Family | 2007

This was the first photo I ever took with a large format camera. I had no idea what I was doing, and have shot large format so infrequently over the years since that were I to today take out any of the three large-format cameras I still own, I would be right back where I was in 2007 when this photo was taken.

This photo illustrates how important serendipity is to what I end up regarding as my favorite photos, and I suspect that is the same for many photographers. Without fail, those pictures I take where I think to myself, Oh that was a good one, I can't wait till I get the negatives back, never materialize into keepers. It's always the pictures I can barely remember taking that end up the treasures.

To admit such might seem to diminish my creativity, my role in the process, but I don't see it that way. It's simply an admission that no matter how intentional I aim to be, at no point am I in control of the entire process of taking a picture, or can I spread my awareness to cover all aspects, to see all corners of the frame as it were. Of course one aims to see all, but the light is constantly changing, people are moving, expressions are changing, silver particles are reacting, moment to moment. A million and one decisive moments but very rarely the decisive moment. Catching lightning in a bottle owes much to happenstance.

All this is magnified with large format photography, where the moving parts can seem overwhelming if not infinitesimal. So the ugly suit bag in the background shares a focal plane with my wife and son whereas those adorable Thomas the Tank Engine figures on my son's sweatshirt are barely recognizable. I would have done it differently, but I doubt I would feel the same about this photo if I had.

In the end, though, it's the expressions of my wife and son that penetrate past everything. I'm sure I must have fiddled with the unfamiliar apparatus for a patience-trying length of time, and there was unlikely any "Say cheese!" moment. As well, this photo was only meant as a test, and we can wonder what sort of facial expressions I would have gotten if I had announced "I'm going to take a portrait of you guys." rather than "Can you guys sit over there a minute so I can test this camera?" The result is a photo where their guard was down, the instinctive urge to smile or otherwise set one's expression in a familiar state no longer there.

The fact that this was taken on Polaroid instant film plays a part as well. The inherent qualities of a Polaroid give the photograph a muted, transient ethereality which, like the daguerreotypes of old, further enhances this in-between state where the subjects are neither fully conscious of what is going on nor entirely self-conscious. 

All of these various circumstances and elements somehow become a serendipitous whole, to my mind anyway. And it is that serendipity that makes me treasure this photograph even more than I would already be inclined to do, considering it is after a photograph of the two people I treasure more than anything.

Yurakucho, Tokyo | 2004

This is Hsieh Lien-fang, more commonly known as Renhō, a biracial (Taiwanese and Japanese) politician who at the time this was taken in 2004 was campaigning for her successful first run as a member of the House of Councillors (Upper House of the National Diet). She later became head of Japan's Democratic Party from 2016 to 2017 and gained notoriety when it was revealed that she had never given up her Taiwanese citizenship. (Japan requires dual citizens to choose a single citizenship when they turn 20 years old.) She subsequently did so.

Incidentally, only the right half of this view of the area in front of Yurakucho station in Tokyo still exists, and just barely at that. That flip phone the photo taker is using, so ubiquitous in those pre-smartphone days, still can be seen occasionally in Japan (my father-in-law got his first smartphone just two months ago), where they are called somewhat derisively ガラケー (gara-kei), which has an interesting etymology. Back in the day, those phones acquired a wide host of features, many of which were not seen in phones outside Japan. It is seen as an example of Galapagos syndrome, "a term of Japanese origin used in business studies to refer to an isolated development branch of a globally available product" (Wikipedia). Abbreviated forms are common in everyday Japanese, so Galapagos became "gala" (gara in Japanese which has no "l) and kei is the first half of the word for mobile phones, keitai (携帯).


I taught English to a group of elderly ladies, twice a month, for over 10 years. For them it was a hobby and diversion and to be perfectly honest I'm not sure the needle of their English ability moved very much in all that time. Conversely, I probably learned more about Japanese culture, language, and history from them than from any other source in all my time in Japan. This vase, one of the most sublimely beautiful objects not in a museum that I have ever laid eyes on, belonged to one of them. This photo -- taken with my Contax G1 if I remember correctly -- barely does justice to it.

Bakurocho, Tokyo | 2015

Spend any decent amount of time walking around Tokyo -- that is, non-tourist Tokyo -- and you'll soon realize that the Japanese approach to zoning differs considerably from the American approach. This is most noticeable in the intermingling of businesses (light industrial, wholesale, and other small mom and pop businesses), and residences (both apartments and single-family homes). (This article is a good primer on Japanese zoning laws and how they differ from the US.)

Here we have a small business of which type I forget now, although the washing machine outside might provide a clue. I imagine a business washing uniforms, tablecloths and the like for izakaya chains. Or alternatively it's a small print shop that moved its washing machine outside to make room for another printer or cutter. Next door is a tonkatsu restaurant, and what looks to be a small office building beyond that.


Yanaka, Tokyo | 2005

I remember taking this photo on a 初写真散歩 (hatsu shashin sanpo) the first week of January, 2005. hatsu shashin sanpo is a made up word indicating "the first photo walk of the new year", and is a play on words like hatsumoude ("the first visit of the year to a shrine to pray") and hatsuhinode ("first sunrise of the year") that Japanese use (and do) at the beginning of every year.

The photo was taken in Yanaka, a quaint area of temples and shrines, a few museums, old-timey shops, and Yanaka Cemetery, one of Tokyo’s largest. Most areas of Tokyo, and indeed the country, are deader than a door nail the first week of January, but while not teeming Yanaka was busy that day on account of 七福神巡り (shichifukujin meguri), a short pilgrimage tour to visit seven temples and shrines of Shichifukujin, the Seven Deities of Good Fortune.