I was honoured and surprised to be invited by my friend Nicki Gwynn-Jones to write an article for the January edition of Visual Art, magazine of the Royal Photographic Society's Visual Art group, of which she's just become the editor. The group doesn't have an online presence (yet) so Nicki has very kindly agreed that I can post this collage of the pages. (I was using my iPhone in a badly lit room so apologies for the poor quality). I've cut and pasted the article too, which the eagle-eyed amongst my readership (approx 3 people at the last count) will notice builds on a recent blog. Some may call that an exercise in developing a deeper, more profound point of view, whilst others may say it's simply laziness... You decide! Thank you for the opportunity and the permission to post the piece here, Nicki!
Well, curiosity is everything. If you don’t have curiosity, you don’t have anything. That’s the thing that keeps you going—you’re curious about what’s around the corner. David Bailey
It's 20 years since we moved to Tokyo. 'We' was me, my wife and our son - we came back with an extra one - but it didn't include a camera. It was another 10 years before photography joined the family.
We'd hesitated over the decision to go but our minds were finally made up one Saturday morning at Clapham South tube station. There on a billboard ad was a couple at a greasy spoon cafe, a chrome condiment caddy on the table between them, stuffed with salt and pepper, and all the other condiments. There was an ashtray too. He looked like Andy Capp and she wore the same expression as the women in L'Absinthe by Degas.
"We never did make it to Paris", he said mournfully in her direction. Bucket lists weren't called bucket lists back then but it was as though he was listing all the things that would have been on theirs if they could live their lives again.
We decided to move to Japan on the Monday.
I loved Japan for many reasons but none more than the way the country brought a new surprise every day - something that fed my deep sense of curiosity.
When Einstein said 'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious', he wasn't displaying false modesty, he was highlighting how questions - the everyday symptom of a curious mind - lead to discoveries. He was extolling the creative force of curiosity, and much of what I was to experience in Japan would impact my personal photographic journey when it began ten years later.
Nobody visiting Japan can fail to notice how the country and its culture embraces the natural world. I enjoyed the arts and crafts movement – pottery, furniture, woodblock print maps – and was curious about the associated myths. Many were spiritual with Zen Buddhism featuring strongly. I read about Zen's seven aesthetic principles and when photography worked its way into my life, I took pictures that attempted to illustrate each one. In truth, I failed miserably but the principles have driven much of my work.
Datsuzoko. Some people are lost without routine and the formulaic approach that often accompanies it. Datsuzoko on the other hand is the absence of both; indeed, some have called it a reprieve.
Fukinsei. Symmetry and regularity bring a predictable rhythm but asymmetry and irregularity generates a dynamism that excites.
Kanso. Simplicity. Focus on what matters and get rid of the rest.
Seijaku. "Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear, and not bothering." Winnie the Pooh understood the importance of tranquility but Saijaku goes further by stressing its creative power.
Shibumi. Simplicity doesn't have to be simple. Look for subtle details to bring complexity into the equation.
Shizen. Whether natural or made by human hands, the principle of Shizen means there will be no sense of pretense or artificiality. Photographs Shizen-style won't feel 'photoshopped'.
Yugen. A tease. Curiosity piqued. Show less, communicate more. If Emily Dickinson had been writing about the aesthetic principles, it would have been Yugen she was describing when she urged us to "Ignite the imagination and light the slow fuse of the possible".
Curiosity played its part again recently during a visit to War Photo Limited, an exhibition centre for war and conflict photojournalism in Dubrovnik's Old City. Founder and former photojournalist Wade Goddard concludes his introduction to the exhibition guide with these words: "We cannot hope to answer all your questions on this subject but do hope you finish with more questions than you started with".
When we apply this questioning and curious mindset to photography we find ourselves trying out new things. We take risks. We look beyond the obvious in search of something new. Perhaps this is what Robert Mapplethorpe meant when he declared "I'm looking for the unexpected. I'm looking for things I've never seen before."
With Mapplethorpe's words for inspiration and energised by lots of questions, I went looking for the unexpected with my camera. I've never had a photography lesson so I didn't know what would happen if I pulled the zoom lens out quickly as I pressed the shutter or if I zoomed in on architectural details. Could I disguise what I was photographing? Could I draw out a feature that people might miss as they walked past? What if I photographed the colours of lights reflected in steel columns and turned them through 90 degrees? Could metal become the home of a seascape?
Curiosity has been the catalyst for a wonderful photographic journey.