The last week has been crazy, and I was settling down a few days ago to create the final podcast episode for this month I found out about a problem with one of my bank accounts that took almost three days to correct. Thanks to the remarkably flexible bank clerk that helped me, we were able to get everything sorted, but it took two trips to the bank and a total of over five hours of filling out paperwork.
Then while I was at the bank in the gaps between paperwork, I was communicating with my friend Brian Wood and we decided to get together for a chat to talk about Brian’s recent work and help me out as I ran out of time to prepare for an episode. We decided to talk about Wabi-sabi and photography, Ensouling the inanimate through photography, Polaroids, and Brian’s Photo-walking tours. All of which you can find on Brian’s website.
Brian sent me a stash of images to illustrate our conversation, and you can find them below, and I have embedded the relevant ones into the audio so if you are listening with Outcast or the iOS Podcasts app, you will be able to follow along with the photos there too. Click on an image to open it in the lightbox, and you can then navigate back and forth with the arrow keys or your mouse.
Today I have the pleasure of sharing an inspiring conversation with Kudzai King, who started as a model in Harare, Zimbabwe, moved to Cape Town, and then on to New York, where he now works behind the camera as a photographer. I found it fascinating how the various aspects of Kudzai’s life have helped to form a foundation for his future endeavors. I have had our conversation transcribed, so will share that below, but I will also embed the video here for those that prefer to watch, followed by the transcription of our conversation.
Martin: So, Kudzai, I am absolutely thrilled to have you on the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast this morning. Welcome to the show.
Kudzai: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here. Excited.
Martin: I say this morning, but for you obviously, it’s this evening, you’re in New York. You are in New York at the moment, aren’t you?
Kudzai: Yes, I’m in New York. Right now, I am looking at the sun setting.
Martin: Ah, okay. Mine’s just come up.
Kudzai: Yeah. Yours has just come up, yeah.
Martin: Yeah. We’re going to talk about a lot of things. One of the main things about your story, which I found so fascinating is how you got from Harare, is it? In Zimbabwe.
Kudzai: Yeah. It’s a very complex name. It’s got a lot of Rs. But the way you pronounce words in Japanese, it’s literally quite similar. So, Harare.
Martin: Harare. Okay. It’s exactly the same. We were talking a moment ago before we started the interview. I’ve travelled to Namibia a lot, that’s a couple of countries over from Zimbabwe, where you’re from. I imagine, you lived in the capital, right? Were you born in the capital? Is it a really busy place or how is it there?
Kudzai: How is it there? Well, just to start from the beginning, I was born in the capital. My mother was born in the capital. My grandmother was born in the capital. But that’s from my mother’s side. From my dad’s side, my dad grew up in the village, and then their whole entire family educated themselves, and became professionals within the working world, and moved out of the city, and now, they’re spread all over the world, basically. Yeah. I was born in Harare in the capital. It is a busy city, but not as busy as New York is, but certainly, quite busy. It is the hub of the country, basically.
Kudzai: Yeah. It used to be quite modern a while back. Obviously, politics and all that got into a mix of things and it is what it is now. But it’s a beautiful country nonetheless and it’s got amazing people.
Martin: Wow. Yeah. We were just touching on the languages, and I managed to get your– I didn’t get your capital city right first time, but I managed to get the pronunciation of your name, Kudzai, pretty on the target. I’ve spent a lot of time– At the moment, my only photography tour that I do outside of Japan is in Namibia, which is like we say, two countries across from Zimbabwe, sandwiched, I guess, by Botswana.
I love languages. Obviously, I spent 32 years in Japan. I learned Japanese quickly in the first few years. And I spend a lot of time trying to learn little bits of the languages, because I travel with people who are from the Oshiwambo tribes. One of them, he’s a Herero guy.
Kudzai: Oh, yeah.
Martin: So, I know little bits of each of those languages. Also, we visit the beautiful Himba people in Namibia as well. I have a few little words that I use with those. So, I understand enough to be dangerous. If someone speaks back to me, I have no clue.
Kudzai: The languages that you spoke about or rather the countries that have the languages you spoke about, they all sound quite similar because they’re all in a group called Nguni language. So, even though they’re completely different languages, because of that particular dialect that they share, you find that there’s a language in Zimbabwe called Ndebele. It sounds very similar to what’s in South Africa, which is called Zulu. And Namibia as well, there’s certain words that sound quite close to the Shona language, which is what I natively grew up speaking apart from English.
