As one of the highlights of the Kyotographie satellite event KG+2018, SIGMA hosted a three-part talk session with the topic “photobooks and photo technology from the eyes of the photographer”.
In this article, we introduce talk number two: a discussion between designer Hitoshi Suzuki and award-winning photographer Go Itami, whose connection with SIGMA cameras (Go Itami uses a SIGMA sd Quattro H) began after Hitoshi Suzuki’s persuasion. The discussion is headlined “About Photography. About Cameras.”
1 Flatness and noise
Hiroshi Suzuki: The show that you are holding at KG+ is already the second “photocopy” exhibition, is that right?
Go ItamiYes, that’s true. The current exhibition, “photocopy #2”, contains photographs from Tokyo and Kanda taken in spring this year.
Suzuki: You will notice this when you have a look at Go Itami’s works. Half of it looks very flat, on first glance the images could be mistaken for photocopies.
Suzuki: There are photographers who believe that narrative elements have no place in photography. On the other hand, there’s the idea that, “all photographs have the same value”, popularized by Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira and others in the 1970s. As far as I see it, you are currently pushing hard the point that there is no difference in value between live photographs and copies.
Itami: Yes, that’s right.
Suzuki: Actually, for his “Accident” series Daido Moriyama copied one of those “Drive Safely” posters. His photograph turned out better than the actual poster. But Moriyama used a Pentax SB or something similar. Isn’t the city he could capture with that camera completely different to what you could shoot these days?
Itami: Yes, I agree. The volume of information is constantly increasing, and cameras, too, are always improving. The photographs that are possible today are decisively different. If you shot according to photographic principles of the past, you would still end up with very different results.
Suzuki: You prefer to shoot in cities in Japan, is that right?
Itami: Yes, I’ve tried shooting in foreign cities as well, but once I’m there I find myself simply unable to photograph. Paris, for example, just seems so clean to me. There’s no ‘noise’. I just don’t get the feeling that I need to photograph something. Tokyo, on the other hand, is an almost vulgar city. It consists of nothing but noise. You could say that my desire to photograph only manifests itself when I’m in Japan.
Suzuki: Cities in Japan are so varied, have so many layers to them, and that gets your engine going?
Itami: Yes, that’s a good description.
Suzuki: To be quite honest, your photographs do not look to me as if they contain any noise at all…
Itami: No, it’s quite the opposite.
Suzuki: On first glance, your photographs have an extreme flatness to them, but if you look at them closely, there are fine details to discover: ripples on the water or beautifully blurred cherry blossoms. I would describe your photographs as extremely two-dimensional images which seem to capture single moments, and I think the truly outstanding achievement of your photography is that it captures time.
By the way, the ripples on the water and that bokeh, was that taken with a SIGMA camera?
Itami: Yes. I never figured out how to use the SIGMA DP2x (released in May 2011) I bought first. The development software was too difficult to use, the camera’s autofocus too slow, fixing the colors too cumbersome. I became frustrated and used a different camera. Then, at some point you showed me material regarding SIGMA’s image quality. Still not quite convinced, I decided to buy a new SIGMA camera, and when I developed the images I was very surprised. On the monitor I could see everything that I wanted to see in my photographs.
As I kept using the camera, I became convinced that I could not take my photographs with any other camera but SIGMA’s. This was just after I had won the award from the Japanese Society of Photography (in 2015), not even three years ago.
I’d never agree to do product endorsements where I harp on about some product I was given, so… this talk event and all these positive things I keep saying, I don’t really enjoy it (laughs). But it’s a fact that SIGMA takes photographs that aren’t possible with any other camera, and that point is important to stress.
Suzuki: And since then you’ve been using SIGMA?
Itami: Yes. First I bought the dp3 Quattro. Usually I use with the macro lenses about 60 to 75mm long, slightly more than normal focal length (50mm). The focal length of the dp3 was equivalent to 75mm – just perfect for me.
Suzuki: Even so, you use a different camera for work assignments, don’t you?
Itami: Right now I’m using Sony, yes. The image quality of the SIGMA is just incredible, and I need it for my art, but it takes time to develop the pictures. When I work as a photographer, it’s not uncommon for me to work in difficult conditions where it becomes necessary to shoot a lot of images with high efficiency. Which camera I use depends on the conditions.
2 The camera and the body
Suzuki: Back to “photocopy”. One peculiarity that sets it apart from other series is the fact that most of the images were taken in portrait orientation. I would guess you used a focal length of about 60mm?
Itami: Yes, that’s right, all the images are in portrait orientation. The focal length I used was 65mm. These days I’m using the 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art on my sd Quattro H, which works out to a 65mm equivalent focal length – a slight bit longer than normal.
Suzuki: When I think of color photographs taken in portrait orientation, I think of Takuma Nakahira in his final years. He used a 105mm lens on his Canon F1 then.
