Jesse’s Book Review – Sunlanders by Sean Lotman
Jesse has been very busy lately, with a new job and a new series of interviews coming. But he has made some time to put another book review together. This one is special to us as Sean is a mutual friend to both Jesse and I. I feel honoured to have such talented friends.
First review in nearly a year and it is only appropriate to continue where I left off reviewing another peer of mine. Sunlanders is the first book from Kyoto based photographer Sean Lotman. Going into this review the curious thing that struck me is that I really don’t have much context as I realized for some reason me and Sean (when I do see him in Tokyo) is that we actually only talk cinema. He did show me a real early dummy at my birthday party but that was really it. Great to see it realized and happy to share it with you all here.
Sunlanders consists of 48 photos all taking in the land of the rising sun. Immediately noticeably and main aspect of Sean’s style is his use of color. All photos are taking in film and have the unique characteristic of being darkroom printed. Can’t say I have seen anyone do this in the last 20 years and he heightens this affect with obvious dodging and burning for a more surreal effect. I always like that “halo” that comes from burning in subjects in black and white, so found it curious what it does in color and more importantly can then be used. If anything it is a tool to draw the eye to where the photographer wants us to go, but it also generally changes the atmosphere of the shots.
This is just done for its own sake could teeter on gimmicky but it works with his style consisting of reflections, dual layers, and everyday shots that come off strange. It is this realism of the everyday mixed with surrealism that for a movie reference reminds me of the spectrum of the Japanese New Wave films that began with the stark everyday realism of Oshima Nagisa of the early 60s to the color and surrealism of Shuji Teyarama at the end of the wave with his ATG films of the 70s.
Print 9 (above) best reflects this sentiment in perhaps the book’s best “how did he do that” shot. It is an off angled photo of a lamp, cello, empty chair, and piano with an apparition of three students playing the instruments.
How he got this effect is up for speculation, but manner in which it is handled is what I appreciate it. The ceiling dominates the upper third of the vertical framing with a center line on the ceiling leading our eye to the middle. In the middle of the three students he selectively burns in a spot of brightness further drawing our eye to the subject that would of went to the light space created by the lamp. On the lower third a strong line in the carpet does the same. No space is wasted. Because the location has no modern amenities and the students are in uniform the photo feels timeless as it literally fades before us. The Japanese New Wave was the last hurrah of quality mainstream filmmaking focusing on youth that faded into surrealism before disappearing completely.
Flipping through the pages I noticed 15 of the 48 shots feature subjects wearing masks or who have their face obstructed. Speculating on how conscious he is of this fact would be redundant, but I would like to acknowledge the resulting surreal effect it creates reinforcing my theme. There is a bit of mystery throughout the book that even ends with a photo of fog over some red tori gates. Coupled with the aforementioned photo, bizarre burning techniques often centered on people’s faces, and masks; if anything metaphor the way we see the country as outsiders. He has been in Japan longer than I have which is over a decade and it is still the mystery I think that draws and keeps so many. No matter how long you stay you aren’t Japanese and forever will remain on the outside.
I like the subtle reflection of this sentiment in his photos. For a title such as Sunlanders featuring Japanese people, some of whom are even in kimonos, or are sumo wrestlers and salarymen, is nothing new and if anything is cliché. But the way he captures them shows an honesty. I like the fact that the locations of the photos are given and actually only one photo was taking in Tokyo, alleviating a lot of the trappings foreigners fall into. I made criticisms on the ShootTokyo book some years back for being an orientalist view of clichés of Tokyo and was afraid on taking on this review for fear of the same overall effect, yet there is an honesty in his eye that still shows us the mystery of being in Japan yet remaining on the outside. The warmth from a lot of the subjects that one can see he genuinely engages with, coupled with the wonder and mystery, sets this book apart.
The book has been out for a few months now, so further information and interviews can be found on most sites within the street photography sphere. A quick Google search and you can source the book for about 30 GBP or just follow the link below. In what seems like the ending of that quick fad of internet black and white in your face street photography, it is really original and fresh to see thoughtful color street photography coming out.
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.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
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