HESO Magazine

Photography, Music, Film, Hitchhiking, Craft Beer – Cultural Pugilist

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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.

Modern Japan with a Makina

Modern Japan with a Makina

In part VI of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan with a Plaubel Makina, a series of medium format press cameras with leaf shutters and rangefinder focusing with collapsible bellows. The original Makina was manufactured by Plaubel & Co. in Germany from 1912 to 1953. Plaubel was later sold to Doi Group, which designed new Makina cameras that sold from 1978 to the 1980s. The Japanese-made Plaubel Makina was a major redesign with Nikkor lenses and integrated metering. It was manufactured first by Copal and later by Mamiya.

Models 67 and 670 have Nikkor 80mm f/2.8 lenses. Both models take ten 6×7cm exposures on 120 rollfilm, while the 670 model also accepts 220 rollfilm (20 exposures per roll). Model W67 is similar to the 670 model, but with a wide-angle Nikkor 55 mm lens (roughly equivalent to a 28 mm lens in 135 format). The 55 mm was considered one of the sharpest and most flare-free of any produced during the analogue photography era. The 69W Proshift has a 47 mm Schneider Super-Angulon and makes eight 6×9cm exposures per roll of 120 film. The lens is mounted on a sliding flange which allowed for perspective control in the same manner as shifting the front standard of view camera.

Modern Japan with a Makina

The Modern Japan Gallery

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

In part V of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan via the Bronica Zenza (ゼンザブロニカ?), a Japanese brand of medium format roll-film cameras, a single-lens reflex model first appearing in 1958. Partially named after the company’s founder, Zenzaburo Yoshino, and reputedly derived from Zenzaburo Brownie Camera. The Bronica Z and successor Bronicas, using Nikkor lenses, are all cult classics. Bronicas are workhorse cameras for wedding and portrait photographers and secondhand Bronica cameras are still widely used by professional and serious amateur photographers, due to superior image quality over smaller film and digital sensor formats as well as affordability.

After the death of Zenzaburo Yoshino in 1988, Bronica was acquired by the lens manufacturer Tamron which discontinued the brand’s single-lens reflex models (SQ, ETR and GS) in October 2004. Bronica’s last model, the RF645 rangefinder camera, was discontinued in October 2005.

Modern Japan with Bronica Zenza

The Modern Japan Gallery

Fan faces at Fujirock (Manny Santiago)

Modern Japan with Horizon S3

In part IV of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan via the Horizon S3 Pro Panoramic. The Horizon is a mechanical swing-lens panoramic camera manufactured by Krasnogorskiy Zavod in Krasnogorsk, Russia, known for their range of Zenit cameras.

The Horizon was produced in two formats: the 205pc, which took 50.5×110 mm wide frames on 120 film, and the 202, which took 24×58 mm wide frames on perforated 35 mm film. The 202 has been superseded by the S3pro, a redesigned and improved camera with silent rotation and more exposure times.

An older version called the Horizont, produced in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, had an all-metal, rectangular body and a removable viewfinder. The technology of the “202” is basically the same, but the body covering is plastic, and has an integrated viewfinder, making it larger. Additionally, the 202 features a slow-speed shutter mechanism, with exposure times of 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 of a second; the S3-Pro has exposure times of 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and 1 second, slower rotation than the 202, and silent rotation. It has been appropriated by Lomo.

Modern Japan with Horizon S3

The Modern Japan Gallery

HESO Photo of the Week by Arnaud De Grave

HESO Photo of the Week from Arnaud De Grave

HESO Photo of the Week by Arnaud De Grave

A native plant of the area, this part of the land has been under restoration for 2 years already

