As part of a college graduation present to me, my wife booked me for a photowalk with the esteemed Alfie Goodrich.
She had previously bought me a shiny new DSLR to replace the last in a succession of lousy point-and-shoots, and wanted to make sure I had the training to make the most of it. After unsuccessfully trying to schedule a training session with the wonderful ladies at 37 Frames Photography, they referred my darling to Alfie Goodrich, another Tokyo-based photographer. She booked a one-on-one photowalk with him on my behalf.
The trip in itself was a surprise to me; I knew we were going somewhere, but I hadn’t even seen the destination until we got to the check-in counter. While we were waiting for our flight she had dropped the name of my mentor for the day so I took a few minutes to try to pull up his work on my phone. The signal was poor so everything loaded slow, and from what I saw I did not recognize any of his work.
On the day of our session, Alfie met us at our hotel in Shiodome, we exchanged pleasantries and he and I headed out for the day, stopping first at a Tully’s by the train station. We discussed what I hoped to learn from him that day and he reviewed some of the pictures I had taken thus far in the trip, offering helpful critique and getting a feel for my technical skills coming into it.
He showed me a few published books of his to explain some different styles (me not having much of an art education beyond some collegiate art history courses) and I learned for the first time what a triptych was.
We set out and caught a train to Ueno, following some above-ground train tracks and taking pictures of people and things along the way. We had decided to tailor today’s walk around street photography.
For the first time, I learned what the hell it actually meant to “expose for” things. I don’t know why I struggled with the concept so much; all the books I had read constantly referenced the practice, but I could never figure out what exactly they meant.
The concept is this– the human eye can see a wide range of colors and contrast, but cameras can only see a smaller subset of that. Picture a black bird against a bright blue sky. Short of 24-point autofocus and all sorts of slow in-camera processing (the likes of which are seen in many consumer point-and-shoots), the camera can either capture the details in the bright sky, or the details in the dark bird, but not both– one or the other will be either too dark or too bright.
So, the photographer has to assess which aspect is more important to the composition of his picture. Is the bird irrelevant, and he is trying to capture elaborate vapor trails in the sky? Or is the sky irrelevant, and he wants to see every frond in the bird’s feathers? Capturing the sky will mean the bird will become a silhouette. Capturing the bird means the sky will turn completely white. Exposing for something means to make that judgment call, and make sure the actual subject of your image is properly lit and captured– not necessarily the entire thing.
Alfie also taught me the similarity between fishing and photography. Japan is a very structured, orderly, and predictable place. When one sees something interesting without having a camera at the ready and thinks “damn, I missed the shot,” there is a high likelihood that if the photographer stands in the same place and keeps watching, the same event will happen again. Patterns are everywhere, intentional or not.
Just like fishing. Stand in one place with your hook in the water long enough, and something’s bound to bite.
The benefit to this is the ability to operate in fully-manual mode without needing to constantly be changing settings. You pick a spot and a test subject, expose for the parts of your composition you want to highlight, then wait for the perfect test subject to come along without having to change all your settings because now you’re facing a different direction, or have to rely on automatic modes with all their quirks.
We anchored ourselves to a few different points throughout Ueno, capturing images of people and things but failing to secure any career-changing photographs for either of us.
Next thing I knew, we were headed to Asakusa, the tourist tchotchke haven of Tokyo.
As soon as you approach Asakusa, you’ll see the gate with the massive lamp, the temple and the pagoda. All are beautiful. All are quintessential Tokyo. All are photographed to death. Part of capturing an interesting photograph is thinking outside the box, to see (and take a picture of) things from perspectives that most people would overlook or not think of. Everybody’s walked up to the gate at Asakusa and taken a picture of it. But how many people have walked right by it, then turned around to see what things look like from there? How many people have walked under it, then looked up?
Of course, this sort of mentality can get people into some serious trouble, but the greatest artists all suffer for their work, I suppose.
Asakusa was very, very crowded that day, so we left it and headed towards Kappabashi, the industrial kitchenry area of town. Here you’ll find all sorts of cutlery that rivals medieval weapons in terms of savagery and I believe this is also the district that sells realistic plastic display food, but we were more interested in trying to frame an interesting picture of the Tokyo Skytree.
We wandered back alleys and streets, discussing how he got into the industry and looking for random stuff with neat coloration worth taking pictures of. One thing I’ll never forget about the Bronx was how colorful it was, thanks to the murals and haphazard DIY construction that seems to hold everything together in ghettos around the world. Japan is a very colorful place; everything has color. Contrast that with Atlanta, where everything is either brown or some variation of it.
We stopped for lunch at a hole-in-the-wall yakiniku joint in Ueno that initially tried to turn us away, on the grounds that they couldn’t serve us because they didn’t speak English and had no English menus. Alfie speaks fluent Japanese and made it clear we knew what we were doing, so they seated us and brought us a few beers.
I had no idea what we were walking into, and I’m not sure if he picked this place for the shock value or because he genuinely likes it. After dining on the livers, intestines, hearts and stomachs of various of God’s creatures, I can safely say I am an animal lover. They are delicious and go great with beer.
He tried to order horsemeat as well but they did not serve horse.
Shooting people in the back is a habit I need to break. They’re much more interesting when you can see the whites of their eyes first.
I was amazed at the difference in picture quality right off the bat. Primes are definitely the way to go if you tend to operate at a fixed focal length (you don’t use zoom much) and tend to take a lot of pictures in dark places where flash is not always permitted.
Plus, primes are a cheap way to generate bokeh with the best of the Flickr pool. Those curves! That indistinguishability! That chromatic aberration!
The day continued and I was exhausted. I was lugging around a very uncomfortable camera bag containing enough weight to keep a corpse at the bottom of a lake and in the end I don’t think I even changed lenses once (until we bought another one)!
After finishing off our evening in Shibuya, we stopped at a small bar that was frequented by tourists and expats. I never knew the name, but wouldn’t remember it if he had told me anyway. I was tired, drank too much, ate an entire pizza, and cried about my dying grandmother. I’m a miserable drunk and was terribly embarrassed, so again, my apologies, Alfie.
We departed ways and I headed back to the hotel. I’m pretty sure I got lost along the way and was both tipsy and completely out-of-contact, which caused something of a panic with my wife (sorry about that too).
A funny story– I had taken to browsing GaijinPot one evening months before our trip, and on the front page was an article by some expat photographer in Japan, detailing a complicated setup of a photoshoot with a model and some moving trains. I read it, thought it was neat, then didn’t think about it again. When I came across one of the images from the set again in a different capacity entirely, imagine my surprise to find the author of the original article was none other than Alfie Goodrich himself!
A big thank you to Alfie Goodrich for sharing more wisdom in a day than would have been gleaned in a semester anywhere else, and an equally big thank you to my lovely wife for facilitating our photowalk. I now know which end of the camera points where, and what most of the buttons do.