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Tokyo Radiant – A Change In Behaviour

You can buy Philipp’s book ‘Tokyo Radiant’ directly from him on Edition.ly

‘Tokyo Radiant’ is a series of photos shot in Tokyo in 2012 and 2013, using a digital camera modified to capture infrared light. While portraying the Japanese capital in a street photography style, it also seeks to convey the particular atmosphere I encountered when moving back there.

I had lived and worked in Japan between 2004 and 2007, so when returning to Tokyo for a job in 2012 I immediately felt a change in behavior, in the attitude that had taken place. Gone was the optimism that always had kept the country on course, even in the face of natural disasters that frequently strike the archipelago. Fear and uncertainty had spread, putting the nation in a sort of zombie mode where everyone kept on with his daily life without knowing what tomorrow would bring. My initial impression was confirmed in talks with friends and strangers. Explaining everything with the tragic events in 2011, where the Great Eastern Earthquake with its tsunami and the subsequent nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant had shaken the country, would probably mean to oversimplify, but the catastrophe had sure taken its toll on Japan, making it less light-hearted than it used to be.

My first contact with Japanese was while traveling through South East Asia in the late nineties. I got curious and went there to visit a friend I had met during my travels. After completing my studies, I moved to Japan on a working holiday visa, and from there, things developed. Mastering the language took me some time, but I could immediately identify with the mentality, which is surprisingly close to the German mentality in some aspects – attention to detail, a sense of perfectionism, but also the readiness to let things go and have fun once the job is done. I lived in the Kanto region two times, totaling 5 years. Now I have many friends there and still try to visit as often as I can, ideally once a year.

As a highly developed country, Japan is well prepared for the natural disasters that frequently strike its islands – earthquakes, typhoons and (in some regions) volcanic eruptions. So even large-scale earthquakes such as the one striking the Niigata region in 2004 claim relatively few lives – back then, only around 100 people died, while in a less developed country an earthquake of the same size would have left thousands of people dead. So people have learned to live with the constant threat and have maybe developed a sense of security, especially in urban regions where infrastructure is good and most buildings are recent. But the Great Eastern Earthquake of 2011 shattered that sense, since its tsunami (not the quake itself) caused destruction beyond any imagination. Flood walls could not resist the masses of water, and the incident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant demonstrated that the planning of the plant had not taken into account such an event. Any country would have been shocked by a catastrophe of this size, but in Japan with its high level of engineering and its faith in technology to solve problems, the shock was probably bigger as everyone would have assumed to be sufficiently prepared and therefore safe. The confusion around the nuclear meltdown and the fact that radiation is invisible surely contributed to the overall anxiety, as no one was really sure about the long-term consequences. While people have widely been indifferent to where their energy comes from, an anti-nuclear movement supported by wide parts of the populations has established in the years following the catastrophe.

In order to capture the sense of insecurity and eeriness I felt in Tokyo in 2012, I experimented with different styles and techniques – monochrome pictures with harsh contrasts or shots with high sensitivity to bump up the graininess. One day, I discovered a modified digital camera where the filter to block IR rays had been removed and purchased it. After taking a couple of shots, I knew I had found my medium for this series. These infrared photographs show an everyday world that has changed its colour, its aesthetics reminding of early photographic prints, x-rays or psychedelic visions of the 60s. They thus capture the ambiance of Japan’s capital in a personal, artistic vision and connect to my earlier works by displaying the seemingly known and ordinary world in a different light.

It took me some time to get a feel for tonalities and create a look that felt right, since colors are not defined in infrared. Just like with monochrome pictures, the source of light can be seen even though the colors may be off, so there was a difference between pictures shot on sunny or overcast days that had to be taken care of. I was also astonished to see hair in one and the same picture turn into different colors, most likely due to hair coloring used by elderly women that has a different IR characteristic. Understanding and playing with those effects was an interesting challenge.

The first photographs that strongly inspired and encouraged me in what I was doing were Thomas Struth’s street pictures. Being an autodidact without formal education, it was all trial and error for him in the beginning. His street picture series, stretching from his home region of North Rhine-Westfalia over New York to Tokyo and Shanghai, intuitively felt right to me as it was neither sensationalistic nor exploiting some superficial exoticism, but felt true and authentic.

