Portland, Maine Show

PortArtsEventsHoliday.jpgIf you’re going to be around Portland, Maine, in November or December, be sure to drop in to Ed Pollack’s gallery “A FINE THING” to see some of my photos, along with some of his other friends in his “Friends of ED” show.

Ed’s putting together a show of the work of his friends and I was quite touched that he asked me. I’ve known Ed for more than fifteen years and when I lived in Boston, my favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon was at Ed’s with a bottle of wine, going through the books and prints that he’d discovered that week. He’s not only a great source of knowledge on the art and artists he likes, he’s also got incredibly good taste.

Sadly, I won’t be able to make it to the show, so if you do stop by, let me know you did.

The “Throw-Away Temple”

Not far from Minowa station on the Hibiya line is a nondescript temple called 浄閑寺—Jokanji. From the street, it looks like many other Tokyo temples, but behind the new main building is an old cemetery that has one particular point of interest, a crypt and monument to twenty-five thousand prostitutes interred there. Being so close to Halloween, I was looking for a spooky story when my friend Joe mentioned the place.

I didn’t find a ghost story.

What I found instead was a very sad, shameful story about the women and girls used up by the sex industry of Japan. I’ve tried to make this story about the temple itself, but understanding the temple requires a bit of background on the times and the places involved, mainly that of Yoshiwara. This isn’t trying to be a history of Yoshiwara, as plenty of those exist. This piece is about my research into Jokanji, the Throw-Away Temple. I will add to this and make corrections as I find them. As always, I welcome any comment or criticism. There are a lot of parts I may include in the future, such as the nearby memorial associated with Nagai Kafu, a writer whose stories dealt with the lives of these women

During the Tokugawa era, in present-day Senzoku 4-chome, there was a licensed prostitution area called Yoshiwara. The area had been moved from near Nihonbashi in the late 1650’s after a devastating fire leveled much of the city and the new area was known for a time as Shin-Yoshiwara. (新吉原, New Yoshiwara, though eventually the “New” was dropped and people simply referred to the area as Yoshiwara.) For 300 years, the area was home to thousands of women and girls, many of whom were sold by their families as young girls.

Yoshiwara was a walled-in, tightly-controlled area. Patrons entered and exited the area down a curving street headed by a gate not unlike the tori that stands at the entrance to the temple. Transactions were negotiated outside the walls, at nearby teahouses and even samurai were required to leave surrender their swords before they could enter. The women could not, of course, come and go as they pleased. Most were enslaved by debt they could never completely repay. During their service they could leave only for the death of a parent and once a year to view the cherry blossoms in Ueno. For most of the common prostitutes, the only real way out was through their own death.

On on November 11, 1855 the Ansei Edo Earthquake (安政江戸地震, Ansei Edo Jishin) a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck Edo (The old name for Tokyo) with intermittent aftershocks over the next two weeks. The last major quake to hit Edo had been in 1703, so few if any of the residents of the area had ever experienced a major quake and hadn’t given any thought to earthquake safety.

Buildings collapsed and fires spread rapidly through the city. Unfortunately for the women enslaved in Yoshiwara as common prostitutes, if they had survived the building collapses, they were far more likely to die in the resultant fires. Yoshiwara, after all, was a walled village with only two exits, both narrow, to control the passage of people in and out. Fear of looting slowed the evacuation as well.

Woodcuts I examined at the Taito-ku Library in Kappabashi showed the fates of some of the different classes of people in Yoshiwara—one showed an elegantly-dressed Oiran or high-level courtesan being rushed from the area by two samurai. One samurai was on horseback and both had their swords, indicating that they had been dispatched to rescue this woman, as swords were not allowed in the quarter, even for samurai who were habitués of the brothels. Another print showed lower-class prostitutes clad in the common plain blue kimono that was mandated for working girls. (This rule was ignored by those whose status was higher.) The prints showed the lower classes, both men and women, panicking in the streets, crushed by heavy roof tiles and buildings, crawling through the streets in despair. One showed the interior of a brothel as it collapsed, women and customers tossed about mid-coitus, while a prominent sign on the wall says “火の用心” or “Be careful of fire.” Another showed looters, some themselves trapped under rubble, greedily swallowing gold and silver coins and later “recovering” them as they passed through their systems.