Cultural river bank restauration in Lillooet, BC

In Lillooet, British Columbia, about 250 km north of Vancouver, I was involved in helping a small group of First Nations’ volunteers from the Sekw’el’was tribe and some conservationist scholars who had been working to restore a riparian (i.e. a piece of land close to water, a river, a lake, etc. Here it is the Fraser river banks) piece of land in their community. First Nation is the official name native people from the Canadian part of Northern America call themselves, and the T’it’q’et First Nation band lives in Lillooet. For a number of years they have been removing traces of non-local invasive plants, removing traces of sub-culture (such as 4-wheel drive access, drunk driving and unauthorized fires) and try to put this specific piece of land back in its original condition. Land has multiple ecoservice and spiritual value for First Nations, especially riparian zones, and often it is surrounded by highways, power plant, etc. This one is also situated very close to modern “civilization” artifacts, but when one is inside it, one can feel nature coming back. It is a very slow process: weeding, re-creating wildlife habitat, seeding and planting specific species, etc.

In addition to the overall cultural and pedagogical experience of a field trip with the class of Forestry from UBC, this day taught me one thing: if one wants to have an impact one shouldn’t vent about one’s powerlessness but start doing something, even if only local, for inspiration comes from action. I was happy to help planting some shrubs and berry trees, and sharing time with the volunteers for a couple of hours.

Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

HESO Photo of the Week from Charlie Lumanlan

Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

Charlie Lumanlan - HESO Photo of the Week

Being a photographer is not defined by art school degrees, or bound to rigid expectations and judgments. A photographer experiences life, friends, cultures, and captures the briefly passing moments of time. Photography allows me to appreciate the momentary, forever documenting a tiny portion of the joys of living. Currently I am fascinated by the stories portraits tell, and the use of natural colours and light to evoke emotion. I live and travel a natural film life from the san francisco bay area to tokyo, where film, love, and friends guide me back and forth.

portfolio site

Nina the Swedish Goddess of Luang Prabang, Laos

Toy Cameras – Four Corners Dark

Toy Cameras – Four Corners Dark

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Bonsai at Himeji Castle with Holga 120N

What is the mystery of photography? Why do we love the static image? What is it that these fragments of reality, frozen in time tell us? What is it about the photograph’s ability to transcend commonplace existence that has taken it from an unrecognized set of chemical reactions to the most popular and life-changing art-form the history of the world has ever seen? Are we seeking knowledge of our place within the greater universal complexity? Or could it be that we are a conceited bunch of heretic animals in love with posing for and fawning over our own graven image? Is it not rather that we just love to command machines, fiddle with knobs, push brightly colored buttons and play with toys?

Ahh, toys. Ask most people when they started to fall in love with photography and many, if not most will hark back to the golden days of their childhood, when life was simpler, the sun shone brighter and film was, as the only option available, still cheap. Most photographers of today who were raised in the odd limbo generation of the 70s and 80s grew up on one or more of the futuristic Polaroid instamatics kicking around the house. Or maybe you had the cartridge-based 110 film and disc cameras, invented by Kodak and popularized with the Kodacolor VR, or any number of short-lived point and shoot cameras, that weren’t toy cameras per se, but today can be found lining the discount bins of used camera resellers and garage sales alike, the world over.

In 1957, only five years after MacArthur’s Allied Occupation (which due to its co-incidence with the beginning of the Cold War allowed those in command to rebuild the economy, democratize society and liberalize the stratified class system of pre-war Japan, thus constituting fertile ground to create one of the most concentrated middle classes ever, priming an economy ready for world domination), Fuji Camera introduced the Fujipet camera.

Holga still considers the original reason why Mr. Lee founded Holga, which was to offer people an affordable, practical, easy-to-use camera to take photographs as our objective. Click To Tweet

Marketed to a solely Japanese audience, this plastic camera would go on to introduce the hitherto western concept of leisure combined with the snapshot, for use by the whole family. From the instruction manual, “With the Fujipet Camera you can the pictures very easily just as you manipulate your knife and fork…The Fujipet Camera enjoys great popularity among children, mothers and all the members of the family and affords happiness in all homes.”

