The 80s were an incredible time to be around. Boundaries were being challenged and the future was projecting an outer space society. In Japan the fever for globalization and consumerism was high. Everyone lived the present as if it was the future, while the present future is lived with nostalgia for the glorious past. This dichotomy is the story that Johny Pitts is telling with his new work: Sequel to a Dream: Ghosts of 80s Japan.
To define Johny's work too precisely would not give justice to the multi medium visual artist that he is. Founder of Afropean.com award-winning online journal, author of Afropean: Notes From Black Europe, TV and radio host, poet and musician, Johny is a 360 degree artist.
We are excited to have him here in our Magazine to talk about his latest production executed in analogue photography. In this work he time travels back to the 80s to process the memories from his childhood, when everything that seemed possible clashed with the arrival of the future.
Johny, thank you for being here with us today. In your work, Sequel to a Dream: Ghosts of 80s Japan, the subject of time weighs heavily in your pictures. You moved there during the 80s and analogue photography back then was the norm. Analogue in Japan has always been big. Is there a parallelism between the two of them in the capacity they serve you as a metaphor?
Yes. You know in Japan - and I think it’s to do with the notion of ‘Kami’ in the Shinto religion - people often treat objects as though they are inhabited by something like a soul, which is why for instance Tower Records still operates there. The CD market is still huge because people want music as a physical object. I think it’s similar with analogue photography. I remember the photographer Nobuyishi Araki saying he rejects the cliché that ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’ and describes how important it is to choose the right camera for the right project, because each camera has its own ‘aura’.
That’s what I found when I dug out the cameras my parents used in Japan in the late 80s - cameras with the right aura. I’m so pleased to see how late 20th century compacts like the Yashica T4 and Konica Big Mini have been making a comeback. There was a huge amount of innovation going on and a real belief in technological progress in Japan in the 80s, so they had some brilliant features - some hilariously gimmicky, some genuinely interesting.
And the thing about 35 mm compacts (rather than rangefinders or SLRs) is that you are allowing this old technology to make a bunch of decisions for you. If you want to capture ‘reality’ by controlling aperture or using hyperfocal distance, go bankrupt yourself with a digital Leica M. For me the whole point of using film is to enjoy the mistakes and the lack of control. That is what you get with a compact.
You have mentioned that you collect expired Konika films for your project, with this choice you're also playing with the meaning of time. How was your experience working with these films?
I’m fascinated by Konica generally, and feel comfortable using it as a central motif in my work because of its status as a defunct corporation. You can’t see my work and buy into the brand because it no longer exists as a manufacturer of photographic products. But the brand was so optimistic and so indicative of the 80s and 90s. And you can feel the optimism when you look at their products, but they feel haunted somehow, because you know that the brand - and much of the late 20th century optimism that it is encoded with - failed. With the film this is magnified.
I remember Konica film because my parents used it, and a lot of our prints in the family albums were on Konica 100 Life paper. I also remember a famous 1990 commercial “Konica colors are calling me.” That summed up a world in which walls were coming down and globalisation/multiculturalism was the only way forward. That commercial made me want to be a photographer. But because even the very last rolls of Konica film expired in 2009, those Konica colors are now very odd. This especially holds true for the film I like to use in various ISOs - Konica SR-G, or the Japanese version Konica GXII, which mostly expired in the early 90s and often have a weird purple color-wash due to the specific way Konica’s emulsion layer structure degrades.
It is almost as if the color shift from the expired rolls catapult the viewer in this distorted future. Were you expecting these dramatic results?
When I shot the first roll of film I had no idea what I was doing, and was absolutely shocked when I saw that the quartz date had imprinted the original date of manufacture in the corner of the frame, and some of the wild glitches were unexpected; film soup, and end roll white out, and faded color and light leaks. When I first began shooting I bought and shot many rolls without testing the batch too, once coming out with 12 blank rolls that I’d shot in a beautiful snow storm on Sado Island. So don’t buy expired film in batches unless they’ve been tested!
But this way of working is a tradition popularised by people like Saul Leiter, who often used expired film, and the Kamoinge workshop of African American photographers. It is photography at the edge of failure, an antithesis in many ways to street photography’s ’decisive moment’.
The title is so evocative and gets the viewer in the right state of mind while we travel through time with you. How do your dreams as a child, and our time now, have some parallelism to these pictures?
I think the images suggest something bittersweet. Japan in the 80s bubble era was a time of decadence, and when I was there as a child it was all about consumerism. To put it simply, we lived in five star hotels, and bought lots of things and it made us happy. The department stores were like utopias of leisure and consumption! But this was during that era Francis Fukuyama came up with his ‘end of history’ idea - an overconfidence in Western Liberal Democracy after the fall of Communism. I remember that no one felt ashamed by this consumption in Japan because it seemed as though in the future everyone would have flying cars (I saw a working prototype of one), money and lots of leisure time.
Being from Sheffield - a city decimated by such thinking, Japan in the 80s seemed to offer an exciting insight into what the world might look like 20 years in the future. But of course it didn’t work out like that. Mixing actual photographs from my family’s 80s Japan archive with contemporary work shot on the same cameras is an attempt to problematise my own nostalgia for the period.
When you look for an image, what moves you to press the shutter?
For this project, I’m not at all interested in ‘documentary’ in its most banal sense. I’m interested in memory, and how imperfect that can sometimes be. When I go back to Japan I photograph places and atmospheres I vaguely remember from my days as a child there in the 80s (droplets of warm rain on a transparent umbrella, the textures and pastel colors of a postmodern building, etc) and let the old technology do the rest. In the end my childhood memories are glitched and made weird.
What influences your photography more, music or poetry? Is there a relationship between the making of a photo, and a poem or a song?
I would say both influence me equally. The title of this series ‘the sequel to a dream’ comes from a line in a Tanka poem by Machi Tawara, a Japanese poet who was something of a phenomenon in the 1980s and really captured the spirit of the time - blending references to modern things like Coca Cola and McDonalds, with what was then considered an old fashioned poetic form. But interestingly I later found out that this is also the title of a 1987 City Pop record by the idol Mariya Takeuchi.
I usually avoid trends, but I’m so so thankful to the vaporwave music movement that took a lot of corporate elevator music and Japanese city pop and slowed it down, and made it weird, in order to critique the naivety or in some cases cynicism of the era. In many ways I’m trying to do the same thing with my photography. I have been making my work in parallel with the movement since the early 2010s, but I quite like the idea of people seeing this as a photo-essay equivalent of Vaporwave.
As you are a poet as well, do you explore the same kind of themes in your writing?
Well, because this project is about memory, I’ve also been writing my own Tanka poems that capture my fading childhood memories, which contain moments of innocence. The memories kind of come out as ready-made Tankas, without much thinking or editing. I have one that reads:
Rapture at deep dusk
in this dimly lit cocoon
I drift through dream space
laquer-red to indigo
JAL night flight to Narita
Those colors and that mood is all I can remember from the first flight to Japan in 1987. So the poems will be merged with the images, because in their own opaque way they serve the same function of preserving this extraordinary period of time in my life and in modern Japanese history. As someone who is an older ‘millennial’- that is, born in the first half of the analogue 80s but coming of age in the digital 21st century, I try to keep two questions central in my work; what happened to the future? What should we do with the past?
A big thanks to Johny for sharing these insights on his project. We hope you enjoyed this interview as much as us – feel free to comment below if you have any questions for Johny! Follow more of his work on his Instagram .