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A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael Nguyen

A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen

I first met Michael Nguyen on a beautiful spring day in Tokyo, the flowers in bloom. We were in a Shibuya park on Meiji Dori, where an anti-nuke rally climaxed in a costumed hippie drum offensive, bursting in the dappled light. If I remember correctly, Mike had a can of beer and a cigarette (he likes his tobacco, lights it with a Zippo with a dazzling flair that would make a seamus smile). It didn’t take long to establish friendship: he was a Gaucho and so was I, alumni of University of California at Santa Barbara, meaning we’d both known Paradise as younger men and that this heady knowledge acquired as twenty-year-olds had affected our lifelong trajectories. I’ve only known Mike for about two years but judging by his photography, I can see he’s never discarded the pleasures introduced in Santa Barbara. It’s nice to see that he’s still trailing after beautiful manifestations, glad he sees fit to share his gleaning with the rest of us. Mike’s wonderfully eccentric street tableaux aside, he’s well-known among his peers for his bathing beauties—what has been called his “babe in the onsen” motif, but really that is simplifying and involves not a little envy. There is an element in fantasy in such an intimate, sensual image. After all, most of us photographers are not Lothario types, and an attractive woman will not be seduced by the size of our lens. Something more is at work, something mysterious, which I suppose is a secret, and a well-guarded one.

We at HESO then are proud to present a sample of Michael’s work—his women, and because it’s spring, his flowers, for what better way to illustrate the ephemeral beauty that breaks our hearts, then to complement these lithe, youthful figures with the ambassadors of spring, in which we are reminded we have yet another chance to set things right.

A Floating World in Bloom – Interview with Michael Nguyen

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael NguyenHESO: Why photography? Why not painting? Or music? Or triathlons?

Michael Nguyen: If you have ever heard me at karaoke then you would know why not music. Photography and painting do not necessarily really differ in terms of how we experience time and space, but the creation phase is different. Painting starts out in the light and develops gradually, but remains visible the entire time. A photo captures a scene all at once and is then developed over time in a dark laboratory. Digital is changing all of that, but that’s another story. Photography for me is the best means of expressing and hanging on to those little fleeting splinters of life we experience each day.

HESO: How did you get into photography? I believe you majored in it at UC Santa Barbara. Do you think studying the subject at university has made you a better photographer?

MN: I was a graphic design major actually. I started taking photography classes in college and fell in love with the zen state of mind in the darkroom. I can’t say I really learned much in college, nothing I couldn’t have learned by going to galleries myself and looking at books and hanging out with other photographers.

HESO: Which cameras do you prefer? And why? Does shooting with film matter?

MN: Ah, the obligatory gear porn question. I suppose it depends on what I shoot. For street photography I have my Leica M6 with a 50mm Sumicron, which is good for much single-subject shots. For portraits and landscape I have my Rolleiflex Sl66 for the slower process and higher film resolution, basically a Hassy with bellows that allows me to play around with the focal plane. I haven’t seen anyone else using one. To keep the film vs digital debate succinct, I’m of the opinion that from a personal expression point-of-view, the process does matter and the process of shooting film slows things down and allows one to think with deeper clarity. It doesn’t help that I’m a sentimental motherfucker who clings to bygone things. The well-worn cliche here being if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. There was nothing wrong with film photography when digital came along. Which isn’t to say that digital is bad or anything per se–it makes commercial work more efficient and streamlined, but it hasn’t added anything to the art form.

HESO: Though we are featuring a series of flowers and feminine beauty, you’re a bit of a street photographer as well. What is it you’re looking for on the street?

MN: Other than the typical “I wanna capture the fleeting moments of life” schpiel, street photography is my way of sticking it to the man so to speak. Like poker, the house always wins. Every now and then the perfect hand comes and you happen to bet big and take down the house. Most of the time we take shitty snapshots of mundane objects, but when that perfect moment comes where you’re at the right place at the right time and had the right settings on your camera, and, well, that time is beautiful.

HESO: Do you enjoy shooting in Japan better than elsewhere? How is it different than shooting in the States?

MN: Difficult to answer really. It wasn’t until I got to Japan that I took it seriously. So I can’t say I’ve had a good attempt at really shooting in other places. I did recently go to Spain however and found the light there to feel harsh and low, quite challenging.

A Floating World in Bloom - HESO Interviews Tokyo-based photographer Michael NguyenHESO: What is the most difficult aspect of being a photographer today?

MN: Coming up with something groundbreaking and new since everything seems like its been done. Cliche is the enemy.

HESO: So much good photography in my experience is due the serendipitous moment. Share with us a story of accidental good fortune.

MN: In life anyway, accidental is the only kind of good fortune I get. As far as photography, I can’t go as far as to say I’ve had any true serendipitous moments. You always try to be in the place with the best possibility of seeing something interesting and be prepared as best as you can. Photography isn’t a terrible John Cusack movie.

HESO: Flowers, youth, the elegant form of the female nude… what else do you find beautiful in this world?

MN: That’s just about it! Haha. With the sensory overload in this day and age I’ve become so jaded and numb that anything that stimulates any kind of emotion, good or bad, is beautiful in this world. Being rather immature for my age however, beauty remains a superficial thing unfortunately…

HESO: Your photos presented herein are just lovely. Any chance they’ll become part and parcel of a more comprehensive project on beauty?

MN: Ideally yes. but again like I mentioned earlier its really hard not to do cliche and redundant things, so who knows. I’m torn between just getting out there or hold out till I have something mind blowing. waiting for that epiphany.

HESO: You are somewhat notorious among your friends for the ‘babe in the onsen’ motif, but a lot of the ribbing is just jealousy. They would love to imitate you if only they could! Any tips for guys on making their beautiful girlfriends comfortable enough to pose in such intimate circumstances?

