"Japanese" Black and White

Discussion in 'Photographers' started by Michel Hardy-Vallée, Jul 13, 2005.

  1. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    OK, the name is probably over-reaching, but I can't tear myself away from seeing a pattern in Japanese B&W photography, in that they often have a look like this:

    http://www.minox.org/mhs_contest/suganuma/The barbershop.html

    Soft gradations, deep blacks, creamy mid-tones, strong contrasts that don't feel harsh, absence of grain, and "that special feel" all seem to be characteristic of Japanese photography. It seems to me that those picture attain a high level of contrast with a very soft, even light.

    Can anybody (especially if you are Japanese!) comment a little on what is the origin of this look, and how it is attained (exposure/film/dev/paper combo)?
     
  2. medform-norm

    medform-norm Member

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    Hi,

    before we comment on this, can you check these links:

    http://www.easterwood.org/hmmn/ (think this blog is maintained by an American guy and with excellent links to Japanese photography sites)

    http://ns.kochi-med.net/moto/camera/

    http://www.shashin.org/omote/

    http://www.16photo.com/index.html

    http://www2.odn.ne.jp/f-kuni/photo.html

    a really weird one:
    http://www.ask.ne.jp/~yamanaka/

    http://exp.hiho.jp/

    http://chocbird.egloos.com/m2004-10-01/


    can you point to more images that in your eyes have this Japanese look?

    We're asking this, because it might be necessary to establish a common ground of understanding first, before reeling off about the virtues of Japanese B&W, where we mean something completely different than you.

    We too think there is something special about Japanese photography, but maybe for completely different reasons. Nonetheless, like you, we are interested in how these images are printed. Perhaps it's also a way of 'being in the world' that is different: they seem sensitive to different things, different lighting conditions and different possible subject matters to take photos of than Americans or Europeans.

    Maybe, just maybe, this might evolve into a discussion thread that we find really really interesting...but then, it might also not.
     
  3. Andre R. de Avillez

    Andre R. de Avillez Member

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    I for one would be very interested in seeing where this discussion leads. I also tend to think of japanese photography in the terms of soft gradation (even when contrasty) , meticulous composition, small grain, etc...

    It might, however, be that those are the ones that stand out to us. I certainly remember seeing japanese street photography that was grainy, harsh, and gritty (but still very good). Perhaps there is a cultural trend for soft gradations, but perhaps not.

    Sorry for this throughly unhelpful post. :smile:

    André
     
  4. Dave Wooten

    Dave Wooten Subscriber

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    I m not sure but possibly the Professor mentioned in an earlier post the reason for Verito lenses and that era and design of lenses going for premium prices in Japan.....and I believe there was a photographer and a philosophy behind it....but I could have dreamed it also.....I apologize Professor if I spoke out of turn....could you shed some light on this? Sounds facinating...
     
  5. Peter Rockstroh

    Peter Rockstroh Member

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    I don´t think the "Japanese Look" can be defined by a film/exposure/developer/paper combo, but rather by the way these photographers approach the craft as such. Like their woodcarvings, their cuisine, their aquarium tradition and many other artistic manifestations, they show respect for the medium, hard work and a carefully studied approach to composition. I assume that many of these artists would find it offensive (to the viewer and the subject photographed) not to give it their best effort within their very educated sense of aesthetics.
    I can only assume that if you grow up in a world where your surroundings, houses, gardens and even food are constantly monitored to be visually pleasing (according to century old rules), you grow up with an eye for these qualities, and it shows in your work.
     
  6. eric

    eric Member

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    Interesting comment and I was going to say it is more "cultural" look to it. The culture shows in the medium where our American culture creates the look that we normally see. After college, I read a lot about Eastern Philosophy and I see a lot of that (ying-yang thing to put it succintly) in the Eastern style. I think there is a balance to a lot of those photos. Wherein, you can't see midtones, unless there is whiteness, you can't see deep rich blacks, unless you see creamy whites. Kinda like, you can't know how hot something is unless you contrast it with something cold. Grrr, so hard to put into words, I think Pooh tells it best.
     
  7. Andre R. de Avillez

    Andre R. de Avillez Member

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    Peter, that's what I had in mind as well when I said there might be a cultural trend going on. I have not seen many japanese photographer's work, but the few I've seen were great technically speaking (not to imply that the content wasn't great as well, but we are talking about perfection in craft).