Itami: With 105mm, you are going to shoot only what you want to shoot. It is a little too long for me. If you use a long focal length, then you have to work with a very tight image composition for your subject. Of course, Nakahira made that deliberate choice for himself, but those photographs are not the kind of photos I want to shoot at the moment. I prefer a wider focal length. With roughly 70mm, a little ‘noise’ makes it into the image in addition to what I want to shoot. To me, that’s ideal.
Itami: It goes without saying that I have been heavily influenced by the Japanese master photographers, Takuma Nakahira, Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki and so on. But there’s a certain reason why I chose to shoot in portrait orientation.
In the beginning, I was shooting horizontally, using a film camera, the Pentax 67. I’m showing my age here but I was strongly influenced by Masafumi Sanai’s photography. Whenever I shot horizontal photographs, they kind of looked like Sanai’s. Looking for ways to free myself of this, I also tried shooting in portrait orientation – long, thin photographs. These photos were very difficult to frame and rather cumbersome to shoot, all in all. I decided that I would accept that difficulty.
Suzuki: Ah, I see.
Itami: Around the time, Nakahira made a comeback with “hysteric Six Nakahira Takuma” and Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographs made it over to Japan. I suddenly had more opportunities to look at 35mm photography taken in portrait orientation. I’m not sure if you could really call it ‘my style’, but after the door had been opened, I thought it interesting to explore what I could find in the depths of this approach, and so I forced myself to shoot vertical using 35mm film.
With landscape orientation, pictures tend to take on an air of self-importance, as if you were looking at things objectively. If you shoot in portrait mode, suddenly something is missing left and right. I had a feeling that this made for more interesting photographs.
Suzuki: This reminds me – you know Daido Moriyama sometimes says quite surprising statements. One thing that left an impression on me is his line that “photography is a vertical medium.”
Itami: Are you serious?
Suzuki: Also, “I hate wide angles”.
Itami: You must be joking? (laughs) I almost can’t believe it.
Suzuki: Well, he is not shooting wide anymore, is he? Recently it has become more of a medium distance.
Itami: “How do you decide how to compose your photographs?”, I asked him once, hoping for advice. “By feel”, is all he said. (laughs)
Suzuki: SIGMA cameras have many strong points, but there are situations they are not ideal for. I would love to hear how you took snaps in the streets. Did you use a tripod?
Itami: I didn’t use a tripod, no. I need the camera to feel like a part of my body, I always carry it in my hands. As I’ve said, I became a photographer because I admired Moriyama and others so much. I have a lot of sympathy for anyone who tries to create with a camera in their hands. So, I usually shoot handheld, too.
Suzuki: I understand.
Itami: Apart from that I don’t do anything special. If I see something that interests me, I point my camera at it and press the shutter button. There’s nothing special about it.
But my approach to photography is to concentrate on copying what’s before me, accurately and detailed, as truly as possible to what I am seeing.
I choose gear that helps me accomplish this as faithfully as possible. It is a bit paradoxical, but the more thoroughly I can capture what’s in front of my eyes–even if I can’t see it at close range—the stronger the impression that I can impart on the viewers and thereby stimulate their senses. I actually think this is one of photography’s unique strengths.
In short, in order to copy the world as truthfully and faithfully as possible, it’s a matter of the highest priority for my photography that I choose high-end camera gear.
Suzuki: Whether you shoot film or digital, any photograph you record needs to pass through your lens and through the camera body. It follows that different gear should give birth to different results, right? If we focus on that aspect, that we photograph through a device, then inevitably there are things in each photograph that are beyond your control. As far as I understand, for you, a camera that also photographs stuff you did not intend to shoot is just ideal, isn’t it?
Itami: Yes, that’s exactly how I see it.
Suzuki: So the image composition, the focus and so on are how you intend to shoot, but then something that is beyond your intentions should also enter the picture?
Itami: Yes. When I take photographs, it is a reaction in that moment regarding what I am looking at: “I want to photograph this”. It is almost like a sport, because I rely on an intuitive impulse. I don’t contemplate anything. Most importantly, it is a question of how purely I am able to shoot whatever my body is reacting towards.
Then, when I look at the results on the monitor, they surprise me—that’s what it looks like! How detailed the photo turned out! At that point, I do stuff like cropping or fixing image noise, the angle and so on. Every time I develop my images, I think about and agree with what Daido Moriyama once said: “developing is photographing for the second time”.
3 Everything becomes a photo vs. nothing goes
Suzuki: You told me you develop your images at 200% magnification.
Itami: Yes. I haven’t been able to work with large printouts lately. Instead I enlarge the images by 200%. There’s too little detail at their original size.
Suzuki: Do you ever wonder how you happened to take certain photographs?
Itami: Hmm. All I really do is walk around carrying my camera.
Suzuki: For example, how did you take this picture?
