Jesse’s book review, ShootTokyo by David Powell
This time Jesse shares with us his review on a book that may be quite well known to many readers on this site. Dave Powell’s ShootTokyo book gets a review. Check it out.
Shoot Tokyo the Book…the ad of which should be on the right side of the screen as you read this. I am deviating here as I usually keep my reviews as laudatory as possible, however I admittedly jumped at the chance since I could use it as an example for some ideas I wanted to work out.
Now his name is always one that I have heard come up in foreign photography circles (never Japanese) and not really in a positive sense. Work aside; I could kind of see why as his camera collection that he flaunts on his site alone could be prorated at $40,000 (begging one to question the sincerity of his use of crowd funding).
However my concern isn’t about his cameras but really the content and what it says about him and a whole demographic of people who demanded it through his absurdly successfully $40,000 Kickstarter campaign that brought about this book.
Living here for nearly a decade I have always found it disappointing in what other foreigners like myself see in Japan. More would have seen Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai than Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai, or read John Hersey’s story on Hiroshima than Masuji Ibuse’s. We like to experience Japan but only through means of orientalism. It is as if we need western interpretation for it to become acceptable even at the risk of parody or inauthenticity.
Japan is ripe for this since its insular nature begs of it. And simply put…we demand it. Why have a real view of something whether good or bad when we can have something tailored to our temperaments? This is literally a Hollywood formula looking at Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, The Last King of Scotland, Avatar, Pocahontas, Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift, Shogun, etc. Their context is all the same, a westerner goes into a foreign culture and the whole takeaway is a glamorous process of self-actualization often at the expense of a non-western culture.
Every time the moral focus was on the individual’s own sensory experience while entertaining us with examples of the exotic. Underlying it all is this unconscious recognition only of the differences rather than similarities that is the stem of a lot of the cultural misunderstandings today.
Tailored to our temperaments…in comes Shoot Tokyo. Now stemming from the title I would expect nothing less than shots of Tokyo and it delivers. I mean it is a complete book of all things Tokyo. In an economical Joycean manner I can actually describe the whole book (literally rendering the rest of this paragraph meaningless) with the following: kimonogirlcherryblossomsfujipikachuyakitori3/11nonukesprotestsgirlsgirlsgirls-ramensushikarokeshinjukushibuyasalarymanpolicemanpackedtraingirlsgirlsgirlsschooluniformsumoshibainugirlsgirlsgirlsshibuyacrossingmonk.
It is divided in two halves, one in color and one in black and white. The color section seems to tell a loose story of photographs from just before the 3/11 earthquake to the present. Opening with the backside of a woman in a kimono we get a few low aperture cherry blossom shots, a Tokyo landscape, and festival. Then there is a message indicating it is 3/11 that if you were in Tokyo know strangely caused a sporadic amount of fires and the one captured here was near Roppongi Hills.
In the aftermath of Fukushima there was a reactionary response in the form of a series of anti-nuke protests that he shot. This leads to a series of Japanese restaurant shots, a karaoke store front followed by train shots, and urban landscape shots. Occupations that require uniforms and girls, roughly make up the rest before some more traditional shots.
Then it switches to black and white which in its editing becomes looser. A woodblock a print of sumo wrestler juxtaposed with a real sumo wrestler presumably met in a bar is as creative as it gets. With that said I prefer the black and white work more, there was a particular pairing I enjoyed (below) that features three similarly dressed women. In addition to having similar clothes their accessories and hairstyles are all quite similar and in their composition form a perfect eye line in what was more than likely a brief moment. They are coming from a wedding and represent well-to-do women of society while the woman in the shot on the right serves as a contrast with bleached hair, piercings, and a tattoo.
This is then followed by an afterward and a self-introduction. As much as the content, the presentation itself is just as notable. The paper is exceedingly thick.
This isn’t Tokyo per say but an offering of what you think and want it to be. The salary man, kimono girls, and the sumo wrestler aren’t living people that we understand through the photographer but instead characters. And by this a character is a caricature.
Now this is no fault to Shoot Tokyo nor I am going to single him out as pioneering the oriental perspective of Tokyo, because in every medium this is prevalent if not abundant and there will be more (look at all the personal documentary journeys through Tokyo on Vimeo that reiterate the same motifs). It is as if they are permanent tourists that can only express clichés that any travel guide can and has already confirmed. Disappointment is furthered by the fact that he has actually been in Japan since 2001 and yet can still only express as much.
Tokyo is special in that we have seen it so many times and upon arrival are blown away about how easy it is to photograph what we expected to see. The photos here all feel like tourist shots as all locations are easily identifiable and like a tourist he never really connects with any of his subjects and never penetrates deeper than the surface. Now I can’t comment on whether his ambitions were any better than this but certainly you would hope for one to aspire to more especially if the pitch is inspiration. Otherwise, it is just business in that you are here to give people what they want.
And that is what this book makes clear; this is not the work of an artist, but of a successful businessman. The perfectly executed Kickstarter Campaign, the website that features 40 dollar t-shirts, the algorithmic savvy name ShootTokyo, the you-can-do-it-too appeal of a normal unassuming Sunday photographer who decided to make a blog on a subject that is exotic, are all executed to be commercially viable. And really because of the Internet to be successful at photography one should seriously study marketing or web design.
To illustrate this I will use another person I feel built the same type of machine in Eric Kim. If you followed him from the start till now you will see he is pretty much winging what he does as he changes his philosophy to whatever external influence he comes across (for example a Charlie Kirk) and offers back to us a highly accessible understanding of his own personal discoveries. We only see that because he put himself out there so we can see his growth and I can certainly respect his hustle. Think we all do in both of them, but that is what it is…a hustle. It is important to separate the hustle itself from the result.
I would consider neither an artist but extremely intelligent businessman who have made themselves a machine modeled around accessibility. The crux of the Sunday photographer/street photographer has always been gear and everything irrelevant like networking and blogging, instead of simply going out day after day relying on your camera, your eye, your own sense and knowledge of composition all while considering variables of light, darkness, color, line, value, and spatial division in order to capture a moment at its highest beauty and perfection.
But you see Powell is smart nowhere does he make a claim to artistry (well I didn’t really look) and if anything contradicts such an argument through the humble unassuming approach he takes. But calling a spade a spade the work is shallow and for his demographic that is entirely fine. The blame should then shift over to the people who want this. Because for the businessman, no one has ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public.
With that said, I have never met David Powell and have only heard nice things about him from those who actually know him and nice things about his car and cameras of course. Through Bellamy, he gave me a code to get this book for free with (I believe) the knowledge that this was more than likely not going to be a favorable review and from what I heard responded, “regardless I just want him to have it.” Says a lot about his character but also his business savvy, as there is no such thing as bad publicity. The link is on the right…
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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Jesse asked that I do not alter this piece from as written, this includes the section with the line through. Your thoughts and comments are welcome. Please keep it civil.
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