Yeah, they all share these dialects, and it’s quite fascinating because having traveled myself as well, bounce around them like, “Oh, I hear a word.” There’s a connection, and sometimes, the same word means the same thing in another language. But then, sometimes migration has intermixed people, and then within the spaces that they managed to dwell in, they curated their entire language and way of speaking, but still they share that dialect.
Martin: Yeah, wow. We’ll carry on with your story in a moment. But one other little fact that I want to throw in here, because it’s a claim to fame from a few hundred years ago. I don’t know whether you view this as a good thing or a bad thing. But one of the first people from England that would have traveled in Zimbabwe and Botswana and those areas is actually the guy who named Victoria Falls. And he’s my great, great, great, great granddad, David Livingstone.
Kudzai: Oh, David Livingstone.
Kudzai: Oh, yes.
Martin: When I was a kid, on my dad’s side, my dad’s mother’s name was Livingstone. And obviously, I then became a Bailey. But Livingstone on my grandmother’s side came down from David Livingstone. He was the guy that, again for good or worse, named Victoria Falls. There’s a statue of him there on– I think it’s the border between Zimbabwe, Botswana, and the tiny strip of land that comes over from Namibia.
Kudzai: Oh, that’s very fascinating. Very fascinating. One of the things that happened in my country, when we won independence in 1980 is that a lot of past sins are forgiven. And then, the people that added to the progression of what became Zimbabwe are people that are celebrated, and David Livingstone is actually one of the celebrated people in history that shifted and morphed the country into being what it is. I actually went to a school called David Livingstone.
Martin: Oh, wow.
Martin: That’s amazing.
Kudzai: We’ve got schools called David Livingstone, and then streets named after him as well, and then obviously, you spoke about the statue.
Martin: Oh, that’s amazing.
Kudzai: Amazing having to meet one of his descendants.
Martin: Well, that’s brilliant. Thank you very much. I didn’t realize that. So, that’s a bonus for me.
Kudzai: When you visit, you have to really explore, because his name is really ingrained within history in Zimbabwe.
Martin: Brilliant, brilliant. I’ve only really just over the last few years started to look into his life and what he did. It’s one of those things that I’m also still very, very fresh at, but I’ll look into it more. Okay, well, thank you for that. We’ve got to where you started. When did you get into the modeling, you became a male model? Was that when you were in Zimbabwe or you moved to Cape Town, right?
Kudzai: I’ve kind of darted around different countries all around. But initially, I kickstarted in Zimbabwe. I was 16 and at that time– it’s only now this year that I’ve realized that perhaps I’ve had fashion roots for a long time in my life now. But at that time, I was 16 and I was involved in fashion. Me and a couple of friends had kickstarted a successful clothing label without us actually knowing that we were pretty successful what we are doing. At 16, we broke apart the business and we all focused on different things. One became a famous designer, the other one became a famous musician, and then I became a model, and celebrated my own right.
But at 16, I decided that I wanted to model. And luckily, my mom has always been quite supportive of me. As soon as she heard that I was interested in that, she found connections and then I was now in talks with a modeling agency, which taught me the ways of modeling. Back then, you had to do a class or a course basically with a particular agency to be acquainted with the industry. I did that and that carried me on until I was 21. That’s how I initially got into fashion. It’s an industry that taught me a lot. Most of the things that I know, apart from having learned photography from anew, they are inspired from my industry days in modeling.
Kudzai: I did modeling in Zimbabwe. And then, our family moved to England. I’ve got two moms.
Martin: Have you?
Kudzai: Yeah. My stepmom and my sister moved to England. And then at some point, I joined them and did a little bit of modeling there. But then, I was always to and fro, because Zimbabwe was always home.
Martin: Hmm-mm. Wow.
Martin: That’s amazing. What a story. When did you find yourself over– You went over to Cape Town. What age were you then roughly?
Kudzai: At the age of 21 is when I moved to Cape Town. I was in England. I did a little bit of school in England. And then, at some point after school, I decided that Cape Town was a place for me. I visited Cape Town once for a holiday. I fell in love with it so much. The very next year, I told myself I’ll move there and then I sure did move there the very next year, I didn’t know a single person. I didn’t know a single thing, but it felt like home.
Kudzai: It felt like home. And I just melted into the spot, and I found my feet. So, 21 is when I initially moved.
