Photographer James Whitlow Delano lives in Japan, but he is known for his projects that have taken him throughout Asia. His series Japan Mangaland was recently cited with the Leica Camera’s Oskar Barnack Award, Honorable Mention for 2006. His other plaudits include the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts for an Editorial Series, the Alfred Eisenstaedt (Eisie) Award, the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Photography Competition and the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts. Some of his China images were recently collected and published in Empire: Impressions of China.
Wayne: How did you stumble onto the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and how did that propel you onto the path of photography? How were Andre Kertesz and Robert Frank also influential on your development?
James: This is going back to my beginnings at the University of Colorado. I was in the university library and bored with studies. I visited a very kind librarian in the rare books room. She had original prints of Cartier-Bresson, as I remember it. It was at about the same time I discovered Frank and Kertesz, but it would be a couple of years before I would sell my 4X5 camera and work with Joel Meyerowitz in New York, that it would all begin to take shape. Meyerowitz is the direct bridge between large format and the Leica. I was helping him unload Cape Light prints, which had just been returned ironically from Japan. Japan was not even a real possibility at the time. Meyerowitz pulled out this unusual little, quiet camera to make a portrait of an author who had come to his loft on I think 17th Street. It was a Leica M.
What was this camera and why had his manner been completely transfused with energy?
He told me that day that I needed to take a camera onto the streets. Then the whole thing began to make sense to me. Cartier-Bresson’s photographs had already penetrated my psyche but now I began to understand how he had worked. Kertesz’s elegance and Old World ways seemed, with HCB, some idyll. Robert Frank showed me that America had its own attitude and that he, a man born outside the US, was able to see things we did not notice or did not want to see. Later, in Japan and China, I would want to exercise a similar function. I still do. There were others, but the work of these three spoke to me on a level that still raises my pulse.
Wayne: You have been based in Japan for more than a decade. What brought you to the country, and what has kept you there?
James: I was working in Los Angeles in fashion and celebrity portraiture. Those days were some of the most carefree and dreamlike in my life: days in the desert followed by nights in the studio. Still it rang a little hollow. LA can be that way.
To abbreviate a long-winded story, the idea about living in Japan had been bounced around and then put down. I then visited a friend living here and was blown away about how much more depth the culture had than the mythology actively cultivated about this country. On that visit, I saw for the first time how I could make it work and photograph Japan for months on end, deeply without interruption. I jumped at the opportunity. It was to be for nine months. It has been for 13 years now.
Wayne: What drew you to covering places like China and Japan?
James: Going back to 1993, I had my introduction to Asia through the Philippines a year before and was then living in Japan. For some odd reason, Japan did not seem so far but China seemed impossibly far away. Before coming to Japan, I never thought I would ever travel to China. It seems kind of odd to see such words on paper now but it is an honest recollection.
A failure to obtain air tickets for Bangkok resulted in my first life changing travel to China. It was apparent immediately after processing film that this place hit me on a very different level.
Wayne: What is it about covering China’s collision of old and new that the country is seeing?
James: Well, the exploration of old and new in China was the focus of Empire: Impressions from China. I have encountered an interesting dilemna where people relatively new to China, and who have failed to look carefully at the dates of photographs, sometimes suggest that I am cherry picking old scenes and dress for that series. Empire was a series made almost entirely in the 1990’s. That was China in the 1990’s, particularly the moment you left any city centre and even more so in the deep interior. Right around 2001 or so (nothing to do with global events), I began feeling the beginning of new era. This newer China work speaks to the awesome change, pollution, new wealth, gulf between rich and poor. Everything that happens in China occurs on an awesome scale, whether it be the massively impressive landscapes, or the ruination (environmentally), or the transformation of urban landscapes sometimes done with heavy handed means. This ongoing series I call China: Growing Pains.
Such a title might raise a few cackles, a Yank talking about the growing pains of another country, particularly an ancient one. Actually, I feel Americans, raised on Manhattan, Las Vegas and Hollywood are uniquely qualified to sympathize with this period in history in China. We can understand it. I see so much that reminds me of America. The Three Gorges Dam could be the Tennessee Valley Authority or the mega-dams out west. They were made for the same reason: to develop the interior. The highway building in China I suspect echoes our interstate highway system; which Eisenhower actually built to help the military transport materiel as much as for 1960’s station wagons full of kids. And the excessive display of wealth is as American as apple pie or trying to keep ahead of the Jones’s.
Wayne: How does this relate to your new China desertification project?
James: Again this echoes the American experience during the painful Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s. There are some frightening differences though. My university studies, as mentioned, where in Boulder, C olorado where the high plains of the Dust Bowl meets the Rockies. The population density in the US at the time was as such that people could and often did move on allowing the land recovered to the point that grasslands grow there today.
