Mikio Hasui is a man that needs no introduction. This Japanese photographer is known as much for his fine art photography as his work in the world of fashion. We took some time out with Hasui-San to talk about Kissaten culture in Japan, the importance of social media among other things.
How has social media and the popularisation of apps like Instagram changed photography?
I think it's great. The base of online communication used to be language, however, the appearance of new social media platforms such as Instagram and tumblr added photography to the online communication. It increased the opportunity to share the situations and joys which are hardly expressed by language by just capturing the impression and experience on our daily life. Photography became much closer to our life.
On the other hand it made the artistry of photography, media to express, vague and unclear. Artistic photographs differ from the communication photographs but now the border line of them is vague and subjective.
Therefore there are more posts as an artistic photograph and they are tend to be called as art works more often. Of course it's ok that there are such kinds of art. In fact I also get the opportunities by posting my photographs as an photographer. Yet my base is still to work on print, the original format of photography. Because I believe photographs should not only be seen online. It should be embodied by materials like paper. And I wish more people would realize the importance of it.
For those unfamiliar with Japanese culture could you tell us a bit more about Kissaten culture?
Kissaten slightly differs from traditional cafes. Originally Kissaten was not only a place to have coffee and tea or smoke. People were there to socialise and communicate just like cafes in France. Most of them are small and often have less than twenty seats. Usually, the place is dark and quiet. In restoration period after the war, numbers of Kissatens appeared, and it became a cultural and social place for those artists such as writers, painters and actors.
Nowadays, after the appearance of American styled Starbucks cafes, they became popular because of its reasonableness and speed, unlike Kissaten which is more closed, stoic and cultural. Fortunately, there is still a Kissaten culture in Japan. It's not only a place for relaxing and spare time. All the service is provided by members of staff not a self-service like most contemporary cafes.
It was a unique phenomenon, but there was even Japan originated Kissaten with loud jazz music which is called Jazz Kissa. In the Jazz Kissa, sometimes the session suddenly started when musicians came together, but now it is seldom seen.
Are you based in New York permanently now? How has that affected your creativity from your time spent in Japan?
現在はニューヨークに完全にベースを移しましたか? それよって、あなたが日本で過ごしていた時に湧き上がってくる創造性や独創性 にはどのような影響がありましたか?
I obtained an artist visa last summer. It expires in three years so within three years I would be travelling between Japan and America. I am based in New York, but my work in Japan keep me busy so actually I spend half of my time in Japan. I'm still considering what I'm going to do in the future. I feel after I started working in New York my work tends to focus more on Japanese culture and nature. Especially ’17 photos 17 syllables’ (Artwork to express Haiku, Japanese traditional poetry of seventeen syllables. This artwork tells one story by a composition of seventeen photographs instead of seventeen syllables) which is becoming a part of my life's work, I’m considering to expand this series. Some of the themes of the upcoming exhibitions held from the end of this year to next year are more Japanese.
You once described yourself as a director, artist and a designer, Could you please talk us through some of your design work?
I used to work as a designer and art director. But it's been more than 30 years since I stopped working, so there are not many remarkable works anymore. I mainly worked on commercials and also music record jackets, and some cooperate identity of companies. I took all the photos used for my design by myself and because of this other designers started offering me photography jobs for their design works. I eventually decided to be an art photographer.
Just like yourself I also struggled academically in school, Where would you be now if things were different? Is there a lot of social pressure for kids to perform well in school in Japanese culture?
あなたのように私も学校の成績に関しては苦労しましたが、もしもそうでなかったとしたらどうしていると思いますか? そして、日本の文化では子供にとって学校で優秀でいなくてはならないという社 会的な重圧はありますか?
I seriously hated to study and so did not perform well in school. But when I left home at fifteen I had difficulty affording school fees and that was the time I studied to get a scholarship and fortunately I could go university with that funding. However, I was also into playing jazz music and quit university. I studied sociology in an ordinary university, not in art school.
If I had graduated school with great results, I would have worked for the company that paid my scholarship. If that were the case, I would have retired by now. I prefer my job now because there is no retirement.
Nowadays, the education system in Japan follows the characteristics of Japanese society that socially prevails large enterprises. Children have their unique personality and potential, and I believe it’s common in every country that their parents want to expand them. However, Japanese society is not ready to accept those people with individual personalities such as artists. It's nearly impossible to make a living as an artist in Japan.
The elements and nature itself are a prominent feature in your photography, Tell us a bit more about that?
I'm interested in the light and materials the most. Photography is to capture the light. It a chemical phenomenon materialised by lights. The most efficient way to show the light is through contrast and shadow. The other is that there is a frame in photography. Since the plain canvas is given, the key is to how to compose lights and materials in the canvas.
As an element, I'm not precisely particular about nature. There are so many spots where nature is abundant in a city like New York, yet I also like nature in Japan which is peaceful and has a peaceful side to it. To depict sensitivity of contrast of light and shadow and be particular about the beauty of materials, I spontaneously ended up choosing nature as an object. It's not like I take photos of animals, plants and spectacular natural phenomenon because I'm not a nature photographer.
I prefer to find beauty and peacefulness in ordinary nature in our everyday
life. My house is at the foot of a mountain in Nagano prefecture where is abundant in natural light and materials. However, somehow I don't change the way I see the world when taking photos in New York.
You turned 60 last year, so technically you’ve been reborn as per Japanese culture. How is the new Hasui-san different from the previous one?
I'm quite surprised that I started changing a lot. It's hard to explain by words or sentences though if I were to say it in a word, I feel more freedom. It’s not only about my works I enjoy the time and space more freely, and it leads a change in my photographic works too.
Are there any contemporary artists whose work you admire?
I always try to see as possible as many artists' works. I am more interested in modern art rather than photography only. One of my best favourite artists is David Hockney and “The Yosemite Suite” gave me a shock. He draws Ansel Adams’ masterpiece ‘Yosemite' using just an iPad.
There are many artists I respect, but I'm not influenced specifically by them. Music and literature rather influence me. The hints of what to visualise in photographs hide in images and those images always suddenly come in my mind so that I always make a note in my mobile phone not to forget it.
What projects are you currently working on at the moment?
Preparation for exhibitions. One is an art site in Europe; the other one is in a Canon gallery. I am also working on publishing a photo book from an Australian publisher in addition to shooting for my personal works.
We would like thank Mr Mikio Hasui for his time, its been an absolute pleasure getting to know him better. And don't forget you can follow his work via the links below the break.