Martin: Yeah, that’s strange. I find a lot of similarities between those in some ways, because I remember– I came to Japan in 91. So, it’s 31 years ago now. And I remember after six months or so, I went back to England for my first holiday, like time off. When I came back to Tokyo– not to Tokyo. I was in Fukushima where they had the nuclear power plant meltdown a few years ago. But when I was standing on the platform to get the train back up to Fukushima in Tokyo, I let out this huge sigh of relief. It was like, “I’m home.” It was the home thing. So, I can relate to what you’re saying how with Cape Town, it just felt right. And sometimes, I think that’s it. It just it feels right.
From there, you moved to New York. Tell us about the transition, because you were the male model and you decided to switch to the back of the camera. You became a photographer. And that is, of course, the main reason why we’re talking today, because the podcast is all about photography. I just love your story. So, tell us how you got from male model to photographer.
Kudzai: I believe at the age of 20, this is me being to and fro in England and Zimbabwe. There’s a particular photographer, amazing photographer that had shocked me when I was still doing modeling. At some point in my modeling career, I’d felt like I had exhausted the excitement that I could get out of it. I felt quite constrained because I couldn’t tell a story. Because I do believe that when you’re a model, you are the canvas. You are the blank. canvas. A very vital tool in creating artwork.
What I wanted to be was someone who could come with a brushstroke and paint on the canvas and craft the art. I felt at that point that photography was my next best way of expressing myself. These are the days of Facebook. I reached out to this particular photographer. She was big and I didn’t know whether she would reply or not. But there’s a motto that I’ve lived with since I was young and that is, “The worst anyone can say is no.” Rejections and no’s are amazingly for me, because then I now can instantly recognize that there’s an obstacle. When I’ve got the intention, I just have to figure out how to get around the obstacle basically.
Tracking back to what I was explaining, I lost my train of thought there. But I reached out to this photographer. Her name is Michelle Fordham and she’s an incredible photographer. Less now a photographer and more a fitness guru. But then, she was doing a lot of photography. I reached out, she responded back, and we set up a coffee. In my head, the intention that I was seeking out was to be an intern. We spoke, had a great time, connected really well. By the end of it, I was hired as a full-time assistant.
Martin: Oh, wow, that’s amazing.
Kudzai: I know. Now, I was being paid to learn, which was pretty amazing. She taught me a lot of business skills, and how to operate certain things, how to be respectful to your clients. Yeah, I think if I’m to really pick the most valuable things she taught me was the business structure. I think with lighting and everything else, I bumped into it as I went about. But she laid out the foundation for me when I was working with her. Yeah, it was a great time. It was a full-year experience with her and got very lucky that I was very passionate during that time, and I was posting my work on Facebook each time I would shoot on the side. I started picking up momentum, and clients started booking me. I felt like I knew nothing, but people were interested on what I was making. Yeah, it was very appreciative.
Martin: Well, there’s a number of things that really resonate there. The first thing that you mentioned about what you were taught was the business side, and that’s so important. And something that a lot of people getting into photography don’t– Especially, you knew that you wanted to do it as a business, not just as a passion or hobby. But the fact that you were taught the business side first with most importance is incredible. Because a lot of people start out, they’re more concerned about, “Can I get the exposure? Are the lights going to be in the right place? Do I have the right balance?”, all of the technical things. I tend to be a technical photographer in many ways. But to be successful as a photographer, if you’re doing it professionally, the main thing is the business set. It’s great that you were taught that first.
But you also talked about the lighting and things like that. I think that confidence as a photographer, the confidence to ask for money comes more from the business side, the business education that you’ve had than the technical side. Because a lot of the time, as you said, you threw together lighting, you bumped into it. It’s difficult, but it’s not incredibly difficult. Another thing that you mentioned earlier that resonated with me was the figuring out how to go around an obstacle. And obstacles, as a photographer, it’s all about obstacles, right?
Martin: Okay, so this side of the face is too bright, what do I do? I want this side darker, what do I do? You are forever solving little problems. I think that you’ve touched on all of those things just in the last few minutes of what you’re saying there. It’s all great stuff.
