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Interview with John Sypal of Tokyo Camera Style


John Sypal is the photographer behind Tokyo Camera Style, the “Sartorialist of the camera world”.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

John Sypal: I had a very typical middle class and middle American childhood. A semester followed by a year abroad at a university in Japan led me to the place I am today, namely a suburb just outside of Tokyo. I’ve been interested in photography since high school and upon studying and living in Japan have been enjoying the photographic scene of Tokyo and the people who make it all possible. In 2008 I was taking part in a weeklong photography festival and asked a guy if I could take a picture of his camera. And since there were lots of people around with film cameras at this event I asked a few more. I had just seen my first tumblr a week earlier, and so after getting a few more pictures Tokyo Camera Style was born.

PP: How did you first get into photography?

JS: I took it as a course in high school, and then as a requirement for my Art major in college. Darkroom work was fun and all, but looking back now it was the interaction with people that photography allows that interested me. Photography for me isn’t anything more than a way to go through life- I don’t have a political agenda or anything. It’s a chance to learn more about where I am and hopefully who I am as well.

PP: What was your first camera?

JS: I found a Minolta XG-1 at a garage sale with a Cosina 28mm lens and one of those 1980’s cartoonish consumer zooms in 1995 or so. I shot with this through high school and graduated to an XE-7. Later I picked up a Nikon F2 and did the Nikon SLR thing for a while, adding an F3 and F4 to my collection. During my year abroad in Japan in 2002 I fell for an olive green Bessa R2 in the window of a camera shop in Shinjuku and promptly traded off all large Nikons (except for the F2) and bought the Bessa. But of once you go Rangefinder the path often leads to Leica.

PP: What equipment do you shoot with nowadays?

JS: I don’t leave my house without my Leica MP, Contax T3, and Ricoh GRDII in my Domke F3 bag. You can see a picture of this kit here.

I enjoy each of these cameras for their simplicity. I started out as a “28mm guy” but with my Summicron on the MP and the T3 I have found the 35mm focal length to be just about perfect. Recently I have been trying to figure out how to shoot a 50mm lens. Each length has its own challenges, and I am interested in the difference in visual compression that the 50 gives over the 35 or a 28. For my black and white work I shoot Fuji Presto 400 in 35mm which I develop and print at home.

As much as Tokyo Camera Style is a celebration of analog cameras and gear, I honestly have a lot of love for the GRD. They’re about $250 used in Tokyo so after one wears out it isn’t too hard to go pick up another one.

PP: How would you describe Tokyo Camera Style to someone who has never visited the site?

JS: Most succinctly it’s a website featuring photographs of analog cameras in the hands of their owners on the streets of Tokyo. I create content by seeing these people on the street with their gear and approaching them to ask to snap a photo of their camera. While in each image the camera is centered, sharing the frame are other little details about the owner which give the viewer clues about the person photographed. I think that getting to see shoes, clothing, rings, watches, and bags allow the viewer to see that these are real people with their own individualities.

Save for a few rare occasions, I don’t photograph the owners faces since it’s a lot easier to ask “Can I take a picture of your camera for my blog” than “Can I take a picture of you for my blog”

I’d like to say the site is accessible in that there’s no lengthy Mission Statement full of art-speak to deal with. The quotes I have to the side sum up my feelings rather well. It is a site celebrating these particular photographic tools which people enjoy.

PP: What’s something interesting you’ve learned through running the site?

JS: The biggest surprise I’ve found is just how happy the site seems to make people all over the world. Especially film shooters. I get messages from people saying that they feel camaraderie in seeing that there are other people out there shooting film and enjoying analog photography. The internet is a fantastic vehicle for sharing information but the tactility of an analog experience is by nature of digital transmission, missing. People respond to seeing this chronicle of cameras and tell me they are happy to not feel so alone, so to speak. It would be great if TCS gets a few people into film photography again or for the first time.

There’s been lots of other little things I’ve learned as well. The fact that so many of the people who appear not he site are under 25 is interesting. The fact that many are women is another. Also the blog is somewhat serialized in the monthly magazine Nippon Camera here in Japan, and being recognized when I talk to a camera owner on the street is always kind of funny. “Oh hey, you’re THAT guy.”

PP: What camera do you usually use to photograph cameras?

JS: The first several months of the site was done with my first digital camera, a small, and very red, Casio Exilm S20 with zone focusing and a hit and miss macro mode. A friend of mine, an engineer in Sony’s camera department had a Ricoh GRDII which, as you can imagine, he didn’t use much and offered to sell it to me cheap. I immediately took to this camera due to its programmable mode selector. On my GRD the “MY1” is set for “Tokyo Camera Style Mode” i.e. 3MP Macro shots. It’s kind of funny — as soon as I see someone with a film camera on the street my hand automatically goes to the GRD in my pocket and immediately switches dial to MY1. Kind oflike Han Solo and his blaster safety, I guess. Except that I am dealing with Japanese camera enthusiasts and not intergalactic bounty hunters.

I’m on my second GRDII at the moment and it is likely that my next digital camera will be a used GRDIII once the IV comes out or the II dies. Whichever is sooner.