At the time it was a commonly-held belief that earthquakes were caused by an imbalance of the good and evil forces of Yin and Yang, so a major quake, to some, was a sign that social change was needed. (Often referred to as “correlative cosmology.”) The quake was centered northeast of the city and Yoshiwara, too, was northeast of the palace. In Buddhist tradition, the Northeast is known as “Kimon” or the direction that bad luck follows. In 1855, the Northeast of the city was the hardest hit by fires, with the West of the city largely untouched. Yoshiwara in particular was among the worst hit.

Yoshiwara went into a decline and the brothel owners’ profits fell. To counter this decline, the owners brought in more women and lowered prices. Conditions worsened and disease became the norm.

While there had been about fifteen-hundred women working there in 1700, by the turn of the 20th century, there were some nine thousand women working in the area as prostitutes, all in the same small quarter. Most of them suffered from syphilis or tuberculosis or both. Typhoid broke out occasionally. Rarely did a common prostitute live to see her thirtieth birthday. While some historians may glamorize the era in its heyday, life for most of the women working in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries was a miserable existence at best. There was a very high turnover.

At the time of the Ansei quake in 1855, there was a severe shortage of coffins, so much so that people resorted to using sugar casks and barrels as makeshift caskets for even the more wealthy of the dead, so for someone of such low social status as a common prostitute, there would be no such ceremony. Bodies were simply piled until they could be disposed of.

This certainly must have set a precedent for later. When a woman of Yoshiwara died, she died with little pity or notice. Brothel workers would take her body, wrap it in a cheap rush mat, carry her out and dump her at the gates of the nearby Jokanji temple. In all, an estimated 25,000 women were thusly interred. The practice became so common that the temple became known as “Nage Komi Dera,” (投込寺,) the “Throw-in Temple” with all of the connotations of being a dumping ground for unwanted, forgotten women.

Why Jokanji was chosen isn’t clear. It’s not the nearest temple and getting there while carrying a body would have required a fairly roundabout route, at least using the paths shown on maps of the times. Yoshiwara itself was surrounded by rice fields, fairly impassible most of the year. In November, the rice would have been cut to stalks and the ground itself a thick, sticky muck.

The most direct route would have required the use of the front gate, which I find hard to imagine, as it would have been quite bad business to carry dead prostitutes past incoming customers. More likely, the back entrance was used. A woodcut from the time by Hiroshige shows the area, with its narrow roads between the rice paddies.

Fuji-from-Yoshiwara-from-53-Stations-of-the-Tokaido-c-1833.jpg

View of Mt. Fuji from Yoshiwara, from Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido. This is be a Southwest-facing view, therefore from the rear exit of Yoshiwara. The visible road leads away from Jokanji, which is to the North.

Most likely, they used unmarked service paths between the rice fields which would have offered a direct and discreet route straight to the temple, avoiding the streets.

Yoshiwara_Paths.jpg

Another view of Mt. Fuji from Yoshiwara, from Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido. In this view, walkable paths in the fields are visible. These paths do not appear on period maps, but may have afforded a passible, discrete route from Yoshiwara to Jokanji.

Around the turn of the century, as Japan opened up after the Meiji Restoration, international pressure started to force some changes to the area. By Meiji 38, (1905,) the practice of dumping bodies there was largely stopped and a monument to the women was erected at Jokanji, but it’s reputation as a dumping ground and the nickname “Throw-in Temple” (nege-komi-dera) stuck. When I first went looking for the place, I wandered a bit before asking a pair of shopkeepers for directions. “I’m looking for Jokanji. A temple in this area…”

“Jokanji? I don’t know it…” the more senior of the two said.

“It’s the throw-in temple,” the assistant offered. “not far from here.”

“Ah, yes—of course!”

He then directed me a couple of blocks away to the entrance to the place. I parked my bicycle outside the temple, becoming a bit dubious that there would be anything worth seeing, as the building is quite new and modern. As you enter the grounds, there is a long wall to the left, behind which is the temple’s cemetery. It’s like most other neighborhood cemeteries, narrow lanes of plot after plot of family monuments. I hadn’t thought of this at first—I had assumed the place would be devoted to the victims of Yoshiwara, but the bulk of the space was used by normal families, most with no likely connection to the mizu shobai or water trade, the sex industry in old Edo. It was, after all, a cemetery before Yoshiwara and continues as one to this day.

A temple worker saw me wandering among the plots and waved me over to the back. “It’s over there” he explained, knowing that I was most likely looking for the monument, without my asking. Once you turn the corner, the monument is obvious, much larger than any of the family memorials. Further down the lane is a large tree. The temple worker explained that the old entrance to the graveyard was beyond that tree and that’s where the bodies were typically dumped.