Whether the discerning Japanese buyers either disliked the quality or disagreed that mama-san should be left in charge of figuring out not only how to load the complicated 120 millimeter film, but also how to coax a crisp photograph of junior from the plastic meniscus lens, production stopped in 1963, likely due to increasing domestic salaries making production of higher quality and more lucrative camera products look better to companies and their investors. This would prove to be a microcosm of the much larger consequences of what would eventually transpire in Hong Kong with the Holga.

Looking back at the history of the portable camera, these popularized models produced by Agfa, Fuji, Yashica, et al were largely based upon the rush-to-market-mindset prevalent in the center of light industrial manufacturing Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong of the 50s-60s, producing a camera boom. A mindset that was not looking to mingle lightly in niche markets, but to take advantage of the massive buying power of entire middle class populations. It was the Hong Kong novelty manufacturer Great Wall Plastic Factory, in first producing the Diana, which in turn spawned tens of hundreds of clones, that unwittingly launched the modern day toy camera revolution. They were just trying to make a fast buck. In doing so, they made history.

“Cue the Clone Machine”

Despite being marketed to adults as serious, yet affordable alternatives to the cutting edge SLR technology available from a technologically more advanced Japan, Germany and U.S. camera companies in the 80s, these cheap, mass-produced cameras were possessed of a playful, toylike quality. Be it the cheap plastic design or the often blurry, grainy results, there was something definitely lacking in quality, though whatever was missing was made up for by human emotion. Whereas since their inception photography had largely been the realm of nature buffs and burgeoning artists, it was at this time that the by and large middle classes of the United States, Western Europe and Japan began to spend their growing disposable income on any and all cameras, the easier to operate the better. This “chicken in every pot. And a car in every backyard, to boot,” mentality caught on like Californian wildfire and with it enough money for companies like Ricoh, Minolta, Canon and Nikon to dump millions into research and development, which would eventually culminate in the digital camera deluge visible across the globe. Now, thanks to Mr. T.M. Lee- inventor of the Holga- anyone can be a photographer.

“Very Bright Indeed”

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Matsumoto Flasher – Lomo LC-A – Cross-processed

Circa the western world experiencing three days of peace and music at Woodstock, others were concentrating on lighting up the globe in a different way. Universal Electronic Ltd., started in 1969 by Mr. Lee, was initially a very successful flash unit manufacturer, that is until the 1974 release of the Konica C35 EF – the world’s first thirty-five millimeter compact with built-in flash. When business began to drop off, Mr. Lee and company decided to diversify from merely peripherals to producing actual cameras as well. Thus the Holga – the name coming from the Anglicized pronunciation of the Chinese characters for “very bright”– was born.

Despite all signs to the contrary, it was not the original goal of Mr. Lee, nor any of the other manufacturers, to make toys, but rather to ensure that people are fascinated and interested in creative film photography. But business is business and in order to survive in the hotly competitive photographic trade it would prove necessary for Mr. Lee to continue to adapt his company’s vision to the often inexplicable demands of the niche market upon which he now focused. The primary target market was mainland China- not the U.S., Europe, or Japan, who could mass-produce better technology at that time- though largely due to China’s low median income and cameras being a luxury item, initial sales of the Holga proved disappointing. As the Chinese middle class grew due to economic reform of the 80s- and with it buying power and hunger for better technology- many cheaper products, like Holga, lost ground and were nearly completely lost in the shuffle toward the new paradigm of the 90s tech boom.

As artists, amateur photographers and institutions of higher learning got in on the ground floor of the Holga Revolution, business boomed for Mr. Lee and Universal Electronic- largely in part to the Austrian-based Lomographic Society licensing and repackaging the Holga in marketable and highly profitable kits. He was amazed at the resurgence of his twenty year-old baby, remarking it was “out of my imagination!” and smartly thought to capitalize on this newfound “Toy Camera” popularity by diversifying into a wider range of products. Add-ons for the Holga or completely new cameras (the Micro 110, 6×9/6×12 Pinhole, 3d Stereo, Twin Lens Reflex, a whole range of 135mm cameras, fisheye lenses, color flashes, etc.) became profitable ways to expand into areas previously unimagined. The future was very bright indeed. Or was it?

