I have a book sitting next to me called “Regarding Heroes.” It’s the gallery book for a show of Yousuf Karsh’s work. What it makes it incredibly dear to me is that in it is a note from Estrellita Karsh. It was a unexpected gift from Mrs. Karsh and one that I treasure.
I can’t say that it is pristine. It’s starting to get a little worn around the edges. That’s what happens when you don’t leave it on the shelf I suppose.
We have known Kate (Kate has known us?)… well we’ve been friends for a while. She reminded me yesterday that it has been 11 years. That’s a long time. But, I’ve never photographed her solo.
The other day I started getting a pang of something. Something emotional, something that I had to put together, something I had to explore. Karsh, but something else.
For me Karsh is more than a style or an image. It is an approach to photography, an approach to interacting with your subject, and a certain amount of self respect. If you know his history you know he is a survivor of the Armenian genocide. An immigrant to the United States he learned his craft in Boston. I don’t know if it was the same neighborhood I used to live in but it may have been (near the MFA). From the interviews I have seen he was known for his demeanor and style during a shoot. He was a craftsman and an artist.
In many respects I feel as though we are at the beginning of the road of our work. We have reached a level of technical competence. But, now is where we practice nuance.
Yesterday Kate stopped by in the afternoon. We sat across from each other and tried not to laugh too much. This was the most time we’ve ever spent looking at each other. Well, mostly me looking at Kate and her looking alternately at me and an imaginary point.
There are number of technical things that I did differently in this shoot than from other shoots. Nuances of change. I started with something I liken to Karsh (take no offense – I know it’s sort of like saying I started with a dutch master) and move through light and shadow to something I had been trying to picture in my head.
Since this is something we were just doing for us there is no real beginning or end. It wasn’t good or bad, right or wrong. I haven’t really absorbed it and these are just the images that jumped out at me. There is something more here to explore. So, I guess it is a beginning. Thanks Kate!
If you know Kate and didn’t recognize her in the earlier photos this last one on the left is sure to ring a bell. That’s Kate.
It was a day like many others. But, it being May the bugs joined the party. I only spent a little time out in the woods. But, a lovely time it was.
Mostly new faces to me and yet as warm and friendly as ever.
This is Jeff. Jeff, and all the guys, seemed to not fear the sun. I left before I saw who won that battle. I wasn’t hopeful, but you never know.
This climber (whose lovely name I am blanking on) is a philosopher and a German speaker. I think she may have mentioned being from Northern Germany? Mostly because I have been using an app to study german I was able to use 4 of my 10 words of German. Two of them were gender specific derivatives of the same word. I’m not proud… or tired.
The other friendly German climber I met had two little enthusiastic friends with her. These two chocolate cuties were really well behaved. They had names that have origins in the land of more sheep than people (think flightless birds and rugby).
This is what potential energy looks like.
I can feel the heat of the sun. It was a warm one.
He has worked as a freelance photographer. Like me – he likes being on my side of the camera more.
He’s visiting from Chicago. Now, that could mean he works at Kelloggs I think. Or is that Kraft? But, this day was his first day climbing. Ever. A beautiful thing.
Hydration is key. I left long before the heat became an issue for me. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the fellas felt the burn. So, for my hour or two out in the sun it was a good one. Bug spray helped. Chatting with people got me going. Next time I’ll put in more of a day. But, it was good one. My thanks as always to the climbers.
Technical notes: all film, all day. Light weight – 35mm.
(a little travel journal video / behind the scenes)
We were off to Japan. There are a lot of facets to this trip (the main one involving our ongoing Tohoku / Fukushima project) but we were hoping – really hoping – to get in one day of climbing photography as well. The stars must align!
We lugged over a lot of gear – roughly half of it was just for the off-chance we got to shoot climbing. It was a bit of a long shot from the get-go but we were were all-in. We were ready for it if the chance presented itself. We shoot climbing mostly with film gear so it was a real weight commitment. I’m not whining. Mostly.
We only had 1 day that could really work for climbing photos – anything else and we would have to rearrange our schedule. It’s a story for another day, but we also visited my family’s ancestral temple, the home temple for Zen Buddhism in Fukui. Our window for climbing was severely limited.
We arrived Friday with a bang: suitcase damaged, replaced on-site, but time consuming. Got home in time to sleep. The next day, we headed straight out to 3 or 4 camera shops spread across Yokohama and Tokyo. We needed to get film for our bouldering shoot and also explore some back-up lighting options in case the suitcase incident caused unforeseen issues with our primary lighting (we had one backup but we like having a plan C).