PP: Why film over digital?

JS: Allow me to answer this question a few different ways.

For the personal photography which I exhibit in shows, the groove of the analog process is something that I find comfort in — both in the aesthetics of the final print and the path it takes to get to that point. It is a part of me which I don’t ever want to give up.

For Tokyo Camera Style, I shoot digital because the immediacy of this medium matches the web-log experience. The fact that I can upload the pictures once I get home that same day keeps things interesting for viewers. I understand that a smart phone would be even quicker for this but I like my GRDII.

Now, as to why I feature film cameras over digital ones on TCS, this is due to a variety of reasons. A lot of it is due to how many cameras are beautiful examples of industrial design. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating cameras as art. That said, I personally don’t find many current digital cameras to be all that attractive or interesting. As good of a camera the Nikon D7000 may be, is going to look a lot like any other D7000 out there. Does this affect the photography made with these cameras? Probably not. But there’s this aspect of how people can customize their analog cameras to essentially express their own private sense of style. The ways a Leica or Pentax Spotmatic can be altered or accessorized by the owner is essentially endless and each compilation expresses something about the person who uses it.

For the record, I am well aware of the irony in using a digital camera for a site on analog cameras.

You can’t always tell from the photos on the site, but a majority of people I meet with a film camera also have at least one compact digital on them. Now in 2011 it’s less of Digital vs. Film and more about Digital AND Film. They both have their places in the workflow and experience of being a photographer.

PP: What’s the coolest camera customization/personalization you’ve ever seen?

JS: The most popular photos on Tokyo Camera Style have been Micho Yamauchi’s well used Nikon FM3a, a wooden homemade medium format camera with a 360 degree lens, and while not actually a real camera, my friend’s Leica Summilux wedding rings. My own personal favorites are all of the chrome Leica Ms on the site.

PP: Is photography your full time job?

JS: Nope. But I am fine with this.

PP: Do you walk around on streets with the sole purpose of finding cameras for your blog, or are you usually headed somewhere?

JS: The only times I am specifically out to photograph cameras are for the monthly shoots for my feature in Nippon Camera. Other than that they are mostly (95%) random encounters with strangers. There are places where film shooters tend to be — Shinjuku, Ginza, Yanaka, but I’ve met people in trains, restaurants, stores, movie theaters… pretty much everywhere you can imagine. Sometimes I’ll meet a person and begin my brief introduction about the site only to be told that they’ve met me before with a different camera in hand. The Nippon Camera thing has increased the number of times I hear “Oh hey you’re that guy” when meeting new people.

PP: Where do you see analog photography headed?

JS: I remember back in 2001 when the Yodobashi camera in Shinjuku had a basement full of film- they literally had a long cooler that went around two sides of the room stocked with film from top to bottom. It was glorious. As nice of an image that is to fondly recall, those days are not coming back. But I do think we’ll see 35mm and 120 film stick around for a while still. One thing that the Impossible Project showed us all is that if that many talented and driven people are willing to take a chance and save a very particular type of photographic image making, chances are 35mm with its far broader fan base will survive in some way. I think that people see it as film AND digital now in a way that they didn’t in the past decade. The number of young men and women I meet who have taken up film photography is encouraging as well. People I’ve talked to who run rental darkrooms say that there has been an increase in people learning how to print.

PP: Who are your favorite photographers?

JS: Winogrand, Friedlander, Frank, Eggleston, and all those other Szarkowski all-stars reign supreme on my photobook shelf. I also like work by “Anonymous”. Snapshots by unknown (to us) photographers can be some of the weirdest most interesting pictures you’ll ever see.

Japan-side, Nobuyoshi Araki, Iesei Suda, Mitsugu Onishi, Jun Abe, Mikiko Hara, Michio Yamauchi, Shinya Arimoto, Hiromi Tsuchida, Seiji Kurata – oh man, this list could get quite long so I’ll leave it at that. The non-pro photographer scene in Tokyo is really interesting. I recently joined Twitter and use it to share a Japanese photographer’s website each day.

PP: Anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?

JS: Sure — If you see something you like on TCS, my pal Bellamy Hunt can probably get it for you. He provides photo equipment sourcing from Japan via his site Japan Camera Hunter. I get a emails from people asking where to get certain cameras they see on the site and I send them to him. He knows his stuff.

But as for Tokyo Camera Style, it’s always fun to see the positive vibe that it has created. I didn’t set out to create anything that would garner the following that it has. It’s kind of funny, I have a portfolio site with work I have exhibited in galleries but a link to my camera bag and its contents on flickr gets more hits in a day than my site does in weeks. It’s all good though. Photography is a dialogue and getting to contribute in these different ways has been quite educational.
Finally, I’m always glad to hear from people saying that they’ve started a “________ Camera Style” site for their own town. This sense of community that analog photography enjoys online will be what keeps the spirit and craft alive. I’m glad if Tokyo Camera Style helps out in some way.

P.S. If any of you have any questions for John, leave a comment and he’ll respond to them!