    But what I'm wondering about is that as outsiders we tend to stereotype the little we know of japanese photography. I tend to think of American photography as a toss up between great work and crappy-trying-to-break-the-rules work. Perhaps japanese photography is the same way, but we only get exposed to the best of it.
     
  8. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    The image I'd really like to show you is from Araki Nobuyoshi, from "Sentimental Journey" (1971). It's a woman brushing her teeth by the window, and there is a single source of light coming from the window pane. Shot seems to be taken with a moderate wide angle, from a distance at which you see her from head to toe. But the distinctive trait I admire in it is how the rest of the scene is pitch black, except for the lit portion which is very bright. Yet the contrast feels smooth, almost seamless.

    I didn't see it on his website, but the galleries at http://www.arakinobuyoshi.com/update_gallery.html have that "special aspect" I'm talking about. (For those who don't know the guy: not work safe!)

    In the list that you have submitted, I could say that the first picture on the top of the easterwood.org site has some of that look, especially for the large zones of pitch black, and the contrast with creamy whites.

    The other way I can describe what I find distinctive is that they avoid glistening subjects in harsh light. The opposite of this would be Ansel Adams and Edward Weston: shiny surfaces, harsh desert light, strong textures, etc.

    My original intent was merely to discuss the exposure aspect of these photographies, because I admire how they tame very difficult contrasts into beautiful works. I was curious to know as to whether this is more the result of a proper examination of lightning in a scene, or if whether this is the result of a technical process on film/printing. As with everything, I'm sure the truth lies midway, but the technical aspect sprung to mind first because I've been printing my first negatives last night, and started feeling how hard it is to work with contrasty negatives.

    I find those pictures to be the summum of using the BLACK portion of black and white. They're not exactly shades of grey, rather densities of black. My naive interpretation is to relate them to traditional ink paintings and calligraphy, and how perfect the blacks can be in those artworks.

    But I must say that this goes beyond the borders of mere exposure discussion! :smile:
     
  9. medform-norm

    medform-norm Member

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    En lieu of a very long answer, for which I have no time at the moment, I can say that the book "In Praise of Shadow" by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) - original title In'ei raisan - available in (modestly good) English translation by Seidensticker - made great impact on us.

    Shadows and darkness are very important for the Japanese sense of aesthetics, whereas Western aesthetics tend to have more emphasis on light This is dictated by our cultural history with a strong orientation towards light in both religion and philosophy. But there is more to it than that. We, amongst ourselves, call it a different awareness of how things are present. Like there are also difference in 'being aware of the presence of things' between photographers stemming from predominantly catholic or predominantely protestant regions. For instance, we can tell for 99% sure if a photo was made by a German raised in a catholic region or not. These photos have a certain undeniable mystical quality - in the true (religiously oriented) sense of the word, not the romantic one. If you grew up in a protestant region, you will have a hard time even understanding what quality we're pointing to. This makes discussions on these topics very hard if not impossible.
     
  10. Robert Kennedy

    Robert Kennedy Member

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    I think there are certain cultural tendencies to be sure.

    I took a ceramics class which had a Japanese student in it. His work was precise and exacting. Excellent attention to detail. I find this carries over into Japanese wood work and architecture too.

    Interestingly, I find post-war German photography to be a bit remote and dehumanized. Seems the Germans do a lot of architectural work. At least the stuff that makes it over here.
     
  11. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I think your observation on darkness is a very important trait to consider in approaching such artworks. As it is the case in calligraphy, the darkness of those pictures is not what is not there: it's what you're supposed to look at. I guess that's where the analytic approach can bear some fruits. The Dasein of being Japanese, however, is a more difficult topic to consider.
     
  12. medform-norm

    medform-norm Member

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    But could be quintessential to finding an answer to your question.
     
  13. tim atherton

    tim atherton Inactive

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  15. Keith Tapscott.

    Keith Tapscott. Member

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    There`s nothing special about these images, even if they were taken on the Minox sub-miniture format. Getting the right exposure and development along with choosing the optimum grade of photographic paper has a lot to do with it.
     
  16. medform-norm

    medform-norm Member

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    Regardless of the value of his work, I personally would not include him in my list of Japanese BW photography that has that special something I'm looking for. I don't find in his pictures what I find in e.g. Toshio Shibata's work, of which some examples here: http://www.laurencemillergallery.com/shibatalist.htm

    http://members.aol.com/shibata810/3rdpage.htm

    To me, Moriyamas work is already too much influenced by American photography and popular culture. But that's a very personal opinion.
     
  17. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    masamania will help solve this.