I called Hiro, a climber I had met for a few minutes a couple of years ago out in the woods. He had found our site online and with that we were able to get in touch. He kindly offered to act as a guide to Mitake for us. I liked the idea of traveling in with someone partially because it is also a guarantee that you will get to photograph at least one person.
It was an early start but jet-lag was on our side. We got out the door sometime before 7:30am and got to Mitake around 9:30am. Hiro hadn’t been as lucky getting out the door and he had left me a message saying he had overslept. Apparently he rented a car to try and scoot in (at some expense) and got stuck in traffic instead. Not a big deal – we puttered around the station area until he arrived. I also misread his text and didn’t realize he was driving, so I was waiting with eager anticipation every time a train arrived. Such is life. It was a beautiful morning.
Truth be told I prefer partially cloudy days (or even overcast) for climbing photography. I’m not really shooting epic landscape shots – we’re documenting the intimate and mundane. We’re interested in the culture of climbing – the people and what they bring with them to the woods.Mitake is a place in Tokyo Prefecture (like NY state vs. city) that is easily accessible via public transportation. The area is a mecca for day hikers and outdoor sports. The river is beautiful and bitterly cold. I know this because when I was in 8th grade I camped a little further up the river for a school trip and I think I still have some frozen brain cells from jumping in that river… also, a distaste for poorly cooked corned beef.
Hiro rolled in with his rental car and we headed off to “Dead End.” I may be totally off on these names – my brain was jet-lagged when Hiro told them to me. We jumped in, found parking (where a noted stray cat lives), and walked a few minutes into the woods.
A bunch of people were hanging out. It’s like every other time I’ve walked in to a group of people (except more so). I announced my intentions. Everyone was cool so I began working my way in. It was pretty quiet considering how many people were there.My beautiful overcast sky had turned into my clear blue noon-time enemy. Not the end of the world but not my ideal. Still, we’re in the woods and for the most part shaded by trees. Also, I was shooting climbing in Japan so what the hell did I have to complain about.
My spoken language skills are sufficient for daily life in Japan. But, I don’t think I’ve written anything in years (with a pen instead of a computer). At least a couple of the climbers were deaf so when I asked them about shooting their portraits I suddenly realized that I needed a different way to communicate. Pen and paper in hand thankfully they could interpret my abstract stylization of a written language. Also, they were super friendly and patient which helped.
Climbers in Japan were very much like any other climbers I’ve met except for 2 things. They were quieter when people were on the wall. No French or Spanish or English encouragement was propelling them up the wall or reminding them to breathe. Instead they were left to their own devices. I think it’s a mixed blessing. I don’t think I would enjoy everyone with an opinion talking to me but at the same time it was almost a touch somber. It could have been this day and this place. I’m curious to see more.
The other thing we found fascinating what that basically everyone was wearing some Crocs derivative. I asked about it and it’s because they are easy to slip on over climbing shoes – allowing you to basically never take them off. They were everywhere. Universal.Japan has its own climbing difficulty rating system that follows a format similar to martial arts. Someone explained the system conversion to western V numbers for me but I don’t remember it. You can find it on Wikipedia if you to read it sometime.
Not surprisingly, the food was different. No avocados that I saw. But, plenty of onigiri (stuff rice balls). Onigiri are the bomb. We love some “sea chicken mayo” onigiri. It may sound gross but it’s the best thing ever and most of the reason we have managed to survive many travels to Japan. The genre of food (many different stuffing options available) is the perfect travel companion.
We did eat pizza this day though. There was a little Italian restaurant overlooking the river. I was planning on a 7-11 meal (which are actually delicious in Japan) but going all the way back there and then over to the next place would take too long. Instead, good pizza and good convo were had. We traversed through one of the many mountain tunnels, which I never knew were walkable, to our next location.The day was in full swing though the light was beginning to fade (as was our energy). By 3pm you want to take a nap with the jet lag. By 10pm you want to give up life. You’ll give your right arm for some sleep. But you must persevere and we did.
When we walked out of there we were psyched. Despite the weather looking really questionable the day had worked out. We honestly didn’t think we would get the chance as the weather and timing just weren’t going in our favor. But, the magic happened. Our gear had survived. We had taken climbing photos. They really just scratch the surface and I think we could do more and better. But that’s for next time. My thanks to all the climbers but especially Hiro, whose participation gave us the push to make it happen.
(photo Mar. 2016) We are back from Japan!