MN: Lots of booze! Seriously though, women tend to be insecure creatures. Reassuring them of how sexy they are and showing your passion in having them as such an integral part of your vision is key. Everyone just wants to feel needed and loved.

See more of Michael’s work here.

M. finding his way to a spot for creating a suitable new home for a seedling

Extreme Loggers – Planters in British Columbia

“Live an interesting life and you’ll take interesting pictures.”

— Jim O’Connell

M. finding his way to a spot for creating a suitable new home for a seedling

M. finding his way to a spot for creating a suitable new home for a seedling

You know the photographer Arnaud De Grave from such HESO projects as the interview with Christiania documentary photographer Charlotte Østervang as well as his in-depth gastronomic reportage on French Truffles and the simple art of Gnocchi. Of course. The French-born, raised and educated in engineering education De Grave, had, until very recently, lived and worked for many years in Copenhagen, Denmark as Associate Professor at the Technical University of Denmark. As part of his work, he traveled to various countries for seminars and guest lecture spots–Singapore, India, Japan, even the USA. He had co-founded BOP in 2004, all film…as he says, “the whole idea behind my photography is film”, and only began “digicrapping” because his mum wanted to see Japan before he came back. Oh the impatience of the modern generations…!

But De Grave has always been a closet skater-punkrock-DIY kid, even if he didn’t know it himself, so it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when something in him clicked, so to speak, and, as he had long been entranced with using old analogue cameras (Olympus Pen F, Hasselblad, etc…), it wasn’t until Japan that he began processing his own black and white film in his bathroom at home. Doing so inevitably leads to the feeling that one should show someone else (and preferably whole groups of people in a gallery-esque setting). More and more heavily his life turned from sedentary academic to one of restless documentary exposure. When, in a sudden fit of typical photographic wanderlust, he abandoned his very sensible and well-paying job at the university in order to pursue a dream of his to be “like the tall trees, you know what I mean” and ramble across continents to propose an esoteric course of study at the University of British Columbia, some of his colleagues may have thought he was daft, going through a mid-life crisis, or just French, who knows. But we at HESO, who met Arnaud at a beer-soaked table in a small pub in Shibuya some five years ago (alongside the interviewer Jon Ellis), never once doubted his decision. In fact we gave him a ride. Here’s what he has been doing:

Extreme Loggers – Planters in British Columbia

Jon Ellis: Tell us a little about the project, what it entailed, and how you are in a position to be doing it.

Arnaud De Grave: I live in Vancouver, British Columbia and am pursuing a M.Sc. in Forestry, so the starting point is a clear interest in trees and forests. Last Christmas a friend of my landlady was house-sitting our home and for one reason or another she was still there when I got back from my trip to Europe, and she lives in a small community on an island up north by Vancouver Island called Alert Bay (on Cormorant Island where she happens to be a former radio journalist for CBC, Radio Canada). One of my intentions was to go live and work/volunteer in a small remote community somewhere lost in B.C. over the summer to learn about the way these people live and to record it photographically. We chatted about it and she invited me to Alert Bay as a starting point and I went (so do not invite me if you do not want me to come, for I will come!) She had me meet a lot of fantastically interesting people there (sailors, furniture makers, retired hand-loggers, First Nations chiefs, you name it they are there) and one of them (Roland) is the owner of a company called Bivouac West doing, amongst other things, reforestation. There was no easy possibility of an “internship” in one of these remote communities, but Roland told me about his job and invited me to join them in one of their reforestation projects in May or June. My job would be to give him visibility in exchange for accommodation and food. Or so he said… Little did I know I’d have to carry boxes of small trees, bags of fertilizer and drive big trucks! It took about 5 months to get in the position and be able to do it, roughly. And it happened by luck, or maybe perseverance, or surely both.

JE: I understand that the show is being sponsored by the Alliance Française cultural centre, how did that happen?

ADG: In trying to hold my end of the deal, i.e. to give visibility to the company, I investigated different possibilities: magazine articles, my own website(s), photo exhibitions… As I have collaborated with French cultural centres in the past (in Denmark) I tried that door and found some ears to listen to my story. I think the fact that I contacted them while creating the project and not when coming back with a “finished product” was appreciated. I explained the project, my motivation and we worked together on a reasonable outcome. They asked for a possible partnership with UBC Forestry and after a discussion with the Dean he agreed to sponsor me a bit and come give a short talk during the opening, so everybody is happy at the end.

JE: Why a photography exhibition, rather than something more academic?

ADG: My M.Sc. thesis is about sustainable forest resource management of ski resorts in the context of climate change and I have been toying with this idea of mine for about 2 or 3 years now. Indeed I quit my job in February 2011 and got accepted as a M.Sc. student at UBC Vancouver in September 2011, so I am currently in my second year of M.Sc. (more or less as I take time off of my studies from time to time for photographic projects such as this one.) As my life is split between many different activities, I like to define myself as a pluri-monomaniac, if that makes any sense. So yes, it was tempting to try and combine the two and push my research into tree planting. However, after some more thinking, I’m sticking to my original plan. Although it would be nice to be able to combine my M.Sc. and photography somehow… If anyone has any idea about how to do that I am all ears.

JE: The photographs suggest very isolated locations, were the logistics as ‘Apocalypse Now’ as they appear to be?

