Wish you were here

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Having a nice time. Wish you were here.

Back when people on vacation sent postcards, you could almost guarantee that some version of this message would be penned on the back. On the front, a glossy image of a city skyline, an iconic landmark, or a beach, perhaps a sunset. Romantic visions of faraway places. The typical travel cliches.

The cliches are all around in Hawaii, but it’s no theme park, so too are indicators of social discord.

Sleeping homeless bodies strewn along Waikiki’s luxuriant beach parks. Armed robberies and assaults reported in the local paper. Labor disputes and demands for a living wage in the hospitality industry. Indigenous protests against construction projects. Then there’s the rampant tourism. Mainland Americans in particular make good use of their youngest state, while Japanese visitors seem to consider it an extension of their own island archipelago.

But it’s the romantic visions we aspire to when we travel: the exoticism of a distant land and culture; the romance of following in the footsteps of earlier explorers, artists and writers; the beauty of all those visual cliches.

This glimpse of paradise is what I was looking for when shooting images of the place. Hawaii. Cliches everywhere you look—and frankly, who cares. When all is said and done…

Having a nice time. Wish you were here.

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Trending

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Pancakes, pizza, popcorn, pretzels. Every season some new food fad sweeps through Japan’s cultural laborotary and then spreads out to the rest of the country. These fads are identified by the long lines of patient young customers waiting to get a taste of the latest and greatest. Some, like the now classic pancakes and pizza, are absorbed into the local food culture and enjoyed by all manner of people; others, like popcorn and pretzels, fade back into their relative obscurity as the lines shrink and the specialty shops eventually shutter their doors.

These days people are getting in line for tapioca tea. The popularity of the Taiwanese drink also known as bubble tea or pearl tea, which has been available locally, here and there, for a couple of decades, has exploded as increased tourism and social media platforms like Instagram have fueled its appeal, and it seems like nowadays in many neighborhoods there’s a new tea shop on every other street corner. Worldwide, tapioca tea is projected to become a $3 billion dollar industry within a couple of years; locally, all types of retailers―everyone from convenience stores to the yakuza―are looking to cash in on what appears to be morphing into another Japanese culinary staple.

While the photo above was taken a couple of days ago in Tokyo, the photo below was taken in Melbourne in 2011.

On New Year’s Eve, as the hours gave way to 2012, I snapped a photo of some young women and others in front of a city drink stall.

Another time, another place, and it’s tapioca tea, yes, but this photo is special to me. As I wrote in the introduction to a visual essay that it is part of, this particular photo was instrumental in my journey as a photographer.

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Trainspotting

Tokyo’s rail system is not only an engineering and logistical marvel, its stations, platforms and carriages are also a photographic wonderland.

Tokyo’s stations, with their adjacent shopping malls, are the town squares of the city and its train lines, more than its streets, are the city’s thoroughfares. Commuting is woven into the fabric of everyday life here—even photographers need to ride the rails. And so, opportunities regularly present themselves to create some visual poetry.

Time travel

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Slipping through the door of a local neighborhood Thai restaurant in Tokyo, I found myself transported through the sights, sounds and smells of the place to the streets and khlongs of Bangkok, back to younger, adventurous days of cheap guest houses, dusty bus stations and idyllic beaches. For a few moments I lost myself in several years of past travels. I was a time traveller.

Travel in any form is a wonderful tonic for the soul. With summer approaching, I felt, however, that I needed some actual travel and ultimately decided to do it in Hawaii. When researching a destination, guide books and websites are good for the nuts and bolts stuff, obviously, but literature helps provide a sense of a place, its culture and history. So, after booking tickets to Oahu, I bought a copy of James A. Michener’s Hawaii.

I hadn’t read any of Michener’s best-sellers before. Hawaii, published in 1959, has a verbose literary style that is dated and, at a thousand pages, could use a good editor, but Michener spins an engrossing epic tale, the kind you happily get lost in. The long chapters’ episodic narratives are linked by the genealogical threads of its many characters and tell the history of the pacific islands, from the violent forces of nature that formed them over millenia, through the arrival of the first human inhabitants by canoe from Bora Bora, to the 19th Century, with the introduction of Christianity and the country’s annexation to America, and the next century, with its world war and the post-war events that culminated in Hawaii becoming the fiftieth state in the union.