Crypt at Jokanji, AKA, Nagekomi Dera-7.jpg

It’s a grim place on a late October day, so close to Halloween, though there are fresh flowers every few days and ritual incense is burned each day. On the left are sotoba, the wooden sticks that typically bear the deceased’s Kamiyo, the name the person is given after death in the Buddhist tradition. (As most of the souls inside were anonymous, I don’t know whose names are upon these sticks.)

Crypt at Jokanji, AKA, Nagekomi Dera-9.jpg

Each day I went there to photograph the place, I’d see a couple of Japanese sight-seers come by with digital cameras to take a few snapshots.

Atop the monument is a seated Buddha holding a staff with six rings affixed to the top. The pillar behind is deeply inscribed “Shin-Yoshiwara-Soureitou,” (新吉原總霊塔) roughly meaning simply “Shin Yoshiwara Memorial.” An older photo of the memorial shows the pillar alone, sitting atop its stone lotus base, indicating that the Buddha figure was added later.

A small shrine sits at the base in the front, with an offering plate (¥7 was in it when I visited) and a place to burn incense, cups of sake and flowers.

Above the standing figure is a red lacquer ‘Hira-Kanzashi’ hair ornament of the type a girl in Yoshiwara might possess, affixed to the wall.

Crypt at Jokanji, AKA, Nagekomi Dera-11.jpg

‘Hira-Kanzashi’ hair ornament

Along one side there are a couple of small, barred windows, through which you can see earthenware pots containing the ashes of some of the people interred there:

Crypt at Jokanji, AKA, Nagekomi Dera-3.jpg

Along the other side is a locked iron door, leading to the interior of the crypt:

Crypt at Jokanji, AKA, Nagekomi Dera-6.jpg

Through the bars, if you let your eyes adjust for a few minutes, you can see that it’s quite large inside. Just inside the door is an iron ladder leading down about three meters to the floor. The walls are lined with shelves on which the pots were stored, but for the most part, empty, as the jars most likely fell and broke in later earthquakes.

Crypt at Jokanji, AKA, Nagekomi Dera-8.jpg

Interior of the crypt

Crouching near the window of the door, trying to get a photo, I could smell the interior of the crypt, a cool, earthy smell. It’s much like the smell of an earthen basement, but not quite. It was a familiar smell though, one I’d smelled before, but couldn’t place. I realized after a bit where I’d smelled it before – it was the scent of the bones I’d smelled in the catacombs below Paris.

Addenda, to be streamlined into this at some point:

Matt Treyvaud, of No-Sword was kind enough to provide a translation of part of the inscription on the Nagai Kafu memorial I mentioned. I don’t know a lot about Nagai, so I felt remiss in neglecting him; I’m happy to have this, as he’s obviously an important chronicler of the place and time.

Young people of this world

Do not ask me about this world’s

Art or arts of any times to come.

Am I not a child of Meiji?

When those ways became history, were buried,

The dreams of my youth vanished too

[…]

The last of Edo’s ways are become smoke.

Meiji culture, too, is become ash.

Young people of this world

Do not speak to me of this world’s

Art or arts of any times that may come.

I could clean my clouded glasses

But what could I then see?

Am I not a child of Meiji?

Am I not a child of long-ago and long-gone Meiji?

I had hoped to dig into that a bit more, but haven’t yet had a chance, so I appreciate his help in this.
On another note, Kristen and walked through Minowa, Jokanji and Yoshiwara today and at the end of the day we exited Yoshiwara through what was once it’s back gate and found ourselves at the spot from which Hiroshige had drawn the first image in this post:

That would be the spot.jpg I have no doubt that it’s the same spot as in 1830, there was no other road leading from that side of Yoshiwara. Making that realization together with Kristen and having the reference image on my ipod was a remarkable moment.
Oh, I should also mention that I’ll be at Donald Richie’s book launch party this Sunday (Nov. 2, from 5:00 PM) at “What The Dickens” in Ebisu. The book is called “Botandoro” which is a type of Japanese ghost story. I am helping in the arrangements for the party, arranging for the exotic dancers in particular.

On Virtuosity

This started out as an email from a friend who was looking for feedback on his photography, but I decided to take a bit of time and fill it out a bit:

Pardon the delay in replying.