Apocalypse Now logistics

Apocalypse Now logistics

ADG: They were. We took choppers and I have to admit I was tempting to whistle (or rather sing at the top of my lungs) Wagner’s Ritt der Walküren several times. I only shut up out of respect for the other people in the helicopter, and the fact it was super loud in there and also that it was so beautiful that sometimes/often it would make one speechless…Originally the crew (about 14 people) would be going for 3 or 4 weeks on a boat and sleep by the cut blocks. However because of unforeseen circumstances –and as far as I know now it happens all the time– the boat was unavailable so we had to fly with floatplanes every morning, sometimes to be flown to a position where we would be taken to the planting site by helicopter. Sometimes some trucks would be waiting for us with the boxes of seedlings (small trees to be planted) and the logistic would be worked that way. So a big part of the planning consists in barging trees and trucks and quads where they should be, to be used by the team. Weather is not very stable in coastal BC in the spring so one can imagine hair-pulling decisions and problems the boss of the company has to deal with. One day we could not fly. “If you can’t see you can’t fly” would eloquently say one of our pilots… And as the deadlines and margins for error are very slim, it is quite the logistical nightmare. Did I mention grizzly bears?

JE: You’ve picked a very distinctive style for the photography, an almost organically grainy b&w, What is behind the choice?

ADG: It may sound pompous but I guess that’s my style. Really there is no particular reason beyond it is the way I like my pictures and I like the way I can do the whole process myself. It is very important to me to physically perform the complete workflow of photography. All were developed in my bathroom (stainless-steel and Rodinal) and printed in a real darkroom on fibre paper. There is magic in seeing the picture bloom in the developer tray, a sensual aspect in rinsing your print, feeling the gelatinous surface before going out to the light and check contrast, tones, etc.

Do not think that I am a complete luddite, as I have nothing against digital photography for example (when I am not in a state of inebriation that is) but I do prefer the slowness of film.

I could argue that the final atmosphere fits very well with the mood I want to convey and the references in my mind (Eugene Smith’s work on Pittsburg’s steel industry for instance had a huge impact on me when I saw the exhibition in New York City in 2001, both from an aesthetic and love for printed photography point of view) but that would be a posteriori thinking. I do think that it works very well with the photo-journalism type of work I am doing with this project though. About anything can be justified in hindsight with enough rhetoric.

JE: One of the things that comes through very strongly from the pictures is the almost absolute destruction of the forest by the loggers. How did working in that environment leave you feeling?

ADG: That’s a tough one… I knew about logging and clear-cuts, but I have to admit the extent of the “destruction” took me aback. Especially “heli-blocks,” where logging is performed by helicopter, very remote, with no easy access, very steep… so only the most valuable trees are taken but loggers still need to cut a lot to be able to get said big trees and also to be able to have the helicopter operate (build a pad, get fellers down, get trees and fellers out, etc.) The amount of left-over was pretty insane to see. Even if I weren’t a hippie tree hugger–although I do like trees very much–it made me quite angry. I swore a lot that day. I also swore a lot because the terrain was pretty insane to work/walk in.

Unfortunately one gets used to seeing fallen trees. And also the planters, after a while, appreciate the terrain for the ease with which they can move through it and perform, so they are happy to see a cleared area because they know they can plant a lot, as they are paid by the tree.

K. in the heliblock, the aftermath of some logging operation

K. in the heliblock, the aftermath of some logging operation

JE: Does the replanting make a difference or is this the ‘plaster on a gaping wound’ that it would appear to be in the pictures?

ADG: It does make a difference. I would rather stay away from political considerations as this exhibition is primarily about the people working in the field and not a statement for or against governmental attitude towards forest management. However, there would be a lot to say about that, but it has the tendency to push me in “angry young man territory” as you yourself said to me once, albeit on a different, but not too unrelated, matter.

An interesting fact is that the tree species which are replanted are the ones living there originally, and if left to natural regeneration there is no guarantee that the same species would grow back the same as before because of climate change for instance or because some tree species are more prone to take over (called pioneer species) or because some are shade intolerant but grow slower so when the faster one are there it is tough for them to grow even if they were living in that zone before… So replanting definitely helps. The companies are also responsible for these trees until they reach the “free to grow” stage (about 3 or 4 metres high). It is not: we plant and then we get our legal obligations checked and move the hell out of there and destroy some more somewhere else.

JE: The work of the planters looks back-breaking. What kind of people end up doing the work?

ADG: It is indeed a very tough and physical job, I was not by any means doing the same kind of job the planters do (although I tried it for a little while, I did plant about 80 trees), but I was helping the foreman (who was a woman by the way, a tough one) by carrying around boxes of seedlings, bags of fertilizer, etc. Imagine moving a friend of yours to a new house, but instead of boxes of books in the elevator you carry trees, sometimes on logging roads, sometimes directly in clear-cuts. Sometimes we had to patch roads which were supposed to be “quad-able” but were not, or declared so by someone who never used a quad in his life, so we had to rebuild them with logs and stones… Fun times… The planters do long days: from around 8am to 5pm they plant, and there is commuting time as well. Weather can be sunny, hot, rainy, freaking cold. So it is a very physically demanding job. And the bugs! Ho man, did I hate the bugs!

About the people doing it, well, most of them are people who like the lifestyle: seasonal work, hard but in the open space of Nature. Some of them do it because they are happy to work in the forest but doing more environmentally pro-active than cutting trees down. They are also doing this job for the money, for it is well paid.

A lot of people think that tree planting is a student job over the summer. It is, but not in coastal BC. In the interior where it is all flat and where one plants trees in a trench (not to diminish this kind of work which is also very physical, but less technical, but it brings experience.) The company I was working with only hires planters with a lot of experience. Most of them had been planting for about 6 to 8 years, and more.

JE: It sounds as brutal as it looks… take it you won’t be going out to work as a backcountry planter! What’s next for you photographically, and with your forestry work?

