Tokyo through the lens of Lee Chapman

I’m in Tokyo for work. It’s my first time here. I’ve got a busy week ahead, but have booked a Saturday to look around and do some photography. Fuelled by my passion for games, technology and geeky stuff, the Japanese capital has always topped my list of places to go. I’m excited. I don’t want to get disappointed. I want to love this place.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

With its top-ten listicles and user reviews, Google advises me to check out the famous Shibuya crossing, the Sensō-ji temple and the Skytree observation deck. I’m doing nothing of that. Instead, I have arranged to meet with Lee Chapman, a local photographer, who has offered to show me around. There is no set theme, but we have agreed to stay away from the must-see sights and rather look at some older parts of Tokyo and for ordinary people doing ordinary things. I’m not sure what to expect.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

It’s late August. The weather app promises sun, heat and humidity. I grab my camera and a bottle of water, gobble down some breakfast and head to the subway. My hotel is located in Roppongi, a central district known for its nightlife and expat community. Last night, I found some good food and an interesting exhibition here, but it could as well have been in London or New York. I want local.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Lee and I meet at the subway exit. His handshake is firm and he greets me in a noticeable British accent. He travels light, with a small backpack and a Leica rangefinder. “This city is made for walking,” he tells me. “There are lots of interesting stuff you can only find when you’re on foot.” I tie my shoelaces and tighten my camera strap.

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Lee Chapman, 24 August 2019. Photo by: Isaac Griberg

Lee grew up in Manchester and made his own Brexit in the late 90s. In the search for change and adventure, he boarded a flight to Tokyo for a one-year gig as English teacher. He bought a camera, fell in love with the city and his wife-to-be. For over two decades, Lee has documented life in the megapolis he now calls home. “The longer you spend exploring this place, the more there is to find,” he tells me.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We make our first stop at a peaceful market in Minowa, an older district of Tokyo. It seems like this place hasn’t seen a lot of change in a long time – in particular when you notice the shop owners and their clientele. “I love this place,” Lee says with a smile. “Most people here are in their 80s or 90s, still running the family business as they’ve always done.”

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

I can see that Lee has been here before. As we walk through market, he stops to chat with the people we meet, points out interesting stuff to photograph, and explains how the area demonstrates one of Japan’s greatest challenges – an ageing and shrinking population.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

As I move around, compose my shots and press the shutter, I realise how Lee’s presence, acceptance by the community and fluency in Japanese are giving me both confidence and access to snap photos of people and places I would not have discovered on my own.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We leave the market and continue our walk towards Ueno. I notice a difference in the shape and state of the buildings we pass. Some look patched-up, others deserted. An old bicycle embraced by nature invokes a feeling of tranquility and loneliness. “It’s expensive to inherit a property here,” Lee tells me while showing a photo of an elderly woman standing on the porch of the now-abandoned house in front of us. “So, when someone passes away, the house might just be left as it is.” Is this really Tokyo?

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Some would probably describe Lee as an urban explorer and street photographer, but I think there is much more depth to his character and to what he does. His photos commit moments to eternity. By returning to the same streets for over two decades, documenting the people living there, Lee is a preservationist of life and his work is a longitudinal study of the ever-changing Tokyo. I’m impressed.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Evidently, his work has been published in several top-tier media, most recently in The Guardian. I ask Lee if he ever thought of exhibiting his photos in a gallery. “If I did that, I’d like it to be in the setting where they were taken,” he answers. “Perhaps in a small shop or bar, providing context through the people working there, the ambiance.”

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

We grab a quick bite, stroll through the remnants of a post-war black market and make our last stop in Golden Gai. Tucked away in a corner of the red-light district, this maze of tiny bars connected through narrow passages is a relic of the past. “The area rose from the ashes of the Second World War,” Lee tells me. “I hope it won’t be bulldozed to make room for another skyscraper.” I peek into a few bars and notice how guests laugh and trade elbow space for drinks. Despite the rather dodgy feel, this seems to be a happy place.

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Photo by: Lee Chapman

Talking Beautiful Stuff is about the human impulse to create. You find beautiful stuff in people’s homes, in galleries, by the roadside and – sometimes – where you least expect it. When I woke up this morning, I thought I’d spend the evening writing about some jaw-dropping installation or an eccentric street performance, not about the photographer who would show me around. By sharing his wealth of experience and eye for photography, Lee has helped me discover a Tokyo I didn’t expect. I feel privileged and I’ve made a friend.


All photos in this blog published with kind permission from Lee Chapman himself. You can find out more about Tokyo photo walks on his website. Should you like to see any of the photos I shot during our walk, please check out my Instagram post.

Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

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Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

Discarded Hollywood Glamour

Neighbours moved away yesterday. They must have dropped a picture and left it on the street. Familiar faces catch my eye; one in particular always gets me thinking.

