Interview conducted by Jurgen Lossau for 'Camera' magazine, April 2015
- From England to Tokyo. How about your first impressions when you relocated to Japan?
It was my first time in Asia and everywhere seemed busy - even the countryside seemed densely populated. There was a distinct lack of trees, grass and vegetation in Tokyo and the haziness of the atmosphere was much thicker than it was in England. I thought that there was a virus outbreak happening when I arrived with the amount of people wearing face masks, but that's a perfectly normal thing here. I'd never eaten Japanese food before, so that was all new to me and we don't really have convenience stores in England, but they are everywhere in Japan and the service is great. I loved being able to go into an electronics store and pick up and play with all of the gadgets that were on display for sale. And Japanese video game arcades are the real deal. The crazy big insects were quite a shock and I had a few Lost in Translation moments including my first encounter with a high tech Japanese toilet that ended with water spurting everywhere.
With regards to the built environment and the landscape, I was simultaneously amazed, confused and disappointed. I had such high expectations before coming to Japan of what I imagined the place to look like. Tokyo's immense size, it's density, it's high rises and skyscrapers, it's efficiency, it's safety, it's cleanliness, and it's display of high tech architecture certainly lived up to my expectations.
The haphazard and dense urban planning - having factories next door to houses next door to restaurants next door to schools next door to gas stations, seemed quite bizarre however, and the mess of overhead electricity and telephone wires was also an eyesore. Some of the first photographs I took after arriving here were of the overground wiring - it really chokes the skyline from ground level. Another disappointment was the build quality, cheapness and small size of Japanese houses - I'd imagined them to be as tech and as futuristic as the electronics products that Japan is famous for exporting. The excessive concreting of the natural landscape in the mountains and along the coasts often spoiled views, but Japan obviously suffers from a myriad of natural disaster threats, so the taming of nature is deemed quite necessary. The untouched natural landscape, however, is pretty spectacular.
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- Your favourite motives are architectural forms. Is Tokyo an especially good place to find "modern landscapes"?
Yes, I think so. But you do have to seek out the examples of futuristic architecture - they are not as omnipresent as I had imagined them to be. I know that other East Asian mega cities have futuristic skylines too, but Tokyo is the original land of "tech" in my mind, so it's the place that I want to represent in my work. Compared to London, and other European cities that exhibit more of a fusion of classical and modern buildings, Tokyo's skyline and it's fabric are of relatively newer, taller constructions that were built during the bubble economy. There are hardly any arches in Tokyo - everything is straight lines and angles. This gives it an almost pixelated, Lego-type feel that I like. The sloped angles of the upper floors of apartment buildings - a result of a building regulation to allow more daylight to reach lower levels - seems synonymous with Tokyo. Plus the high population density requires that available living space is used efficiently, so you can find anything from sports grounds to swimming pools to driving schools on the rooftops of buildings. With so much activity happening on all levels of a building, it becomes a very vertical city with neon signs and fluorescent lighting everywhere that help give it a futuristic feel. From a high vantage point at night, the view is of a seemingly endless ocean of pulsing red beacons on the tops of skyscrapers and tall buildings that looks amazing.
- You call yourself Phokus. Why?
It's a pseudonym that I use, like a musician or a graffiti artist would, that helps to define my style. As well as photography, Phokus encompasses graphic and digital design too, so it ties together all of my work under one umbrella. The slogan of of the first Phokus print portfolio was "Photo.Graphic.Design.". Photography is the main medium that I work with, but the graphic and digital design that I produce as Phokus share the same stylistic values that help compliment the photographs.
I chose the name Phokus when I was at university. Obviously "focus" relates to photography, but also to the focussing of ideas and having a focussed style. I like the word "focus" but it's original spelling just looks weak to me. The "Ph" instead of the "f" looks more scientific I think. The "k" instead of a "c" is stronger and more graphical and is also a homage to the German spelling of words (lots my favourite photographers are German and I was a big fan of Berlin's Lodown Magazine when I was growing up).
- You have a very futuristic website - The Phokus Archives. How about the evolution of this design?
I began working on the Phokus Archives back in 2011. I wanted to design something that would compliment and befit my photography in a high tech and imaginative way. Growing up in the 90s, I saw a transition in technology (especially in photography and music) develop from analogue to digital. In the Phokus Archives, I wanted to represent a bridge between these two technological eras and to create a digital/analogue hybrid device. I spent a long time laying out and piecing together designs in Photoshop, taking elements from different camera technologies and gadgets and adding my own features.
I had to learn how to use Flash and Actionscript (which was as arduous as learning Japanese). Throughout the whole process I was constantly juggling between Photoshop and Flash, checking that everything could be programmed the way I wanted it to function. More often than not, there was a compromise between design and functionality and I made innumerable changes and modifications, that would often affect the design of the whole interface.
Whilst I was working on the Archives, I was also shooting photographs too. The photography influenced the Archives' design, but it also started to work both ways, and the Archives began to influence the photography. When this started to happen I could see that it was moving in the right direction.
I knew from the start that the interface needed to be bi-lingual (English and Japanese), because the majority of the photography was taken in Japan and the technology that I was referencing had it's roots there too. As much as wanting it to be accessible to Japanese users, I also felt that the appearance of Japanese writing characters (especially katakana) were immensely graphical in their own right and would help to compliment the futuristic style of the device.
