Dizzying canyons of colorful illumination flash by outside my raindrop speckled subway car window. City lights shine bright as far as the eye can see, accompanied by seemingly endless streams of people and traffic. Camera in hand, I exit the Yamanote Line train at Shibuya Station and get swept away by the tide of commuters on the platform, all walking briskly and intently in the same direction. There is no turning back. I am guided through the station by the flow of humans.
With the rain now reduced to a fine drizzle, I take my first steps out of Hachiko Exit. Cold and humid December air hits my face, smelling of wet asphalt and food of the nearby restaurants. My ears are drowning in foreign sound waves. Kaleidoscopes of neon signs are mirrored from puddles and the soaked red stone pavement in front of me.
I can feel my eyes watering up…
Standing there amidst a current of people like an immovable boulder in a river, I am engulfed by a flurry of faces. Salary men rushing by, unfazed by my presence. Giggling teenage girls wearing otherworldly fashion, one of them cradling a tiny puppy dog in her arms. A hunchbacked elderly woman with a shopping trolley slowly appears in my field of view. Like turning a prism through a beam of light, the canopy of her translucent umbrella looks like a color-shifting tiffany lamp. She shuffles on, only to be swallowed up by the crowd.
I feel like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole…
Thanks to the intense culture shock that just slapped me in the face with full force, I am unable to take a single photo. I turn around to rejoin my best friend Michael, who lives and works in Tokyo. I can see him smiling at me. He knows exactly how I feel. With my jet-lagged brain still processing the audiovisual crescendo for all my senses, we board the Tōkyū Den-en-toshi Line train bound for Tama Plaza Station in Yokohama. Filled with excitement, I am dying to find out what the sea of concrete and lights of this unfathomable Megalopolis may have in store for me…
Ten years later… and beyond!
Today marks my ten year anniversary of traveling to Japan for the first time. My initial impressions of Tokyo sound like a cliché intro from an Anthony Bourdain episode before he would “get to the meat of it”. Nonetheless, I am grateful for this very vivid and intense first experience and I have since learned to love many facets of the city during recurring trips between 2011 and 2019.
Tokyo’s combination of culture, land- and cityscapes, cuisine, art and the way it has (mis)translated western culture and made its own versions of it, make this place unmistakably unique. My experiences there will always have a special place in my heart and they changed the way I approach my personal photography for good.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you how…
From my early teens, I was influenced by Japanese culture through electronics, video games, animation, music and the way of Japanese green tea. Because of that, I had many expectations in mind before traveling there, but did not expect that the bar would be raised in such a profound way. In time, Tokyo would teach me to appreciate balance. Balance between nature and human made structures. Balance between the old and the new through the cultivation of tradition and the integration of cutting edge technology. The balance between spaces.
This balance presented itself to me beyond the veil of a tourist, after a few trips to Japan and feeling more connected to the pulse of the city. I felt myself gravitating towards local hangouts, residential areas, and the backstreets, exploring everyday life situations and locations, far from the hustle and bustle: The soul of the city. Balance can be found there, away from the extremes, in the middle ground, the mundane.
Before I knew it, the city had become my teacher.
Picking a new and unknown place on the map to explore and wander about, like a train station, I would set out in the morning with my gear. Without a specific goal or plan and being more grounded in the present moment, situations and scenes would unfold before me. Feelings and emotions were my compass when noticing and framing my subject matter, rather than composition or technicalities that makes an image appealing in the classic sense.
In a way, I wasn’t simply photographing or documenting my environment anymore, but rather reacting to it, in dialogue with it. At the time, I couldn’t explain what was happening. There was this constant vibe in the air that never failed to motivate me and I rode that wave every minute I was there. I felt totally at peace. Even on “bad” days when I did not capture many photographs, my time was worthwhile because I always saw and experienced something new.
Tokyo was the first place to make me feel this way.
“Pictures Of Nothing”
Upon returning to Berlin after my trip in October 2014 and sifting through my images, I felt like I came back with something coherent, even though I was solely guided by my unconscious and chance. There were many parallels, opposites, and pairings evident in my photographs that I enjoyed and I could re-experience the exact emotions I felt when clicking the shutter. This could be a serene empty parking lot, an overgrowth of foliage on a canal embankment or light reflecting off of tiled buildings, piquing my interest and changing my path. They were basically subjects of no particular importance or meaning, pictures of nothing.
As serendipity saw fit, I would soon discover accomplished photographers out there like Mark Power, Stephen Shore and Alec Soth, to name a few, who I look up to and respect. After studying their works through exhibitions and photo books, I learned a lot about their process. It was more about emotion and story than the photography itself. Go out, make photographs and “connect the dots” when you get back. I saw parallels to my own images and was inspired to make something out of it because I felt like what I am doing has meaning.
These experiences and external influences had a deep and meaningful influence on my core approach and relationship with my personal photography. My choice in subject matter and my perspective changed completely from that moment onward. This also bled over into my professional work, giving me new ideas and letting me shoot more freely without the limitations and expectations I had previously set for myself. With this new knowledge or “emotional guidance system” I would return to Tokyo a few more times, trying to ally this to the best of my ability.
It ultimately lead me to create my first and still ongoing self assigned project called “Tokyo Spaces”.
Through The Looking Glass
Along with this change of place and mindset, there was another very important technical factor involving camera gear. A quote by Dorothea Lange from 1978 explains this in the best possible manner:
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
During my travels, I have used many different cameras, prime and zoom lenses, digital and analog mediums with varying aspect ratios. Sometimes, I brought them all with me. Hence, my images were all over the place: wide-angle and telephoto photographs, of one and the same subject. In a way it was a “fear of missing out”. All for the sake of getting every possible shot. It was stressful at times.
The reduction in gear came naturally, when I learned that most of the images I ended up liking the most were around the same focal length: 35 mm. Tokyo 2014 was the first time I that I solely brought a digital fixed-lens 35 mm Fujifilm camera with me. It was quite the terrifying prospect to be honest. I learned that instead of letting the cameras and zooms do the work, choosing a scene and my position more purposefully would yield a high keeper rate.
Experimenting with different systems eventually led me to using a single analog Leica M6 with 35mm lens and some film rolls on 95% of my travels. I know it inside out, can basically use it blind, it doesn’t get in the way. Next to lightening the load when on the road, this was one of the most enlightening aspects of “finding your perspective” and learning more about applying previsualization.
In the end, it is about growth and embracing change. You learn about and with your camera, you learn about your preferences, you learn from others photographers and you will learn from far away places. What matters the least in that equation is your camera!
I know this was a long one, because it is a topic that is very dear to me. Looking ahead, I am already excited for a future trip to the place that changed my life.
The images shown in this blog post are from various visits to Tokyo using different camera systems and lenses ranging from DSLRs, to compacts and iPhone images. I included all sorts of images that I wouldn't share these days, but it serves as a reminder of what I have learned thus far. For a selection of some of my work over the years in Tokyo, please click here.