I think you also mentioned that, again, about the confidence. We’re going to look at some of your work shortly as well so the listeners or the viewers will understand that you’ve got what it takes to do what you’re doing. There’s no worries now about confidence. But going through that, I think it’s also really humble of you to be able to say that as a working photographer. Some people try to hide that stuff, but you’re very vulnerable and I think that’s a nice trait to bring with you into the industry. I guess the fact that I’m saying all of this, you can tell I’m enjoying our conversation.
Kudzai: Same here. But to speak on what you just said, I do realize– I think why I’m so open as well is at the age of 24, I just realized that there was a very different way of living life. Having been brought up in the fashion industry since from a young age, I think there were a lot of things that I could have done better. And then having my friends in entertainment, we were very confident about what we’re doing. Some of those things were probably not things that we should have focused on during that time.
But after a while, I think when I was 24, I met an amazing friend who I admire his way of life. It was a peaceful way of living life, and it was just so beautiful and glorious. I met him in Cape Town. And from then on, I just decided to switch away from the past life that I was living. I call it the death of ego. Because I do believe that ego serves no purpose in my life, it has never put food on the table, and it has never connected me to more people. So, that created a playground for me where I feel all the things that I know, they’re all things that I’ve learned from other human beings, I came screaming and wailing as a baby with no knowledge. I didn’t wake up speaking three, four languages, or doing arithmetic, or anything. All the information I know is through friends, my community, school, through the internet, through every source of information I could gather around me to learn from. The more I learn, the more I feel I know nothing. And it’s an amazing place to start.
Martin: Wow. Yeah, I love that way of thinking. The death of ego, I like that. I’ve always felt as though– My wife often says this about me that I really have no real ego as such. Obviously, I don’t want to be belittled. I want to save my own space to a degree. But everyone I meet, I treat them the same way. I always say like I’m a mirror. I start off with everyone, it’s like flat, completely. I’ll give you respect, and I get some back. If I get disrespected, then I get disrespectful as well. But if someone is positive towards me, I’m more positive towards them as well. But I always start off with everybody on a level playing field. I’ve never had any kind of discrimination against people or anything like that, and my wife always says that’s one of my best qualities. And I guess it’s very similar to the death of the ego. So, I’m happy about this stuff. It makes me feel better about myself too.
Kudzai: Yes, it sounds like you’re on the right path.
Martin: Yeah. At that point, you became a photographer, you started to work. Via Facebook, you were getting job offers. What took you to New York? That’s a big change. So, what happened there?
Kudzai: Oh, yeah. I was in Cape Town, and this is years later, I’d done well for myself. I had created a whole entire community around me, and I was busy. I was working with big fashion designers in South Africa or rather in Africa to be precise, because I was traveling around quite a lot. I took it upon myself to learn Africa because I didn’t know so many countries. So, whenever a job offer would come through and it’s from another country, I would instantly snatch it. I did Nigeria, I did Botswana, Zambia, I did Ghana, and then number of other countries.
At some point, I felt I had a really nice life, a really comfortable life, a really, really comfortable life from the work that I was getting. But then, I felt I tapped the scene too quick. I’ve always been a very ambitious person within everything that I do. When I think of doing the stuff that I do, I never look at my peers as competition. To me, whoever is at the top of the industry during that time is what I’m competing with even though some of those people didn’t know me then. Some of them are friends now but then then, they didn’t know I was just a kid from Africa who just had a crazy ambition. When I tipped my ceiling too quickly, I felt I needed a bigger challenge.
I think I was about to work with the city of Johannesburg during that time with the mayor. There was this looming project hanging around, and I had to make a decision whether to stay in South Africa or to come to America. And so, how that decision even came through to choose New York was, I asked myself, “Where’s the highest ceiling in the world?” To me, within my industry of fashion, it’s definitely New York. Because just when you think you’re at the top, there’s a kid in a tiny dark apartment concocting ways to take over the industry. And now, it rattles you to come up with a new game plan. And so, the world keeps turning and you keep improving yourself. So, progression.
Kudzai: That’s how I decided to end up here, and I didn’t know any single person as well.
Martin: What? You came again without any… That’s amazing. Was there any culture shock? It’s a very different culture, I imagine. Did that hit you in any way?
Kudzai: Honestly, one of the things my mother was able to do was expose me to things. I owe a lot of gratitude to my mum, because she grew up in poverty, like extreme poverty. And she picked herself from her bootstraps and had me on her back when she was working and built her entire life around us. At that point, we were living the middle to upper class life, and she always made sure that I remembered my roots. Sending me off to holiday where she grew up, so at least I’ll have a view of both worlds. She made me try a lot of things. Weekends, we would do picnic. We would do things that she didn’t grow up doing. She had a nice tasteful life and she made sure that I tried things.