ADG: Well, I am actually considering asking Bivouac West to hire me as a full time helper for a month next spring/summer. Definitely not a planter as you can hardly call 80 trees experience haha… But I’d like to see more and live on a boat for some weeks. Besides, I have a proposition to go and work a bit as an assistant for a forester some weeks in December this year. So I guess my adventures in the woods are not finished yet. And I’ll hopefully do some field work for my M.Sc. thesis in the coming year, which should lead to travel and photography opportunities. Chicken and egg sort of thing…

From a photography point of view I always have a good half-dozen projects in progress, some will never see the light, metaphorically speaking. A very long on-going one is (of course) based on old-growth forest and trying to find a way to capture with pictures the complexity and beauty of it all. The main issue is that it is very multi-scale, from gigantic 70 m high Western Red Cedars to small moss and mushrooms embedded in their roots. It might be only an excuse to go muse in the woods though… I’d also like to get back and document a bit of this other jungle which is the urban land. I live very close to a very lively neighbourhood in Vancouver (namely, for those who know, East Hastings Street) and everyday is a new surprise down there. For me photography is about whatever triggers my interest and a way to make my life interesting as well. I often remember Jim O’Connell’s words (whimsical as always): “live an interesting life and you’ll take interesting pictures,” words that I may have a tendency to misinterpret or at least try and reverse.

JE: Thanks! Anything you’d like to add in closing?

ADG: Go out, take pictures!

Arnaud would like to acknowledge: UBC Forestry, Alliance Française de Vancouver, and BivouacWest

Arnaud De Grave’s Photographic Site

Tim & Puma Mimi and the apple

The Stone Collection Of Tim & Puma Mimi

Tim & Puma Mimi and the apple

Tim & Puma Mimi and the apple

As the sparse synthesizer and video games breaks beep to life on the first track of The Stone Collection Of Tim & Puma Mimi we hear a Puma Mimi ask a question, “Acchi, kocchi, acchi, kocchi, dochi ni ikou?” (Here, there, here, there, which way to go?). It is unclear if she’s asking us or herself. And with the range of musical genres represented on the album (hip hop, dance, electronic, J-pop, crossover jazz, fruit), this might be emblematic of the album itself. At its heart, it’s a fun and accessible (even if you don’t speak Japanese) musical metaphor for modern Tokyo living.

Much as the album defies straightforward definition, so too does how Tim and Puma Mimi met (“We met at the Santa Klaus party in the Netherlands in the end of 2003.”), and eventually came to live and make music in Tokyo.

In places it is a throwback album of beautiful voicework and analog instruments, yet its modern synthesizers, canned drumbeats and use of fruit as instrument (what?!) belie the way it was made–not in the studio, but in Puma Mimi’s small 1DK (One Dining Kitchen Apartment) flat in Shinagawa, Tokyo.

HESO: How do you make music? digitally, analoguely, with fresh produce or all of the above?

Tim: All of them, we don’t have rules, how to produce, it just has to bring the song to a cool shape. The cucumber is electronic, the flute acoustic, mostly I use the micro Korg, but sometimes Fender Rhodes or Mini Moog, or even plug-ins, but I don’t like midi.

More than just the multi-instrumentalist genre-mashing, the way the songs are made reflects on the private/personal relationship between life and music, recording and touring, loving and playing. Having met and seen a bright future, both musically and romantically, they soon had to part because of the technicalities of bureaucratic life–visas, work, nationality. But long distance relationshipping didn’t stop them from making music. The Skype concert series soon sprang to life, with Tim touring clubs Europe and skype-casting Mimi singing live from her kitchen in Tokyo. This, plus their growing number of singles, created a following and got them into electro-festivals across Europe. But it wasn’t enough.

HESO: You wrote and recorded your album in Mimi’s tiny Tokyo apartment, but where are you now?

Tim: Now we live in Zurich, bit bigger apartment, but still all instruments in bedroom. It’s in Kreis 4, the melting pot of underground Zurich (yes that exists too in Zurich, beside being a super-expensive and clean old town famed for the Bahnhofstrasse). Sometimes we rent a music-room, but it’s often underground and humid.

Tim & Puma Mimi Live at Womb in Tokyo

Tim & Puma Mimi Live at Womb in Tokyo

HESO: Tim, what is your impression of Japan? Puma Mimi, Switzerland?

Tim: Japan? First I was disappointed, I had a picture of crazy colorful people, but 90% of people in Tokyo wear black suits. But after two weeks you start to understand, why they don’t look into your eyes, that they have different lines to queue for next train. After two months you start to love it, but I’m not sure if I will ever feel at home there.

Mimi: I like Zürich very much because I can get both city and nature life at once. I grew up in the northern part of Japan where I enjoyed nature, but as a teenager, it was boring. No concert places, no exhibitions. Even the last cinema in the town went bankrupt, and turned to be a Karaoke house (yeah! of course we had Karaoke!). Then I went to Tokyo to study when I was 19. Tokyo was so exciting, creative fashion, fast information, music, arts and so on…. I enjoyed it a lot. But sometimes, I couldn’t breathe. I missed nature, fresh air, fresh water, quietness, the sky. Compared to Tokyo, Zürich is very small, but there are many things going on in this “little big city”. Lake water is very clean. And I can get to deep nature in 10 min by train. That’s perfect combination for me. Besides Zürich, I like mountain area in Ticino, old stone houses and sharp mountains. It’s so nice to walk there.

HESO: If your beats and words are inspired by the cramped and crowded Tokyo lifestyle, what happens when you have all of the Alps from which to take inspiration?

Tim: I would love to do calm, maybe even spiritual music, but always when I try it, I think that doesn’t work, audience would fall asleep, or just start talking. I would like to do live music for yoga or something similar.

Mimi:I try to write about something around me. So Alps could be a good inspiration too. But the problem is that the nature is very powerful. So, when I go to mountains, I become wordless. It takes more time to write about the nature than about concrete jungle… at least, for me.

