Everything that happens in China occurs on an awesome scale.

James Whitlow Delano

Photographer James Whitlow Delano has lived in and documented Asia for more than a decade. He has won the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica Oskar Barnack, Pictures of the Year International, Photo District News. Delano's series on Kabul's drug detox and psychiatric hospital was awarded first place in the 2008 NPPA Best of Photojournalism competition for Best Picture Story (large markets). His first monograph book, Empire: Impressions from China (Five Continents Editions) and work from Japan Mangaland have been shown at several Leica Galleries in Europe. Empire was the first ever one-person show of photography at La Triennale di Milano Museum of Art in Italy. His second monograph book, I Viaggi di Tiziano Terzani (Vallardi / Longanesi) was released in Spring 2008. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Books, GEO, Newsweek, Mother Jones, Time Asia, Internazionale, Le Monde 2, Vanity Fair Italia and other publications.

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 U.S., 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. L.A. 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 dilemma 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 1990s. That was China in the 1990s, 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 1960s 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 1930s. There are some frightening differences though. My university studies, as mentioned, were in Boulder, Colorado, where the high plains of the Dust Bowl meets the Rockies. The population density in the U.S. at the time was 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+ meter 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 one billion people already.

Mao Zedong implemented agriculture policies during the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s that irreparably damaged grassland that 50 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 years 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 kilometers north in Inner Mongolia. These sand areas are growing in size.

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 TVs 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 chances. 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 a 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.

Wayne: You noted that you tend to bring two Leica bodies with you: one with the ISO set for daylight shooting, and the other set for an ISO appropriate to night-time shooting. How systematic are you in seeking your images; how formalistic are you in setting assignments for yourself? In an essay, you said that you were not afraid of admitting that you sometimes start with a thesis, so to speak—something you want to say. Or do you simply like to prowl the streets night and day, the way Cartier-Bresson was known to do, and let serendipity do its work?

James: I am not terribly systematic. It is a matter of reacting to life, not dictating a subject and wrapping real life around it. In practice, prowl the streets, as you put it so well. That is what gives me the greatest joy. I could do that only and be quite happy.

Now I have to be clear in answering your question about the thesis. I carefully research a subject. It is another aspect of my curiosity. I love to learn about how people live. Generally, I look for how the powerful are taking advantage of the rest of us and try to illuminate this. Will it make a difference? I hope so but I just think someone should do this. I keep a low profile, especially in China and play the hapless tourist. I know what I am after. If confronted, which is rare, I apologize, smile and show respect. Then I move on. Quickly. In this part of the world it is easier to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

I have had to adhere more strictly to a project as the years have progressed. Westerners like a concise message. Americans in particular seem a bit obtuse when it comes to nuance. You can imagine how someone making images in my style would find that a bit frustrating.

Now here is the crux of the issue. What I do not like about this is that one might start this deadly line of thinking, “I will not make this (amazing) image because it does not fit into my story.” I don’t like to pontificate, but I will make an exception here. Never, ever, let that thinking infiltrate your mind. Make the images, all the images that speak to you. These images are the important ones for the long term. The Empire book is full of such so-called out takes. I personally believe it is the subtle images that illuminate a culture. Certainly the obvious, blunt images are less penetrating in this way.

Wayne: How have you become more conversant with Japanese and other Asian photography after so many years living there?

James: I wish I could be more conversant in Japanese photography but it seems a men’s club like so much else here. Most of the well-known photographers here seem to be buddies (and they seem mostly to be men). There is Hosoe Eikoh (last names first) whose mythical images in the '60s and '70s speak to the Shinto, pre-Buddhist soul of Japan, and my favorite Moriyama Daido whose seething, dark energy represents the street smart Japan that I have come to understand. The clique seems to extend to two of my least favorite photographers but more famous Pop Culture figures here, Araki Nobuyoshi and Hiromix. Araki has positioned himself as some kind of Japanese Mapplethorpe or Helmut Newton. He’s not.

Forgive me for going negative but one need only live here, and thumb through several of Araki’s uninteresting, wantonly sexually graphic, phone book-thick chronicles of lovers that he leads kimonoed on the street through comically nasty scenarios, one after another, after another to realize that this guy is not doing much here. What is missing, when the work is viewed outside Japan, are the dime store porn manga comics as common as stamped out cigarette butts on a Tokyo sidewalk to realize that this man, with a very good eye, has simply decayed into a garden variety "oyaji." Taken in this "oyaji" basically means perverted uncle. Araki is an "oyaji" with a good eye. I don’t find his images sexy or even erotic.