The design and user experience of the Archives samples and pastes together elements of some of the video games that I grew up with. For example, the intro DOS screen is taken from the operating system of a Commodore 64, which was the first games computer me and my brother owned. The design of the Archives' main body is loosely based around a Sega Megadrive (Genesis), which was the first 16-bit games console we had. There are folder tabs in the 'Retouch' and 'Tech' sections that are taken from the Nintendo 64 game Goldeneye, and the Explorator zoom screen is borrowed from the XBox game Halo. Other elements, such as the metadata panels and the overall shape of the device, are inspired by Japanese retro-tech things from Gundam robots to Casio watches. There are obviously lots of elements that reference camera design too, both digital and analogue - the LCD displays, the viewfinder targets, the 5x4 large format focussing screen, the flash-head, the lenses, the aperture dial and focus ring, etc.
Music and sound were also an important consideration for the Archives. Video games and electronic gadgets have a distinctive set of sounds, and I was lucky enough to have my friend Alex Melia (Reso) onboard to create the sound effects and background music. A lot of the product design of the musical gadgetry that I had grown up with also influenced the visual design of the website - DJ mixers, Walkmans, drum machines, turntables, amplifiers, speakers, etc - combined with the newer, digital music production software programs and user-interfaces. Likewise, as with camera technology, the transition in music technology from analogue to digital was a very visible one.
- Tell us more about your bio - and how did you come into contact with photography?
When I was a kid, my dad would always take family snapshots. He had a Canon AE-1 SLR camera and I was really impressed with it's design, how it felt to hold and the feeling of looking through the viewfinder. I was as much intrigued by the camera as I was by the photographs that it could produce.
I'd had a skateboard since my 6th birthday, but I didn't seriously get into it until I was about 13. I started looking at skateboard magazines, and this was when photography began to have an impact upon me. I would bring my dad's camera with me when I went skateboarding with my friends and try to imitate the photos I had seen in the magazines. My dad was an architect too, so I was always conscious of the design of the urban environment as I was skateboarding through it. His technical drawings had a big impact upon me - their precision and detail. Whenever I thought about skateboarding, I thought about architecture, and vice versa.
We usually skated at night time, when the streets were quieter. The appearance of the city at night under artificial lighting also made a big impression on me. The night seemed so much more colourful and visually optimistic to me than the drab daytime hours of work or school.
At college, I took a course in photography, where I learnt about developing and printing in the darkroom. The work I produced at college was a combination of architecture, night-time landscape and youth culture photography. I went on to study Photographic Arts at the University of Westminster where I began to focus on London's built environment. I gradually replaced the darkroom with Photoshop and digital print media, and began operating under the alias of Phokus. In my second year I made the first incarnation of the Phokus Archives using Macromedia Director. I lived with a bunch a cool musicians who I'd sometimes design promotional material for, so the cross-over of photography/music/graphic design merged together. It was a very influential time for me and lots of my photographic and artistic aspirations were established then.
After university I secured an apprenticeship as a digital retoucher with an architectural photography studio in London. Over the 3 years that I worked there, I was able to hone my knowledge of Photoshop and digital imaging. Although I was developing an invaluable skill set, I wasn't producing my own work and I felt that London didn't offer the kind of cityscape that I wanted to photograph.
So 7 years ago I relocated to Japan. The studio in London had kindly bought me a Canon 400D DSLR camera as a farewell gift, and with it I started to explore Tokyo's metropolis and architecture. That's when the photographic studies that are featured in this article began.
- Try to describe your photographic style, please.
Futuristic, high-tech architecture and cityscapes that are shot under low natural light conditions using long exposures.
- How do you find your motives?
All sorts of things inspire me and inform my work. Music and skateboarding are probably the biggest sources of inspiration and ideas. Seeing other artists, especially friends, work hard to achieve their creative pursuits motivates me to pursue my own goals and follow through on ideas. I think that to create anything that is worthwhile and original takes a lot of trial and error, and therefore requires a good deal of commitment. But the satisfaction gained from realising an idea is always worth the hard work. Seeing my dad at his drawing board working late into the night demonstrated to me the kind of work ethic I needed to adopt towards my own craft.
- What kind of gear do you use?
I currently use a Canon 6D with EF24-105mmf/4L and EF17-40mmf/4L lenses and Kenko UV filters to protect the glass. I shoot with a Dolica ball-head tripod and a remote control. If I'm shooting through glass I use a camera curtain to limit internal reflections. I process files using Adobe Photoshop and Bridge CS6 on an iMac.
In England I used a variety of 35mm and medium format SLR cameras, and on some occasions a Canon D60 DSLR. All of the equipment and camera settings are detailed in the Phokus Archives metadata panels. A friend of my dad's was kind enough to lend me a pair of Plaubel Makina 67 range finders with Nikon lenses - they were the best film cameras I have ever shot with, but I was terrified about damaging them because of their value.
- Do you have any inspiring examples in photography?
For night-time cityscapes, Rut Blees Luxemburg was a big influence when I was at university. She had also studied on my degree course, and would sometimes come to give talks about her work - large format photography of the city at night. My final thesis was based around her London: A modern project series. After I graduated, I saw Peter Bialobrezki's Neon Tigers book of photographs of East Asian mega cities which had a big impact on me.
When I moved to Japan, I met with Sato Shintaro after discovering his amazing night-time cityscapes of Tokyo. He has been supportive of my work and a great mentor ever since.
Christian Stoll's commercial photography is amazing, and some of his still lives and industrial work are incredibly high-tech. I really admire the scale and ingenuity of some of Andreas Gursky's work too. Although it's a film, Koyaainsqatsi by Godfrey Reggio was also influential, particularly the time-lapsed scenes of the city at night.
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