Tim & Puma Mimi on the Phone by David Thayer 2011

Tim & Puma Mimi on the Phone by David Thayer 2011

On the lenitive “Tamago” the album takes a turn from the fun and playfully amateurish upbeat Electro-J-pop to a more serious and contemplative nature. It is not a coincidence that this comes halfway through the Stone Collection. From this point on, especially on “Green Blood Circulation”, even when the music returns to previous form, the songs retain a depth and a progressive movement toward some far-off point that we can’t quite see, but know is out there.

HESO: How do you come up with ideas for songs? Albums? Videos? Live performances? Who does what?

Tim: I produce the songs. Mimi writes texts and melody lines. Musically it’s just trial and error, sometimes it works, sometimes doesn’t. I give the recordings over to Mimi. In a bigger view I would say: The ideas grow in our heads and sometimes we can pick up the fruits. Inspirations are: fleamarkets, walking in cities and mountains, watching concerts, movies, reading books.

Mimi: About lyrics: I try to express my inner feeling by describing daily objects around me. For example, I came up with lines for “Giacometti” when I saw the poster of Giacometti hanging in the room where we were recording. And the text begins with “To talk to Giacometti, I don’t need words….”. Something like that. Melody line: it’s all depends on Tim’s music. When Tim gives me an idea of song, then I listen to it many times and try to jam (hum) with lyrics I already have.

HESO: The album has dropped. What happens next?

Tim: In a week we visit China for 3 weeks, travelling with a bunch of musicians and do live music to silent movies. Later this Year I want to build a do-it yourself-kit of my Fruitilyzer, that people can build their own Fruitilyzer and electrify new fruits and vegetables.

HESO: Can you write a very short song-poem about your favorite food?

Mimi: I wrote this quite long ago, and try to make a song out of it, but Tim never liked my melody lines with these lyrics. So it is still un-published. Tim doesn’t like Tomato Sauce either, by the way.

トマトソース / Tomato sauce
飛び散る飛び散る/ It splashes all over
白いTシャツ / on my white T-shirts
赤いシミ/ and leaves red stains
食べるのやめるか/ Should I stop eating
トマトソース/ Tomato sauce?

いやいやそんな/ Noway, it’s
トマトソース / Tomato sauce!
だってだいすき / I love
トマトソース / Tomato sauce
ファッションは /Fashion has no chance against
食欲に敵わない / appetite

HESO: I love Tomato Sauce. Thanks guys. Check out their site for more fun with fruits and beats.

Interview with Tim & Puma Mimi is part of HESO Magazine’s ongoing (late) Summer Interview Series, where we interview photographers, musicians and artists about their work and what they think about the world of 2012. We may ask them similar questions, but the answers have been anything but the same old canned responses. Check out the entire series here.

© Billy Gomez

Modern Loops Interview with Photographer Billy Gomez

© Billy Gomez

© Billy Gomez

Third-party marketing content, Wikipedia-plagiarized articles, hateful commentary, Fox News–it’s easy to be negative about the internet. It’s also impossible to deny its positive impact. Whole photographic communities have formed due to the largesse of Flickr and Instagram, to name a few. Yet the net that spreads wide also has large holes. Many talented, young artists experimenting with technologies both old and new fall through the cracks due to the sheer numbers of Neue Artistes simultaneously populating the aether. Lucky then I managed to hear about Billy Gomez through a still occasionally Flickr grapevine. Spooling through his photostream one quickly tires of the limitations of the smallish flat screen device on which the women and men and children exist in the small places in between conversations of light and shadow dialogue. Caught between wanting to see more and wishing to seem them as large prints in a gallery setting, I wondered, Who is this mystery man capturing poetic loops of the visible spectrum, who is Billy Gomez? Best to let him answer for himself.

Billy: I’m originally from Los Angeles, although I’ve been in Seoul for the last six years. Came out here to teach. The plan was to do it for a few years and then head back. Six years later…and going back is still nothing more than a plan. I didn’t expect to see and experience what I did. The isolation and anonymity kind of allowed me to re-invent myself creatively. If I wasn’t teaching, I was in the lab experimenting…still am to be honest.

HESO: Talking about “The Plan”…they never do go the way we plan them, do they? When did you first pick up a camera?

Billy: I think I picked one up a long time ago, but I never held it long enough to form a vision, or develop a voice, or think about what I wanted to do or accomplish with it. I would just shoot a few rolls here and there. I was around talented people who were doing amazing work though, Aloysious and Danny Dougherty. Seeing them grow as photographers and artists instilled a degree of what a work ethic would consist of…it was definitely a reference when I came to Korea and began to bury myself in my little creative endeavors.

HESO: Your work is like a cross section from a very distinct portrait artist which crosses traditional boundaries into street photography. How did you get into photography?

Billy: I just started taking pictures of people. Nothing more. This was at the end of 2007. Around the same time I discovered Flickr. So I would go out all day and take pictures…then see what all these other people were doing around the world. Comparing what I had to what was going on in all these other places, kind of gave me a reference for what worked and what didn’t. So strange to become interested in a kind of photography and have access to all these communities and people, that you’ve never been to or met, but sharing mine and seeing theirs, was really instrumental. Flickr definitely had something special for a while there.

HESO: That was exactly like our photo crew in Tokyo. We all met through Flickr. Now we are all lifelong friends. Seeing what “all these other people were doing around the world” let’s us understand and relate better to our own. Does the medium affect what you do? Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa. Or is it not important? Explain.

Billy: I could care less. It’s a tired argument. The only thing that matters is the music. The instrument you use is an afterthought. Being productive is paramount, plain and simple. Shoot a shit-load of whatever medium or format you choose…and be happy. I’ve said this before, but it’s funny how the militant advocates on either side of the argument all have the same thing in common…their work tends to always be less than mediocre.

© Billy Gomez

© Billy Gomez

HESO: Militancy has that affect on people. What technology can you leave behind? Alternatively what can you not do without?