“Smack My Hipster Up”

Toy Cameras - Four Corners Dark

Double Exposure on Kyoto Rooftop – Holga 120N

As pixel-based photography has become the industry standard and the amateur preference, and the paradigm shifts more and more from analogue to digital we see various industries scrambling to modernize to a faster-paced, more multi-tasking way of doing business. The staff photographer, along with the stock photography agency, seems to be a thing of the past. Editors now scan the inter webs for cheap “content” (if choosing to respect copyright) that will likely not have made the cut ten or even five years ago. We sacrifice quality for convenience in order to provide twenty-four hour “news” online. Is this the fault of Diana, Holga, Fujipet or any number of toy cameras which gave rise to the popularity of the modern camera?

To ask what is the future of photography is too big for anyone to take on except in bite-size chunks. One might be well served to look back to the origins of capturing images for answers to why images- and especially those taken with shoddily-crafted plastic parts which often “leak” light, vignette uncontrollably, and capture images so randomly that the photographer would have no guarantee that any exposure will come out at all- have transfixed us deer-like in the headlights of a tsunami of cause and effect. Many of which have such wide ranging societal repercussions that we would be smart to admit no one really has any idea of what’s happening, let alone what’s on the horizon.

Is the iPhone’s Hipstamatic application, which applies a toy camera quality filter to your digital photographs, the future? Is it true to say that we want the romance of film without the hassle? Film is messy and photochemistry stinks and, truth be told, film was never the most environmentally friendly product on the market. Made of cellulose plastic and bonded with gelatin–itself derived from the collagen found inside animal skin and bones–it was once highly flammable and non-vegetarian. The photochemistry used in its development, since it only works in relatively few ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, has remained largely unchanged since its discovery (Rodinal for example), meaning it is still composed of semi-toxic and non-biodegradable compounds. So could film-like filters take over what is, after all is processed and enlarged, just a result? Most film photographers scan their negatives in order to take advantage of the cheap self-promotion of the internet and her myriad online galleries. Yet in doing so, these analogues and their imagery, switching their vernacular from grain to noise and point to pixel, become digitized, often using software to crop and clean up negatives, and then print out via any of the number of high-quality printers using archival based multi-tank inks. So what’s the point of film? Is using film as opposed to digital even a relevant debate anymore? Isn’t the fact that it got us to where we are enough? Or do we really need all these niche luddites continuing to proselytize their anachronistic plastic lenses all over their pretentious micro-galleries while talking about expired stock with knowing smiles and carefully cultured converse sneakers? The truth, always infinitely more complex than thought, is yes, we do.

To extrapolate digital photography as a direct result of the Toy Camera boom, to say that Holga created the digital point and shoot in your mobile phone, to credit Hong Konger novelty and flash manufacturers with the digital paradigm as well as their own eventual decline, is not too far a stretch. What will emerge from the next few digital decades? A perpetual backlash against time-tested, though also time-consuming, archival methods or as Mr. Lee experienced when the unpredictable wave of economic tide turned the middle class Chinese off his product and hipsters on- a rebirth of interest in film and more importantly, sales?

Christine So of Holga Limited

Christine So of Holga Limited likes Toy Cameras

HESO asked Holga Limited representative Christine So about what Holga has in mind for 2010 and beyond.

HESO: Any new cameras in the works?

Christine: Well, to coin a phrase, we could say that we have an “endless roll of fresh film” to use with our Holgas in 2010, in other words, there is plenty in the pipeline. We have just released the 135 TIM twin lens camera mixers and accessories, which we are really proud of. They have two lenses so that the user can take two different images at the same time. Therefore one roll of 36 exposures will become 72 exposures. This is a smiley face Holga and comes with an even cuter smiley flash. I am sure this camera will make the people you shoot smile back just as nicely!

Holga-135TIM-BK-+-12S-BK © Holga Limited

Holga-135TIM-BK-+-12S-BK © Holga Limited

HESO: Do you see the digital camera industry hurting or helping Holga?

