Sean Lotman just published the most incredible color street photography book — titled Sunlanders.
Eric: Congrats on your first book Sean! To start off, why is publishing a book important to you?
Sean: Publishing a book is the culmination of years of seeing a project through into a cohesive unit. For me, a photo book is a statement of purpose, a declaration of aesthetic, and a record of one’s exploration into a certain concept or narrative. I knew for a long time I wanted to make a photo book about Japan, my adopted home.
Exhibitions are great–yours or any photographers you admire, but they are by their very nature temporary, while a photo book is forever, a legacy, or at least a fragment of an accumulating legacy. I don’t know how many photo books I have in my lifetime– not many, but ideally, whatever I am able to publish will become an object valuable to a few hundred (or a few thousand!) someones, trickling towards the next generation’s enthusiasts as years become decades.
Who doesn’t want to be a hero to someone who shares your passions? I love my favorite photographers for the books they’ve made. They’ve made something fantastic that makes life a more beautiful experience.
You’re dedicated to shooting color film, and print your own work in the darkroom. What does that experience feel like, and how does it help you better connect with your work?
It feels wonderful. I love the deliberate slowness of printing in the darkroom. It can take hours to make a single print, as each attempt in the darkroom brings you a little bit closer to what might be the best possible print.
You could dodge a little more here, or burn a little bit more there, or take a little bit less magenta over there, and then the print comes out of the enlarger and it’s gorgeous. You did it. It might take all afternoon, but the arduousness is part of the appeal.
Developments in technology are nearly always related to matters of convenience and speed. Printing is work–it’s physical, it’s using your hands, it’s making objects. There is real intimacy with your photography when printing in the darkroom. You’re not pressing buttons or dressing filters on images willy-nilly; rather, you must carefully consider the necessary alterations. You’re as conscientious of what you are doing at this moment as when you took the picture, perhaps even more so. I could only achieve in my prints a certain feeling after much experimentation. When your hands move between the light and exposed paper, it becomes almost like painting then, or at least, the literal meaning of photography, writing with light. And when you’re done six or seven hours later, with maybe three images on your work table you feel a great sense of accomplishment.
Every image in Sunlanders was scanned from an 11 x 14 darkroom print made by my own hand. Each one had its own challenges, some more than others.
You’ve recently been quite active on Instagram and shooting daily photos on your smartphone. How has it been switching from your old “dumb phone” to smartphone— and how has shooting on a smartphone helped you be more creative in your work? And how does it compare to shooting film?
For the longest time I resisted a smartphone. I really wanted to be mindful, especially when I left the house to shoot. I’ve always hated (and still hate) seeing so many people staring at their phones oblivious to their environment. Now I do the same thing! I’ve learned that the weaknesses I’ve disdained in others are very present myself. It takes real will power not to check news, mail, etc. when standing at a traffic light.
There were several reasons I upgraded to an iPhone. One was work, another was the fact I didn’t want to fall too far behind technologically– I see people in my parents’ generation struggling to adapt to the new realities of tech and I didn’t want to proactively slide into helpless confusion. And then, most importantly perhaps, I became a father and wanted to make sure I took enough photos and videos of my son so that I could better cherish his development. I know how treacherous memory is and in twenty years I know I will want to revisit the way his voice sounded or the way he smiled as a baby.
Most of the film I use to shoot 35mm has been discontinued (Kodak Ektachrome), which has led to becoming a very careful photographer. Shooting with the iPhone has been rather fun because it doesn’t feel as serious as shooting film. I love how easy it is to take a nice picture and I love sharing it on Instagram with my community.
I’m a lot more stingy sharing my darkroom prints for several reasons:
First of all, I’ve learned that a lot of these prints turn out to be works in progress, in that I can always make the print a little (or a lot) better so that once I put it out, and it spreads to blogs and Tumblr and the like, then these rough drafts end up on the Internet. This has happened with a lot of my pictures on Flickr.
The other reason I don’t like sharing is somewhat personal and perhaps silly: once I put an image online, it doesn’t feel like mine anymore. I’ve given it to the Internet! And I suffer a bit of regret. Most of my prints I have never posted, but then again, I would probably need to reprint them to get them better. It takes ages to get everything right, especially when perfectionist instincts creep in. I don’t feel that with iPhone pictures which is very nice.
You’re now a father— congrats! What kind of impact does being a father have on your photography?
Well, the single biggest impact is I don’t have nearly enough time for photography. No more nine-hour workaholic days in the darkroom without some serious negotiations first. And I don’t have nearly as much time to shoot either.