It may not come as a surprise, but I feel at home when looking at works from Wright Morris, Walker Evans or William Eggleston. There is a whole tradition of photography discovering the man-made environment we are living in, and I feel like being part of it. Another school of street photography, exemplified by Henri Cartier-Bresson, is following a more journalistic drive, focusing on humans in everyday situations, and while I like that as well, it is nothing that I would like to do myself.

I follow many personal blogs and look at many photo books, especially self-published ones. There are so many good ideas out there, but only some of them really connect to what I want to do personally, and that’s fine. I liked Masataka Nakano’s book “Tokyo Nobody” (2000), where he photographed streets in Tokyo with the premise that not a single person should be seen in the pictures. And I like Edward Hopper paintings, where architecture is used to convey a certain sense of melancholy.

My artistic roots can be traced back to Japan, where I accomplished my first photographic series “Tokyo Nights” (later published as “Tokio im Licht der Nacht” by Berlin-based Parthas Verlag). Arriving in a foreign country, I wandered the streets and was amazed by the many visual details the city had to offer. Diving a bit deeper into photography and urban exploration, I was mesmerized to see how many traces of our culture can be found in seemingly ordinary street views. Letter boxes, cars on the streets, graffiti on the walls and even the shape of trash bins would tell us something about the society living in those places, and about the zeitgeist shaping them. With enough distance, the most mundane and ordinary scenery could turn into a realm for endless exploration. Shooting the streets at night, I created that sense of distance, inviting the viewer to give the seemingly known environment a second look by displaying it in a different light. Urbanity and man-made structures have been my main occupation ever since.

When talking to publishers about turning the series into a photo book, editors liked the project, but eventually shied away from publishing a project too specialized to become economically viable without external funding. After scanning the market for grants and applying for some, I decided to take the initiative and started a crowdfunding campaign, which helped me to finally publish “Tokyo Radiant” in October 2016. Doing this by myself and without the help of a publisher has been yet another experience, but one that I do not regret.

I believe a photo book is the perfect format to present pictures. Being lightweight, easily storable and relatively cheap, it is accessible to everyone and less elitist than a matted and limited print. I frequently visit exhibitions and have held some myself, but I still like the idea of having someone’s work compressed in a book, and to look at wherever I want while having a cup of coffee or listening to my favourite music. It makes the whole experience more casual, and I think that’s a good thing.

Recently, many publishers feel committed to what I call a “poetic photo book”, where pictures are arranged to tell a story, turning the book into some kind of visual novel. There are good and bad examples for this approach, but above all I feel that this is only one possible way, though maybe predominant nowadays. I personally feel fine to have a book I can start looking at on any page, just like a catalogue.

“Tokyo Radiant” is separated into 3 sections: The first part is focused on people, so there are crowds and individuals in everyday situations. As the idea was to convey some sense of uncertainty, the persons I chose for this book are queuing, seemingly staring into nowhere; they are rushing through the street or covering their faces with masks. The second part looks at details or urban objects, as I call them – street signs, playground figures or manhole covers. Those are the details that form the image of our cities, though we are mostly not aware of, because the things surrounding us in everyday life seem so normal that we do not even seem to notice them anymore. The third part widens the perspective and looks at streets and urban sceneries. The general theme of having the seemingly ordinary displayed in a different light can be found in all three sections. Throughout the book, most pages are arranged as diptychs, where a theme is introduced on the left page and mirrored on the right.

The crowdfunding scene has professionalised in the last years, which makes it harder for single creatives to make themselves heard. It’s more about products, advertising budgets are higher, and perhaps people are less curious than they used to be when crowdfunding started. About 5 years ago, I supported some crowdfunding book projects, most of which succeeded, but recently I have seen many projects fail. There are still book projects on the big platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but I believe the creation of smaller platforms specialising in art projects would benefit the creative scene.

During the crowdfunding campaign, I quickly realised that it is not enough to have your project listed; you have to promote it proactively, every day. And I learned that the many commercial services that inevitably approach you do little to push your project forward – metrics may look nice, but have little value. What paid out the most was to search for likeminded people and explain the project to them – direct contact with real people, just like in the analogue world.

You can buy Philipp’s photobook ‘Tokyo Radiant’ directly from him on Edition.ly

Philipp Zechner

I am a photographer interested in urbanity, man-made objects and the seemingly ordinary. My works have been displayed ingalleries in Germany and Japan. So far, I have published three books with my photographs: "Tokio im Licht der Nacht" (2008), "Frankfurter Nächte" (2013) and "Tokyo Radiant" (2016).

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