First, I guess a few general thoughts:
First of all, keep in mind this:Every photo that you take is a self portrait. Not your face, of course, but a part of a lifelong portrait of the sort of person you were when you walked this earth. These are the documents that you leave behind as a statement: “This was my life–this is who I was.”
Pretty heavy stuff, but if you think of any dead photographer that you admire, think of how well you think you understand who they were. It’s like that for us, too. Probably moreso, as we have the ability to disseminate any photo we take farther, wider and faster than they ever did. Hell, make explore on Flickr and you probably have an audience bigger than your local newspaper.
Think about that and ask yourself if you’re doing it the way you think is best.

Photograph your life with sincerity and interst, while avoiding banality. Everyday things can be fascinating, but perhaps every little thing isn’t. Are the things you photograph things that you’d write a paragraph about in a book?

Just as anything can be written about, anything can be photographed. This is where things get tricky.

I’ll assume for a moment that you know how to operate your camera—after all, just about anyone can take a properly-exposed picture at this point. The engineers at the camera companies have made it possible for a child to pick up a camera and push the button and get something that’s perfectly-lit, free of blur and technically, well, perfect. That hasn’t been an issue in years.(Of course, you can choose to use your camera in a way that it relies upon you for all of the exposure settings, but that doesn’t enter into this discussion—for now, I’ll assume that you have the ability to make an acceptable photo.)

Photography is a non-verbal form of communication. At its best, it has all of the eloquence of the spoken word, all of the subtlety of a well-played musical instrument. I’m not speaking metaphorically, I mean that photography is a form of language.

What do you want to actually say with your pictures? Think about that. Do you have a message that you want to convey? Do you have some thought that you would put into actual words that you have instead chosen to express through photography?

A competent photographer, however well-schooled in the visual vocabulary of photography, however skilled with his technique, yet lacking a real message is merely acting as a technician. There’s nothing wrong with technicians, of course—the world needs lots of them, even as photographers, to take photos of people and things, but in that capacity they may be artists, but rarely ever will that person be a Virtuoso.

What happens when you transcend the medium, your subject, even yourself, is that you achieve virtuosity. The word virtuoso has been applied mainly to musicians, but it applies to photography as well. The word shares a Latin root with virtue, of course and therein lies the key to understanding what it truly is. When the product of your artistic endeavor becomes more than the notes played, more than the shadows captured on film, more than the words typed dutifully onto paper and manages to grab the audience’s heart and mind, you’ve achieved virtuosity—something akin to a religious experience.

Virtue, after all, is one thing that brings us closer to God. It’s at this point that real communication occurs. This is what it’s all about.

That’s what all artists strive for. It’s why we take photos for the love of it. Photography at its heart is a cold, scientific, technical process. Take a three-dimensional space and use a lens to render it into two dimensions. That’s it, after all—that’s all we do.

When you think of it in those terms, it doesn’t sound very interesting, but then neither does tapping out notes on a piano keyboard or scratching a pencil across a pad of paper. To achieve virtuosity in any of those fields, you need technical ability, of course and some would say, natural born talent.

Once you are a virtuoso, though, the expression of that can be as simple as a single line on paper, a few lines of a haiku or a few notes from your instrument. Rarely does it require overpowering your audience with the technical aspects of your craft.

Sometimes, one achieves virtuosity while striving for the technical. Karl Blossfeldt’s masterwork, Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) was one example that comes to mind. In the 1890’s Blossfeldt set out to document the forms that plants take, in a fairly clinical, precise fashion with his camera, in hopes that it would be a useful reference work for students. What happened was that this book, with its gorgeous, abstracted botanical specimens, touched the hearts of the artists of that time.

His simple, clean, technically-perfect photos transcended his original intention to become a seminal influence upon art for years to come.

432px-Blossfeldt_96a.jpg

Here, a common relative of the buttercup, the Aconitum or Monkshood, becomes almost human in its form, but not merely visually, it shows movement, emotion and expression. The lines and curves of this simple plant have become beauty, music, dance and passion.