In Ningxia and Inner Mongolian provinces where I recently photographed, what were steppe grasslands 50 years ago are often covered by 100 +m high sand dunes. Sand mountains. Moving sand mountains of tremendous power and weight but delicately fine, penetrating everything.
It resembles the Sahara and there is little room for people to migrate. China has over 1 billion people already.
Mao Zedong implemented agriculture policies during the Great Leap Forward in the 1950’s that irreparably damaged grassland that fifty years later look like the Sahara. This is not an exaggeration. These are massive and global climate changing growing pains. So, it weaves into that larger project. Some of the wells have not dried out yet. So there are these tiny settlements of Mongol farmers way out in the desert, I found on satellite photographs. Hiring a motorcycle, I went out to photograph. I don’t know if you are familiar with the ancient lost Chinese garrison town of Lou Lan in the Lop Nur area of the Taklamakan Desert further west. I felt like I was watching the last days of Lou Lan before it was lost to the world for 2,000 yrs. in these little Mongol settlements. Staggering. On those same satellite photographs, oceans of sand go back from the Yellow River valley for hundreds of kilometres and connect like sand through hourglass canyons. A moving sand ocean I photographed that leaps the Yellow River was actually connected to the sand desert that I photographed several hundred kilometres north in Inner Mongolia. These sand areas are growing in size.s
Wayne: You once said that: “To observe a society in a snapshot of time can create a false impression.” You visited China countless numbers of time while working on Empire: Impressions of China. Why is absorbing a country in this way so important to the way you work? How do you compare this working style to those photojournalists who parachute, so to speak, in and out on assignments?
James: I have to be careful here. Anyone may photograph anywhere and there must be a first time for every place. That said, China has an old saying (well thousands) but one states that one may always fool a foreigner. Japan and China erect layers of protocol, appearances, special lavish etiquette especially for visitors. You are not going to see through most of this unless you invest years in these cultures and even still you must ask yourself, am I seeing what I think I am seeing. Usually when you ask yourself that question, your sixth sense is warning you. So, parachuting in risks falling for cliches, stereotypes or very skillful visual obfuscation. There are hundred dollar melons for sale in Japan that have nothing at all to do with daily life but first time visitors gravitate towards these aberrations as if they somehow define this country. They don’t.
There are a lot of half empty, though impressive, skyscapers in Shanghai. There is a red carpet treatment I got there last July in Shanghai and Hangzhou, that I enjoyed mostly because I did not recognize the country I knew was out there beyond the air conditioned luxury of my chaffeur-driven car. My usual mode of transportation are the cigarette smoke filled local buses with Kung Fu movies that try the sanity, at top volume, on a TV set that seems to pull the eye in no matter how much one tries to pretend it does not exist. You know what? I prefer the bus to the car. Actually I prefer the old buses without TV’s and with windows that opened.
Sometimes you should look out from the window of the taxi or bus on that new elevated highway in Shanghai, Tianjin or Guangzhou and look into apartments and see how the massive majority of people still live. China has made tremendous progress but there is a long way to go. Look into those apartments and you cannot fail to admire the strength and sacrifice of families building those massive office towers that try to steal your attention. The high rises are important but I care about the average Joe.
Wayne: You are known for traveling light. On the camera equipment side, you’re said to often carry only a Leica body and a single lens. How true is that, and how and why did you come to work in this way?
James: I carry two Leica bodies and film. That is enough weight! I need to be able to move to work. Life moves too quickly to worry about several cameras hanging around my neck. I rarely carry the two bodies at the same time. One body is for 400 film and the other for 3,200 film at night. So, at any one time I carry one camera, as I always have in Asia.
Wayne: Your photographic style has been described as a throwback to another era. How has that description normally struck you, and how accurate do you find that viewpoint?
James: I like a timeless look to work. There is no attempt, overt or covert, to conjure the past. I think that the subject matter might. I like a rich print but I will leave it to others to judge if, say my Japan Mangaland series speaks of another era. Tokyo seems firmly set in the post-modern, well maybe it is sometimes surreally set in the post-modern. I work in a manner that involves movement but not that different than influences mentioned early. So, perhaps that might feed in part into that perception.
Wayne: Earlier in your career, you assisted fashion and celebrity photographers [such as Annie Leibowitz]. How do we still see that influence in your work?
James: Fashion taught me valuable lessons about light, energy, being aggressive, and quickly capturing expressions that speak loudly in the images. It also meant interacting with the subject or you got nothing.
They (fashion and celebrity portraiture) taught me to get the image, no excuses and probably no second changes. I owe those lessons to Michel Comte who I worked with in Los Angeles, not New York. I owe another lesson to a Paul Jasmin, a gifted photographer and teacher. He talked lot about “dead eye” in fashion photographs and portraits. He meant the lifeless look of someone painfully aware of being watched, on guard. He talked about how “dead eye” murdered energy and drained life from an image. I have never forgotten this lesson even when on the street.