    One thing about old Japanese photos, everyone had black hair. New technologies in imaging have helped to correct the problem.
     
  18. Christopher Colley

    Christopher Colley Member

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    I guess I could see how this idea of Japanese photography having a certain look makes sense. I studied some Soviet photographers work and found that during a certain period of about 30 years it was easy for my eye to spot what seemed like patterns in the work of certain Russian photographers.

    If I were to discuss why I feel that certain cultures might photograph in a certain way that others might not I would go back to the feeling I have had, and which was expressed above in an earlier post, that we photograph certain ways based upon our own personality and how we were brought up. In the world of handwriting people can theorize certain traits of a person merely by how they form words with a pen, sometimes they are quite correct. I think the same can be applied to photography or nearly any other form of creation. The way we grew up, the people around us, our home-life dictate how we see photographically. If this is true it would make sense that a certain culture would mostly gravitate to shooting photos in a similar way. I would say it has more to do with what I like to call a 'sociopolitical device' than the equipment they are using. The specific area they live(lived) in, the photography they have been exposed to, the people they talk to, the way their work is commented upon, the age, life experiences... all effect what they see as a photograph. If they are Japanese, and surrounded by Japanese photographers and Japanese culture to me it would be obvious they would photograph like a Japanese person.

    Our surroundings effect us greatly, even if we don't notice it. How many folks have lived in a certain area for a few years only to find they are picking up the accent of that area in their speech? Some things wear off on us without us even realizing. I am pretty sure its the same with these photographers, its more about where they live and what is around them than it is about the camera or techniques they use.
     
  19. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Responding to Dave Wooten above, I think you're thinking of another thread on the Nicola Perscheid lens, where I observed that one of Perscheid's more well known photographs was of a famous Japanese actor.

    If there's a characteristic "Japanese look" I'd guess it comes from other influences in Japanese art like sumi-e or ukiyo-e where smooth gradations of tones are considered a sign of particular skill.

    But then there is Hello Kitty.
     
  20. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I've moved this thread from "Exposure Discussion" to "Photographers."

    "Exposure" is more for things like the Zone System, using a light meter, sunny 16 rule, etc.
     
  21. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    My initial intent was to discuss what aspects of exposure were involved in that particular look, but as the discussion is changing directions, that is a proper move.
     
  22. craigclu

    craigclu Subscriber

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    Do you think there is more sensitivity to areas surrounding and framing the subject? I'm thinking of the right/left brain writings of Betty Edwards and her teaching methods that center on defining the framing area and learning not to zero in on the subject and not work outwards as is one's impulse (especially "shooting" pictures). I struggle with this and admire my more artistic friends for being able to see these things instinctively where I need to constantly stop myself and remember to do this.

    We had a Japanese student stay with us for awhile some years ago and I recall his sensitivity to form. He felt that all of the time as a child, doing things directly with his mother (including origami) gave him an appreciation for spacial concepts and form and are a general part of Japanese culture/expectations. I believe these things form the basis for enhancing technical ability along with a sense of art, beauty, space and form. Re-reading this, I'm not sure I'm expressing my thoughts as clearly as I felt I was thinking about this but we can't write a book here, either!
     
  23. jjstafford

    jjstafford Inactive

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    You must allow that Japan has had several periods in which certain esthetics changed, and they differ depending upon the medium. For scrolls, the answer is a No. The attention is to the center and presumes a horizontal (time, space) continuum moving left.

    Japanse scrolls are unwound from right to left as the eye takes them in from the same (right to left.) Areas of attention tend to be towards the center. Some details at the top and bottom might be omitted, or left incomplete.

    I'm aware of this because I agonized through Western rationalizations of composition for some time before letting it go, then learned of other cultural rationalizations.
     
  24. medform-norm

    medform-norm Member

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    David, you've all the right to do that. But does this move imply that if & when the contributants to this topics suddenly change the direction of this discussion and start translating all our 'cultural musings' back to the practice of exposure and metering light and all that, you'd be prone to move this thread back to where it came from? You'd keep us swaying us back and forth like the wind does with the reeds on a Japanese sumi-e painting.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 22, 2005
  25. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    If the original poster would like to move it back I can do it, but it just doesn't seem to have ever been about that, and I suspect that what we're talking about here isn't really an exposure issue. Will something look more "Japanese" if you meter in one way rather than another?
     
  26. jjstafford

    jjstafford Inactive

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    The Japanese metering is best done in ambient mode. It is the light shining upon that matters, not the light that reflects from. oohhhhmmmmmmmmm