Finding the ways to fill the time
Akasaka Tomoaki dons white gloves and begins leafing through the portfolio of photos I brought. It is midday, though not yet too hot in Osaka, in his airy, tatami mat and exposed wood-beam house, also home to his Photo Gallery Sai. I am here for advice on how to improve my photography, in the hopes of one day having as much success in the freelance world as he’s had.
A female Osakan pro named Tsuchida introduced us. She described Akasaka as having a “Japanese face, but a Western mind. ” With his bushy beard, quick English and easy laugh, it’s easy to agree with this assessment. His invitation to a stranger to come have her photography critiqued speaks also of a generous nature.
I asked him what he felt my weak points were, and he rifled through several closed cropped photos from a festival in Wakayama prefecture, one of a group of young boys with their drums sticks posing for the camera, another of a painted demon, mouth agape. I explained how scary he especially had been, sucking up air with an otherworldly sound, in order to scare the watching children and make them cry, so they would grow up strong.
“Now you’ve told me, I know what these are. ” He said, “But from just looking at the photo I think, what’s the story? If you had a crying child being held by their parent near the demon, I would know by looking that he is there to scare the children. ”
I think guiltily of a friend’s recent comment that she loved the ‘laughing demon’ and I know he’s right. Too often I tend to crop out any ‘distracting elements’ from a photo, to present the most punchy scene, but at the same time stripping the context from the shot.
Akasaka suggests looking to create a theme from a group of shots, taking wider shots that provide more context to supplement the tighter ones. He himself prefers using wide 20mm lens.
“Why did you chose her? ” He points to a sharply defined woman, without face-paint, followed by a blurred, bright group of demons. ” I think because I liked her kimono. ” I reply lamely. “It’s interesting, because she has no make-up, while all the others do. ” He muses, ” I wonder if it means something. ”
He explains other aspects of the subjects that I didn’t know. For example, the young sumo in the parade are symbolic of a Japanese belief that children are imbued with the spirits of mountain gods, or while looking at the group wearing Noh masks, he sketches out the typical plot of a Noh play, stretching between both the physical and spirit world.
“Is it necessary to research the festival or culture before you go? ” I ask. “Not necessary, ” He replies, “But you come back and learn, and then go again and learn some more. Before each time think of how you want to spend your time, what you want to look for, what inspiration you will take from it. ”
“This one tells me you didn’t take your time. ” He says of a shot of a long staircase inside a shrine. He points a gloved finger at the blurred, distant figures at the far end of the shot. ” If you had waited until this guy came closer, it would be a much more interesting shot. And this photo of the statue overlooking the lake, I think you could have found a better angle. Take time, try lots of different angles. ” I explain how I have an irritable, non-photographer husband and he laughs. At least now when my husband complains I can tell him that a successful professional photographer told me I can take as long as I want.
I ask him to check a set of three shots from the Yokaichi kite festival that will be submitted to a contest this week. Two have the massive 100 tatami kite in them, and he suggests it is redundant to send both. He had pulled one of them aside and I ask, “Is this the better one? ”
“Today yes, ” He says, “But who knows. Tomorrow I might feel differently. ”
“Thanks sensei… How do you chose the photos in your gallery? ”
“Sometimes it’s just one photograph. Just one is enough. Sometimes I need to see the entire set. ” He goes onto describe an exhibition with a photographer whose work was, “Too good. Too beautiful. ” He didn’t want people to just come in and see the photos and say, “Wow that’s a great photo. ” And then forget all about them. He wanted a story that they would remember and so requested to see the photographer’s entire set. In his personal lab, also inside the house, he made a set of two hundred tear sheets and worked with the photographer to craft a story and together creating a great exhibition. ”
Minato Chihiro‘s moody black and white photos hang in the exhibition today, the product of another collaboration that has brought them closer as friends.
I suddenly wonder aloud, “Why did you become a photographer, Akasaka-san?”
“The great earthquake, you know the one in Kobe, happened. It made me think about what I was doing with my life, what I wanted to do. ”
“What did you do before? ”
“I was a lawyer. ” He laughs. I’m stunned.
He outlines his story for me, the tale of a student with a desire to live abroad, deciding to study his Masters degree in the United States. The decision required a year of intense study as Akasaka then couldn’t speak English. “The library became my home. ”
The study paid off and he was accepted, though it lead to a stint in tax law in Los Angeles. “I wanted to live there for the surf, ” He explains, “But I was so busy, I hardly ever got to. ” The hours were long, the work boring but competitive. He thinks on his time in L.A. with considerable regret, to the point of a mistake. “I couldn’t feel the humanity there. ” He returned to Japan to continue his work in Osaka, when in 1996, the Hanshin earthquake ripped Kobe apart and forced a reconsideration of priorities that lead to a three month trip to Mongolia.
He took with him a second hand Canon 5D, two lenses, one 50mm and the other a 300mm zoom, along with 200 rolls of film and was fortunate to be taken in by a family of nomads. Despite having no prior experience with photography, he began experimenting. “At first I didn’t know how to photograph it. ” He says, ” Mongolia is so wide. ”
Returning home, he developed his film and created a slide show that he would show to everyone. The feedback was positive and he eventually took it a magazine, who hired him for his first assignment.
“Was your family supportive of you giving up law to become a photographer? ”
He laughs, “They know my personality. They were more shocked when I wanted to go to America. ”
1996 was a busy year, with Akasaka deciding to go to Alaska only months after returning from Mongolia. He was to meet the famous Japanese wildlife photographer, Hoshino Michio there, however Hoshino was tragically mauled to death by a bear before he had the chance. Instead, Akasaka met a colleague of Hoshino’s and together they tried to continue his work.
Thirteen years later, he took the photos from that time and collated them into a photo book called, The Myth, half of which strives to present the breadth of Alaskan and Canadian wilderness, and half the culture and spirituality of the people who live there. Or once lived there. Even in twenty years environmental and social pressures have emptied the small village he stayed with.
“Making the book changed the way I think about photography. ” He says, ” As I’m taking the photos, I think about how they fit into a a story. But, ” He warns, “I never try to force them into my story. I try to be inspired by them. ”
His gallery, now three years old, has also helped to train his eye in what makes a great photograph or set of them.
“Have you been influenced by any other photographers? ”
“Oh yes. ” He says, then stops. “I can’t think of any names right now, but when an image inspires me, I try and replicate it. I practice and practice to perfect a skill, then try to apply it broadly in my other photographs. ”
He admits. “I am never satisfied. ”
“Would you say you’re a happy man? ” I asked.
He smiled broadly, “Yes. I am. With photography I go outside, interact with people. Because of this, I got to see the northern lights and the rainbows in Mongolia. I’m so glad I gave up tax law. ”
What I learned from meeting Akasaka:
1. Take time, try different angles
2. Look for the story in a photograph
3. Take a wider shot that provides greater context for a scene
4. Don’t be afraid to return to the same place to practice getting the perfect shot. Apply the skills learnt in the process of making one good shot broadly.
5. Learn from other photographers
6. Never be satisfied, always seek improvement
7. Photograph in RAW and learn to fix colour issues in post-production
8. Use a Polarizing filter
9. If you can’t find a house, nearby postmen are helpful
10. Always take an audio-recorder to tape interviews
I am so grateful to Akasaka Tomoaki for taking the time to speak to me and help give me some pointers on my photos. Meeting him was an honour, an education, and a lot of fun.