Shin Noguchi: Open for Interpretation

Shin Noguchi is a freelance graphic designer and street photographer based in Kamakura and Tokyo, Japan. He describes his street photography as an attempt to capture extraordinary moments of excitement, beauty and humanism among the flow of everyday life and has an approach that is sensitive to the subtleties and complexities of Japanese culture. He is also a member of the Street Photographers collective. Eric Kim, a contributor to the Leica blog, conducted this interview.

Q: It’s a great pleasure to have you Shin. Can you share how you first got interested in street photography?

A: It was a book “A l’est de Magnum 1945-1990″ by Magnum Photos. I saw it in my teens and it made me conscious about street photography for the first time. Before I saw that book, I thought art and documentary were opposite from one another. However, I was surprised to see in that book, while reflecting on our daily life as it was with its various, overflowing emotions such as pleasure and sorrow; they were masterfully expressing their artistic opinion as street photographers by skillfully taking in elements such as composition and timing as well as light and shadow.

© Shin Noguchi Photography

Q: When it comes to your style of street photography, you often work in color, light and layers. Describe why you like to work in this manner.

A: I have an absolute adoration for the classic B&W photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, but we cannot gain anything as artists just by imitating it. As someone who shoots the present, I try to use colors as the main elements as much as possible in order to express the street as it is. By explaining on the surface of photos that this is our daily life and not some special place without becoming obsessed with what I see, I hope people will enjoy more: an intriguing moment’s sight seen there; the beauty of living people; the beauty of such elements as light and shadow; and interesting connections between each elements, which can be generated by adding layers.

Q:  When you started shooting street photography, what were some initial difficulties you had?

A: Japanese scenery, especially those in streets, is formed by complicated lines with a phalanx of various colors and shapes. Therefore, it’s very difficult to make orderly composition. At the same time, characters are difficult to see from the inconspicuous style of Japanese people. As a result, by objectively evaluating the photographs combined with such subjects and backgrounds, I could not help but feel artistic weakness compared to those taken overseas.

Q: Can you share how you got introduced to Leica equipment and why it suits your style of shooting?

A: When I started shooting street photography, I just recorded some scenes I could recognize — which had already slightly past — such as happenings and photogenic subjects that came into my sight. Single-lens reflex cameras with fast auto-focus and the capability of continuous shooting enabled me to catch up easily before they disappeared in front of me. As a result, I was satisfied with taking mediocre photographs by relying on modern high-performance cameras, without endeavoring to widen my own perspectives. However, we could only see the past in these photographs and it was extremely difficult for these closed photographs to make viewers feel the story spreading beyond the facts in there.

After having been shooting daily lives with “shoot the moment” as the theme for several years, I became able to recognize the sequences in the street from people’s patterns of behavior and the atmosphere of the place. High-performance cameras which were suited for my previous purpose of catching up easily were no longer enough to get myself into the stream so that I could capture the photogenic moment (which was slightly in the future) coming to the next scene in its most beautiful and energetic state. As a result, the Leica M9 has become my best partner and is capable of quickly adjusting the focus to the anticipated distance — with easy, instant fine-tuning from there — getting ready for all the settings with the minimum action, and perfectly synchronizing with the ever-moving shooting style in the street.

This shooting style enables me to capture the moment with movements, and to take open photographs which make viewers feel the depth and broad interpretations, compared to those which recorded only the outcome.

Q: What kind of collaborations you have done with other street photographers in Japan?

A: I opened Japanese Street Photographers with my friend Satoki Nagata, who is a Chicago-based street and documentary photographer. It’s a Facebook group that admits only Japanese photographers as members. There are more than 50 street photographers working in Japan and overseas who are members of the group. We discuss improvement of photographs as individuals, as well as future possibilities for street photography in Japan as a whole.

Street Photographers is an international street photography collective to which I belong and it currently consists of 22 members from 10 countries. In the collective, we are hotly discussing detailed themes every day. I hope for a strong team that can compete with such a world to be born from here.

Q: I notice that many Japanese street photographers work in the style of Daido Moriyama (high contrast and gritty black-and-whites). Where do you think working in color fits into Japanese street photography?

A: While there are many wonderful street photographers who have a Daido style of directly conveying the charm of the subjects to readers, I am hoping to show the world the beauty of daily life in Japan from a more objective point of view, by organizing untidy streets with light and shadow, and treating very attractive and Japanese colors with care, as well as detailed elements that exist there.