CS: Undeniably, digital is dominant these days, but I don’t really believe it is either hurting or helping. I would prefer to think that digital cameras are a complement to film roll cameras rather than replacing them. Indeed, digital cameras have changed picture-taking habits, as people are taken in by its many obvious qualities: convenience, picture quality, etc. However, we all know that a sizable community of diehard film fans are happy to spend time in darkrooms and can’t resist the charm of film. Thanks to the internet, film roll fans around the world have been able to share their photographs with a larger public, whether through blogs or other websites, and I would go as far as to say that there is a revival in our favor on the way. I think also that anyone regardless of age, who has the good fortune to get their hands on a film camera won’t be able to deny the charm of using Holga, as it is something you can’t experience from digital cameras. Therefore, for people whether young or old, film cameras, in particular the Holga thanks to its simplicity, break many taboos and offer a completely new and more personal experience. In reality, the two mediums are too different to compare, let’s simply say that it is like trying to compare oil painting to watercolor.

HESO: In a sentence, what is Holga’s Mission Statement?

CS: Holga still considers the original reason why Mr. Lee founded Holga, which was to offer people an affordable, practical, easy-to-use camera to take photographs as our objective.

HESO: How can Holga take advantage of the growing number of “collector-type” photographers in Japan and elsewhere who continue to use film?

CS: Since 2000, we have released a new pinhole series, stereo series as well as further developing our classical models with additional elements, such as – vertical view finders. We don’t have any plans to release any limited editions quite yet as we still focus on quality. One thing it is for sure, the growing number of Holga fans will motivate us to develop more innovative products and revive interest and passion for film photography.



SNJEZANA JOSIPOVIC is immediately enigmatic. Her voice is such that you feel the words rather than hear them, like an animal’s growl, a kick drum in the dark, or a wave’s crash on rocks. And at the same time she’s sweet and laughs a lot, which covers for the lack of silence. Let me explain. Snjezana’s photographs are engrossing and although varying greatly in theme, content and technical wizardry, the overall feel is one of a vast inner life, bustling with behind-the-scenes activity, yet covered by an invisible veil which renders it all mute, even despite her vivid use of color. It was this intriguing idea of inquietude and underground restlessness that led me to believe (mistakenly so) she would be the same: quiet and demure on the surface while seething underneath. She may definitely be seething at heart, but Snjezana is anything but unable to properly express herself, allowing her powerful images- often of young women in dresses lounging on sofas, people using random pieces of furniture to climb in (or out of?) windows, and sparse landscapes which are often over- and under-exposed, punctuated by light leaks, softly-focused, double-exposed and taken with off kilter composition, the overarching theme of, among other things, youth running amok amidst the ruins of the old- to speak for her. Some of it is commissioned work while much is her playing at self-portraiture, yet even in her alluring shots for European fashion magazines there is still that pervasive sense of what she calls “the beautiful process” of the perpetual amateur. As Alfred Eisenstaedt said when talking about photography, “Every professional should remain always in his (or her) heart an amateur.” Snjezana has become the consummate professional by playing the amateur, giving her a style uniquely her own.

Among her many photographic series, and alongside her major documentation of the individual, there are recurring motifs suggestive of travel, vistas representing the void and the vast expanse before us all, which her numerous images of passengers on trains, landscapes taken through foggy windows and long exposures of city life attest to. Yet overall there seems to be an intimacy in each of her images, whether up close with friends and family or from a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea. HESO figured that since the Tokyo – Zagreb Express bus line has been down for some time now, we would have to talk on the phone, that old thing. Snjezana, which means “Snow White” in Croatian, was more than willing.

I am restless. This is what pushes me, makes me go forward, to figure out things about myself in the world, what is behind what I see and feel. It isn’t always comfortable but it helps me keep moving. Click To Tweet


HESO: Hi Snjezana, You are from Croatia and live in Zagreb. What is it like in summer? Winter?

