John Sypal: Discovering the Nature of Photographs, Part Two

While many photographers wish nothing more than to be invisible, John Sypal, an American photographer living in Tokyo for the past seven years, tends to stand out (he’s just under two meters tall) no matter where he goes in Japan. He was born and raised in Nebraska in the United States and studied Art at the University of Nebraska. After spending a year in Japan for a study abroad program, he later moved to Tokyo in 2004 where he’s resided ever since. In addition to documenting his life and surroundings with his Leica MP & M5, John maintains his blog, Tokyo Camera Style, where he posts photos of other people’s cameras. You can read part one of our interview with John published on the blog last week. Here John shares more about his photographic journey.

Q: Many of your Tokyo street photographs have a surface quality that seems random, but when you look at them more deeply something else emerges about the texture of urban life in Japan. Do you agree, and can you expand upon this idea from your perspective?

A: That’s an accurate description of how the pictures work for me as well, in terms of the rewards that you get from looking at the pictures a little longer. I’ve always been drawn to images that provide the viewer with a lot of information to deal with.

Q: If we didn’t know you were a foreigner, we would have guessed from looking at your work that you were a Japanese photographer. How do you think living for an extended period of time in Japan, and your admiration for Japanese photography, has affected your perceptions or what can broadly be called your style?

A: It’s interesting that you bring this up as there are always people who visit my exhibitions that tell me the same thing — that my pictures “look Japanese.” This makes me wonder what photos of Japan taken by non-Japanese photographers they are familiar with! Then again, I think that we could take out the kimonos, the chopsticks, the tatami and Japanese flags and there would still most likely be a Japanese quality about the images. More than overt Japanese subject matter, the elements that encourage people to make these kind of statements are definitely influenced by a lot of the photographic work I come in contact with in Japan. I certainly didn’t come to Japan to be the next Daido Moriyama, I know that much!  When it comes down to it, it’s about making my own pictures, not anyone else’s. Shooting in Tokyo is tough because no matter where you go or what you shoot there is already another Japanese photographer who has done it before and usually better! I feel a responsibility to make myself aware of the work that has come before me, so hopefully my own pictures become part of the dialogue that photography and Tokyo have with each other.

Perhaps what I’ve gained the most from dedicated and intense exposure to Japanese photography has been the ability to incorporate the camera directly into my own life. Araki’s talk of photography as an “I-novel” comes to mind. Although the pages from his own novel are admittedly quite a bit different from my own experiences. This lifestyle photography theme is not by any means limited to the Japanese photo scene. It’s almost as limiting of a term as “street photography” and like any other genre it can end up trite if not handled well.

Q: Since black and white is your primary medium, what, besides your positive experiences with darkroom work, drew you to this medium and what advantages does it have for your kind of work?

A: At 32 I’m not quite an old-timer when it comes to film and darkroom work, but I do feel like it is part of my history.  First in high school and then into college the analog process was my gateway to photographic understanding and will always be the base from which my work stems, whether I shoot film or digital. Since I work at my own pace there isn’t any concern for deadlines, freeing me from the immediacy that digital bestows on those shooting news or sports or similar situations for work. Not being able to see the image right away keeps my mind fresh for when I see the negatives come off the reel or after I’ve made a contact print. It’s a picture I get to meet again for the first time.  This bit of removal allows me to experience the photograph on its own, rather than data that I have to deal with as soon as I’ve tripped the shutter. Contact sheets are important. Actually, the other night I was going through several hundred of them I made about eight years ago. The tactility of the pages and the ability to visually scan an entire sheet of frames without having to open up applications of windows on a computer monitor is a different experience than working with images through a screen. Even though the pictures themselves haven’t changed in eight years, I have, and reviewing them through current filters of experience changes how they look and feel to me. Of course this doesn’t mean anything when it comes to the individual images on the wall or in a magazine! The images are what they are. Analog is about my own processes, in both thought and practice.

Q: You mentioned that your pictures are “a way of asking questions more than providing answers.” Do you think this mindset accounts for the enigmatic quality of many of your images?

