I am so used to your quiet pensive photographs of America that this book, Still Lives, Tokyo, took me by surprise. How do you compare this exuberance with your previous work?
I had never been to Tokyo before. So I was completely overwhelmed. I was there for three weeks by myself exploring Shibuya and Shinjuku. I just walked around, day and night, without much of a plan, photographing, just trying to draw inspiration from what I saw around me, and by being “actively receptive” as Henry Wessel called it.
In the run-up to this trip I watched a lot of Ozu movies and read a number of Murakami novels, among others. And I looked at photo books by people like Araki and Moriyama. But I only scratched the surface of Japan’s history and culture. So this was a very different experience from when I’m photographing California, where I’ve lived for over 35 years and which I’ve studied on many levels. I usually know something about whatever I’m pointing my camera at in California. In Tokyo I often had no idea what I was looking at. For instance, I couldn’t read the billboards and the street advertising, of which there is an overabundance. And everything is crammed together and on top of each other, with narrow streets and everywhere utilities running overhead. It’s a beautiful urban chaos. Tokyo is like New York on steroids, and that’s what accounts for the exuberance in these photographs. To strengthen that, I paired the photographs by placing an image on the verso and recto on each spread in the book. It’s something I’ve not done in the other books which is why those seem more quiet and pensive. But Tokyo was such a visual overload, it’s so dense and layered, I wanted to convey that in both the images and the layout of the book.
You are building quite a body of photographic work, with your previous books and Archive series. What is your goal? What is the place you are carving out for yourself?
Right now, it still feels like I’m simply paying my dues, getting a solid body of work under my belt so to speak. I’ve been photographing for a long time, but it’s only in the past 3 or 4 years that I’ve gotten serious about it and made it my focus. And I’m particularly interested in making photo books, instead of photographic prints, which puts me at a disadvantage because galleries, where careers are launched, make a living from selling prints, not books.
Nevertheless, there are countless photo books being published these days, and there are basically two genres: there’s the limited edition artist’s book, where the photos create a narrative and the physical properties of the book are used in such a way that the book becomes an art object. And then there’s the photo book as exhibition catalog. It utilizes the pages of the book more like gallery walls, and usually features a few academic texts to explain the work. The former is intended for a small, initiated audience and collectors, and is often expensive and difficult to obtain, while the latter is meant for a broader audience and is affordable and more readily available. I’m trying to carve out a space somewhere in the middle by taking cues from both kinds and producing artist’s books that are affordable. I’ve come close to that ideal with Gingko Press, a commercial trade publisher who allows me a great deal of artistic freedom to explore.
Of course, type and typography launched your career, do you see a connection between Emigre the digital pioneer and VanderLans the photographer documentarian?
Not really. My experience within graphic design was quite fortuitous, due to the fact that I started my career when design entered the digital age, and post-modernism and design writing and the legibility wars were the topics of the moment. There was so much to be inspired by and to react against, and there was a focus to the discussions. I have a hard time recognizing the dominant dialogs within photography, so I don’t know what to push against or adhere to. But perhaps that is a good thing.
I’m trying not to overly theorize or intellectualize my photo work. And I’m not exactly testing the limits of the tools of photography. So the experience is entirely different from those digital pioneering days in type and typography. At the same time, I understand that it’s the role of the artist to progress and always push the boundaries of whatever field you work in. That’s a tall order though. Right now my goals are more modest. I’m still in the process of pushing my own boundaries.
It is hard to pick a single photo to represent a total body, but are there two or three images that are quintessential in terms of what you are doing as a photographer?
I’m faced with that question each time I have to pick some images for an article or catalog or interview like this. And it is hard, not least because my photographs are usually parts of a larger whole. It’s the books that are the final object. The individual photos work together to create an almost cinematic experience. So picking one image to stand for all others goes against what I’m trying to accomplish.
Also I want to be careful with the idea of a single image becoming quintessential. There are photographers who have become known for a singular image and have lived under the shadow of that ever since. That can be quite stifling for a photographer. Although that’s premature for me to worry about.
Well, I keep going back to California as my subject. It’ll be a recurring theme in my work moving forward. Even though I’ve lived here more than half my life, it still feels completely fresh to me. It’s an inexhaustible subject on so many levels. It’s the place I always dreamed of while growing up in Holland. California is where I always wanted to be. Now that I live here, I want to make sure, by photographing it, that I was right to like it so much.