Itami: There’s a large building near Tokyo Central Station, and when it is hit by the setting sun, its glass facade acts like a prism. Everything in the area shines in rainbow colors. If you want to know how I came to take that picture, I can tell you – a friend called me and told me to meet up there. The moment I saw him, it already looked like the photograph here. I told him, “stay right there for a moment”, and took the picture. That’s all.
Suzuki: Moriyama once said that he becomes excited when he photographs. How is it for you?
Itami: It’s not like that for me. I remain largely unaffected. I often listen to music—I walk around and photograph while listening to music on my headphones. There are days when I am able to ‘see’ and days when I’m not. While there are days when everything I see looks like photographs to me, there are also days when nothing happens at all. I guess you could say I have days when I can get into the spirit and others when I can’t.
Suzuki: When you say you can ‘see’, what do you mean?
Itami: I don’t know. I’m not trying to make myself seem more interesting, but sometimes, something just clicks in me when I take the first photograph of the day. On those days, everything I see becomes a photograph.
Suzuki: That’s peculiar.
Itami: It is peculiar.
Suzuki: You and me, we own the very same camera, and yet I could never take photographs like you do (laughs). I find it fascinating how you can take photographs like that.
Itami: I think it’s because I only shoot with natural light. People often ask me, “did you shoot that in a studio? How did you set up your lights? Did you do a lot of post-processing?” But I almost exclusively use natural light and hardly ever fix anything in post.
I do, of course, experiment with fine adjustments – image noise, sharpness and so on – in SIGMA’s RAW development software, but I’ve never done image manipulation. If you’ve got natural light—nice, strong light—your photographs end up looking like this. I think the difference lies in whether your body shows a reaction or not.
Suzuki: Could you give us a demonstration of how you develop your images?
Itami: Yes, gladly. Be warned, though – I’m using my own PC; the software is a bit slow. (laughs)
(Go Itami demonstrates his developing process using SIGMA Photo Pro)
Itami: Usually, I’ve got a 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art lens attached to my sd Quattro H. Recently I’ve also been shooting with the 135㎜ F1.8 DG HSM | Art. It’s a very good lens. Whenever I find new brilliant gear, I just want to use it all the time, so lately I’ve been shooting with this set-up regardless of conditions. The focal length is equivalent to 200mm—very long—which limits the photographs I can take with it. I’ve had to change my shooting style. I have actually adapted my photography to the gear I’m using.
Suzuki: As a general rule, newer gear performs better, doesn’t it?
Itami: Yes. With the evolution and spread of digital cameras, manufacturers are forced to create products with high megapixel images in mind. I think SIGMA found the best approach to answer these demands.
Suzuki: Some regard SIGMA a perfect choice when it comes to creating photobooks. Another application I can think of is digital archives of art museums. With the amount of visual information that SIGMA cameras soak in, I reckon the images would be sufficient for future needs, too.
Itami: That’s true. Have you heard about the large-size scanners they’ve developed recently? They’re especially used in Tokyo – they build special frames and then a gigantic scanner moves around and is able to scan national treasures without touching it. In the end, SIGMA cameras produce a different image quality due to the mechanism of the sensor. They’re just different in principle.
Itami: I held the first “photocopy” exhibition in Tokyo in March, and among the visitors was the artist Tadashi Yamamoto. He looked at the prints and asked me, “what did you use to shoot these?.” There is a visible difference to SIGMA’s photos, isn’t there? When I told him I use a SIGMA camera, he was surprised. “I use high-end gear by a different maker but that can’t produce images like this”, he said.Then, the next time he came to the exhibition, there was a SIGMA camera hanging around his neck. Apparently he said, “after seeing Go Itami’s exhibition, I switched to SIGMA”…
Suzuki: So you are an actual SIGMA missionary. (laughs)
Itami: I have done my part for the cause. (laughs)
Born in Tokyo in 1950. Edited the critical design magazine d/SIGN together with Tsutomu Toda (2001-2011). Visiting scholar at the Kobe Design University. Book publications include “Gamen no Tanjou (‘The Birth of Images’)” (2002), “Pe-ji to Chikara (‘Page and Power’)” (2002), “Juuryoku no dezain (‘The Design of Gravity’)” (2007), “Dezain no Tane (‘The Seeds of Design’)” (together with Tsutomu Toda, Japanese, 2015), “Zettai Heimentoshi (Plane City)” (together with Daido Moriyama, 2016), “The Life and Views of Book Designer Hitoshi Suzuki” (Japanese, 2017) and more.
Born in 1976 in Tokushima Prefecture. Recipient of the 27th Canon New Cosmos of Photography Award in 2004. Photobook publications include “study”, “study / copy / print”, “this year’s model” (all published by Rondade) as well as the self- published “Mazime”. His latest work “photocopy” was almost exclusively shot with the SIGMA sd Quattro H and the SIGMA dp3 Quattro.