The other thing is, apparently, when I was a kid, I was very, very troublesome. The only way they could stop me from crying or being naughty was placing me in front of a TV. So, I guess my love for pictures tracks all the way back.
So, New York was ingrained in me from a young age. I’m talking about comic books, I’m talking about TV shows, I’m talking about Christmas movies, I’m talking about everything. Because in Zimbabwe, we’re quite a modern country and one of the languages that we speak so well is English. So, I never felt the culture shift. I never thought the culture changed. Perhaps, who I felt it was more personal things like romance and whatnot. Then, that became quite specific. But then, it wasn’t a culture shock because I’ve also exposed myself, and traveled, and then took time to learn things. And even before I came through, I did my research. I easily switched onto the news that people are watching here so that by the time it came through, I would be acquainted with what’s happening. So, I prepped up and I guess that’s the essence of why I do like to prep up.
Martin: Yeah, that’s interesting. I guess my only thing that I can relate to that is that growing up in England, similarly, we watched a lot of American movies. And yeah, a lot of influence. The comedy shows, and all of the series and things that we get on the TV, a lot of it was from America. So, we learned not only a little bit about the culture, but also the language and the differences between English English and American English. And so, when I started working, before I started doing photography full time, which was 12 years ago, I worked for 10 years for a US-based company, and a lot of the people that I worked with were from America.
Whenever they visited– The first three years or two– No, the first year I worked in England for that company and then I moved to Tokyo. But we would have visits from the people from America. They would say– Especially when you go to a pub or something and all of the English people are speaking in their own local dialects and they’re using very condensed phrases, the Americans would say, “I can only understand about 30% of what you’re saying.” We’re speaking the same language, but the Americans couldn’t understand what English people were saying when they were speaking relaxed. If you’re in a business environment, it is slightly different. But we didn’t have that problem, because we grew up listening to the American dialect and various ways of speaking just through the TV. For us, it was really no problems. I guess, I can relate to the fact that you’d slotted right in there without having too much of a problem. That’s very cool.
Kudzai: Thank you. I just wanted to add to that. There is a difference between English English and then US English. Certainly, I think there are a couple of words that I had to change. Probably, the one moment of a culture shift that I felt was, when I went into a bodega, which is a corner store where they sell these express goods. I got in there, because my English is quite English from having experienced England and then having lived in Zimbabwe as well, we’re subscribed to the education in England. I went into the bodega trying to buy water.
Kudzai: I’m trying to order water, and no one can understand me. I’m saying, “Water, water.” And then, something clicked in my head, I’m like, “Oh, right there. I know what’s wrong here.” I instantly switched it to ‘water’. And they’re like, “Oh, water.” If there’s one moment I recall as being a culture shift, it’s probably that. Then maybe overtime, a couple of words that have had to change, so that it would sound a little more American but as you can hear, my accent is quite still strong.
Martin: Yeah. You’ve got very nice accent. Let’s take a look at some of the images that you’ve sent me. What I’m going to do is, I’m going to share my screen. I will share this video with the audience as well but I’ll also put these into the blog post so people can come along. If you are just listening and want to follow along with the images, the blog posts for this will be at https://mbp.ac/787. So, the 787th podcast. I’m going to share my screen and I’ll put your images up onto here. Let’s see. For some reason, that’s very low on the screen. Let’s see if I can move that. There we go. I’m going to just open these in the order that– They’re in an order just in the folder, and I’ll just open them up. Can you see that over there, Kudzai?
Kudzai: Yes, I can.
Martin: Okay. Tell us a little bit about this photo. What’s the story behind it? What were you doing here and things like that?
Kudzai: One of the most fascinating places that I got to experience when I came to New York, the outdoor spaces, was the Hamptons. I’d always heard about the Hamptons, and I didn’t know what the fuss was about. I went there for a photoshoot for a friend of mine who owns a swimwear brand. I fell in love with the place. I always make sure that I go there from time to time. It’s my summer little getaway. But then in this particular image, I worked with this girl named Katja. Katja is such an incredible human being and an incredible model as well. I was actually dying to create something that I had not done– or rather a version of a creation that I’ve not done in a while.