Billy: I make music with a drum machine that’s almost 25 years old. Definitely can’t do without that. Interestingly, I just got an iPhone about a month and a half ago and I think I thought of it more as a phone purchase, as opposed to being a camera purchase. Good lord what a mistake that was…I have been shooting with it a lot as of late and it’s changing the way I work and think entirely. I’ve been playing with a handful of apps as well. I definitely saw the need for an iPad after trying to edit with those apps on the iPhone’s tiny screen. Man, I don’t know, I am incredibly late to the party but I am really enjoying the workflow these two devices afford you. The more I use them, the more I learn, and the more excited I get about the possibilities. Having only used them for the last month and a half, I could definitely live without them… but it would be sure be a shame.

HESO: You get up in the morning, pick up your camera, where are you going?

Billy: To work (laughs). Sad to say, I rarely ever get up with the sole purpose of taking pictures at that time and it’s definitely something I should change. I’m definitely a morning person, but I just end up tinkering with other things at that hour. However, I will say that when I went home to Los Angeles for the first time after having gotten into photography, I had a newfound appreciation for the light there. I was much more inspired to get up and take advantage of it when I was visiting. It’s definitely something I think a lot about too…about going back to L.A. to do a ton of street work. It would be a great challenge, the thought of what I could produce with that kind of light available essentially all year round, excites the hell out of me.

The light is a lot less unforgiving in Korea. During parts of the spring, fall, and summer it can be interesting. But for the most part, air pollution and intense weather patterns keep it so scrambled and inconsistent. Waking up to golden sunlight is not a common thing here, though we’ve actually seen a little of it this past week…conveniently coupled with 100 degree heat and humidity. Most of the pictures I take are while commuting to and from work. I’ll do a walk here and there on the weekend, but I have to say that there’s definitely something different in the way people look and act at that time. During the week, the pinch is on, you know…the weight of the world is in those eyes and on those shoulders. That same emotion just doesn’t seem as frequent on the weekends.

© Billy Gomez

© Billy Gomez

HESO: Some of your photographs seem like stills from a film. Is this intentional? Do you like film? What particular genres? Favorites?

Billy: That’s a very nice compliment. And yes, I think films have had a huge influence on the type of photography I do. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Watching La Double Vie de Veronique by Krzysztof Kieślowski was the first time I wanted to know the directors name when the film was finished. I looked for everything I could find of his at the video store and library and then I started ordering his films off of ebay because most of them were impossible to get otherwise. Wong Kar-Wai is another director I definitely connected with before I ever started taking pictures. The slow motion, the lighting, the color, it was all pretty goddamn hypnotic. The key component in both of the aforementioned is how they both told a story without anyone saying anything. Go figure.

HESO: The technical portion aside, what do you look for in shooting a photograph of a stranger? What grabs you and shouts at you to, TAKE ME!”?

Billy: Interesting faces, interesting light–the same thing everyone else seeks out, right? And the two either arrive at the same time or I end up waiting for one or the other. Changing the subject abruptly, I really admire people who are able to capture scenes, as opposed to portraits. It’s something I really want to work hard on. These nameless ghosts though, they kind of haunt me…I can go out with the intention of wanting to capture scenes, and then a certain person will just glow in a crowd, and then the scenes go right out the door and I’m doing the same thing I always do. Patience must have something to do with those scenes, I suppose. I’m a work in progress.

HESO: We all are. Who are your favorite photographers?

Billy: To tell you truth, I don’t even know many photographers…and it’s nothing I’m proud of, or anything like that. I think I’ve gotten more inspiration from my family, Aloysious Dougherty and Daniel Dougherty, than I have from any of the so-called masters. But there were a couple of instances where certain work found me. One of them was the work of Sebastião Salgado. Like Kieslowski, it was the first time I saw a picture in a magazine and wanted to know who took it. Not long after seeing that picture, I went to the library and checked out all his books. Taking an interest in him lead me to War Photographer, the documentary on James Nachtwey. That kind of photography is mind boggling to me and I have to say, I think I have more of an appreciation for it than any other form of photography.

HESO: Where are you now and what direction are you moving in?

Billy: I’m in Seoul and in the time I’ve gone through these questions and answered them, it has dawned on me that a change of some sort is imminent. I have had an amazing time in Korea. It has changed my life forever. But seeing more of the world is a must for me. I feel like every year here is a lateral move. To move forward, I think I need to move on. Again, it’s a work in present… and these feelings on the matter are something that have manifested as a result of doing this interview. So I appreciate that, very much. Probably more than you’ll ever know. I have a set on Flickr called ‘The Roots of Imperfection‘ which is a collection of stories that accompany images. If I was a drug dealer that would be what they call a taste.

HESO: Thank you for your time.

Billy: I appreciate anyone who stuck around long enough to read these words.

Billy Gomez

Modern Loops: Interview with Photographer Billy Gomez is part of HESO Magazine’s ongoing Summer Interview Series, where we interview photographers, musicians and artists about their work and what they think about the world of 2012. We may ask them similar questions, but the answers have been anything but the same old canned responses. Check out the entire series here.

Interview with Photographer Edward Olive

Interview with Photographer Edward Olive

Interview with Photographer Edward Olive

HESO: When did you first pick up a camera?

Edward: Very late on, but I’m not looking back. I’m looking to keep taking my photos to the next level and to move all my old pictures just as far round the world as they can go. Sometimes I look back at old photos and think everything I did was **** or I could do it better now. Other times I see some value in the naivety.

HESO: You have a very distinct portfolio, including nudes, fashion, commercial and many of them have the look have the look of fine art photography, yet there is a sense of toy camera aesthetic at work here as well. Please tell us about the way you work on any given project.
 