Snjezana Josipovic: Typical Zagreb summertime: the whole city becomes slower than usual, emptier, hotter…with beautiful light in the mornings and evenings. Zagreb is a central European climate: hot summers, cold winters. One or two hours from here is the Mediterranean Sea, a whole different place, a few hours away are the Alps, a completely different climate. Just like all the different cultures around here we have so many climates within close distance to each other.

HM: Central Europe is a confluence of cultures, especially Croatia, isn’t it?

SJ: I like when there are a lot of differences. It is not boring for me. Croatia is a pretty new country. After Yugoslavia fell apart, well…this is also kind of political which I don’t really want to go into, but Zagreb is very centralized. The population of Croatia is maybe 4.5 million and almost 1 million people live in Zagreb. We have a lot of influence from Italy, Turkey, Austria, actually Zagreb is called Little Vienna and here is the center of everything- schools, universities, arts. Of course there is the coast and the islands, which are beautiful, but are uninteresting for me photographically. I see so many other things I would like to make photos of. My experience is what is important to me. This kind of natural beauty in those places you see in all the photos of Croatia are in someway not real. Nothing is real.

What I find interesting is my private experience. If I go to Paris it could be the Eiffel Tower or it could be a window in Paris, in Vienna, in Zagreb, you know, I don’t show the touristic point of view, but it doesn’t matter in the end. It is interesting for me to travel but in the end it doesn’t influence my photography, which is strange but I just like the feeling of movement.

HM: Speaking of influences…

SJ: Considering influences when you work is like having a kind of border around you. When you work it is important to be free. I don’t like to think before I make a photo.

HM: Can you tell me what life was like as a little girl growing up in Croatia?

SJ: The things I remember – beautiful images of me playing on the street with my friends or going to Bosnia to see my father and seeing the few houses on the hills, it’s a very idyllic version of childhood to remember, because when the war started, well, I was very lucky not to have experienced very much of the war but what I did see stayed in my head because many changes took place. At that point some part of my idealistic childhood stopped and I had to grow up. Not only outside influences but also things inside of me were changing at that time. So that time probably changed the course of my life forever, but in a positive way.

HM: When did you first pick up a camera?

SJ: I have no idea really. I guess when I was quite young. But if you mean when did I first pick it up with intention to express myself and to make something creative, it was sometime in 2005. First I was playing with some digital camera we had at home, and with Photoshop…then I discovered film, and fell in love with it!

HM: Can you give me some mental images that you often carry around with you when you are taking photographs? What do you see?

SJ: I do have a kind of chaos in my head, a mixture of images and information, thoughts and wishes, dreams and reality. It can be a beautiful mess though. But when it comes to making something creative from that, from those, let’s call them, mental images, I think I get somehow paralyzed from it. But when I let it all go, and try to leave my head empty, it feels like I have many more possibilities, like all borders are gone and anything can happen. When I see something I want to make photos of, it just happens in a second or less, it can be because I liked the green color of the tree at the moment, because I am in a great mood, anything really.  And the most beautiful part for me is the process, and never knowing until I see the photo how it will really look, and hoping I will like it when I see it, but even if I don’t I enjoyed the process of making it. That is the point for me.

A little bit of that spontaneity gets lost when I have to take photographs for work (: (I guess I must use some mental images then, just to make it all easier for me, because I don’t have much time for playing and exploring then).

Lately I’ve been trying to make some more conceptual work, I’m trying to organize the mess in my head and make some of those thoughts and ideas more concrete. I want to move myself from where I feel comfortable, and that is making everything totally spontaneously.

HM: Do you think of self-portraits as different photography than your other work? Is it more personal for you when taking photos of yourself or working with mirrors? Does that suggest something to you?

SJ: My self-portraits are different from my other work as much as my portraits are different from my landscapes or from my geometry shapes series. Anyway that self-portrait thing is like a game I use to play often when I was little. I liked to look at my self in the mirror and pretend I could see an actress, a dancer or singer, a teacher, or a mom. I could see everything I wanted. Probably I am still like that, and my self-portraits are nothing but a game.

