4 A sense for the invisible
Suzuki: I would like to hear your photography methods while we look at some of your artworks. You have told me that with “photocopy”, the photographs are arranged in a different way in each single copy of the book.
Itami: Yes. The first edition has a run of 1000 copies, and while each book includes the same photographs, they’re arranged in a different order each time. Why, you may ask. Even though I have taken all of the photographs separately, why should they suddenly take on a narrative element when they’re turned into a photobook? I thought it would be interesting to create a photobook without this arbitrary process. If you align photographs in a certain order, then inevitably that arrangement gives birth to some sort of meaning. And so I changed the order of all photographs. We decided that we would abstain from influencing the viewer’s opinion or impose my intent through structure.
Suzuki: How was this copy of the book ordered?
Itami: This particular one is sorted by file names. There are also some photographs taken with other cameras than SIGMA’s. Some were taken with a Nikon D800E, Pentax 645 or K-1.
Suzuki: An astonishing photo!
Itami: I like it a lot, too. It took a lot of time to select the photographs for this book. I printed about 700 photographs and studied them very closely together with my editor. At first, I found myself going into a difficult direction, where the images make sense in the context of Japanese photography, but lose meaning without it, sort of. Discussing the book with my editor, we decided not to rely on meaning or context in order to make the images accessible to a larger audience, and eventually ended up with this approach.
Itami: This area here, where raindrops turn into lines and bounce around – I think it’s only possible to shoot this with SIGMA. It’s the first time I’ve seen something like this.
Suzuki: The framing is interesting as well, isn’t it?
Itami: I think it almost looks like an ukiyo painting.
Suzuki: There is no center.
Itami: You’re right. The question is, do you put it bang into the middle or do you drop it? I guess that blank spaces and margins somehow find their way into my photography.
Itami: For this image, I displayed a photograph of mine on a monitor, and then took a photo of the blue balloon in it. I’ve put an acrylic piece in front of the monitor, in the form of a “T”, and another object on top of that. It’s got a strong three-dimensional texture to it, almost like an optical illusion. Then, I turned it flat again by taking another photograph of it.
Suzuki: Listening to your explanations, for a moment it sounds like composite photography.
Itami: Mmh. With composites, you start with an image and you kind of apply things to it. But in my case it’s different. I am always collecting materials and objects that I like, without a specific purpose in mind. I buy them in DIY stores or souvenir shops and keep them at home. And when I feel like it, I arrange them until I find what I want. I don’t have a finished image in mind when I begin. It’s just like taking snapshots, I am inspired by coincidence.
Suzuki: The objects and items become a scenery.
Itami: Yes, that’s good.
Suzuki: And as soon as you think they resemble a scene, you take a photograph…?
Itami: Yes. Moriyama and Araki sometimes photograph stuff inside their houses, don’t they? I think this is probably not too different. There are moments when things just look like a photograph. However, if you asked me how to make these moments appear…
Suzuki: It is similar to photographing in the streets, when the countless people and cars suddenly meet to create a scene in the moment you are present to take a photo.
Itami: This one really is a gift of coincidence. The car just happened to cross the moment I took the photograph. It’s not a particularly interesting location. Whether the car is there or not makes for entirely different photographs.
In that regard, while I don’t really like the expression itself, hasn’t Nobuyoshi Araki talked about “this world” and “the other world”? I think he said how we’re on this side of the divide, that there’s another one beyond, and that photographs can sometimes show us a glimpse of it.
I say that my photographs are “copies of the reality in front of me” but in this case, I’m almost afraid to say, there’s a part of me that thinks, “maybe we can see that other world here”.
Suzuki: You get a sense from the photo that everything is subject to change, almost like a premonition of death.
Itami: Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.
Suzuki: It is correctly exposed, and it is not exactly a dark photograph, but you still get this feeling of constant change from it. The ripples on the water, the reflection there – they will never happen again…
Itami: Until recently, I think that I have largely tried to hide these things. While I’m adamant to shoot exactly what I see in front of me, I have always been sensing and believing in another world. That’s why I have come to shoot photographs some call “graphical”. But this time it simply happened, and I couldn’t hide it.
Suzuki: Do you think that is another feature of SIGMA cameras? That they simply capture everything, without mercy?
Itami: No, you’re right. They’re ruthless cameras.