We often go out together, my son, Tennbo, strapped onto my chest, which means I can’t walk as much as I’d like (he’s getting pretty heavy) but it also means that any bold street photography moves will not result in any bad feeling. Most of the time, people notice my son rather than myself, and they forgive my intrusion into their day if they notice me at all.
Describe “Sunlanders” for us. What is the concept behind the book, and what do you want the viewer to get from it?
Sunlanders is an invented word drawn from Japan’s most cliched description, Land of the Rising Sun (which makes me slightly cringe whenever I hear or read it). What I’ve tried to do with my photo book is destroy stereotypes and pre-conceptions with a surrealist vision that is nothing like the Japan of contemporary reality or the classic projection of Japanese myth mostly associated with the films of Akira Kurosawa. If I have succeeded with the book, it is disorienting and psychedelic, so that having gone through Sunlanders, one feels like he or she has just experienced a waking dream.
I’ve always loved the colors I produce through film processing and darkroom printing without really understanding why until I recently watched The Wizard of Oz again. When I saw the Technicolor of Oz, I realized that if the unreality of my palette had a provenance, it was the funky, unreal blues, reds, and greens of color films produced between the late 1930s and early 1950s. I loved the movies from this era as a kid and so was surprised to discover there is an atmospheric connection between them and my image-making as an artist. And interestingly (and unfortunately) as Technicolor is a relic of the distant past, I only have so many more rolls of the film I can use to develop those colors. There will come a point, sooner or later, that I cannot make the photos I make, which I think clarifies any work I produce in the style of Sunlanders as a brief, inspirational moment, rather than a lifetime aesthetic.
How did you edit and sequence the book? How much was it from the opinion and suggestions of others, versus your own ideas?
The editing of the book began with the conception of the project itself. There was a certain vibe I wanted to convey, something really different from what you normally see in photographs of Japan. At first, I wanted to photograph famous Japanese places in an unconventional manner or foregrounded with eccentric characters, but as it progressed I became interested in creating a certain timelessness that would disorient and dazzle the viewer so that the photo book would no longer be about Japan, but rather a dream about Japan.
To make this possible I began editing out what I thought were very good images, but carried too much cultural baggage or obvious symbolism, like geisha, gyaru, and yankii, or locations in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka recognizable to those with a casual understanding of Japan. If the book were to have a surreal dreamlike fever, then it would need to be ruthlessly edited. Over the five years it took to make the book, I shuffled images in and out until over the last year and a half I’d really begun to feel the book taking shape with a certain group of photographs numbering around 40-50. From there, I tinkered many, many times with the sequencing in order to discover some kind of narrative, that although wordless and interpretive, would reveal some kind of story to the reader.
To do this, I had some input from my publisher, but I also trusted my wife, Ariko
Inaoka, for suggestions and affirmations, and whose fingerprints are on some of the sequencing.
However, the bulk of the edit, the inclusion of photos and structure of the book was mostly
accomplished by my own intuitive reasoning.
What kind of suggestions or advice would you give to other photographers trying to get their work published?
My advice is to know exactly what kind of book you are making and work on it consistently until you know for sure it’s ready. How do you know? Well, you should be able to feel that you’ve made something not just original, but complete. And you should research publishers not just where you are but in other countries.
When you publish, you’ll have to make a number of decisions, not just about layout and inclusion/exclusion of images, but also about the book’s size, the paper quality, whether or not to include a cover image (and then deciding which one can stand for the whole), cover material, end papers, end ribbons, font options, where to print, the number of editions (& whether or not to do a Special Limited Edition), among many other choices that will affect what your photo book looks like. It’s a collaborative process, working with the publisher and the designer (if you decide to hire one), but ultimately the final decision is yours.
Sunlanders is done, it is out, but now I am in next cycle which is marketing the book, which means book launches, exhibitions, and hopefully press. It’s a whole other kind of work and decision-making, but it is fun in its own way. None of it is exactly easy, but ideally you’ve made something that people will get excited about, people you’ve never met.
If you could start your photography all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
I really don’t know if I would have done anything much different. I really wish I’d started younger. I didn’t really begin photography until I was 33 years old, so I missed out on a lot I could have done in my young adult life.
Any shout-outs you would like to give? And where can people pick up the book?
Sure. I’d like to thank Bemojake’s publisher, Maxwell Anderson, as well as the book’s designer, Hal Udell. Also my wife, Ariko Inaoka, who helped me with my photography so much over the years. And a big shout-out to all the people buying Sunlanders, giving it a chance. I know photo books are expensive and I appreciate your support.
Connect with Sean Lotman
Sean Lotman on Composition
Below is a presentation Sean gave during a 2-day Composition Street Photography Workshop we had in Kyoto:
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