Philosophy of Hardcore Monochrome Photography

Interview with photographer YAMASAKI KO-JI

Our friendship with YAMASAKI KO-JI began even before my first visit to Japan in 2017.I bought his book “IN OSAKA” and did a video review on it then. I was struck by the author's approach and the spirit of freedom in his photographs. I wanted to know more and I wrote a letter to Yamasaki san. It was a start of our friendship.

We met every time when I flew to the country. In Osaka and Tokyo. Honestly, I like Osaka most. We walked, took pictures and drank a lot of sake in the bars. Being a fan of Japanese author photography*, I felt myself at home. I did not want to leave, I wanted to become part of this world, but our countries are too different for a simple Russian guy who want stay in Japan for a longer period of time. At least not with my love for freedom.

YAMASAKI KO-JI became the person who opened to me places that were visited by such famous Japanese photographers as Takuma Nakahira, Moriyama Daido, Nobuyoshi Araki, Issei Suda, Koji Onaka and many others. Together we followed by the footsteps of a famous photographers and made a video “Tokyo Street Snaps with YAMASAKI KO-JI”.

When I look at the pictures of Yamasaki san, I involuntarily feel the spirit of creative freedom. I do not see the cliches, any obligations to the viewer, to the client or the need to meet certain standards. The photographer is honest with himself and this honesty makes me looks at his pictures again and again. This is what I lost when I switched from film to digital photography. But I also try to be honest, like Yamasaki-san, and follow the call of my heart. I’m still searching my way in this field. 

*PS The term Japanese author’s photography refers to post-war photography in the style of PROVOKE magazine (hard contrast, monochrome colors, lack of detail and surrealism in general). Young Japanese photographers of those years often contrasted themselves with honest and truthful journalistic photography and were participants in student revolts that swept the country in the 60s. They claimed that photography does not reflect reality, but merely copies it.

GR: OK. Let’s talking about this not easy times. Your life was changed due to pandemic? Your work, your photography?

YK: Egor san, please correct my strange English ...Originally, it is possible to work with a remote connection, so my job  itself does not change by pandemic. But I'm restricted to going to my customers for containment measures, so I'm only at home. I'm lazy watching only youtube everyday.

So now I rarely walk outside and take pictures. I take random shots of windows, tables, dishes, wife and etc. in my room.

anyway, I can't stay calm unless I can always pressing the shutter.

GR: OK, I will... :) But I'm not better than you in such things. So, let the language just be a tool! How long you doing photography now? Do you still prefer Black and White film and to print pictures in a dark room? Photography for you is... Therapy? Relax? or Something more complex?

YK: Yes, I'm taking photos using film. I enjoy printing in a dark room with monochrome film. Monochrome tends to be ideological, and what is photography? There are many times when I am made to think about. However, even if I think about it, I've been in the loop for decades, so now I'm just thinking about "taking a picture and leave it."

In the past few years, I used to use 80 rolls (100 feet x 4 cans) of film per month with a half camera, but now,  the amount I take is considerably smaller than before. and the price of film has become expensive now ...

Photography for me is perfect for killing time. I don't make photography difficult anymore. shooting my favorite scene on film, bring back it, develop it, printing it in a darkroom and meet again the scenes. I don't know if it's a good photo, but these analog time is fun. It's like a drug !

GR: Anyway, your photos about simple things, at a first glance, but viewer need an cultural background in art to accept your photos. Viewer is exist for you?

Can you agree with Takuma Nakahira’s quote “The photos are actually taken by a camera, not a person behind”. Do you agree? What about your relationships with camera?

YK: I record photos from my point of view. I'm glad if the viewer interprets as they see, rather than trying to understand my point of view. If the person who sees my photo evokes something through it, I think I published to public has meaning.

I think the camera should be selected according to the shooting style of oneself. When I was shooting street-snapshots, I used a compact  camera that I only press it. There is no particular insistence on the brand. I think that what is important is not how you interact with the camera, but how you interact with the subject.

I still use a compact camera, but when I want to walk alone on the beach and relax, I take a rangefinder camera or an SLR camera. Recently, I like photos of my relaxing time.

Just recently, I got an old PENTAX SLR for 100 YEN. It looked so tattered and pitiful. I'm currently disassembling it to repair it. I'll use it again. That's my relationships with camera.

* Takuma Nakahira is a photographer I respect. However, his photographic theory is very difficult to understand for me!!

GR: It seems that photography for you more meditation like, not something you pursuit of. What about digital cameras and relationships with digital photography? I know you use a smartphone.

YK: I don't really think about digital cameras and digital photography. A good photo, whether digital or film, is good. I think that you can use it properly according to the application. However, if the analog method such as development and darkroom is gone, the fun of photography will be halved for me now…

GR: What things inspire you for making pictures? I mean music, photobooks, or alcohol…

YK: My feelings about photography change from day to day.  Sometimes it feels good to see which one, and sometimes I'm totally insensitive.  It is impossible to express the feelings of the moment when you feel good in words.  That is also the reason for taking pictures.

sorry, may not be the answer …

GR: OK, that’s all right! I have two last questions. From the height of your experience and understanding of photography, what advice can you give to novice photographers? Also, please writing a kanji that reflects a essence of the photography to you and tell us what it means.

YK: I'm not good enough to give advice to photographers ... And it depends on what genre you want to take. I will explain only my case.

First, try to imitate your favorite photographer. And watching many many photos. You will continue to research the shooting style, composition, mood and etc. If they were born in the darkroom, you should experience it as well.

Acquisition of technology is also important. And continue. Don't give up even if it doesn't work. Unlike in the past, there is a lot of information online now.

And take a picture every day. People, trains, towns, your own room, anything. The worst thing is the word "nothing to shooting things". The camera can take a picture by pressing the shutter button. it's easy.

Please Bring back a lot of frames that might be useless. And choosing. Then you can see what need your realy things. Please continue it every day and every day.

Surely you will hit various walls on the way. Start thinking about the meaning. But a photo doesn't have to have meaning.

Understand that the only photo you think is good. Let's hear people's opinions. Then, digest it yourself and establish your own picture. "My picture" is the most important thing.It's not good to think too much. Face yourself. Taking what you like. You can also share it on the site. You can hear different opinions (if you need it).

Unless you are aiming for a professional or applying for a contest, photography does not require much technique.The minimum skill is enough. Please refine your tastes. Think of a different perspective. Sometimes break the theory by doing things that go against theory. Don't think the photo theory.

The destination is long. If you keep going through your photos until you die, you'll see something.

Photos never suddenly get better, that never happens. Continuing every day, you get feedback from it, and you think about something, and I think your picture will be established.

GR: Wow, that’s great answer!  Photography for me is like a rollercoaster now and you spark my interest again in photography! Please write a word in hieroglyph which can describe photography for you in one word.

YK: In one word?

It is "生".  

"生" in Japanese means 'raw", "life", "live".

I think the photography is  life itself !!

And it's real.

GR: I like it! Simple and deep enough at the same time. Thank you Yamasaki San for interesting conversation. Hope to see you on the streets of Japan in the future!

YK: Yea!

PS: visit Yamasaki Ko-ji’s WEB to see more photos!

PPS All photos used were taken by the author.