HM: From your photography I get a sense of two Europes trying to balance against one another, one of an older, more conservative tradition that has seen its share of bloodshed and hardship and that of a younger, more vibrant world where youth seeks to make its mark. Is it more what you are taking photos of or the way you are taking them?

SJ: Those are mostly people and situations around me. Something catches my eye and I want to make a photo of it. The feelings in the photos probably talk most about me, though I never analyze my work that much. Often, mostly earlier, it was like I wanted to be part of my subjects, emotionally I mean. I could somehow understand it well, feel it, but I could never really be a part of it. It was like first I detached myself from it to come closer to it. And then make the photo.

So as much as I wanted to be it I didn’t really want to have some real attachment to it. Some connection is always there, but somehow I left some space empty to fill it with all the other things that are probably more important for me at the moment. And those are maybe some uncomfortable feelings, emptiness, loneliness, or maybe there is just nothing. I like to put my subject in silent “spaces” to see what it brings. Silence makes it uncomfortable or the total opposite.

And then…what is there is there, what I see is there, what I feel is there. It may be real or not. Everything is so relative, what we see, what we experience. And I believe that is the only truth in my photos.

My photos, the mood, the motifs…To make photos in this fashion, they feel closer to me, though I don’t necessarily do anything on purpose, but somehow I do do it on purpose. It seems warmer to me, like it’s a part of me. When I make photos of a stranger I want it to look like it’s a part of me. I don’t like working in a detached way. Which is why I use film, why I use older cameras, it’s the whole process of doing it, knowing the model, using the film, which I really have no idea what will come out in development. It takes a week for me to see what I get on film and well, it’s not important for me to know immediately if what I get will be good or bad, because for me it always turns out ok somehow. Of course it’s possible that I’m not satisfied with the result but I like this process.

HM: That’s interesting. Looking through your photos, there is a sense of a powerful personal aspect at work here.

SJ: That is intentional, because I do make photos for myself. And because of myself and maybe, I don’t know, but I’m trying to find something out about myself. Then comes everything else. It is that connection between what I see and what I am, I guess the two dialogues, internal and external. It is also that I don’t like to talk about some things, so I make a photo. Or I draw, whatever, it’s hard for me to express some feelings with words. It’s much easier to try to make a photo…but it doesn’t have to begin and end with photography. I was studying painting in high school, fashion and graphic design in college. I like to change things to see where I can communicate best with the world. I don’t think you should have boundaries in your work and this is where some mixed media work of mine has come from. This is just a game, just playing to try to figure out how things work in life, my little investigations, human perception. I don’t like to stop. People’s reactions are really interesting, but for me they are unnecessary.

HM: Words often aren’t enough.

SJ: That and maybe, I don’t know how to use them right (laughs).

HM: I showed your photography to a friend and he said they looked sad and indifferent. Whereas I see a kind of ambivalent energy about to burst from the seams. How do you choose your subject matter?

SJ: Well I hear this a lot- about some kind of melancholy feeling, but I don’t really think about it, as if, “Oh today I’m sad, so time to make a photo…” I just do it and as I said earlier they are first for me and I can’t really know how such and such photo will affect someone else. But anything is possible, because these are all individual interpretations. I think if someone sees that a photo is sad that is their own sadness, not mine.

Of course everyone would want to see photos of, oh I don’t know, flowers or puppies or something but, we are taught that those images are “happy” and these things are what make a good life. When you see a photo that is the opposite of that, well I’m sure that can seem lonely somehow. But isn’t that all a part of life?

HM: I see a lot of sensuality in your photography. There is a subtle and provocative sense of sexuality running through much of your work, mostly alluding to alternative lifestyles or women in general. Is this something that you are specifically trying to show or is it unintentional?

