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…