Hiromix is a young woman and Araki hanger-on who photographed, snapshot-style, here dance club life and herself in various teasy, semi-nude moments in the mirror. I like some of her images where friends are emerging at dawn from all-night partying but all this gets old in a hurry and depends very, very heavily on her youthful beauty. Strip that away, and this heralded work becomes wafer thin.

Moriyama is the greatest living Japanese photographer in my opinion, but he is not alone. There are others who are brilliant, Sugiyama or I think his name is Shibata Toshio, who put out a book on the sculptural form of monumental concrete land reinforcements to protect roads, and seal in rivers, seen throughout this country.

I would like to see more young people’s work, women’s work and more venues for them. This country has the resources (and the talent) for a more vigorous photography culture than it has. I know how hard this is to swallow from the outside but Japan, the land of the SLR, has a quite small domestic photo world.

Wayne: How do you explain why Japanese photography and photographers remain largely unknown in the West (besides a handful of photographers like Hosoe and Moriyama)? Which photographers in particular would you like to see better known in the West?

James: If you think Hosoe or Moriyama are unknown in the West, then you would be baffled at how unappreciated they are here in their own homeland. Absolutely baffling. Araki and Hiromix are demigods. These brilliant people (Hosoe and Moriyama) are almost better know in the West. They seem to show more in New York than in Tokyo.

Wayne: In what way has living in Asia colored your aesthetic and / or way of seeing? How much of your outsider status do you lose the longer you live in Japan, and how is that weakening or strengthening your photography? What do you want the rest of the world to know about Asia through your work?

James: Oh man, how can I answer this? I am an outsider but actually I am not one anymore, as well.

Asia has this mystique. Rightly so. It is my home and a real place to me. A Japanese commentator recently interviewing Wim Wenders, the renown film director, was genuinely surprised when Wenders told him that he thought Japan had a strong, unique culture. It reminded me of Americans saying that there is no American culture. What? Where there are people, there will be a unique culture but it is ironic that many people in two of the most iconic cultures on the planet think that they have nothing defining about their cultures!

I will forever be an outsider here, though I live very comfortably here. I have come to spend one quarter of my life here. Of course, I have a deep, intimate relationship with Japan. To suggest that the cultures in this part of the world are forever incomprehensible to foreigners makes good copy, but I assure you that my Japanese friends find just as many traits of culture here baffling. They are just normal people getting on with their lives in a very special place. But how can you embrace the unique nature of your own country if you have never know anything else. The longer I live over here in Asia, the more I realize that people are motivated by the same needs wherever we live. I love the difference, and at the risk of pounding HCB into a pulp in this conversation, he seemed deeply saddened in his final days at the increasing homegeneity of global culture. He had a point. Tibetans in Nikes. Does that make the world richer culturally? But Nikes may be more comfortable than heavy yak skin boots. The decision is theirs.

This knowledge, gained from living in Asia and drinking in every written word on the continent I can beg, borrow or steal (or buy on Amazon), has fortified the work. I depend heavily on visual hints and irony to those familiar, or unfamiliar, with this part of the world. It is inseparable. That is why parachuting into a culture can create flat images.

I want people who view images to understand that Asia has all the shades of grey as anywhere else. I want them not to be starry eyed, or closed about this continent. It is gritty. It has its problems. It has the strongest, and most diverse, distinct cultures in a concentrated relatively small area than any other comparable region in the world. Asia is not a vacuum. It ties into European culture and has fed it.

The interface in Central Asia can be life changing, like a chance encounter with a girl I met in Ulaa Bataar, Mongolia with a face that would not bat an eye lash in Tokyo. She could have been Japanese except for her blue eyes, carrot-topped red hair and freckles that would impress the Irish.

Likewise in an Urumqi Museum, (Chinese Turkestan), there is a mummified corpse I saw of a tall Celtic man with sandy coloured hair and a high, long nose, 3,000 years old, who had inhabited the Taklamakan Desert, now in Chinese Turkestan, before the Turkic Uighur people displaced these Celtic people in the 8th Century. They are believed to have emigrated over time into the crossroads region of Afghanistan, Kashmir and northern India. There was also 3,000-year-old tartan plaid fabric in this museum preserved by the extremely dessicated environment of Central Asia. Remember that the Huns that sacked Rome had originally emigrated out of Mongolia. So, Asia is not this exotic other-side-of-the-world. It is the navel of the world.

If one bores of this part of the world, then they have no curiosity. For the inquisitive, there is no end to inquiry.