John Sypal: Discovering the Nature of Photographs

John Sypal shares, “In the most literal sense I feed, shelter and clothe myself through a job that is not involved with photography, so my name would go under the serious enthusiast column. While physical nourishment is kept up through a 9 to 5 job, a great deal of a different kind of hunger is satisfied with my camera. I have a feeling that the best pros are serious enthusiasts at heart.” John regularly posts photos of the cameras he sees throughout Tokyo on his blog, Tokyo Camera Style. Though his photography goes far beyond just documenting other people’s cameras. John first appeared on this blog after documenting the festivities and cameras in hand at the fifth anniversary party of the Leica Ginza shop in Tokyo for the “A Birthday Fit for a Leica” post.

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 for the past seven years. John has the unique challenge of documenting life in a culture and country that is not his own, but has undoubtedly become his home. Here John shares his story about how he discovered and developed a passion for photography.

Q: When did you first develop your passion for photography? Did you study photography in school or did you come to it on your own?

A: It was undoubtedly during a yearlong study abroad program in Japan. I’ve always been interested in art and had taken a photo class or two in high school. I entered the University of Nebraska as an Art major thinking I’d go into illustration or painting. A semester of Photography was a requirement for all art majors, but I put it off for about two years since I thought the darkroom process was cumbersome compared to sketching or painting. Have you ever heard that saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”? Something like that.  I guess I must have been ready because the two teachers that appeared, Dave Read and Shelley Fuller, really opened a door for me that I doubt I could have found on my own.  Their classes were less about technique and far more about dealing with the nature of photographs. Actually, that was our sole textbook for Photo 101: The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore. I can’t recommend it enough.

Having already been accepted for a program for a year abroad in Japan following my first semester of photography, I left Nebraska for a university near Tokyo. There I joined the camera club and when not in class or out on the streets shooting, I probably spent more time in the darkroom than my dorm room. This was from late 2001 to August 2002. I was, at this time, operating in a bit of a vacuum both linguistically and photographically. It was just me and my cameras as I didn’t know of any photo blogs then and this was still a few years before Flickr and Facebook. I did, however, have access to the university’s moderate selection of photo books and by the end of the program knew which major bookstores in Tokyo had the best and most browse-able photo book sections.

The most significant development for me as a photographer at that time was bringing a stack of 8×10 workprints to a portfolio review in Shinjuku and ending up establishing a friendship with a photography teacher, Mitsugu Ohnishi, who became a critical connection to anything I’ve accomplished photographically in Japan since returning to live in 2004. A year abroad will do wonders for your perception upon arriving home and after intensively shooting as a student in Tokyo, Nebraska looked almost as exotic as from where I had just come. My graduation thesis project was an exhibition of my work from Japan and conversely my first solo show in Tokyo in 2004 was a collection of pictures shot in Nebraska. Looking back I feel fortunate that I happened to be in an environment which allowed me to establish the foundations of my interest in photography on my own.

Q: Though you were “operating in a bit of a vacuum” during your year long study abroad program in Japan, has your work before or since been influenced by any specific photographers or types of photography?

A: I know it was the first couple of slides we were shown in my first semester of Photography, pictures by Garry Winogrand, that just blew my mind. I had no idea that photographs could be that charged with tension and energy simply by being straight and unnumbered by showy technique. Whatever remaining synapses I had quickly popped after exposure to Lee Friedlander’s pictures a few minutes later. The work by both photographers deals with the way a camera alters reality, as opposed to refining it. This was what I wanted to explore. Reading just about everything that I can get my hands on written by John Szarkowski has been enlightening. His wry insight into how photographs look continues to fuel my drive to continue photographing.

Going back to my year in Japan and the past seven since I moved here, I feel that Japanese photography has become the greatest influence to me as a photographer. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call Nobuyoshi Arakione of the top five greatest photographers in the history of the medium. At the same time, there are so many dynamic and interesting photographers in Japan who aren’t as well known abroad as they deserve to be. One of the joys of living in Tokyo is the access to many small, independent photography galleries sprinkled about the city. These are run and funded by small groups of dedicated photographers who invest an incredible amount of time and energy to share their work in person with others. Simply put, there are more photo exhibitions in Tokyo than a person can keep up with every week. And a lot are really, really good. Since 2005 I’ve had five solo shows and getting to be a part of this scene has been incredibly important to my own experience and growth as a photographer.

