What is the best light for photography? Sunrise light. So a land called the Land of the Rising Sun could hardly fail to be photographer-friendly. Except that to us, photographers, Japan could also be called Canikony-land, a contraction of Canon, Nikon and Sony, the three prime manufacturers of cameras. Plus Olympus, Panasonic, Sigma, Pentax, Ricoh, Casio, Cosina/Voigtländer and Fuji thrown in for good measure. Were it not for giant Korean Samsung, all major players would be Japanese.
So what does Japan stand for, in the world of photography? A source of cameras? A country where the industry is strong because its people love taking pictures? A country with great photo opportunities? The answer is: all three. When Japan emerged from the post-second-world-war trauma and reconstruction, and the first tourists started travelling, it was easy to spot them: they had a camera. The camera and the photographer became the first cliché about the Japanese.
This is in no small measure influenced by the tremendous density of people in Japan. Travelling became a way “out” of the very crowded homeland. And photography was a hobby that let the outside world inside often minuscule dwellings, inside lives dominated by work, with almost no holidays. Tokyo all too often looks like this:
But what is true of pictures is also true, graphically, of urban parks in Japanese cities. They have a way of transporting you in a world totally removed from big-city bustle and pressure, where one can meditate in search of “satori”, the famous state and experience of Zen enlightenment. Here is one such park, shot with a Sony NEX 5N and Contax G 28mm. Does one feel in the heart of Tokyo, one of the world’s tightest-packed, busiest, most modern megalopolis?
This is an introduction to one of the key aspects of photography in Japan. Not only parks, but Japanese gardens and flowers. Where else does one see 70-year-plus old photographers shooting medium-format film cameras with unlikely lenses mounted on tripods to take pictures of flowers? Let us remember that, in Japan, the chrystanthemum is a symbol of the Imperial family, and the flower considered to be the emblem of Japan, as well as what is on its Imperial seal, to be found on Japanese passports. Here is one example from the many types of chrysanthemums, shot with a Leica R 60mm Makro on NEX 5N.Because nature predates civilisation in Japan, it only seems fit to start this series about photography in Japan with nature shots. Though, in the typically Japanese concept of “wa”, or harmony, this is a land where opposites, contrasts and paradoxes are integrated rather than screaming at each other in a fight for supremacy.
So Japan, a society as much in love with technology as any other, has also refined the art of gardening as much as any other civilisation. And this against hostile conditions. The weather is often cold, the land that is not mountainous is sparse and very densely populated, and often rocked by earhquakes that sometimes trigger what the whole world calls with a Japanese name now as well known as this other gift of Japan to the world, the sushi: a tsunami. So Japanese gardens reflect all of this, but triumph over it with enormous dedication, unfailing patience, and a tremendous attention to even the slightest detail. Doesn’t nature itself show off flowers as examples of aesthetic perfection down to the smallest detail?When I shot the above picture, with my NEX 5N mounted on a ultra-light Cullmann Nanomax 220 tripod, to say that I was an interloper among Japanese photographers is an understatement. They looked at my setup, and puked. No respect whatsoever, compared to their Bronica, Hasselblad and Contax medium format film bodies. But it did get a little better if any of them noticed my Leica R 60mm Makro lens, because in Japan, Leica and Zeiss are cult brands. Fancy that: a cult for pretty much the only non-Japanese brands…
Not all close-ups, however, in Japan are about flowers and minute gems. Here is an example from Asakusa temple, caught two different ways, in Tokyo
Of course, you can object, and rightly so, that showing Japanese minutiae without getting into the very Japanese art fo the bonsai is a serious flaw. Macro photography is a way to blow up large something small. Bonsai photography would have show something small as small, so what to show on the rest of the picture? A whole bonsai park, perhaps? Well, that is for the next instalment of this series
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