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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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,
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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
Does that make the world richer culturally? But Nikes may be more
comfortable than heavy yak skin boots. The decision is theirs.
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
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.
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.
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.
one bores of this part of the world, then they have no curiosity. For
the inquisitive, there is no end to inquiry.