SJ: I would say it is more unintentional. But sexuality could be something I pay much attention to, and I guess it is noticeable often in my work. Yes, there are many pretty young people in my work, but a lot of this is some fashion work that I do. What is interesting to me is to try to do something different than typical fashion photography, something more personal. But of course, any time you see pretty young girls in dresses it is a bit sexual. That may be unintentional but is also something I don’t go out of my way to avoid. This is also getting to be a bit boring for me.

HM: What, my questions?

SJ: Ha ha, no no, this kind of photography. Staying in the same place all the time and making the same photo over and over again. If I must shoot fashion why not make it more spontaneous. Of course, fashion people, art directors jobs are there to prepare a scene, but it’s very posed. Nothing against that, but for me this is why in the past three or four months I’ve stepped back a bit from fashion and am just making photos, snapshots really, of wherever I am, wherever I walk, because it’s more honest. It’s all about honesty.

HM: That’s something that all artists have to deal with at some point.

SJ: It’s the sort of Catch-22 of photography. You start to make photos because you really love doing it but then at some point it becomes work with someone ordering you around like a robot, “Do this, do that!” It loses the beauty of the whole process, the fun.

HM: You seem to be interested in design. I’ve noticed various shapes, triangles, squares, showing up on some recent photographs. Particularly striking is what you have been doing pairing two photographs together, often juxtaposing humans and natural settings in diptychs. Do you feel constrained by the single square image?

Oh, well, those geometry shapes had nothing to do with design really, although I am interested in design (Laughs). They were connected to a little research project called, let’s say, “Impossible Objects.” I was little bit curious how people would react when they saw them, because (the shapes) look so unnatural, artificial, or surreal… and we don’t expect those objects to really be part of nature.  Also to put them in the photo like they were really there is almost ridiculous. But for me it makes so much sense, like it is real, or like I created new reality. (Laughs)

“The philosophy of mathematics overlaps with metaphysics because some positions are realistic in the sense that they hold that mathematical objects really exist, whether transcendentally, physically, or mentally.”

This sentence is taken from Wikipedia, just to give you insight of the meaning, of some of my thoughts behind that geometry series. Oh yes, and about my diptychs, I never really feel constrained with single frame images. At the point when I was making more diptychs it just seemed as if those photos made much more sense together, like putting totally different segments into one story finished them.

HM: You alternate between color and black and white. It is a conscious choice, a feeling or something else that guides you toward one or the other?

SJ: Sometimes it is conscious, sometimes I put color film in one camera, black and white in another one, and make photos of same subject, because I like to see differences, how the result changes when using different films, or even different cameras. I have a Holga, a Hasselblad- using different film, black and white, color. I don’t like to talk about whether something is good or bad, those things mean nothing to me, but about digital photography, which I have nothing against, but what they are trying to do is to make technically more perfect photos, whatever that means, but I don’t think that a photo is better or worse simply because it’s in focus. It’s funny to me. The only important thing in photography is that you are saying what you want to say, for yourself. That the best photo is the one that is technically perfect is crazy. These boundaries are unnecessary, but this is what people do, categorize things, and then everyone feels at ease. This may work for TV, where people are passive and receive information and then, “Ok, great!” and no one has to think. That is what I don’t like personally about anything. (Laughs) That sounds so funny when I say it in English. We are all taught what is good or bad, taught to feel safe, secure. But in the end we all know that this is not what life is about.

HM: Where do you see yourself in five years?

SJ: I don’t think about the future. I’m trying to make everything good right now without being concerned with the past or the future. I used to be obsessed with the future and I was depressed. I’m not the person that I want a perfect life with perfect job and a perfect family. I don’t know what I want in those terms and sometimes that is frightening. I just know that I want to make what makes me happy now and that is photography. It ‘s not always easy, you know, we need money, jobs, compromises, it’s not easy, so I’m not putting too much pressure on the future. Baby steps.

I am restless. This is what pushes me, makes me go forward, to figure out things about myself in the world, what is behind what I see and feel. It isn’t always comfortable but it helps me keep moving.

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