The book didn’t just give me some small understanding of the historical currents that shaped Hawaii, it also reminded me of the adventure stories I enjoyed reading as a teen, when I travelled vicariously through time and space: to such places as feudal Japan and 19th Century Hong Kong with James Clavell’s Shogun and Tai-Pan; along the Mississippi River with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; to post-war north Africa with Paul Bowles‘ The Sheltering Sky.

Removing the rose-tinted glasses, it’s clear that travel isn’t what it used to be; today it’s an eight trillion dollar industry, where travelers are herded from place to place, sights and activities are ticked off, and shopping is prime. Still, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of arriving in a new land for the first time.

Books like Hawaii aren’t fashionable these days. Mass tourism, global connectivity, streaming video services and interactive games have deemed them all but obsolete. But their fictions can still ignite the imagination and the books noted above and others like them turn readers into time travellers.

Slant Rhymes

In poetry, slant rhymes are coupled words that don’t exactly rhyme but match rhythmically through assonance or consonance.

Slant Rhymes is also the title of a collaborative photography project and book by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. In Slant Rhymes the couple pair images — one from each photographer — to create visual or thematic harmony or tension, a visual assonance or consonance, a dialogue of sorts between the photographers and their work.

 

To a certain extent what I do is play with the world, but it’s disciplined play.
— Alex Webb

Listen to your photographs. They are often wiser than you are.
— Rebecca Norris Webb

 

This visual and thematic pairing occurs in many photobooks, any time there is more than a single image on a two-page spread. It isn’t necessarily collaborative; the images are usually created by the same photographer and the pairing is probably considered in terms of the book’s overall sequencing. Regardless, it’s one of the elements that, when done successfully, greatly enriches a photobook, increasing the drama or poetry on each page.

This pairing of images, it’s something I also enjoy doing.

Process

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This was such a Tokyo scene: the dramaticaly sunlit high-tech architecture, the sharply dressed businessman with his headphones and briefcase. I had to take a photo.

Initially I did very little processing on it: some exposure and color adjustments and some slight cropping: the photo above. I returned to it some days later and, looking at all the shapes and shadows, thought the image was too busy; it needed to be simplified. I decided to do a monochrome conversion. This looked a lot better to me; stripped of color the scene had greater focus and drama.

The white screens. On Tokyo‘s streets it’s rare to find such blank space as on those screens. They would typically be plastered in — or digitally screen — advertising. These thoughts led to me consider creating a double-exposure image using advertising imagery. The twin screens‘ resemblance to a pair of glasses started to suggest eyes — and I felt that, while obvious, this was a strong concept. I looked around the city streets for appropriate imagery to shoot. In the end I added some manga-inspired eyes from images decorating the front of a pachinko parlor. I experimented with the idea of combining color eye imagery on the main photo, but it is quite busy visually with its interplay of architectural forms and shadows, even in black and white, so I converted the eyes to monochrome and kept the overlay blend very subtle. I’m happy with the final double-exposure image. I think the modified screens add an evocative futuristic and enigmatic atmosphere to the scene, opening it up to a wider range of interpretations. It should make a nice print.

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Urban voids

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The construction going on in Tokyo seems to be morphing into art these days. Like some Christo inspired wrapping project, Shibuya’s south side currently has more negative space than buildings as the neighborhoods lining the railway tracks are torn down to make way for some newer and no doubt taller towers. For now the area has the look of a partially rendered graphic environment.

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One

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A few facts:
Edo, a small fishing village, grew to become the center of power in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s.
Edo was renamed Tokyo after the Emperor Meiji was relocated to the city in 1869.
Today, the greater Tokyo metropolitan area is the richest on earth; it’s also the most crowded.
Tokyo city houses more than eight million people, Tokyo prefecture more than 13 million, greater Tokyo more than 38 million – or close to a third of Japan’s population.
Metropolitan Tokyo covers some 845 square miles, greater Tokyo sprawls across 5240 square miles.
On average, around 16,000 people are crowded into each of these square miles.
Despite this, nearly half of the households in metropolitan Tokyo comprise just one person; in the central city regions more people live alone than not, and by 2030 it’s estimated that the number of single-person households will surpass 18 million.
Regardless of the demographic, social and economic reasons, these seem to me to be tragic numbers.

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