I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in, and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel. Life is art.
— Helena Bonham Carter
I had decided to turn the Noh opera Hanjo into a photographic novel. It gave me the chance to combine the language of fashion photography with Japanese hand-colored colodion or dry plate work, and to create a separate visual style for the project.
I never became an expert on the various types of photography of the early days, but over the years I acquired a collection of books that celebrate these Japanese hand-colored images. It connects directly to the strong tradition of creating wood-carved prints. Just look at the incredible work done by Hokusai for instance. His famous image of the wave was actually part of a souvenir box filled with various prints known as the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Once the Edo period ended and Japan opened up to the outside world, photography became one of the first things to be adopted. It came on-shore with the thousands of foreigners that were being brought to Japan in an effort to modernize the country after 400+ years of feudal isolation. The modern Japanese wanted photographic images, they were losing interest in the old ways of hand-printing woodcuts.
Many of these images were shot by foreigners documenting aspects of Japanese life. Ironically, as Nippon was modernizing and deploying the first and only Industrial Revolution in Asia, the the Westerners were more interested in capturing the remnants of the Floating World.
I love the different studio set ups, and the awkwardly-held poses. Many of the images also have slight motion blur if you look carefully – it was hard to hold still for such long exposures, and sometimes a hand or a foot was caught moving. The colors were added after the image was developed, though the color composition did not necessarily reflect the actual scene. Of course, colors tend to change and fade differently, so much of the red has been lost over time, whereas green seems to hold on the longest.
I decided to loosen my images, they were too perfect in a modern digital sense, so motion blur was added… but not to my subjects. Although physically impossible, adding motion blur to the edges of the shot – as though the model was solid while the room spinning – I was able to get a dream-like effect that doesn’t over-power the image, or the narrative.
Stay tuned for the several more installments…. Here’s PART 1 of my Hanjo blog-series.
We see thousands of images every day. On websites, in magazines, on money, and selling us products and services from every conceivable surface… walls, buses, high-rises, billboards. There are marvelously beautiful, perfectly cast people smiling down at us. The images let us know that if we buy these products – if we use these services – if we take that trip – we will be better. Not quite as good as those incredible people in the advertisement, but better. They promise us that others will find us more attractive, or that we will be safer, or more respected by the community.
That wasn’t always the case. Until very recently, people only saw images occasionally. Go back four or five long generations, and people saw maybe one or two images a day… and before that, it would be a painting at a rich man’s house, or something dramatic in church. Those paintings served the same purpose… though they were selling a slightly different product. They would illustrate stories from the bible for the illiterate public, but the images also did something beyond being narrative. They let the beholder know that if they were pious, it would make them better. Not quite as good as the saints, but it would make them more attractive in the eyes of God, it would make them safer, it would make them respectable.
People have developed image filters. We had to. When dealing with so many images every day, we have learned to look and promptly dismiss what we’re being shown. We look, and instantly understand we’re supposed to use a certain body spray, buy a car, go on adventure, or simply smell like we might. We filter them out of our conscience.
But it is exactly at this point where I find creative opportunity. By using the language of commercial and fashion photography… Showing beautiful models, well-cast character actors, agile dancers, all placed inside narrative images, I breach the viewer’s image filter. The viewer recognizes the familiar language… but nothing is being sold; the filter breaks down. It is unclear what is being pitched, what the product is… and that is where I try to tell stories, to engage the mind that back-fills the missing narrative.
The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit… The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff… Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours, it belongs to you. It’s yours to take, rearrange and re use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe those companies nothing. You especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.
Banksy wrote that. I’m not planning on stenciling my images on concrete walls, nor re-purposing corporate logos or placing my art on top of their images, but I do like appropriating parts of that language. We’ve all become so fluent in it, why not use it for some visual storytelling…
Hanjo blew my mind the minute it touched me the first time.
It’s been almost three years now. In 2010, my friend Fredrika Brillembourg invited me to see her perform in Amsterdam. She’s a Mezzo Soprano, and was starring in Toshio Hosokawa’s adaption of HANJO. I had never heard of the story. It was written by Yukio Mishima, Japan’s magnificent author and brilliant figure of Japanese post-war self-identity. He modernized a number of Noh operas, a form of theater from the 14th and 15th century, but somehow Hanjo remained the most obscure.
In many ways Hanjo touches uniquely on so many Japanese topics. Hanako, the central figure, is a Geisha, that great Western misconception, a woman who is neither nanny nor prostitute, neither escort nor consort. Jitsuko is a Painter, that last remnant of the Floating World, a wistful world which Meiji pried open like an unwilling clam. Yoshio is a modern Salary Man, driven more by fear than ambition, he fails to pursue love because he worries what society might think of him, and the jeopardy in which he places his life-style.
The opera was in English, but the Amsterdam Muziektheater had made the incredibly wise choice of simply printing the entire libretto as part of their Playbill. It’s not much when you see it on paper, only a few pages, so before the performance began I had already finished reading the story… and fell madly in love with it.
Hosokawa’s staging worked well, the video doesn’t show how Hanako’s insanity was shown by the “living” dress that moved up and down her body while she sang, being slowly moved by black-clad stagehands. But that wouldn’t work if I wanted to retell the story as a photographic novel. I also knew I wanted to use the language of fashion photography, as I do in all my projects. I kept looking at old hand-colored Japanese colotypes from the 1860s, and when I simply decided to combine the two, I had the concept locked; I knew how I was going to tell this story.
Stay tuned for the several more installments…. Here’s PART 2 of my Hanjo blog-series.
Summer reading recommendation: Artists in Love by Veronica Kavass. A marvelous photo art book with a few pages on thirty different artist couples.
Relationships are about interlocking personalities, and few personalities are as exposed as those of artists. The work that is created is powerfully personal because it is a manifestation of that particular psyche, and the experiences that make up a personality.
I believe every artist wishes his life partner was a fellow artist. It gives a second vocabulary through which to communicate, another way of being in this world with someone who understands you, who can push you, forgive you, inspire you… and to continue the call-and-response that makes the early years of love so compelling.