Q: Your work seems to fall within the genre of street photography. Is that an accurate categorization or how else would you describe your photographic work?

A: I try not to get too wrapped up in genres — I guess the pictures I make could be filed under “street photography.” But I don’t want to limit my approach to photography as a way to fulfill criteria for a predetermined type of picture. I don’t step outside my apartment and think, “OK, today I’m gonna take some street photos.” Since I am a foreigner living in Japan people might be inclined to call what I do “travel photography,” but that is something I would argue against. Mainly because I’m not traveling; I’ve lived here for several years and truthfully rarely leave the Tokyo area.

I see my photography as an investigation as to where I am, a way of asking questions more than providing answers. The pictures I make track my own interests, both in terms of subject matter and personal experiences. At the same time, I’m drawn to the ones that for one reason or another are visually interesting.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: The photography teacher I mentioned earlier always had his M6 with him in the classroom. It might sound odd, but I distinctly remember being interested and amused with the angle of the rewind knob. As far as a “love at first sight” kind of story, I can tell you the exact moment I knew a Leica M was what I wanted to shoot with. I was being given a tour of the Yanaka district by a group of students when we passed a pawn shop with a black M4 in the window. I literally stopped in mid-stride and just stared at it. Then I looked down at my Nikon F3 with its noisy motor drive that I didn’t even need and began making a mental list of what I could sell to get one. I made due with a non-Leica M mount camera until I was able to afford an M6 TTL which became my MP.  Simply put, nothing else remotely feels like a Leica in hand.  It is the camera that is least apparent when shooting. I don’t mean it makes me invisible, but rather it is the least apparent as an object to me as a photographer. It seamlessly becomes part of my experience in life.

Q: And what camera and equipment do you currently use?

A: I have either my chrome MP or black M5 with one lens on me at any given time. I have a small smattering of lenses, the new 28mm Elmarit, a pre-ASPH 35mm Summicron, and two 50s, a Summicron and the newer Elmar-M which I prefer for portraits. My standard set-up is the MP with the 35mm Summicron. One could shoot with this combination and be perfectly content for the rest of their life. I do occasionally shoot with compact 35mm and medium format cameras as well. I’m stuck on film and shoot everything on Fuji Presto 400 and Super Presto 1600 (as long as my stock holds out) and develop it at home with Kodak HC-110. The images shown here were all scanned from 11×14 prints I made in my darkroom. I enjoy the freedom found in keeping methods simple and consistent.

Q: What role does photography play in your life and what approach do you take with your photography?

A: The approach I am most comfortable with is a way where I can’t separate the act of photography and life itself.  By this I mean that photographing inevitably becomes intertwined with what’s going on at that point, whether it is out with friends or even walking down the street. The camera has become my way of dealing with things so I don’t go out looking for “the shot” or anything like that. I don’t have “pictures in my head” as Winogrand once so succinctly put it. I take what comes based on where I am and who I am with. The pictures are, in part, reactions to what was happening in front of me, or even better, evidence of my own interaction with the subject. I’m just under two meters tall, so trying to make myself invisible for candid photography is not the name of my game.

Photography to me is the accumulation of picture upon picture creating a body of work that reflects the life of the photographer. So my photos inform me about what it is that I am interested in and I’m not out to articulate any grand ethnological message about the Japanese as a people or culture. The tricky part though, is that I am a foreigner living in Japan. This fact naturally affects what is photographable due to my immediate surroundings, but at the same time it presents a challenge as to the kinds of mental blocks or triggers foreigners have when photographing here.  How do you get around making the same Japan pictures that we’ve all seen?  How can a picture be of Japan, but yet not trip over into the usual ancient and modern / wabi-sabi / “Lost in Translation” hip Japan kind of thing? Again, I think interest in Japanese photography helps as the Japan that represented in contemporary Japanese photography can be far more nuanced and less exotic than the version seen abroad. This is an interesting problem to work with, but it’s not something I want to clutter my head with when I have a camera to my eye.

Thanks John!

-Leica Internet Team

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