Edward: As Helmut Newton said it not the camera that takes the shots, it’s the photographer. It doesn’t matter how the pictures are made. What matters is at the end of the day ending up with the best photo you can take. A photo that means something. A photo that objectively has value…a photo that will then go on to have a life of its own. It will have its own importance. There are people that come to look at it, those that buy it, those that put it on the cover of something years down the line.

To do the sensible, normal, accepted thing in any particular decade thing will produce the sensible “correct” normal photos you see from that decade. To take crazy technical decisions can increase risk and to use technology from other decades or that you invent or make will take you off the rails and either make you pictures that are a total a disaster or a huge success. The degree of risk you take is a decision you have to make in any venture, not just in stock-broking.

HESO: Photography as a degree of risk…somehow I don’t think you’re referencing the current digital technological shift. Do you prefer analog to digital photography or vice versa?

Edward: Terry O’Neill said he used film for people he cared about and digital for jobs that didn’t matter. I wouldn’t argue with him. He’s a genius.

Scan of silver gelatin darkroom print hand made by the photographer from expired black & white negative film hand developed by the photographer

Scan of silver gelatin darkroom print hand made by the photographer from expired black & white negative film hand developed by the photographer

I let people who hire me choose what suits them best. I don’t argue with people who want to pay me professional fees. They’re paying, they’re in charge. I like people to get what they really want. I like people to be happy. People know what they want. They come to me. I listen and try my best to do just what they tell me they like. What I personally think is best is of no importance to them.

Personally, I have no interest whatsoever in digitalizing any image I want to produce except at the very end stage, once the image is as I want it to be, just to scan the final handmade print. The scanning allows more people to see it on screens than is possible in real life and also clients can use it for all sorts of things that will give my picture new life or lives like book or cd covers or advertising campaigns.

Of course if people are still looking to byy high bulk at low cost in large numbers of realistic, descriptive, focused photos that clearly look like they are from this decade then I would be a fool not to take the money. I don’t get paid a million dollars a picture like Elizabeth Taylor but her view on the subject of money still has a lot of sense. Warhol was no fool either. I take digital photos if that’s what people want. If I didn’t they would just hire someone else.

HESO: Many photographs lack faces or obscure the person / people. Is this purposeful? To what end?

Edward: On the internet I put a very few of the pictures I produce each year. A variety from the different projects I have done. There are more and less descriptive pictures. There are photos that show or allude to the representation of people, things, places, ideas, feelings, concepts and moments in time. All the photos I take each year I store in boxes of negatives and prints and thousands of gigas of digitalized or digital files. Periodically I look through them all and put a few on sale or on public display depending on how I feel at the time about that type of picture. I take care not to release all the pictures publicly and often not until a year or two later because so many people who purport to be art photographers try and copy them as soon as they are on the internet and we have had to threaten legal proceedings against very large numbers of Spanish wedding photographers and videographers who have been using my photos in their websites to advertise their photography services. Surprising, shocking, immoral, illegal yet unfortunately all too true here in Spain.

HESO: So you are also a wedding photographer, is that correct? Which came first the fine art photographer or the wedding photographer? And do they overlap?

Edward: There will always be people who try to pigeon hole you or your work for ease of classification. There are many areas of creative arts and many types of photography. The difficult thing is to stand out above the endless zillions whether its weddings or nudes or whatever. To call what I do fine art makes me feel sometimes like a fraud or a donk when you think of genuine fine artists like Chema Madoz.

It is very sad that the very few who actually produce interesting pictures, the really gifted, often pass away early like Donovan or burn the lot because they are sick of the whole thing like Duffy. But this happens in so many creative professions. Looking back at photography books of Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix or John Lennon is very sad.

HESO: Some of your photographs seem like stills from a film. Do you like film? What particular genres? Any particular favorites?

Photograph © Edward Olive

Photograph © Edward Olive

Edward: I like film in the sense of the meaning of negatives or slide and love almost all films, papers and chemicals.

I use all sorts of things from hand developed 35mm, 120mm and 220mm black & white, slide and c41 films of all types, silver gelatin and RA4 papers, water paint, scanners and enlargers, digital and film cameras and lenses from 1920 to 2012, studio lighting of all types for the look that I am looking for any particular shot. Nothing I use isn’t widely on sale either still produced or second hand. All the tools and the fuels are available to everyone. It’s what you do with the paint and brushes that matter.

I am glad Nova, Paterson, Kaiser, Tetenal, Foma, Ilford, Fuji and Kodak still produce some genuine photography products for the enlightened few who still remain. One day there may be no genuine artisans left, just the generic producer of endless cheap fake plastic copies churned out for the masses. That will be sad.

I also like film in the sense of movies and if my pictures look like movie stills that’s great. I learned my first lighting and shot set ups on set working as an actor in TV, films and commercials. I still study the DOP’s every time I get an acting job. Very few stills photographers have the same level as good DOP’s.

HESO: Who are your favorite photographers?

Edward: Sometimes I look back at Jean Loup Sieff’s or Scavullo’s black & whites or color by Clifford Coffin or Guy Bourdin and think I may as well throw in the towel because it was all done far better 30-70 years ago. You look at so much Demarchelier now and see Avedon. You can look at Testino and see Horst or Beaton.

I love Richard Avedon. He will always be the greatest photographer.

HESO: What do you do when you are not working?

Edward: It’s hard to remember. I think I used to have time to travel without work, read, cook, have a social life, play sports and go dancing. But that seems a long time ago now. 

HESO: Any final thoughts?

Edward: There will be people who understand what I try to do and those that don’t. There will be those who look at my pictures with the knowledge and sensitivity of experts in photography and/or art and those who have never heard of Doisneau or Parkinson. There will be people who think my pictures are good, those that think they are bad and those that say they think they are good or bad for reasons that may not be impartial.

