(“The Troublemaker” – Kyoto, Japan. Sean Lotman)
Eric’s Note: I am excited to share this feature with Sean Lotman, a film street photographer currently based out of Kyoto. His colors are phenomenal, have great richness, and soul. He will also be teaching alongside myself, Bellamy Hunt, and Junku Nishimura in our upcoming Kyoto Introduction to Film Street Photography Workshop (11/16-11/18). See his thoughts on photography and his inspiration images below.
Thoughts on Photography
Sean: I grew up in Los Angeles, where everybody drives. The one place in LA where a car is an inconvenience is Downtown, which, not surprisingly, is the only authentic urban area in the entire city. It’s skyscrapers, power brokers, Skid Row, food carts, and immigrants. There’s just as much Spanish as English on the street. Downtown LA doesn’t just feel like a different city but another country.
I suppose exposure walking its environs was an inspiration to travel. Being in a bustling city is the closest I feel to being connected with my fellow man. The countryside is good for communing with Earth and Life but the city represents the apex of man’s organizational success (and at times the nadir of his failure). Surrounded by people, encountering the random stranger either with words or eyes, is a good feeling, worth nurturing in our contemporary eSocial era. Photography has naturally complemented these wanderings.
Because a well-done photograph delivers meaning where they might be none, it has an especial place in our lives. For that reason it should be taken seriously and with some degree of respect. Perhaps that’s part of why I’m beholden to film. When you shoot twenty pictures of the same moment it betrays some confidence of instinct, which I believe is so integral to the making of a good photograph.
For me, instinct turns on where luck leaves off. Street photography is like free form jazz or live theater—the more you give in to the moment, the better the reward. It’s about being there.
Good photography is a creative discipline, which means the artist does his best work in a near-meditative state. The busyness of mental noise fades so that the photographer is really one with his environment. I know it sounds very ‘Zen’ and all, but for me this feels very truthful. For that reason I prefer to work by myself as the pleasures of companionship distance me from attention to place. I rarely listen to music when I shoot, as this also obscures devotion to the developing tableaux.
I find mainstream culture generally disagreeable, especially corporate advertising and the resulting kitschmanifesting so much of our everyday world. Commercialism streamlines ugliness, reminding us of our unfortunate evolutionary stage as malleable consumers. This is why I like photographing in less developed countries, where corporations have been less successful branding the landscape. Otherwise, it’s important to crop out trademarked monoliths. You, the author of a developing oeuvre, curate the world you live in.
When I’m out shooting I like to dress as neatly as possible, as people are more likely to respond proactively to my intrusions. And unless I am absolutely sure I can shoot covertly I ask permission—always trying to make conversation first as it relaxes strangers. Your approach is everything. Really, I can’t think of anything worse for me than angering a subject, as this would affect my confidence in the day’s coming encounters.
One should enter his contract with the day expecting zero returns; thus the thrills of joy when ‘the shot’ reveals itself. But every now and then I do not take a single picture. Though disappointing, I accept the loss. You should try not to force a photograph when one’s not there.
I’ve always loved serendipity, which is from where nearly all the best moments of street photography evolve. On a beautiful day you can maximize your luck by making educational guesses based on location, light, and the probability of human traffic, but nearly all of what happens from there is pure chance. What remains to be seen is how you, the photographer, rise to the occasion. Sometimes I fail. I am not brave or sly or quick on the draw and the world turns and the magic becomes regret.
For me the most important, if not difficult shot is illustrating a subject’s relationship to environment. Maybe, it’s because these images are cinematic—they provide context and from context, perhaps, comes a story. I’m attracted to stories, and the capacity to project on a still image some kind of narrative gives a photo life beyond its inherent stillness.
Maybe because I shoot film (and don’t have a smartphone) I only take pictures when I am engaged in shooting. Photography for me is not documentary. It is not functional. It’s an opportunity to make something really beautiful. This makes life more worthwhile.
I am not a very learned photographer in the technical sense, though of course, the more you know how mechanics work, the more capacity you have to shape your vision uniquely. Fundamentals are important.
Even after living in Tokyo and Kyoto for years, Japan remains incomprehensible to me. It’s not language so much as culture. It’s otherness. Photography is the medium that connects me with my adopted land. Through my wanderings, I am reminded that this exoticness is beautiful and that I am lucky to be here. Strangely, it’s all too easy to be oblivious to the extraordinary.
I’ve lived in Kyoto for a little more than a year now. The city, as well as the surrounding region is more or less the birthplace of Japanese culture. It is where the first major governments organized and the first Buddhist adherents built their grand temples. For that reason the city takes its traditions rather seriously and in the right neighborhood at the right moment I’m often stunned at the embodiment of a foreigner’s romantic imagination of place. If I’m lucky and a little bold, I manage a photograph too.
It is very important to put together a signature. Forget watermarks, a singular aesthetic will authenticate an artist’s work to the world. The challenge, of course, is to evolve artistically, differentiate content, and experiment whole-heartedly without compromising one’s unique precedence of expression. Balance is something to keep in mind.
I have several ongoing projects, all years in the making— one is on Japan, another is called Underdogs, based on a personal style of photography I call ‘psychedelic humanism.’ And finally, I’m working on a collection of Diana f+ images paired with haiku and senryu poetry. I’ve got a long way to go…
More work by Sean Lotman
Kyoto Introduction to Film Street Photography
There are still a few spots left for my upcoming Introduction to Film Street Photography Workshop with Bellamy Hunt, Sean Lotman, and Junku Nishimura). If you want to experience the beauty of Kyoto in the fall, capture some stunning images, and learn more about film street photography (from the best pros in Japan), check out the link below and sign up today!