These works struck such a chord with the members of the burgeoning Jugendstil and Art Nouveau movements that his forms sprung from the pages of this book and crawled through art and architecture throughout Europe and America, rendered in iron and stone and the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alfons Mucha, René Lalique, Antoni Gaudí and countless others. Blosfeldt’s work, of course, was not the sole basis of these movements, but each piece became an important part of the cabulary of the meent. The actual plant forms, of course, had been in the gardens and forests since time immemorial, yet it took Blossfeldt to elevate them this way.
Edward Weston did this as well, but perhaps with more awareness of how they’d be received as he shot his bell peppers that evoked nude human forms:
weston_pepper_number30.jpg

As well as nudes that could be mistaken for bell peppers. ;-)
weston01.jpg
People have been rephotographing these subjects ever since. You can buy books of poses and lighting techniques, scour eBay for the same cameras these artists used, research film, whatever, but you’re not likely to make a photo that touches the genius of the original. You won’t do it because it’s neither your voice, nor your words.

To make a photo that matters, you need to find your voice and find your message. When you actually feel the spirit and find the words, you’ll know that your work is on track and that someone, somewhere, will care deeply about it. If you are persistent and determined, it’s something that you can achieve, though perhaps not on a regular basis, or with any feeling that it was your hand that created this beautiful thing.

After all, that’s why we have personified virtuosity with the concept of the Muse. The Muse, is a spirit that inhabits the artist’s heart with confounding irregularity. She loves to both delight and torment. She promises eternal devotion to your genius, for you to wake and find her gone without so much as a note of explanation. I’ve written about  muse before:

Muses are fickle creatures though—they’ll abandon you at the drop of a hat, or come rushing back when you least expect. It’s a roller coaster that, while it often lifts you to dizzying, spectacular heights, ultimately leaves you standing weak and nauseous on the sidewalk.
Of course, the idea of a “muse” is mythological, but it’s a mythology that has persisted for thousands of years and like most persistent mythologies, it’s workable in practice, even though it’s got no basis in science as we understand it.
If you want to take fascinating pictures, be a fascinating person. Do interesting things and you will make interesting photos. Take honest photos and people will connect with them. Fortes fortuna adiuvat, after all.

Well, I’ve been sitting here in the café for quite some time now, so I should wrap this up for now. I’ll come back and rework it, I suppose, as I’ve touched on a lot of ideas that I’d like to explore some more. Please leave your thoughts below, or just say hello if you’ve read it. I don’t have the readership I once did, so at times I feel lie I’m reading to an empty room.Do sign your name as well, as it’s not always apparent from just logging in, especially from Yahoo/Flickr.

Pole Dance Event Saturday

Saturday night I’ll be in Kabukicho at an intimate pole dance party, shooting a bit, hanging out all night, having some drinks. You should come by. My dear friend Yuri is organizing the event and it should be a really nice time.
caduceusloft0794

イベントするので

是非来て下さい!
10/11(土)Saturday

新宿歌舞伎町交番から徒歩5分
5min from Kabuki cho police box.

職安通りドン・キホーテから徒歩5分
5min from Don Quixote Shyokuan St.

お蕎麦屋竹村から徒歩すぐ
Soon from soba restraunt Takemura by walk.

の K’S CAFE (1F)
TEL 0362281465
Kaneshima bld.2-22-8 Kabuki-cho Shinjuku
にてイベントがあります。

☆ Pole dancer’s   
  dream night TIP ☆

@ K’S CAFE
Entrance F/M 2200yen +1Drink
Open 23:00 – Close 4:00

ポールダンサーと仲間がつくるホームパーティー風イベント。
Pole dancers and their friends sets home party style event.

バー、曲のリクエスト受け付け、コンパクトDVDプレイヤー、プロジェクター、ポール、本、ソファ、サボテン、ビーガンケーキなどのあるフロアで楽しく遊んで下さい♪
Bar,music request,compact dvd player,projector,pole,books,sofa,cactus,vegan cake etc,available.

そしてイベントの収益を何かよいことに使うためのアンケートに御協力下さい。
Please fill some enquete/questionaires to use profit from the party for something good.

<TIP>よいヒント・秘訣をみつけ、シェアする心地良いコミュニケーションの場です。
That is where you find <TIP>to share and cozy comunication.

映像、写真、音楽、本、衣装など持ち込み歓迎です。
クロークはありません。手荷物はコンパクトに、紛失のないようにして下さい。
Bring your films,photos,music,books,costumes,etc.
NO cloak room.please do not lose and compact your stuff.

☆前売りチケットもあります。お問い合わせは、かおる、ゆり他ダンサーへ☆
Reserved tickets available.Please ask Kaolu,Yuri and other dancers.

