It's been a couple of years since we last saw the work of Japan-based photographer John Sypal here in the Community. His snapshots of life in Japan have been ingrained in our memories since we first saw it. The unique perspectives, engaging vignettes, and stories in the form of a single image still make us want to pack our bags and head straight to Tokyo. That is why it is such a pleasure to have had a quite substantial conversation with him.
In this interview, John talks about his new work, touches on the different values of photography, and gives advice to fellow photographers. You might pick up a thing or two from him or maybe not but we do know that all this wisdom can only come from experience. And for us, that's good enough reason to sit down and listen to what John has to say.
Hello, John and welcome to the Online Magazine! It's been a while since we last wrote about your work here. What have you been up to lately?
Thanks for having me and thanks for your patience in me getting my stuff ready for this. Things have been busy. Recently, I did an exhibition of photos called "The Tokyo Crowd" at Totem Pole Photo Gallery, a small artist-run space in Tokyo that I'm a member of. It was a fun show. I’ve been shooting on the streets of this city since 2001 and put a bunch of prints- 5x7s to 18x22s- that I’ve made over the years. I ended up taping 255 up with a lot leftover.
With so many pictures overwhelming you the show was less about individual "great shots" but rather hopefully conveying something about life through quantity. There was a lot to see and finding among them connections through time, specific locations, and the particular subject matter was educational. I always think that your photographs should tell you what you’re interested in and these had a lot to say. With some many though, it's funny — if you figure an average shutter speed of 1/250 a second, that entire exhibition combined equaled roughly one real second out of nearly twenty years of living.
How has your work changed in the last couple of years?
There's certainly more of it! I still shoot-develop-print and repeat the same way I’ve always done — so my print box stacks have grown. I've also been shooting more medium format lately — with either a Pentax 6x7 or Fujifilm GF670. If I’m going for a long walk the GF670 wins out over the Pentax. In 2019, I did a show of 6x7 photographs. What I really enjoy about medium format is how extraordinarily generous it is — it cuts out a sizable rectangle from the world for you. If 35mm's like a pair of scissors 6x7 is a good pair of garden shears. There’s a great capacity for detail that makes for a good visual experience.
Your website is full of incredibly beautiful black and white photos from Japan. What draws you to the scenes you choose to capture?
It's hard to explain with words. We all look at the world through our own mental filters and baggage. I love Tokyo and have spent a lot of time looking at the photographs that have been made here. So, after years of looking at and working with Japanese photography, there's certainly stuff bouncing around in my head from what I’ve connected with. Walking around with a camera, you’ll find stuff out there that calls out to you. I don’t really question it — if there’s a particular place or something that “moves” me, I’ll take a picture.
What I’ve found out is that nearly every time, if I snap four or five frames, it’s nearly always the first one that nails it. I don’t really “work the scene” because I want to think that the closer you are to that “ah-ha!” moment, the truer the picture can be before my brain gets in the way. I mean, if I feel compelled to take a photo, I figure that the moment that sparked that feeling is the most direct and personally “accurate” way to do it. This is just for me though. A transmission of that same feeling to the viewer isn’t the responsibility of a photographer. Making something about life is. Viewers can later sort it out and hopefully see something that resonates within them.
We just love the candid (and to some point, emotionally colorful) photographs you take. How do you insert yourself into those situations?
The basic thing is to engage with people. I like people and I speak Japanese so it's no trouble to interact with those I meet. I don't impose myself on strangers... there’s no reason to ruin someone’s day over a picture. I'm a big guy and can't hide, anyway. I guess after a while, you work out how to do what you want to do. You figure out how to naturally insert yourself into a situation — if you're smiling people don't seem to mind. I wouldn’t deny that being a large westerner helps at times. I think it's better to be up-front about things — I don't hip-shoot and don't recommend that anyone does, really. If you have a genuine desire to capture life, you have to be a part of it- put yourself out there.