Suzuki: It is all up to the eye of the machine. It doesn’t matter who is behind and in front of the camera, whatever is being photographed becomes connected to some kind of afterworld. Even if humanity ceases to be, this world will continue to exist, will continue to change. That’s the kind of atmosphere I feel from this picture.
Suzuki: Light, too – the photographs tells of the fact that these precise light conditions will never appear again. And there, once you think about this, you end up feeling the unstoppable beat of time, the inevitable end of living things.
Itami: The snow landscapes here have all been taken in Niigata Prefecture.
Suzuki: Have you photographed these at [designer] Shin Akiyama’s place by any chance?
Itami: Yes. I couldn’t decide how to finish the photobook, but I knew I wanted to photograph snow for the ending. I went to Akiyama’s place when there was heavy snowfall, so I shot the final part there.
Suzuki: Did you decide on the photographs for the book at his place, too?
Itami: This time, only my editor Osamu Sakuma and I decided on the order. We didn’t tell Akiyama which kind of photographs we’ll use for the book until very late in the process. However, we kept explaining to Akiyama what kind of book we wanted to make and he designed the book without having a single look at the photographs. The whole project was a conversation between designer, editor and artist, it was quite exciting.
Itami: Now look at this one.
Suzuki: There’s a middle ground to the image which begins very near to the camera. There is so much detail in everything. And all of it is captured with equal attention.
Itami: Yes, that’s right.
Suzuki: If we were to compare these two images and choose which one is more impressive, it would be impossible to decide. It depends entirely on the preferences of the viewer. This feeling that the images would withstand anyone’s gaze, that you shot them without holding back, is of decisive importance.
Itami: Yes. Again, I haven’t taken it in a particular way or with any specific goal in mind. It really is just what the lens on my camera captured. For example, the texture of the lingering snow there.
Itami: In this photograph, you can see every detail of the fabric, even the space between the threads. It’s a bit easier to see in the exhibition, but you can even tell apart single strands of hair. This part here – it seems as if there’s nothing here at all. It’s the first time I’ve tried shooting in this manner.
There’s such a strong, strange feeling in this picture that time has stopped. To me this is a shot of the other world.
This is an artwork from the exhibition, and it’s difficult to tell if you haven’t seen the actual print, but I hadn’t noticed that she was applying make-up until I developed the image. Look, you can see her red mascara and the eyeliner. I didn’t see this until I had printed the photograph.
Itami: Here, too, you can see the textures of her clothes.
Suzuki: But there is only a very slim moment’s chance to take such photo, is there not? I find it fascinating that you were able to shoot this.
Suzuki: Now this is a very interesting photograph.
Itami: It’s one of very few photos I shot with an open aperture.
Suzuki: The detail!
Itami: Even with open aperture, the lens renders so well. I think I have taken this with the dp3 Quattro. This photo is part of the exhibition, too, so please try and see it for yourself if you have the chance. Ah, it renders so well, really.
Suzuki: It does pay off to take your time when photographing.
Itami: This is an image you could almost split into four parts. It’s very easy to understand what I mean.
Suzuki: Are there people in it?
Itami: Yes, there are. If you consider the fact that I captured all of this with a simple click of the shutter button, you once again realize the impressive power of the camera. Fundamentally, I believe that it’s the camera that shoots the photos; everything else depends on the reaction of my body. As long as I am able to react, the camera will do the rest. Afterwards, I just want to be surprised by the results.
Suzuki: Considering that this is a four-part image for which you had to pay attention to many things at once, I can only say I find it amazing that you could react to the sudden appearance of a person somewhere in the frame. Is that a skill you can acquire through practice, I wonder?
Itami: I don’t think you can get there with practice alone. I don’t know. I was shooting this photo without much care. To tell you the truth––look here, if you enlarge this part, you can see people cowering doing work. Anything you photograph, whether it is people or things or whatever, all of it has equal value. It is exciting to find these things later, when you look at the images on a monitor. It’s the most interesting part to me.
Suzuki: It is a cycle, isn’t it? Discover what you photographed on the monitor and learn from it. Then, the next time you shoot, this knowledge becomes a part of your eyesight, your skill to react.
Itami: Yes. “Photocopy” is a collection of these reactions.
5 The charm of photobooks
Suzuki: What is a photobook to you? What’s the difference to an exhibition?
Itami: When I take photographs, I intend to eventually use them in photobooks. Exhibitions are entirely different to me. I just noticed this the other day, but I have never taken photographs to show them in an exhibition. I have been most heavily influenced by photographs, and I guess a part of me just became fixated on them.