5 years ago an earthquake 1000 times more powerful than the 1989 San Francisco earthquake struck off the coast of Tohoku, Japan. Skyscrapers hundreds of miles away swayed and tremendous damage was caused. But, it would be the ocean itself that would change the lives of the coastal communities forever. The tsunami that swept over the land, crushing towns for miles and sweeping up rivers, through villages which couldn’t even see the sea, would kill thousands and lay waste to whole communities. These fishing communities were already struggling with an aging population and changing way of life. Now, those that remained were pushed out.
I felt helpless here in the US as the images of Japan crossed my screen on that March day. My family, living in Japan, was safe, but even they were not unaffected so many hundreds of miles from the epicenter. I travelled through Tohoku with the help of family and family friends.(photo Jun. 2011) My parents started an organization to help the teachers who had previously participated in the teacher exchange program they had developed as an offshoot of the Fulbright program. Their focus, and what would become mine, was on the future of the communities that had been affected. These teachers would become my guides into Tohoku then and now.
(photo Mar. 2016) We are just back from our third time visiting the region. Massive construction projects reshape the land and the future is as uncertain as it has ever been. Tens of thousands of people are still living in temporary housing (of the style shown above – each door represents a family) as construction of new housing has been a messy, complex process. Short-terms goals conflict with long-term progress. It is a story we will continue to cover for many years to come. But, soon we will be sharing some of those stories with you.
(photo Mar. 2016) For now, giant walls are being built. These walls may or may not stop the next tsunami. But, they will forever change the way the communities interact with the ocean. As one fisherman said to us (paraphrasing from memory – photo above): “I can see your face and we can understand each other. For fisherman that seascape is the face of the ocean. I can see it and understand it. Without the view we are cut off from that communication.”
(photo Mar. 2016) The new sea walls are just one aspect of a much larger story of the rebuilding of the Tohoku coast (top photo). It is the story of communities and individuals who are trying to do what is best and struggling with it. But, it is not all doom and gloom. The people we have met have been vibrant characters and not shy. We have great hopes for the future of Tohoku; it is a beautiful place. We are starting the process of going the images we captured and hope to soon share some of the stories. Please leave us a note and check back!
Dear Winter Climber,
You’re really pretty and I’ve been watching you for a while. I take pictures of you when you’re not looking and sometimes post them online on my blog. Wait. Let me start this over.
Since sometime in March of 2008, I’ve been taking a camera into the woods and walking into random groups of people and interjecting myself into their weekend escape. Some years I’ve only gone out once or twice. For a while there I was flirting with digital. But, don’t worry, I’m back.
It is an escape for both of us. I know I should probably post more magazine work or commercial photography. But, it’s on this dirty playground in the woods that I explore new ideas and old techniques.
The one constant since I started and now is that climbers have been almost uniformly friendly. This random dude who doesn’t climb walking up to them in the woods and asking to take pictures is not given the hairy eyeball too often.
These days it’s a bit funnier because I’ll get reactions like I did on Saturday (Wait, what was that sound? Film?!). I started this project with film at a time when it was already feeling a bit scarce and now…now it’s sort of back in vogue in its own way. But, I’m not shooting it for nostalgic reasons. I’m shooting it because it the best tool for the job.
Oh, winter climber, you’re an expensive date. This film business takes some dough out of my pocket every time I click that shutter. But, you’re so worth it. I try to play it cool but what you may not know is that there is a lot of guesswork happening. I’m shooting action in manual focus, I’m riding the ISO settings to push and pull the exposure around, and I’m making wild (educated) guesses shooting into the sun. But you like the wild – right winter climber? Heck, I think you appreciate the analog nature of what I’m doing out there.
While you do your thing and feed me on occasion, I’m building my muscle memory. I’m also capturing some amazing people in the prime of their lives.
See, in the short run I am excited about our relationship and where it’s going. I get to practice and share with you some of the results. But, in the long run – that’s the real thing. Someday you and I are going to go our separate ways. We’ll lose touch and drift outward and down the long path.
Somewhere down that road will be a show of my work and an archive of the community I am capturing. 10 years, 20 years, 50 years down the road we’re going to laugh at the good times and the happy memories when we’re too old to even contemplate hanging upside-down from a cold rock. Some friends will be gone and new ones made. That haircut and nut bar that seemed like such a good idea at the time will be a relic of the past.
You don’t know it but you have allowed me to learn and expand my love of photography at my own pace. You keep doing your thing winter climber and I’ll keep trying to capture it in my own way. Thanks guys.
Technical Notes: All the photos are from this past weekend. Shot on a 645 – mostly Fujifilm 160NS 220 and some 400H 120.