John Lou Miles, Faceless Japan: Shooting From the Hip in a Fishbowl

John Lou Miles lives just south of Los Angeles and currently works in TV, advertising and film as a consultant. A passionate Leica enthusiast poised between being a serious enthusiast and a pro, he wryly encapsulates his experience as “a life of misspent youth replaced by overachieving adulthood” and observes that “growing up in both a mountain town and in the city gave me a dualistic view of the world, something that I think shapes my work greatly.” Faceless Japan, his brilliant coming of age project as a fine art street photographer, has been posted on the LFI Gallery. Here is the story of his emergence as an artist.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: Right now I’m using a Leica M8 and an X1. Most of the M8 images in my portfolio were shot with a CV 40mm Nokton lens, but I recently put together a new collection of Leica glass. My quartet of Leica lenses includes the following: 50mm f/2 Summicron v.3, 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit v.3, 75mm f/2.5 Summarit and 90mm f/4 Elmar. I’m really excited about exploring with them, especially the 75.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Saturated, sexual … what’s another “S” word? I try to approach a picture from an unusual or different angle. I’m not reinventing the wheel, just trying to find the right combination that makes it click for me and hopefully for the viewer as well.

Q: Would you consider yourself a serious enthusiast or pro photographer?

A: I’m right on the line between serious enthusiast and pro. I’m in the process of getting my portfolio in a decent place and acquiring an M9 wouldn’t hurt either. I’m not sure how it will work out editorial wise though, since I have no desire to shoot with a DSLR anymore, I’m fully invested in the M system.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography?

A: About eight years ago I was introduced to the likes of George Platt Lynes and Helmut Newton. The skill they had in creating images spilled off the page and I knew instantly that fine art photography was something I wanted to pursue, if only as a hobby. For me, photography is a vehicle for artistic expression. Even with reportage I feel that some of the best works of art come from this genre, especially if the image has had 20 years to age. Flip through any Time, Life or Magnum book and you can’t help but be struck by the beauty and emotion.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I’ve had no formal training, but I did have a mentor. I work in advertising and I started off as an assistant to a commercial director. His name is Irv Blitz and he has the sharpest eye I have ever seen in a person, especially when it comes to lighting. As photographer, as well as a collector of fine art photography, his influence helped form who I am today. We would go through a ton of books by different photographers studying their technique and lighting and I’m grateful for that process because it provided me a starting point to find my way from there.

My girl, Sloan Wolf, who is an amazing photographer herself, never ceases to inspire me. She is the subject in a great deal of my work and her presence is not something I can easily put into words, both in front of and behind the camera. She is a sharper judge of my work than I am and I have a great deal of trust in her and her insight. She has an objective eye and, at the same time, she understands where I’m coming from so no explanation is needed. I’m lucky to have her intelligence, wit and beauty by my side and I love her very much.

As far as photographers go, William Eggleston has been, by far, the most influential photographer in my life. I even know the first image of his that sucked me in, Plate #43, the shot of his girlfriend stirring a drink on an airplane. He captures life as it happens in beautiful Kodachrome and from a point of view that always enhances the subject. I got to see him once. He stood in the corner of a theatre, his bow tie draped around his neck and with a wry smile. I popped a grainy photo of him from across the room. I was so happy. I’m just walking down the road he already paved for me and for others. He is one of the greatest pieces of American heritage we will ever have. There are others as well, Irving Penn, Guy Bourdin, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Danny Lyon and even Ed Ruscha are just a few that have inspired me to go and shoot.