I’ve gotten very lucky that in my career that when I kickstarted, there was just so many people that were very kind, and they wanted to work with me, and they believed in my vision. And so, it had been eight years since I LAST shot without a team, basically. Every one of my shoots always has– there’s a makeup artist, and they have their assistants, and then there’s hair stylists, assistants. And I also have digitech and then there’s me and my probably two assistants during an image shoot. I just wanted to declutter all of that and just focus on the fact that I wanted to capture something beautiful.
So, what I do from time to time is I create content that is used for marketing purposes. Sometimes, a piece of work that I’m creating might not have a particular client. But in my head, I’m shooting for a particular client, because there’s someone that I’m trying to aim to work with basically. And so, in this particular case, I did very much that. There was a particular swimwear brand that I was targeting. I visited my friend, Katja. She lives in the Hamptons full time with her husband. I just grabbed my camera, we rode out on a bike, and we started photographing. To me, it was the most joyous thing that I could do, because for the first time in a while, I didn’t have anything around. It was just me, the model, and the camera, how I started exactly.
Martin: Yeah. That’s pretty cool in that I pretty much always work alone. I only do portrait work professionally, very, very seldomly. And when I do, my wife is my assistant. She’s great at handling my lights and things like that, but I’ve never worked with a big team like that. I can imagine that it’s so liberating to just get back to just you, and the camera, and the model. So, yeah, that’s pretty cool to think about that, just from my own perspective. So, she’s got the life– What do you call it? A buoy?
Kudzai: Yeah, the buoy that they use, I guess, for lifeguards.
Kudzai: The story behind this particular image is, it was around 1 PM and I never shoot at that time, ever. But I realized that I wanted to have something quite dramatic, something that felt very high velocity, something that was unique. And so, I looked at the angle of the lighting, and then I had a conversation with Katja, and then I told her like, “Okay, this is the way you need to pose, because if you look down, you’re going to have shadows on your eyes. And if you look this way, this way.” When we’re doing that, I observed a couple of lifeguards close by and basically, I walked up there, and I had a conversation with them. They were so cordial with me. They allowed me to utilize everything in their possession.
Kudzai: We ended up having a full-on editorial shoot, people surrounded us. It was a beautiful moment. But yeah, I looked at the colors of everything that we had and obviously, the garments that were specifically chosen for her to wear. Because I was looking for– If you look at my work, my work revolves around certain colors. It’s your yellows, your oranges, your greens, your blues, basically. I’ve decided to keep that as a theme in my work, because I do tend to shoot outdoors and in the studio. And so, I always love a good connection between all of them in order for people to instantly recognize that, “Oh, this is Kudzai King’s work.”
Martin: Wow, that’s great that you’re conscious of that. I’m very interested in colors myself. I often take a color wheel, or I use a few applications where you can map the colors in photos and just find out why they work together. I don’t necessarily stick to specific colors as a way of branding. But I do enjoy looking at the relationship between colors and that’s great that you’re doing that and that you’re aware of all of that.
Kudzai: Absolutely. Actually, when I kickstart a year, I choose the theme for the year for myself.
Martin: Oh, brilliant.
Kudzai: It might not be the trend, but it will be something that I feel so strongly about. So, color is a great way to start. Yeah, I set up all the colors. When I’m working with stylists, I let them have a free reign of what kind of garments can work within the theme of a story that I’ve come up with. Then, they build a juggernaut around the structure that I’ve basically primed up.
Martin: Wow. I have a large body of work on a stock agency called Offset, which is a sister company of Shutterstock. And every year, they send out an email saying, “These are the colors for this year.” It’s like they decide what the colors for the year are. I don’t think it’s them deciding but it’s pretty cool how they do that. If you were really into stock photography, which I’m not, but if you were, trying to involve those colors in your work for that year, it’s an important thing, and I imagine it’s very important for fashion as well. I changed the photograph. Tell us a little about this next one.
Kudzai: This is still part of a series that I shot in the Hamptons. One of the things that I really love is movement. I feel creating work that is beautiful is important but also creating work that is unique is even more important. Because in this world that we live in where everything is kind of fast paced– Not everything’s kind of fast paced, everything is fast paced. It’s very hard to hold someone’s attention. With the work that we do as photographers, to grab someone’s attention for whatever fraction of time that you’ve grabbed it for, it’s highly important because if you’re doing it professionally, that’s the difference between you and a meal on the table. So, I’m constantly thinking about those things in the back of my head like, “Okay, so, I want to create something beautiful that feels like me, but I also have to create something that’s unique.”