A: I hope so. It’s about not getting bored and not trying to illustrate the preconceptions you already have in your mind. I’ve never been to the Tsukiji fish market, but I’ve seen enough pictures of the place that I have absolutely zero interest in trying my hand with it. Same with Harjuku goth portraits or the now countless long lens nighttime Shibuya pictures that I find repetitive and boring. I want to be less wrapped up in what I think something needs to look like and more interested in seeing what I can get away with, so to speak. I’m not going to go around thinking “Japanese salarymen are sad, pathetic drones” and then make photos illustrating that bias. It’s uninteresting and, for the record, I’ve found salarymen to be far wiser, kinder and funnier than most photographs present them as. The challenge lies in trying to do the opposite, to remain open to what’s in front of you. I don’t work with grand long-term projects in mind. I remain open to everything and work backwards from my files when editing my work. I had a show in Tokyo that consisted entirely of pictures I took of other similarly aged western men on the streets of Tokyo and this was drawn from my archives. The pictures I make inform me about what I deal with. This keeps things challenging and hopefully interesting.

Q: Many photographers believe that their over-reaching mission is to make a statement, or to reveal the world filtered through their individual consciousness, but your comment that the pictures you make “track my interests in matter of subject matter and personal experiences” implies a certain sense of improvisational detachment. Do you think of yourself as a casual observer or as engaged and empathetic, or maybe something else entirely?

A: It’s a mixture of the two, I think. I feel engaged with what is in front of me, but no matter how long I live here I’m always going to be an observer on the outside. This doesn’t bother me personally since I don’t get too worked up over the last empty seat on a train being the one next to me or hearing words like “Gaijin” [non-Japanese person] spoken when I’m around. Life’s too short. At the same time, I know when having my knowledge underestimated will let me try something interesting photographically. Often it is precisely because I’m a foreigner that there are situations I can get in that for my Japanese friends are tough to enter. Conversely, I can photograph certain things in Japan that I probably couldn’t in America.  It is easy to take for granted the fact I can walk through a park in Tokyo with a camera around my neck and end up having kids ask me to photograph them on the playground equipment as their parents watch from a bench. The parents usually say thank you or at least tell the kids to thank me. I can’t imagine this scenario playing out in the States. But then again I’ve seen Japanese friends be able to do this in Nebraska.

The term empathetic is difficult for me when discussing photography. I know what those kinds of pictures are supposed to look like. I mean we’ve all seen images that use their subjects as vehicles to prompt empathy for a cause or humanity in general.  I’m often told that my love of Japan and Japanese society comes through in my images. That’s fine with me. Photography, no matter who does it, is at its best when it comes from appreciation and respect. My photographs probably lean more towards sentimentality than empathy though. I just want to be careful not to ever give in to any one angle.

Q: What operational and physical characteristics do the Leica MP and M5 and prime wide angle lenses possess that make them particularly suitable for your kind of (for the lack of a better expression) documentary street photography?

A: When most people talk about Leicas as being unobtrusive for the kind of photography you mention they usually are thinking in terms of the awareness or unawareness of the camera by their subjects. That’s a valid part of it, but since I don’t blend into crowds, I’m more interested in how unobtrusive a Leica is to me as a photographer. In the best way possible it is the least apparent to me as a separate machine when I am using it. The simplicity and clarity of these finders is important to my interaction with the camera and the subject. The camera kind of melts away.

I’ve put some thought into trying to understand what exactly happens as I am look through the finder and make a photograph.  There’s something that prompts me to snap the shutter at the times and places that I do, but whether that’s the result of my subconscious at work I don’t know. I do know that I will often be looking through the finder and suddenly hear the shutter snap before I realize I’ve pushed the button. That’s something thrilling in its own way. There are subtle shifts in what I see through the finder, spatial, physical and emotional that prompt me to do what I do. It’s a sense or feeling that does it, a response to a subtle gesture or shift in positioning or how I feel about the subject when I look through the finder. Like I said earlier, for me, it’s not about making an image that I can visualize ahead of time. I often find that the best position for a shot is the one I was in already when I felt prompted to make the picture.