Q: What genre are your photos? (e.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc)

A: I would say fine art, but it incorporates all the above. I’ve never thought to limit myself to one genre in particular. For me, doing a series of any one subject has never kept my attention. I don’t know if that limits my viability as a fine art photographer, but I guess I’ll know more about the answer to that question sometime in the future.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Once I began to shoot seriously I went to Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles to look around. I had a vague awareness of Leica from reading periodicals that must have instilled a curiosity so my first stop was the Leica counter. Tibor, the Leica rep, was more than helpful in explaining the M7 to me; then he explained the price. Leica had to wait for a while. Every time I would go in, Tibor would pull out the latest model and explain every detail in depth. Even though I wasn’t ready to buy, it didn’t deter his enthusiasm in “selling” the brand and his genuine passion lent the idea that being a Leica owner is belonging to something more than just a customer base. So, when I was finally ready to buy the X1 I felt like I was investing in more than the equipment and buying into a culture within the photographic world. One used M8 later and now I’m hooked.

Q: What inspired your trip to Japan? What goals did you have for the trip in regard to your photography?

A: Sloan bought us tickets for Christmas. It was always the place I wanted to visit most in the world. My grandparents had strong ties to Japan so growing up I had that influence I needed to explore. As far as photography is concerned, I hoped to find some emotional connections and shoot from the inside out rather than looking in — hidden secrets or a break in the facade. I didn’t want to come back with postcard pictures of cherry blossoms and shrines. I found out once we got there my goal might be harder to accomplish that than I had thought.

Q: Can you say something about what it was like being a foreigner and the challenges and opportunities it presented?

A: Well, we did get to shoot from the inside out all right, but unfortunately it was inside a fishbowl! To put it simply, we are both heavily tattooed. Dressing conservatively does nothing to cover up this fact. I hesitate to make any solid observations about a country I only visited for two weeks, but we definitely garnered attention even while trying to be subtle. Moments were fleeting due to shots being anticipated by our subjects, but sometimes subjects would flee from frame. Conversely, there were some stylish youth, fingers up in a “V,”eager to get in front of the lens with us. When communication was made, almost everyone we met was incredibly generous and humble. After a while I thought it best to just take in the beauty that flowed from every corner and not to worry about shooting it. A few days of not trying so hard and that’s when the best images started to unfold.

Q: What inspired the name “Faceless Japan” for this project?

A: Once I got home and went through the photos I could see the subtle transition of shooting style in the time I spent there. Whether it was a concentrated shot or quickly snapped from the hip, I tended to avoid eye contact or the subjects’ faces all together. It’s nothing new to me. I think that’s how I normally operate, but for some reason when I first got there I was going for the traditional portrait. I wish I had had more time there to explore the intricacies of the culture and interpersonal relationships. Hopefully I’ll get to go back soon and continue where I left off. Faceless Japan were the first two words that quickly popped into my head when I was rounding out the images. Maybe it’s an appropriate title for my brief time in the fishbowl.

Q: Can you expand on your concept of “shooting from the hip”? What about this approach is appealing to you?

A: Literally shooting with the camera away from your eye is the best way to get the least amount of return on your shots, but you can capture some interesting results from angles you would not usually get looking through the viewfinder. When you do get a shot well-framed it really jumps out. All three of the “Tokyo in Color” images were shot from the hip and I used this technique a lot in Japan to try and stay anonymous.

Q: What’s your favorite photo you took while there and why?

A: I would pick “Tokyo in Color #1.” The subject and I passed each other on an aerial walkway, my camera was at my waist and I snapped it at the very last second. I love the detail of her filling the frame and the sky illuminating the background.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: The Leica M8 has expanded my approach twofold. It allows me to be aggressive in seeking out what it is I’m looking for due to its unobtrusiveness, and at the same time being fully manual it makes me thoughtful about what I’m shooting. It definitely doesn’t reward laziness. When I go out I’m looking for colors, sexuality, grit, flowers, pain — a mash-up of everything I come across in hopes of finding some original life. I still have a ways to go though. There is an invisible line out there where I will find a consistent approach or style. It’s kind of like the edge of the solar system, it moves back and forth so you don’t know exactly when you’ve crossed it.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of John Lou Miles’ work on his website, www.johnloumiles.com and in the LFI Gallery.