#3. A change of seasons.
Of creeks and canals and rivers.
Happy holidays! I hope you are keeping safe and well. I am Joel Pulliam, writing about photography here in Tokyo. If you didn’t mean to sign up for my newsletter, there’s an unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email.
There has been record breaking snowfall elsewhere in Japan, but in the capital, this winter we’ve so far had only about five seconds of snow. So, to set a seasonal mood, I’ll share a few photos from last winter. They were taken outside a Shinto shrine near my home.
I don’t often photograph with a flash, but I used one here to illuminate the snow. The falling flakes, at first heavy and lazy and slow, turned briefly violent.
And then it faded away. In Tokyo, meaningful snow falls once in a season if we’re lucky. But happily, the cold, dry air and long winter shadows are wonderful for photography in their own right.
So what has been happening this winter? Japan Camera Hunter is one of the web’s great resources for camera sales and geekery. This month they interviewed me, asking me to respond to their questions with photographs. It was a lot of fun, and gave me a new perspective from which to view my photos. Some of the ones I chose have appeared seen on my Instagram or my website, but others are new. If you want to learn more about me and see some more photos of Tokyo, check out the interview here.
Also this month: I finished reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s not a book about photography, yet it gave me much to reflect on about my own photographic practice. Dillard writes passionately about getting to know the place where one lives — in her case, on the banks of a small river in America — through careful observation. Actively looking at the smallest details with an open mind. But beyond that waiting, patiently, with an open mind for something to happen:
“So many things have been shown to me on these banks, so much light has illumined me by reflection here where the water comes down, that I can hardly believe that this grace never flags, that the pouring from ever-renewable sources is endless, impartial, and free.”
It may seem more exciting to be elsewhere, but watch closely, be still and wait, Dillard says — there’s just as much going on in your own neighborhood as anywhere else, more than you can take in. Slow observation leads to deeper understanding, and with that comes the real possibility of saying something meaningful. In her case, Dillard launches into a rumination on the mysteries of beauty and of pain in the universe.
The first place I photographed that I really, obsessively knew was the C&O Canal towpath, which runs alongside the Potomac River from Cumberland, Maryland to Washington, DC. Twice I completed 100-mile ultramarathon races along the route. To train for those, I logged innumerable miles back and forth on the towpath, with little more for my mind to do than to observe my surroundings. I knew every inch of that trail, how it changed with the seasons, how it would look at in the hours before dawn or at sunset.
I only took my camera out there once, but I knew the paths well enough that that was all I needed. These photographs, taken in the middle of autumn just four months after I purchased my first camera, are among my favorites from my early days as a photographer.
Coming back to the narrow, dilapidated Furukawa River here in the center of Tokyo: I’ve traced and retraced every inch of it, I’ve researched it, the geology, the biology, the history, and I’ve taken thousands of photographs of it. And I’ve also sat still on the edge of the water just watching until the daylight disappears. That long and obsessive process has turned into a meditation on aging and about the way our memories — both historical and personal — accrete and decay, both through the slow processes of time and through the impact of devastating tragedies.
Yet as the seasons change, I sense that how I respond to the river will change. There are spots along the banks that will look beautiful in the spring, including one — just one! — cherry tree, hanging over the water. But those will be different photographs for telling a different story.
So for now, it is time to take these autumnal photographs and put them together in a way that illuminates what I have been thinking. In my coming newsletters, I look forward to sharing some of the photographs I’ve chosen and showing how they coalesce into a physical project.
As I work on this, one photographer who particularly inspires me is Kikuji Kawada. In 1965, he published The Map, one of the most important books in the history of photography. It resulted from his own careful exploration of the Atomic Bomb dome in Hiroshima over the course of several years, and is a profound meditation on grief and war. Critics frequently compare the experience of reading The Map to an archaeological exploration with layers of strata to be peeled away.
Given that, I was of course thrilled this week to learn that Kawada will be exhibiting images from The Map at Photo Gallery International in Nishi Azabu, near my home, this January. But not only that: for the first time he is pigment printing the images on washi paper, something that is still very rarely done with photographs. I’ve written previously about my own artistic interest in printing on washi, so of course I’m extremely excited to see what it brings to Kawada’s photographs.
Also in about month, Kawada will be releasing a new book, titled 20, comprised of photographs from his Instagram feed. Wow.
And those are the updates and ideas I wanted to share this month. If you’re just signing up and want to read past issues of this newsletter, you can read them here. And to those of you who have passed it on to friends and colleagues, I am grateful. Thank you as well to everyone who has written with feedback. I really appreciate it.
I look forward to being in touch in the new year.