Q: When you are shooting in the streets, what exactly are you looking for? Do you look for something specifically, or do you prefer to let things come to you?

A: While I suppose it is a common theme for street photographers in the world to wander about seeking beautiful light and shadow, decisive moments and photogenic characters, what I place the highest priority on is to aggressively incorporate the elements through which we can see Japan as a nation. Although this is a special element that does not exist in other countries, it is very dangerous to judge the charm based only on the subjective view. If we express from within ourselves too much, we cannot share the concept of the element with readers in other countries, with the occasional result being that the beauty of the element expressed in the photographs and fascinating connections between elements are not understood from a global point of view. By capturing streets from the objective at the same time as the subjective points of view, I can shoot photographs which are more open to interpretation.

Q:  Can you share your three most memorable images and tell us why they are special to you?

A: The main subjects of street photography are people and their daily life. I wish the viewers to feel that there is a wonderful scene in the moments of our daily life like one from a movie — even though it is not a made-up movie. One of my unique ways of expression in street photography is that I try to incorporate the un-manipulated moment’s scene, a story from a viewpoint of the photographer. I usually do not explain my own interpretations in the title or the caption and let readers walk through the world of my photographs with free-minded imagination. Here, however, I will take up some of my favorite photographs and explain my interpretations.

“What do you see beyond the pray?” It is one of the methods of expression of street photography to create a new story in the photograph by linking several unrelated and non-relevant elements with composition and timing. By adding the composition of social satire with a strong documentary character this photograph expresses, from deeper places and through people’s life, the way the nation and the society exist.

A worker standing stupefied beside a truck which appears to have over run, scraped off the cart road, and stopped. A man — a chef — was passing by the scene. With a foggy golf course as the stage, a mysterious and beautiful scene was expressed without showing golf at all.

The Street Photography Now Project/community, which started in 2011, is a project in which people shoot following certain instructions given by street photographers during a period of time and post their photographs on Flickr where they are reviewed. This photograph is the one I shot while conscious about the connection during the period when the instruction — which I had provided upon the request of SPNC — was in effect.

“SPNC Y3 Instruction #13: ‘Find a connection. Make a connection’. – Shin Noguchi”

You can see a wedding poster in the back layer, a woman wearing a veil and man in a suit are in the middle layer, and flowers planted in the street in the front layer. I expressed a story of man and woman by elaborately connecting each element. I was lucky to catch a woman who was avoiding the sun with a scarf, but unfortunately she was not in a mood to wear a white dress that day.

For all these photographs, I composed a story of the scene in a moment, based on my own interpretation; I did not wait for the elements that fit the composition of the story to come into the frame by putting emphasis on some point. This excuse is intrinsically not necessary. Creating my photographs is not important. I hope you will feel from their expression the pleasure of seeing our daily life from various viewpoints.

Q: What are some projects you are currently working on, and what can people look forward to?

A: As for another project besides the one on color photos, I use B&W photography to express the moment when I feel subjective attraction from individual persons, the link among persons as well as between people and the society, and capture directly — in the form similar to candid photography.

Q: What photography books, sites, or magazines do you go to for inspiration?

A: Flickr groups like Beyond Obvious, Don’t Be A Lemming, Small Growers Street Association and Street Photographers’ Salon all attract high-level photographs. We can always see the present, and therefore, I often feel stimulated more than looking at famous photography books of the past.

Q: Who are some of your favorite contemporary street photographers that you’d recommend people check out?

A: I want you to pay attention to Chuck Patch, Anastasia Rudenko, and Artem Zhitenev who were selected from about 600 talented candidates and newly joined the Street Photographers collective.

Q: What is some advice you would give to street photographers starting out?

A: Currently, activity at SNS is the main stream for all kinds of artists, and as for photography, it is in vogue to get a good reputation at reviewing sites such as 1x.com. Under such circumstances, it is important for street photographers, regardless of a review of one photograph or artistic review, to shoot streets coolly as persistent storytellers or spokesmen from the standpoint of shooting documentaries which exist on the bottom of people’s life. I do not deny the importance of seeking artistic photographs as expression. On the other hand, I would like photographers to express, without relying on the characters of the subjects, their existence in the themes selected, and the composing ability of elements such as light and shadow, with the final aim of being evaluated by the totality of their activity as a photographer.

Thank you for your time, Shin!

- Leica Internet Team

To connect with Shin, visit his website, blog and the Street Photographers collective.