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I separate the damp poster from its smashed frame and lay it on the pavement. The photo is at once charming and amusing; it was taken at the premier of “How to marry a millionaire” in 1953. I love the interactive snap-shot-moment of these three stars.

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Lauren Bacall seems to be admiring – and tolerating with good humour – her husband, Humphrey Bogart, who is clearly admiring something else. I imagine that he has just wise-cracked something risqué to Marilyn about some juicy titbit that he has eaten and the need to wipe his fingers afterwards. And then of course, there’s Marilyn, the greatest female icon ever, just lapping up all the attention.

Everyone would know that smile. Not everyone would know of her courageous stand and work for women in the male-dominated Hollywood of the day. Few would know that after her death, investigators’ photos of her lying in her bed were published. Worse still, mortuary photos of her awaiting a post-mortem examination were likewise published. I know of no other celebrity whose person has suffered this particular violation of privacy nor been the subject of such a gross breach of medical ethics. I find it sad that such a bright star should die with such indignity.

Three favourite snaps nominated for the 2018 Geneva Photo Awards

I’m at Galerie La Cave, this week hosting 2018’s Geneva Photo Awards. There are lots and lots of photos on the walls, all submitted by local photographers. One of the friendly hosts hands out pens and papers and asks visitors to “vote for your three favourite photos.” The most popular photos will be announced at finissage on 25 March.

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I look. I stop. I think. There are photos of people and animals, landscapes and streets, concrete and abstract. Many of them are technically accomplished. Some capture moments, others evoke emotions. But there is no common narrative or theme, and there are no captions. I struggle, but manage to narrow down my favourites to three. I take photos.

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“Karnak” by Arnaud Chamorel

I love the harsh contrast and light in Arnaud Chamore’s photo from the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt. It reminds me of Gabriele Croppi’s photos of European metropolis. Whatever camera and editing software Arnaud used, the contrasty and monochromatic result is bold, moody and elegant! Unfortunately, there’s little space on the wall at home.

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“Le Tram Blur* by Neil Maccormack

Neil Maccormack’s photo of Rive is fun! The fisheye-distortion combined with a long-exposure makes the whole place look like a funfair. We all know that it’s not, but that doesn’t matter. I appreciate photographers who go that extra mile to find a fresh view of a scene often experienced from only one or two perspectives.

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“La Jonction Canard” by Frédérique Tissandier

The third and last photo getting my vote is shot by my colleague Frédérique Tissandier. The one-legged duck looks happy, ready take a dip in river Rhône. A simple composition with balanced colours like this can never go wrong. Well done, Fred!

Unless memory fails, this is the third year the Swiss Photo Club hosts the Awards. It’s clearly a very clever way of encouraging local photographers (their family and friends) to share their best photos and meet up with people who share the same passion. Well done, guys! I’m looking forward to next year’s edition, and perhaps I will then submit one of my photos…

Rio 2016 through the lenses of four photographers

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I visit the Olympic Museum to check out “Rio 2016 through the lenses of four photographers” even though sports photography has never been my thing. I consider myself a decent photographer but before I even see the first photo, the exhibition challenges me. “Everyone’s a photographer” it states in the introduction and then, rather like Orwell’s pigs, goes on to say “some more than others!” I discover that this is true and am humbled by what I find.

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Four professional photographers – obviously from the group “some more than others” – were invited to exhibit their favourite shots from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

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Mine Kasapoglu Puhrer (TUR), John Huet (USA), David Burnett (USA) and Jason Evans (USA) have done much more than capture great moments in sport. They provide an archive of the passion, emotion, and even unintentional comedy that is the human face and real draw of the Games. In addition, each great image is garnished with a little unexpected detail.

Great sports photographers have an eye for the image and for the moment. I mean, just take a look at the cover photo of David Burnett’s book (above). And the photographers admit that they are constantly exploring new angles, new compositions, new techniques and new narratives even though they’ve been in the business for many years.

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What a contrast between these two images: women’s hockey and women’s golf!

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The video interviews of the four photographers fascinate me:

“Sometimes winners have this different face before they win, it’s really exciting. I like to play with that photographing the moment before the race, the start.” – Mine Kasapoglu Puhrer

“You have the best photographers in the world coming together and creating their own photo Olympics. It’s like the athletes, every photographer is trying to be the best, they want to beat the people next to them, they want to beat everybody in the room. – David Burnett”

“You still need an emotion, you still need a story, you still need to find what that is, even though the technology helps, it’s just a tool. You have to use it wisely and properly. – Jason Evans”

“If you see the photograph through your camera lens, you don’t have, it’s when you don’t see it is when you have it.” – John Huet

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The photographers also make reference to the implications of technology for their work. Twenty years ago, sports photographers shot on film. From clicking on a top shot through development to sale for publication took about 40 minutes. Now, a captured image can appear on a news website anywhere in the world in under one minute.

The exhibition lasts until 9 November. It’s a must-see for everyone (who’s a photographer!)