As for lenses, I’ve got a few but I don’t change them for weeks at a time. I don’t even take an extra one in my Domke unless it’s on a second body. For the most part when going out to photograph focal length is decided by a mood I can’t explain rather than anticipated subject matter. Sometimes it’s a 28mm day, others will be a 50. Usually it is a 35mm Summicron day; that lens is just perfect. There is a real freedom in sticking with one focal length. You don’t have to cloud your mind wondering about what a picture could be and you don’t have to take time switching lenses when things are going on. This discipline of limitations lets one just focus on photographing.

Q: Evidently you are a passionate photographer and photography has become an essential element in your life, but do you think of yourself as an artist? And if so, what is the nature of your art, and what is the nature of the dialogue you hope to have with your viewers?

A: The title of Artist is much more appealing to me than Street Photographer! There was a bulletin board in our photography room at the University in Nebraska covered in quotes dealing with photography and art. There are two of them that have stuck with me over the years. David Huddle said, “I’ve only recently begun to comprehend what now seems to me the most basic and obvious artistic principal: Works of art are the mere byproducts of an artist’s work.” And another by Artuhr C. Danto read, “In addition to being what they are about, they are about the way they are about that.”

I photograph, I make prints and images and then share these things with whomever encounters them to be contemplated, interpreted, and hopefully enjoyed. Good pictures are the equivalent of saying “Look at this!” I’ve been able to say this through magazines, online and in exhibitions. Each venue has its own special nature. Taken in a wider scope, no matter how I might create or share a photograph, it is all part of a larger body of work in the end. Photography is a chance to do two seemingly incompatible things at once. It allows a photographer a chance to look more closely at something, but at the same time see it in a larger sense as part of a greater whole. This informs me about myself and the world. It’s a way of dealing with life. The pictures I make tend to be talking about photography, but they are images in and of themselves. When we talk about dialogue I tend to look at it as something I am having with artists, both in the past and into the future, as someone who also creates art.

Q: Since you sometimes print digitally have you ever considered acquiring an M9? Do you think that film has a special quality that cannot be achieved with digital, or do you simply prefer the analog
process?

A: I like analog for its analog-ness, like the time the process takes and the meditative state it can lend to an artist’s workflow. That said, I do have a small compact digital camera that has taught me a lot, and I mean a lot, about photographs and how they look. But this is due how I handle and use that small and silent little camera more than anything. It’s all over the place, much different than how I use my MP. An M9 would be great, especially the Hammertone M9-P I was able to handle at the Leica Shop in Ginza. Though for digital I’m actually drawn more to the X1 for its size and different methods of use. I don’t have one yet, but It looks like an amazing little camera.

Q:  Have you ever thought about becoming a full-time photographic artist or do you think that your living in a totally unrelated way is the best way to assure your artistic freedom, etc?

A: “Assuring my artistic freedom” That’s a great way of putting it! Said that way I’d have to say yes, that’s why. Reasons of finances aren’t nearly as interesting I guess, at least not for this interview. I know a lot of photographic artists in Japan who support themselves all sorts of other ways and very few who are able to live solely (or perhaps truly comfortably) on their photography. I have done some commercial work though. Each month of 2011 I’ve had two pages in the magazine Nippon Camera as a spin-off from my Tokyo Camera Style blog. It has been enlightening to work with a magazine this way, but again, having a job that isn’t centered on making photos for other people does let me focus on what I want to do on my own.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward and do you plan to explore any other geographical and cultural horizons besides Japan and the United States?

A: At this time I’m mainly focused on Japan since it is where I live. There’s still a lot more I want to learn here and I haven’t begun to grow tired of it. Like all other photographers I am in contact with in Toyko, I would like to make a book and I want to keep learning through photography and sharing what I find. Photographically my goal is to improve editing of my own work and continue exhibiting as often as possible.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of John’s work on his website, http://www.johnsypal.com.