Lights in Chicago
I wanted to do something creative in my life so, at first, I chose to be a scientist. In scientific research, you need to be able to think and test a hypothesis in a new way that is different than previous knowledge - that is the creative act. Graduating a Ph.D. course in neuroscience gave me the opportunity to come the US in 1992. At that time, I did not think I would be in the US more than a few years and actually went back to Japan after four years abroad. After my work for a university and research institute in Japan, I came back to the United States as a research professor of university in 2001. In the next few years, my passion toward science gradually diminished. By this time, I had published a little over fifty scientific papers and a few of them might even contribute positively to the progress of science. I have no regret that I chose to be a scientist while I was young.
It was during this time, the time of fading scientific passions while still working for a university, that I was looking for something I would like to do next. Although I had enjoyed using a camera since I was a teenager, I had never thought this could be creative act for me. I came to realize that the photography that I liked since I was young had the potential to be a visual art form.
I have never learned art officially from a school, so I searched out a mentor. I found a photojournalist and artist, Damaso Reyes, and learned photography as an art from him for four years. During that process I learned the technical as well as the philosophical aspects of photography as a visual language. This is what I had been looking for. After a few years of preparation on order to obtain a visa, I quit science to concentrate on photography. It is what I have been doing since then.
I learned that photography is a communication with multiple dialogs: among the subject, the viewer, and the photographer. It has its own grammar. This visual language is purely simple and quiet in nature. I always keep in mind these characteristics.
There are two things I consider for every photo: the visual and the contents. For the visual, aesthetically intriguing and fascinating images are always considered. Every single element inside the frame should have a meaning, or a role in communicating the contents, and a visual position such as composition. Every single image in my photographs follows a simple rule in terms of composition that creates a consistency throughout my work.
The content part, I think, is much more important than the technical aspects of photography. The message I want to communicate to the viewer and the subject is carefully considered. The message from the image should be clear inside me. At the same time, it should be open to the viewer; more like raising a question than giving an answer. With a good photograph, we can spend a long time and come back many times and every time find something new. It is like walking in the woods.
Consider intimacy. Minimizing the emotional distance between myself and the subject is important to make images with distinct vision. I first started in traditional street photography. Then my photography moved to more intensive documentary. I have been working on various long-term projects for years such as the traditional documentary, “Frances Cabrini Rowhouses”, and a fine art-type street photography series, “Lights in Chicago”. The differences between these two styles is the level of intimacy or distance with the subjects.
Usually, there are physical as well as emotional distances between me and people on the street. What I did in the beginning to physically minimize the distance was engage with these people. I like to take a photo within arm’s length, 0.7m 2.3 feet. When I take photographs from this distance, I need to build a relationship with subject in some way; engage. I ask permission with brief or long conversation, or in some cases just eye contact may be enough. There is a reason why arm’s length. For a human being, within arm’s length is personal space; very limited people can occupy this space, such as partners and families.
As a result of this approach, my photography moved from traditional street photography to documentary; from “Redline Chicago Station” to “Frances Cabrini Rowhouses”. I did not stop doing street photography, but I needed to solve a question to make more satisfying images. How could I minimize the emotional distance without making these intimate connections with people? This was challenging. I experimented using flash on documentary projects; flash is a powerful tool to makes that intimate connection visually when appropriately used. I took the flash to the street and soon found that using a flash for a backlight had the potential to create the image I was looking for. I felt the surge of potential, though I still did not expect that this series would become one of the important bodies of my work. It was a discovery process.
The image showed visually fascinating layering and a range of rich tones from highlights to shadows. The image looked like a reflection or a multiple exposure but was taken in a single shot. Snow and rain only added more complex layering on the image, and most importantly of all – the emotional distance between the subject and me shrunk.
We, individual humans, are composed of multiple, complex emotional layers as well as the streets. Showing complex layers in the image highlights this notion. I liked the results visually and the technical simplicity as well.
“Lights in Chicago” has changed over time. In the beginning, images of people were abstracted and details of the face were not as clear, more like a silhouette. Then at some point I spent a couple of months using two flashes with delay, and new images appeared. After years of continuing experimenting within this series of images, two styles emerged: documentary-portrait styles and extremely abstract images. Technically, both images were taken the same way – a single flash and, of course, a single shot.
I sometimes get frustrated because the “Lights in Chicago” series is perceived as being made by multiple exposures, or reflection, or excessive manipulation by a computer program. But the problem here is that visual aesthetics, however important, is only a part of a photograph. My photography needs to have emotional content, messages, something meaningful that I want to communicate. I do not deny post-adjustment by computer and it is essential, but it should be used appropriately. I ask myself why I need to make adjustment in this image. So, for this series, it’s just me on the street. I just use one camera and an off-camera flash with a slow shutter speed – technically I could make these images with decades old equipment. Why technical simplicity so important for me? I think it comes from Japanese Zen notion; when we are practicing under strict limitations and/or restrictions, it brings up and clarifies what is important.
My photography is a series of trials in search of and to communicate the truth, beauty, and emotions in the world. Each image is a fraction of time, which is, in turn, part of the life of photographer as well as a moment in the subject’s life, and later, a moment of the viewer’ life. I believe that the significance of the creative act extends beyond self-expression. I try to be conscious that I have a responsibility to be honest, to create these moments with integrity. I wish works of mine serve as a reminder of people’s hope, future, mind, existence, and precious lives.
all photos courtesy of the author