What inspires you to continue taking film photos in this day and age?
It's a purely personal interest — film was what it was when I got hooked on photography in college and I just never found a reason to "go digital". To me, there's something important about how I've incorporated the process into my life. By this, I mean the bigger picture, so to speak. the fact that there's always some exposed rolls of film in my fridge that I need to develop and contact sheets to be made and from there, actual prints to create. It's a layered cycle — there's always lots to do and I don't ever want to be entirely caught up. There's no end goal other than to keep working. I like taking photographs and I like looking at them. And I like dealing with photographs shot on film, as prints. I don't think I could shoot a bunch of digital photos, apply presets and then upload them to some platform and be done.
I'm sure there's more to it than that, of course, but I just can't imagine finding a similar satisfaction in digital photography — with the gear but more so in the actual prints. It's so "perfect" — yet apparently, seeing as how tech stuff gets updated every year, never enough. I've had my Leica MP since 2006 and my current enlarger and darkroom equipment since 2004. No need for any updates, as long as I can get film and chemicals, of course. Certainly, I enjoy cameras but consistency and simplicity make me think less about the gear and more about photographs.
But as for prints, since I don't have a film scanner and my flatbed scanner doesn't quite fit my standard 11x14 print size, I decided for this feature to photograph the prints themselves. Silver gelatin prints get reduced to competing with digital images online — on their own turf, in person, they're amazing. The fact that they're not data but actual objects is important to me. So, showing them as objects here seemed interesting.
Any plans to venture into a different area of photography?
In terms of format, my methods are a balance between my capabilities and my level of interest. Half-frame cameras are quite fun but with me wanting to print as much as I can, being able to shoot twice as much would put me twice as far behind. Likewise, while I respect large format photographers, I know I couldn't ever slow myself down enough to properly shoot a 4x5 camera. I actually think that 6x7 is my natural pace — it's a good balance between quantity and effort. I do shoot 35 mm more often though — the cameras are much easier to take with you anywhere.
Who are the photographers/artists that you look up to?
I could give you a list of names of the usual suspects but lately, I'm really, really into collecting anonymous, found snapshots. These pictures possess an immediacy and authenticity that I find intoxicating. They were simply made for whatever reason the person with the camera had — pictures made out of pride, curiosity, love, maybe a joke, all kinds of things. You can feel it in the pictures, they're beautiful and funny and bittersweet and I just can't get enough. They're of a different age. There are real lessons to be had in these kinds of photographs. I'd like to make work that has this kind of immediacy and authenticity to it.
How would you describe your photographic work?
I take pictures that work not as substitutions for the things and people pictured but waypoints along a path. This approach is where the title of my ongoing series and book Zuisha is from. There is an informal train of thought essay form in Japan called "zuihitsu". The kanji used to write this 随筆 works out to be "follow the brush"- I replaced "brush" with "photography" 随写. Follow the lens, so to speak. It's a made-up word. I think the best of the pictures are evidence of a reaction, an engagement with the subject or phenomena in front of me rather than a pre-set idea about how something ought to look. The camera leads, in a way. If there’s a message, it’s a kind of personal revelation, not some societal critique. I take the kinds of photographs I enjoy looking at later.
Tokyo Camera Style continues to be an inspiration for film photographers the world over. How do you keep up with making such great content?
The thought that Tokyo Camera Style occupies a place in people’s lives is still hard for me to wrap my head around. It's just something I like doing. It started as a way to counter the whole "film is dead" thing digital photographers kept flooding forums within 2008. I still saw film gear all over and, rather than arguing online, decided that simply showing what I saw was a better way to make a statement. That so many have found pleasure in this over the years is humbling. So are the ways it’s benefited my life — the friends made along the way in particular. As for the "how" part of your question — luckily for me, there are just so many people into photography in Tokyo, and many have a camera on them. The photography scene here is interesting in that it's multi-faceted and so dense.
