

I was asked by YouTube to photograph young video creators for their profile pictures and promotional materials. It was an intense shoot, lasting two days, with over two dozen people being photographed in total. The location was the YouTube offices in Tokyo, where they have a giant production facility. As a photographer, this was a dream location to shoot in, although I had to adapt the space, normally used for video, for photography. The people were an incredible mix – experts on martial arts and makeup, musicians, comedians and more. Here are some behind-the-scenes photos, as well as some of the final photos created for the project.

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Is Leica the Right Camera for You?

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Leica is to photographers what the Stradivarius is to violinists: not only the ‘best’ tool from a technical perspective, but also the one with the most ‘spirit’ – the one that represents photography and what it means to be a photographer, just as a Stradivarius represents the essence of being a violinist. Using a Leica, one can’t help but imagine Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, globe-trotting and making iconic images with this magic little camera.

The big question for a contemporary photographer, though, is whether a film Leica has significant enough advantages over a DSLR, and whether the Leica will enhance your creative ability or inhibit it.

To answer this question, I decided to rent a Leica M7 and the legendary 50mm f1.4 Summilux for several days, and make some images on the Tokyo streets using Kodak Tri-X film for black and white, and Kodak Portra 800 film for color.

The first time you hold a Leica, you immediately notice the unique tactile feeling of it, as if it’s a splendid sculpture in your hands – all smooth metal and glass, with every button and switch located in the perfect place. One feels rather humbled by the experience, similar to using a Moleskine notebook – one isn’t worthy of such perfection.

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After several days of use, however, I discovered that this ‘perfect design’ wasn’t necessarily so perfect after all. For one thing, the controls are very stiff to the touch, and tricky to maneuver. The shutter speed dial, for example, can’t easily be moved with one finger; you have to stop, hold the camera with your left hand while moving the dial with index finger and thumb, by which time you’ve possibly lost the shot you were trying to get. The film advance lever is also poorly designed, since the end of it is pointy and sharp, and being right next to the hot shoe, which is also sharp, means that your thumb can get hurt pretty quickly.

Framing things inside the viewfinder is also a challenging experience. First of all, there’s the problem of parallax (i.e. what the lens sees and what the viewfinder sees are two different things, since the viewfinder is located above the lens). Then there are the indicators inside the viewfinder – one for 50mm, another for 75mm. Instead of simply seeing the image you’re going to get, you see much more and have to imagine what the image will be like. Some photographers, like the great Elliott Erwitt, claim this is precisely what makes the Leica a better tool than other cameras – it forces you to consider the frame more carefully, since you often see more in the viewfinder than the framing of the specific focal length you’re using.

Another challenge is focusing. In the middle of the viewfinder is a small circle with two ‘double images,’ and when you focus, you line up those double images until they overlap each other. It sounds fine in practice, but I found there were many situations when this just didn’t work well. Basically, it’s a great system for focusing on clear, contrasty lines. If you’re photographing a person, their ear might provide a clean line to be focused on easily. But what about trickier, less contrasty things, like eyes? Lining up ‘double eyes’ in the viewfinder seemed virtually impossible to do quickly and accurately. Another quirk of the Leica is that it’s impossible to judge depth of field through the viewfinder – you have to imagine what it will look like. In a way this is rather fun, since when you get the film back it looks quite different from what you saw with your own eyes.

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One problem I consistently had was shooting in bright light. The 50mm Summilux only stops down to f16, and the highest shutter speed on the Leica M7 is 1/1000th of a second, so in brighter conditions it was often hard to get a photo. Compare this with my Canon 5d Mark III. Using the ‘Nifty Fifty,’ I can stop down to f22, and the camera’s shutter speed goes up to 1/8000th of a second. This gives me much more versatility in brighter conditions, and makes it easier to use wider apertures and get beautiful bokeh.

So, did I hate my experience with the Leica? Definitely not! I enjoyed cradling it in my hand as I walked the Tokyo streets; I liked the smallness of the lenses in comparison to their mammoth DSLR cousins; and the craftsmanship and precision of the camera, and that wonderful little ‘click’ when you take a photo, were quite enchanting. Of course, there’s also the history of the Leica – photographers like Sebastiao Salgado, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka and many others, all of whom made some of the most memorable images in the world using Leicas.

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However, I found myself being more conservative in the things that I photographed, and also how I approached photographing them. The whole process felt more rigid, less fluid than using a modern DSLR. By the end of my time with the Leica, I appreciated all the more the advantages of modern DSLRs: their speed, responsiveness and versatility. And because of the LCD on the back of a digital camera, the ability to shoot, review, and tweak things.

So, is Leica the right camera for you? Only you can decide. My advice would be to hit the nearest rental shop and try one for yourself.