British Journal of Photography – Dual-purpose camera on the way from Fujifilm

Why am I so excited about a camera that looks like it’s from the early part of the last century? While camera companies are doing their best to scrape their film camera divisions from their shoes, Fujifilm and more interestingly , Cosina, are coming up with film cameras that wouldn’t gotten stares snapping photos of the 1939 World’s Fair. (You could easily find film to fit it at the fair, too.) Folding bellows cameras started going out of vogue as amateur cameras at the end of World War II. So who in their right mind would release a medium format folder in this day and age? Fujifilm and Cosina, apparently…

I suspect that Cosina’s president, Kobayashi Hirofumi had a hand in this. Under Kobayashi, Cosina has made some baffling but brilliant design decisions. For example, when they decided to start making cameras for themselves under the Voigtländer name, the design they chose to improve upon was something from the 1920’s—an early Leica camera that didn’t even have a range finder for focusing. (Keep in mind that this is a company that had been building cameras for other companies for ages—it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to make a range finder focusing system, it’s that they chose not to.) When they did start putting range finders on their cameras, they made them as bright and as easy to use as the best that Leica has to offer

When they decided upon the lens mount for these cameras, it too was a design considered obsolete by the rest of the industry, the 39-millimeter threaded mount that was abandoned by Leica in the 1950’s. Canon used it too, plus lots of other companies, but nobody’s made a new one in decades. Perhaps there was a hidden market. Cosina makes fantastic lenses. The quality of the glass is superb and the image quality fantastic. Their lenses are also tremendously well-made and affordable. The lenses I have by them have held up for me for years of abuse. They’re basically brass, glass and steel, with no electronics to fail and no structural plastic. The markings are etched into the brass, not screen printed on, so they’ll never wear away. They look and feel like lenses from fifty years ago. So why the screw mount?

Leica used to use a screw mount. They made hundreds of thousands of cameras with that mount before they introduced the “M” mount, a bayonet type in 1954, with the M3 camera. Lens mount changes are never done lightly—for photographers, the lens mount on a camera body can be the most important consideration in choosing a camera, because one typically can’t use a lens made by one company on another company’s camera body. As a pro photographer will spend thousands and thousands of dollars on lenses, they wind up being committed to that maker.

So when Leica changed their mount, they made adapters for their users to put onto their old lenses so they could be used with full-functionality on the new bodies. This is still the case, actually. You can pick up a lens from 1935, say an old screw-mount Elmar, screw it into an adapter and pop it on the Leica M8, their latest digital and it will work just as well as ever.

Same thing with the Voigtländer lenses. By going with the screw mount, they probably doubled the number of bodies that these lenses will work flawlessly on. There’s an awful lot of prewar Leicas sitting in closets waiting to be rediscovered by young photographers. They were so well-made that a good number of them only need a roll of film to be put back into service. Many of the lenses also come with external finders as well, which is a good thing because these early cameras had finders that are now dim and hard to use.

While many will extoll the virtues of the old Elmar lenses for shooting, if you want some variety Cosina/Voigtländer lenses are the only new options if you want something with modern coatings to reduce lens flare and give accurate color. Compared to antique Leica lenses, they’re a real bargan, too—I’ve gotten most of mine for around $300, where similar Leica lenses would be several times as much.

I have a couple of old Leica bodies, an M3 and an M2 that I got at reasonable prices, but for the most part, I use my C/V lenses on them. Here’s my M2, with a 50mm C/V Heliar and external finder:

IMG_5709.jpg

It’s a wonderful combination. The Leica body is solid and reliable and the lens is one of the sharpest lenses ever made for any camera. Very affordable, too, if you can find one.

Edit: No discussion of Voigtländer cameras would be complete without a link to Stephen Gandy’s excellent and exuberant site CameraQuest. There is more information than you can shake a stick at there on all things Cosina, plus it’s probably the best place to buy them.

So back to the folder…

Back in the day, the larger 120 format of film was more popular for amateur photographers. It’s several times larger than 35mm film, so the increased size made up for the all-too-often lower-quality cameras and optics in cheap folders and box cameras. The folding design and bellows made them compact and light, something that would easily slip into the pocket of an overcoat, or on a strap on your shoulder all day, unlike a non-folding design. The bellows were cloth or leather, both prone to getting pinholes from wear at the corners, though, so often they didn’t age well. Still, when combined with good lenses, they are capable of taking fantastic photos, at resolutions that far outstrip what you can get with a digital camera that any mortal can afford.