Places people tend to congregate in Tokyo aren't that vast — I have seen people with cameras in nearly every kind of place imaginable — so there's no need to be a hunter. It's all out there already. While the camera shop landscape has undergone upheaval and faced multiple closures, there are still enough shops open that you can spend an afternoon browsing several in one area. People who go to camera shops often have their own camera on them — as do people who visit photo galleries. So, there are always people out there with something worth sharing. Speaking of photo galleries, I've heard there are about 100 photography exhibitions up in any given week. These range from the Tokyo Museum of Photographic Art to small artist-run spaces scattered around the city. I go to as many exhibitions as I'm able and recorded that I saw about 120 in all of 2019. That's only 10% of what's shown in Tokyo! I participate in this scene and at Totem Pole, I have three or four shows a year. When I have an exhibition, thanks to IG, the camera parade ends up coming to me. Many gallery visitors show up with some pretty amazing stuff.
From all the cameras you've featured on your feed, which would say was your ultimate favorite and why?
That is a very tough question. Certainly, a memorable one was a hand-made, hand-carved wooden medium format camera with a 360-degree lens. That’s in the book. I always do like seeing a Leica M6 with a 35 mm f2 Summicron though!
Do you have upcoming projects? Please invite our readers.
Yes — I’ve got a few pages of medium format work published in an independent photography collection called GLISTERBOOK. I’m sharing the issue with Ed Templeton, Mark Steinmetz, and JH Engstrom. I didn't know who else was going to be a part of it until well after I accepted the offer to participate. Needless to say, I was really impressed and humbled. What a lineup. Photography would be better off with more publications like this.
How does a perfect day look like for John Sypal?
It'd have to be a long, meandering walk through Tokyo — preferably starting in the west and working my way east or south to the north. With the sun at your back, everything is lit just right. It's no fun walking with the sun in your eyes. Unless it's a festival or something, in general, I don't hang around one location. For me, long walks — at least 15 to 20km are more interesting. Back streets in particular. There's this generally accepted and propagated view of Tokyo in the West as some sort of futuristic "Bladerunner-vibes" neon-drenched concrete jungle but that's really not true — or if it is, maybe just a block or two around a few major stations.
Most of the city — or at least the more interesting parts — are made up of three or four-story buildings. Tokyo is actually a bunch of little villages melded into one big place, so roads can meander and split and sometimes turn out to be tiny little dead-ends deep in a part of town you've never heard of. I don’t use Google Maps on these walks — looking around is its own reward. It’s not like I’m in a hurry! Walking with a camera clears out your head and eye — it's a good way to get out of yourself. Even if I don't shoot more than a roll or two over an afternoon I still have a good time.
Any last words?
Yes — three things, actually. First, I just want people to enjoy what they do. Anyone reading this knows there’s absolutely a thrill to pushing the shutter button and taking a picture, especially when photographing people. I think cameras don’t get in the way — they enhance or at least, create an experience. Take the pictures you want to see, of the people you like seeing and take pictures that reflect your life. These will mean more to you in twenty years than pictures of strangers on the street. And don't get caught up in the numbers/flex game of social media — it's meaningless, or at least not nearly as fulfilling as making work that interests you — pictures that help propel you along your own path.
Second, PRINT YOUR WORK. See if there's a local darkroom in your area or set one up in your home or apartment. Tokyo's got a lot of rental darkrooms still in business but a lot of darkrooms (myself included) set up spaces to print in their apartments. It's much easier than you might think, and I feel well worth the time and effort it takes. It's great to see so many young people getting into film but I can't quite understand why so many just get scans from their negatives. It's like collecting vinyl records and instead of getting a turntable, downloading MP3s. I understand that printing isn't practical or possible for everyone nor do I think a photograph is superior by the fact it was shot on film (and printed) but it's worth looking into.
Finally, as for cameras — seriously, get the exact one you want. It’ll be worth it.