UPDATE: I’ve now received the film back from the scanners, and have started to reconsider the whole experience. For one thing, what seemed like ‘conservative’ choices while I was shooting now appear to be good instincts that, although I didn’t entirely trust them at the time, resulted in some nice images. The ‘keeper’ rate from the two rolls I shot seems higher than my keeper rate when using a digital camera. Also, there is a certain beauty in how colors and tones are rendered by film. Colors are arguably more natural and nuanced than what one gets with digital, and tones have both grit and softness, as compared to digital, which tends to render tones in a rather clinical way. Of course, the Summilux lens doesn’t hurt either – incredibly sharp, with beautiful bokeh. I’ll be keeping my Canon DSLR, but I can certainly imagine how, with enough time and effort, the Leica could help one to see things in a special way.

 

Tutu Giang Fashion Shoot

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Tutu is a talented new fashion designer from Switzerland, of both Chinese and Vietnamese descent. For this shoot, she wanted to showcase her new designs in Tokyo. It was essential to emphasize the environment and contrast the grey tones of Tokyo with the vivid colors of her dresses. The model needed to be a classic beauty, almost like Alice in Wonderland set free in Tokyo. For this purpose, Olena Hutsol was perfect. Before the shoot, I scouted a number of locations and then pared them down to the ones in the photos. I approach everything I do as ‘portrait photography,’ whether it’s an actual portrait of someone, a picture of a product, or a pretty model in a dress. My inspiration isn’t so much fashion photography as it is photojournalism and portraiture. I think by applying this aesthetic to the fashion genre I can create something special, and something that hopefully looks a little different from your typical fashion photo.

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Charlotte Kate Fox for Backstage magazine

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There’s a phenomenon in Japan known as the ‘asadora,’ which is a 15-minute TV drama shown in the morning before people go to work. The word ‘asadora’ comes from the Japanese words ‘asa’ (morning) and ‘dora’ (drama). One of the rising stars of this television genre is Charlotte Kate Fox, who plays the lead in ‘Massan,’ a new asadora from NHK Television. Her character is based on Jessie Roberta Cowan, aka ‘Rita,’ who together with her Japanese husband, Masataka Taketsuru, founded Japan’s whiskey industry.

Interestingly, it was the last shot I took that ended up on the cover. Sometimes this happens – perhaps because we’ve ‘built up’ to that moment, or because by that point the model’s guard is down and she’s behaving more freely and naturally. It’s always interesting to notice at what point during a photo shoot ‘the magic’ starts happening.

We had an Issey Miyake dress for the shoot, which was a lot of fun to play with – the shape was organic, abstract, sensual and also strange. As she walked, the dress bounced up and down gently.

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Behind the Camera, and In Front of It

Photographers are generally more comfortable behind the camera than in front, but sometimes it’s necessary to be on the other side of the lens. In this case, I was being featured in Eurobiz magazine, and needed a striking portrait that would show me as a working photographer in Tokyo. Who better to turn to than my brilliant brother, himself a photographer? The shot was made in Shibuya, the bustling downtown center of Tokyo, right in the middle of the ‘scramble,’ the famous crosswalk that Tokyo is known for. Every day around half a million people cross this intersection, somehow without colliding. Getting me in there, posed, and capturing a nice image was no easy task, especially considering the slow shutter speed that was necessary to blur the people around me. But in the end, Steve nailed it! You can see his amazing work here: www.stevemorinphoto.com.

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Independence Day in Tokyo

For the 4th of July, the Tokyo American Club decided to feature some of its organizers, using the American flag as a backdrop. For these portraits, an enormous flag was suspended first in a giant dining room of the American Club, and then in a badminton court! I found that, by back-lighting the flag, I was able to create a much nicer texture than by simply lighting it from in front. There is something magical about the American flag, the colors are very cheerful; and it almost seems that no matter what you juxtapose with the flag, an interesting visual relationship is established.

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Book Review: ‘Annie Leibovitz at Work’

Picking up this book, the first thing I noticed was the overall quality of it as a physical object. The design – cover, font, layout – as well as the materials used (cloth for the cover, and heavy paper stock for the inside) are just great. The reproductions are rather small, as many have noted – larger reproductions might have meant a less classy looking design, but would have been more pleasurable to actually look at. However, this book is for people already familiar with Leibovitz’s work, who presumably don’t need to see the larger images of her work.

Leibovitz writes in a simple, direct, candid and concise way. It’s like having a great conversation with her about a wide range of topics concerning her work and photography in general. The great thing about Leibovitz is that you never get the sense she’s augmenting or exaggerating things to make herself sound better. If anything, she’s modest about her methods and achievements.

Is it a perfect book? No. One often wishes she had expanded a little more, delved into the well of her memory a little deeper. She’s had so many opportunities to photograph such an extraordinary range of people. This book seems like a distillation of the essential stories and ideas she wanted to express. There’s enough here to satisfy, but ‘just enough.’ Perhaps that’s for the best, since it leaves one wanting more.

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