120-size film fell out of favor with amateurs though, with the 35mm SLR craze of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It stayed around mainly for wedding photographers, I’d guess, but was at risk of disappearing as they all switched over to digital a few years ago. Thankfully, it found a niche with the Holga. A Holga is a cheap Chinese plastic camera that’s wildly popular with creative amateurs, due to its quirky, heavily-vignetted style of photos. If nothing else, Holgas taught a new generation how to load and handle 120 film, which is a daunting prospect at first, as the film doesn’t come in a canister, it’s simply rolled on a spool with a heavy light-proof paper backing.

After using a Holga for a while, many people ask what other medium format cameras are out there. How can they improve their image quality, while still using this wonderfully-detailed film? I think Fuji’s folder is uniquely positioned to be that camera.

It will be light and handy. Given that it has a lens shutter, I’m guessing that it will sync a flash at any speed, a limitation with other cameras. Some modern material will keep the bellows light-tight and the range finder will be bright and a sheer joy to use. They call it dual-purpose because you can switch between 6x6cm and 6x7cm, which is a simply huge amount of film to store your image on. I hope they did this in a way that you don’t have to open the camera to switch formats, but even if you did, I could happily live with it. After all, there’s only about a dozen shots on a roll of 120, so you don’t have to wait long between changes.

Sure, there are other options for medium format, but most of them are too heavy to carry around unless you’re out “taking photos.” This will be one you can toss into a backpack and take everywhere.

Personally, I can’t wait to get my hands on one. When I do, I’ll give it a thorough review.

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Dual-purpose camera on the way from Fujifilm

Fujifilm has revealed additional details on its upcoming medium format film camera, the GF670.

Shown as a prototype at the Photokina trade show in Cologne, the GF670 is expected to be released in 2009. The GF670 is a portable folding camera jointly developed by Fujifilm and Cosina. It features a mechanism for switching between two film formats, 6x7cm and 6x6cm. It is fitted with a 80mm f/3.5 fixed lens, which is composed of six glass elements in four groups. It has an automatic lens shutter, an SPD sensor with both automatic and manual autofocus. The ISO ranges from 25 to 3200.

While Fujifilm will release the GF670 under its own brand in Japan, the medium-format camera will be renamed the Voigtlander Bessa III outside of Japan, where Cosina will take charge of its distribution.

[From British Journal of Photography – Dual-purpose camera on the way from Fujifilm]

Keep Shooting

I was really in a funk last night. After I posted yesterday, I went down to Shibuya with Ben to our weekly photo geek beer meeting, had a few beers, but left when it got too crowded and noisy. I was in a pretty foul mood—I didn’t want to sit and talk about cameras and lenses. I didn’t really want to be sitting and stewing, so I excused myself and went to shoot a bit on Centergai, the street that runs from Shibuya station, up towards where we meet each week. Centergai is always filled with people, as you near midnight, it’s Shibuya’s jugular vein, with mobs of people draining from the clubs and cafés down to the station.

I walked the street for a while, looking for some inspiration. I didn’t feel like shooting random strangers, street-style. As I walked around, I spotted a young guy working a corner, selling his CDs and passing out flyers. He had a good look, so I approached him and asked if he would mind me shooting him for a while. He reluctantly agreed, so I told him to basically ignore me while I shot, though we did do a few that were more portrait-like.

He goes by the name YENYEN and has a website for his music business at YenYen.info

I got the sense he’ll do well—he’s motivated and energetic and really put his heart into working the corner to promote his business, which isn’t an easy thing to do.

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Café Thoughts

In my neighborhood is an unlikely little café, far nicer than you’d expect to find in a little shitamachi neighborhood like mine on the north end of Ueno park. It’s a stylish little place, in the shell of an old shop that once made electrical fittings, one of the many places that does Japan’s small manufacturing. In making the café, they preserved a lot of the original—the ceilings are darkened wood rafters and the bookshelves that line one wall are stained to match, but the overall ambience of the place is clean and light and airy. It’s a lovely little place. An iPod plays jazz through a small stereo and the customers, mostly local women, meet throughout the day. If you happen to be in Iriya, you might want to stop by: Iriya Plus Café.

So that’s where I am right now, wondering what I should be doing with my photography. You see, I’m in the middle of a dry spell. I simply have no idea what to shoot and the photos I do take these days aren’t inspiring me. It’s a terrible feeling, to sit in my studio, surrounded by thousands of dollars worth of great cameras and lights and backdrops and not have any desire to make pictures.