For somebody to say your work is great may mean for that person no more than its cool or nice. For another person the word great in relation to photographers refers only to Erwitt or Cartier Bresson and those that are truly great photographers. That is another concept entirely. Few in any generation will have any importance in the long term.

Edward Olive
+0034 605610767

This interview is part of HESO Magazine’s ongoing Summer Interview Series, where we interview photographers, musicians and artists about their work and what they think about the world of 2012. We may ask them similar questions, but the answers have been anything but the same old canned responses. Check out the entire series here.

The Wonderful and Dangerous World of Yellow

The Wonderful and Dangerous World of Yellow

This has never happened before. I don’t really know how to proceed. It is the internet age after all and who does interviews in person anymore? What small media outlet can afford to send a staff writer and photographer anywhere these days, let alone out to Singapore, where despite the allure of talking to burgeoning multi-media artist Adeline Tan about her paintings and illustrations, one cannot even chew gum or find porn in a 7-11? So far as we here at HESO Studio can glean is that she has been taken hostage by her own creation, Yellow, a charming mustard stain with aggression issues who pops up all over town, invited or not.

In the following Skype Chat excerpt, Adeline goes on to describe her relationship to Yellow:

The Wonderful and Dangerous World of Yellow

The Wonderful and Dangerous World of Yellow

Roses Are Red Daisies Are Yellow © Adeline Tan

HESO: There was some controversy concerning an appearance Yellow made. What’s that about?

Adeline: A friend was having a show and I wasn’t in town. At the end of the night she saw Yellow’s face plastered on the wall. She thought I snuck in and did it, but I was like, ‘That’s not me man, I’m overseas!’ Someone printed up Yellow from the Internet, cut him out, and guerrilla graffiti’s him without me even knowing.

HESO: So he – is it a him? – so he has a life of his own. You must get asked all the time, how did you meet?

Adeline: No.

HESO: Well, how did you meet?

Adeline: Ok, I was just like working, you know, but actually I was dozing off at my desk in my cubicle. And he just walked past.

HESO: Sleeping at your cubicle?

Adeline: I ate too much, got sleepy and that’s how we met.

HESO: This is at TCCG? – What does that stand for by the way? – It’s cool to sleep at work?

Adeline: The Ching-Chong Group. My bosses have spent a long time in the industry, got tired of agencies with white peoples’ names, so they named themselves TCCG: The Ching-Chong Group. And yes, no one cares if I sleep at work. My job is just to draw. So I go to work and draw, then I go home and draw.

HESO: That’s not a bad gig. Then you go home and draw the “Salarymen” or the “Half A Person” series, for example, both of which possess definite references to Japan. What impression do you have of Japan?

Adeline: Japan is quite strange, in a good way. It’s like a live anime. It’s easy to understand how anime and manga exist because they (the Japanese) live like that everyday. That’s the society they created.

HESO: What does Yellow think of Japan?

Adeline: He likes Suica. The penguin, you know…

HESO: Is there a Suica giftshop?

Adeline: There is, and Yellow didn’t want to leave…

HESO: No one ever wants to leave that place.

Muffled growls and footsteps, followed by a soaring sound – presumably Yellow performing a Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka move on Adeline. Sounds of wrestling and flying sheets of paper, paint splattering, pencils clattering to the ground.

Adeline: Ok, I’m back. He was getting jealous of you, I think. He’s just hungry, wants some fries.

HESO: In a town full of exotic food choices and plentiful restaurants and street food stalls his favorite food is fries. Really?

Adeline: Singapore food is quite cheap, so you just go out anywhere. Fries are just that something different. I’m always hungry.

HESO: O.K., heh, any plans for new exhibitions?

Adeline: Just working for my friend, doing posters for a music festival.

HESO: How do you come up with your ideas?

Adeline: I just do it man. We come up with an idea and we do it.

HESO: Is that different from work?

Adeline: Oh man, it’s so different. Things we could do in a day, take months.

HESO: Yeah, that’s the modern world. You must be patient.

Adeline: I’m patient. Yellow is not. He’s asking who are you and why are you on trains all the time? He wants some fries.

HESO: That’s interesting, because a lot of your work has a kind of gracefulness to it, a very patient quality, if you will.

Adeline: Ummm…

HESO: And then there is the “Facebook Facts Illustrated” piece, which is just awesome by the way: a Mermaid Chuck Norris, Hip-Hop Unicorns, Bowling Ball Head Man, Marilyn Monroe in front of an overturned Campbell’s Soup Can (& Yellow drinking Champagne…of course), and all of it inside a massive “cheezburger”…it pretty much sums up all pop culture for the last 60 years.

Adeline: Yeah, I guess. Thanks.

HESO: It seems like my idea of what Singapore must be like: crowded, with food and people hanging around everywhere, somewhat absurd post-modern references, all within a framework of authoritarian rule.

Adeline: Yes, they are strict here. No porn, no chewing gum. No blood, sex, gore, or anything like that. You will die for a small amount of drugs. There is a 500 dollar fine for not flushing public toilets…

HESO: How would they find you?

Adeline: That’s what I want to know. There are these plainclothes, middle-aged men stalking you, but they are easy to spot. Yeah, Singapore has like zero unemployment.

HESO: Hmmm, do you feel followed?

Adeline: It’s so crowded here, you don’t need to feel followed to be followed.

HESO: I thought Tokyo was bad. Where do you see Yellow in five years?

Adeline: No idea. He just lives for today. He’s a dangerous man.

At this point in the interview, a series of muffled squeaks are heard and Adeline no longer responds. Only a very quiet, yet very manly voice — presumably Yellow’s — comes on skype and begins chanting, “Look at me! Look at me!” louder and louder. At this point the following file was sent via skype file share, then the session abruptly ended. HESO has not heard from Adeline. We hope that she is alive and well and making more dangerous art. This time, take out the plainclothes gum cops.

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