Suzuki: But with photobooks, isn’t it the most exciting part of their creation to decide on the order of the images and paginate them? Yet with “photocopy”, you completely…—
Itami: — yes, I avoided that completely.
Suzuki: How many photobooks had you published before this one, again?
Itami: This is my third photobook. The one that won the award by the Japanese Society of Photography was the first I had made with Akiyama—
Suzuki: —“this year’s model”, was it?
Itami: Yes. The title, very directly, means “this is what is cool this year”. The second album of Elvis Costello, one of my favorite musicians, was called “this year’s model”. I always liked the sound of that title. I guess I’ve copied it as a kind of homage. (laughs)
Costello appeared at the height of the punk movement, and I think the title was an ironic remark on trends and how fast they’ll be out of fashion again.
I published “this year’s model” at a time when the number of smaller, independent publishers began to increase and it became possible to publish photobooks even if you weren’t a major artist.
Mass media and influential awards included, there was a certain consumption of talent. I wondered, “why are these trends this year’s fashion? Soon it’ll be something else entirely, won’t it?”, and, with some irony, chose the name for my photobook.
Suzuki: With “photocopy”, you again chose a rather straightforward title.
Itami: Yes. The word “Copy” by itself would have been okay as well, I think. When I went a place like Kinko’s in America, I saw they used the labels “Print” and “Photocopy” there, and I learned “photocopy” is the term used for copies made with a copy machine. When you use a flatbed scanner to scan something, it will scan everything that is on the glass without prejudice – whether it’s your image or manuscript or dust or dirt. What I am doing is just the same. The flatbed scanner works by moving its scanning element up and down; I stand upright and scan with the camera in my hand. Couldn’t that also be called “photocopying” I wondered, and that’s why I chose this title.
Suzuki: At which point in the photographing process do you feel “now I have a photobook”? How do you decide that you will collect and publish your photos as a single artwork with a common title?
Itami: It’s difficult. I don’t really know the precise conditions myself.
I have a routine, though. After a day of shooting I transfer the photos to my computer, mark all images that I like, develop them, and then save them in Dropbox.
If you keep doing this day after day, after a certain while you end up with thousands of photographs. Since I put all images into Dropbox, I’m able to look at the photos even when I’m on the move, on my mobile phone. I look through all of these photos again and again. Naturally, you understand which photos simply don’t survive being looked at. I delete these, and, repeating this process again and again, I slowly build up a catalogue. Once I have about 50 images which kind of ‘click’ with me, I begin to see the faint outlines of a photobook.
Suzuki: Earlier, during my seminar, I mentioned that an 80-page monochrome photobook with 500 copies can be created for less than 5000 dollar. The truth is that it is quite exhausting to gather enough photographs for 80 pages, isn’t it?
Itami: Yes. Taking 80 pages of photographs that survive the gaze of an audience is very difficult.
Suzuki: Even if you include a few two-page spreads, you will need about photographs.
Even counting two-page spread photos; in the end you’ll need about 50 photographs. 50 photographs that resonate with you. Even if you are resolved to shoot these images, you can’t just go out and photograph them, you also need something to photograph.
Suzuki: Do you already have ideas for your next work?
Itami: I’ve been shooting the same style of images in Tokyo for ten years now. While part of me thinks I could continue for a little longer, I also wonder if I can still create works in this way that excite me… Of course, I could still shoot in this style, but I also want to see things I haven’t seen before. Perhaps I’ve fully explored the concept with “photocopy”. I think the time may be right for me to try out a new creative channel. Up until now, I’ve had a certain style, and perhaps I relied on it more than I should have.But I possess a number of creative channels now, and my sensibilities have widened. I now have to make a choice whenever I encounter something worth capturing. I think it would be interesting if I tried to turn all of that into photographs. I have the feeling that if I were to change my style, now would be a good time to do so. But I’m still experimenting.
Suzuki: The performance of SIGMA’s sensor is outstanding, but I wonder what will happen on a wider scale? As outstanding as the cameras may be, are photographers throughout the world going to start using them, are they going to master them? What do you think?
Itami: I think it depends entirely on the individual photographer. Personally, even though it comes with certain disadvantages, considering my quasi-monopolist position part of me would prefer it if only few people started using SIGMA. (laughs)
Suzuki: The same way favorite restaurants are best kept secret?
Itami: Yep, precisely. (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.