It’s not just the prospect of making pictures that fills me with dread—I’ve been having a hard time looking at photos as well. Images that used to stir my senses now seen flat and grey, lifeless and two-dimensional. Not even the pictures of Cartier-Bresson or Willy Ronis, my two old standbys, get me excited any more. I’m just not seeing what I used to see.

It’s not even a matter of getting out to new places—yesterday, Ben and I got up at a bit after four in the morning to catch the first train to the fish market at Tsukiji, to shoot a few rolls of film. In total, I shot three rolls, but didn’t feel much. I’m in no hurry to develop them.

The problem is, if you can’t feel your subject, you don’t really see it. If you can’t see it, you can’t take a photo worth a damn, at least not in the sense that you made the photo and it’s a part of your life. You see, there’s a mental state you enter when you’re shooting worthwhile photos: some describe the feeling as being “in the zone” where you have an awareness that transcends the usual. Though your eye is at the viewfinder, you are aware of things outside the frame and the whole scene takes on a very three-dimensional feeling, as though you are seeing the whole situation from above and slightly behind yourself and the subjects are at once both composed for your frame and carefully-choreographed like actors on a stage. It’s a wonderful feeling—energetic, creative, productive. It’s the feeling of being smiled upon by the muse. I wrote about the muse a while back in a discussion about The Shot That Got Away:

There’s so much more to a good picture than a good subject in an interesting circumstance that it’s not worth worrying about missing what they call here in Japan a “Shutter Chance – シャッターチャンス”. (A term that always make me cringe.)

Adolph Hitler could ride by on a unicycle, naked but for a sombrero, but if you’re not in the right place, with the right light, an interesting angle and no unfortunate distracting elements, it’s likely to be a crap shot.

To make a strong, significant photo, you’re at the mercy of your muse.

If you’ve treated her well, respected and fascinated her with your ideas and vision, you’ll be rewarded with shots that are simply magical.

It won’t be a matter of “getting” or “not getting” an opportunistic shot, it will be a case of everything falling into place, just as the heavens open up and a beam of perfect light streams down.

Muses are fickle creatures though—they’ll abandon you at the drop of a hat, or come rushing back when you least expect. It’s a roller coaster that, while it often lifts you to dizzying, spectacular heights, ultimately leaves you standing weak and nauseous on the sidewalk.

Of course, the idea of a “muse” is mythological, but it’s a mythology that has persisted for thousands of years and like most persistent mythologies, it’s workable in practice, even though it’s got no basis in science as we understand it.

If you want to take fascinating pictures, be a fascinating person. Do interesting things and you will make interesting photos. Take honest photos and people will connect with them. Fortes fortuna adiuvat, after all.

(Oh—Take your camera out of your bag and have it ready, or leave the damn thing home.

Having a camera in the bottom of your bag is insulting to your muse and she will punish you with disappointment.

It’s like dragging your girlfriend around for an afternoon and ignoring her the whole time. It’s not going to go over well.)

I suspect I wrote that at a point in my life when I was actually shooting well; I don’t remember just now.

The real trouble is, this funk feeds upon itself: the longer you go without getting a picture that blows your hair back, the harder it is to get one.

I need to do something quick, or I might as well hang up my cameras and do something else.

Yesterday was an interesting day, but not photographically, really, which was a bit of a nice change. After going to shoot the fish market, we walked to nearby Ginza to shoot some more, since the early morning light was nice. There were schoolgirls on every corner selling red feathers for charity. We bought a couple, much to their giggling amusement. I would have had just as nice a time if I’d left my camera at home, though. When we did return home, I gave my bicycle some much-needed attention, truing the wheels, adjusting the gears and brakes and oiling up the parts that had gotten rusty. It felt good. It felt familiar, with a bit of nostalgia for my days as a bike messenger, tewnty-two years ago. I gave half a thought to applying to a messenger company again, but I suspect my stamina isn’t what it once was, when I was a kid of twenty, happy to ride through any sort of weather, for the sheer joy of being fast and invincible and immortal. After more than my share of accidents, I wised up, when after a particularly severe concussion, the doctor in the emergency room told me I wouldn’t survive another hit like the one I’d gotten. Still, on a cool October morning, there’s nothing like tuning up a bike till it runs like new, even at the expense of a couple of skinned knuckles.

So I don’t know if I’ll be posting many pictures for a while. As is always the case, the muse may ring up for a midnight booty call, or perhaps a quickie in the back alleys of Shinjuku—stranger things have happened, after all.

Wish me luck…