I hope that leafing through the pages of my book, “East of the Sun”, you will feel an echo of what I felt during my last stay in Japan. (You will find the others in the photo gallery dedicated to the book, here.) If you hear that echo, if these images move you, I’ll tell myself I succeeded.
In this two-part blog post / essay, which is also going to be published by my good friends Don and Oliver on Inspired Eye Magazine, I’ll try to share with you the “making of” the book and the lesson I learnt in the process: that creating a project-based series and putting it in book form is much more powerful and rewarding than shooting individual, disconnected images.
Like I guess many of us do, I too have long focused on perfecting the individual frame, on the rules of composition (Olivier here at IE has plenty to teach on the subject), on the post-processing tools that help us to strengthen the image and focus it on the point that triggered our eyes, heart and mind’s attention to begin with (Don I’m thinking of you…).
Like we all do, I too love to see a great shot splashed across my entire screen; I feel good when it is mine and humbled and eager to learn when it’s someone else’s. And I love even more when I see that image on paper, for nothing like a good Baryta print condenses so completely the pleasure of photography to its essence.
Make no mistake, each single image is important and must be ‘right’. But in challenging myself to make “East of the Sun” I experienced first-hand how when images get paired and sequenced they gain an additional dimension and a new strength. From the whole, new meaning is created.
A photobook project does not happen in a vacuum and is the fruit of a multi-step process. From preparation and inspiration, through shooting, then editing to get to a tight set, sequencing the images, choosing their lay-out on paper, and finally producing the book: every step adds a layer of interconnected, potentially recursive complexity.
I’ll address each of them in this essay. Doing them right is a whole new level of challenge compared to making a single image. But much more meaningful and satisfying, you will see.
And if you live your project fully, with intent and intensity, you’ll find out that it is a process that happens to you as much as you make it happen. Like life itself, living it transforms you; and like life itself, your path will be strongly influenced by the people you meet along the way.
Inspiration and preparation.
There’s as many ways to identify and choose a photobook project as there are photographers attempting them, so my personal experience is just a sample of one, and just a step in my own learning curve.
The three key lessons I learnt are, one, that it is essential to have or find a strong motivating trigger to inspire and guide you: the more your project will be rooted deep inside you, almost a necessity, the more it will be meaningful; two, that you must feed the project with solid preparation: go deep, steep in your subject, study from as varied sources as you can; three, that you must not fear the ‘blank page’: don’t get frozen by not having a perfectly formed idea upfront, let the project take shape at almost unconscious level.
My trigger? Love and frustration. Prior to the “East of the Sun” project, I had already been on a first extended photo-trip to Japan. I came back completely in love with that country, its people and their culture. But also frustrated, feeling that I had barely scratched the surface with too much of an outsider eye. Yes, I had done hopefully decent ‘street’ work in my personal style (see the June 2017 issue of Inspired Eye), but no, I had not escaped the trap of marveling about such a totally different visual landscape, and my real emotions were struggling to emerge from those images. Could I get past the obvious, get closer, pierce the surface, move away from the much-abused ‘street’ canon?
That’s where preparation kicked in. I had many months between the first trip and my second to search for an answer to that question.
I found a key in the novels of Haruki Murakami, who dragged me in his intimistic and often magical view of his country, made of solitudes and awkward human relations, little details, small daily rituals, connections between man and nature. His work really resonated in my mind. (My book’s title, “East of the Sun”, is a pun on one of Murakami’s best books, “South of the Border, West of the Sun”.)
The more I got to see Japan through Murakami’s eyes and heart, the more I realized that I needed to go back and see if I would now experience the country in a different way, and inevitably shoot differently as well.
I also immersed myself in the work of as many classic and modern Japanese photography masters: not with the aim of replicating their work, but to see and feel Japan through Japanese eyes, to glimpse what defined it for them, to become a bit less of an outsider. And I spent time on books about the Japanese aesthetic, first and foremost perhaps “In Praise of Shadows” by Junichirō Tanizaki.
Was I crystal-clear in my mind about what I would do? No, but I trusted that Japan itself would help me find my way, so long as I showed him (le Japon, il Giappone: latin languages love to pigeonhole countries in gender forms…) my respect and love.
You have a project in mind, perhaps you already have a bunch of images in your archives that you recognize could be the core around which to build a fuller, focused body of work, but will you obsessively look for the images that you need to make it from scratch or complete it?
Depending on what the project is, you may have to, but I would argue that while actually shooting you should never put yourself in too tight of a straightjacket: let yourself be yourself, let the project be an influence but not a diktat; you would otherwise risk blocking your progress, inhibit your instincts. Let the inspiration and preparation work influence you almost subconsciously.
In my case, I landed in Tōkyō, settled down and started working the same way I had in my first trip: following my nose around every corner that triggered my curiosity, framing my images pretty much as I always do. But guess what, without quite realizing it my eyes kept gravitating to details that I had ignored the first time around, my walkabouts moved to alleys I had not explored, my itinerary brought me farther from the beaten path; the echo of my Murakami readings was constantly playing in my mind.
It was disconcerting at first: after ten days or so, flipping through the work I’d done so far, I felt I was not even close to the quality of ‘street’ work I had achieved on the first trip: what was wrong? I tried to calm myself, be mindful of the fact that I was unfairly comparing a couple of thousand unedited images to the 30 or so that I had crystallized in my first trip’s portfolio out of 6000 shots. And I realized that indeed my eyes had been influenced by all that reading: even if they were lost in the messy rubble of the raw material, my photos felt different. I was perhaps getting somewhere, but still I could not quite yet see what I was getting at. Scary, but I soldiered on…
(As a side note, one thing I definitively learnt in Japan: photography is a solitary activity. In no way I could have dragged my wife through those days and miles of apparently aimless wandering. Being alone and letting serendipity do its work is a great way to open yourself to your surroundings, to magic discoveries, to surprising encounters with strangers, language barriers notwithstanding…)
After five weeks and countless miles walked (I lost three kilos in the process, good!), I went back home. And there the really hard bit started. How do you make sense of 8000 frames? How do you attack the mountain? I’ll address the editing process in the next installment of this essay…