I feel movement is very hard to replicate. You can try your best and then come close. But I feel movement, it’s quite unique in its own manner. Even if you take inspiration from a painting, from whatever the case it may be, and then you add some movement to it, I feel it instantly changes the image itself, the language of the image. With this image, we’re going through sunset time and the light was just purely beautiful. This is us having spent the whole entire day at the beach at this point. We’re shooting, and then we’re taking a break, and then I started to swim into the ocean, come back. We go grab lunch or coffee, and then we’ll come back to the beach. This was now at night and with this garment that I’ve been waiting to shoot. This garment was actually a great loan from, I think I maybe chopping the name of this designer, which is terrible, and he’s a big designer. They allowed us to have this garment in our shots. And so, I partnered it up with these– If you can see…
Martin: Yeah, beach sandals.
Kudzai: Yeah, exactly. But I felt I needed something to draw back the image. I didn’t want it to feel like fairy light. I wanted to keep it in within the realm of edgy fashion. I had one reflector to one side mounted on an impromptu rock situation that was happening, just bounce back light onto the model. And then on the very left, you can see sun peeping through. I was illuminating the face and then separating it from the background. This is how I created the image.
Martin: Yeah. The sun also, it’s got a really nice highlight on the chin, hasn’t it? To separate the chin from the neck, that’s a nice splash of light there as well.
Kudzai: Thank you. I never used to be a fan of lighting on the side as a way to separate someone from a background. But then, the more I’ve observed light– To me, observing light is within its simplest form. I simply look at a human being. Whenever I see something that’s beautiful in a human being, I always ask myself, “What is it about this particular moment that makes this particular human being appear beautiful to me?” Then, I start looking at the elements of color, and light, and whatnot, and I just observe where the sun is sitting. And so, wherever I am, I’m constantly trying to replicate natural light. Even if I’m using strobe lights or studio lights, I’m always trying to replicate that lighting that I’ve observed in real life. And in this case, I wanted that light, because I’d seen it somewhere. So, I wanted the face like that, and this is…
Martin: Wow, yeah. Beautiful. Okay, so, this is you. We’re going to use that in the blog post to show who you are. But the next one. Do you have anything to say about your own bio photo or shall we just skip to this one?
Kudzai: Sure. All my bio photos, they’re taken by me.
Kudzai: Each and every year, I’ve got a new photo that I take.
Kudzai: I didn’t know it would be a thing, but I’ve done it the last five years now. Yeah, it’s a way to– I think it’s important for people to know who you are if you’re working. If you’re working as a photographer or any artist of any form, because yes, people love the work. But then, people want to know the person behind the work like, “Is this a person that can be trusted? Is it a person that fits the visual language that we’re trying to create? Do they represent their work, they look like they work?” basically.
Martin: Obviously, you’ve still got it as a model. You could probably go back to the catwalk or whatever it is that they call it. Do you find that your history as a model helps you in the fashion industry? People say, “Oh, yeah, that guy used to be a model and now, he’s a photographer.” Is that story something that you feel has helped you?
Kudzai: I think so. For a long time, I think, when I was starting out my career, a lot of the people that I was photographing were perhaps at the beginning of their careers, whether that’s in fashion or that’s in music, because I was also photographing a lot of musical artists. A lot of them really didn’t know how to move in front of a camera. And so, having been on other side of the lens, I felt that I knew exactly what angle to use for a particular subject to make them look great. And so, tell them, “Turn this way. Chin up, chin down. Hands out, one hand in pocket,” and all of that.
It helped shaped the way my work actually looked as well but certainly, it helped that I’ve been on the other side. And even up to this day, I do tend to work with celebrities for various projects that they’re doing. Some of them are great in front of a TV or rather within the cinematic version. But then sometimes, still photos are quite a unique language to learn. And sometimes, they don’t know what to do. Or they’ve done something so much that they want something fresh. And so, this is where I come in with knowledge of being able to direct a shot to find the beauty within that particular being’s expression.
Martin: Mm. That’s something that I had not thought of until you mentioned that. But having been instructed yourself as how to behave as a model, that’s instant knowledge for you to tell people how to behave as a model. “Hand in pocket. Turn this way. Do that,” I hadn’t thought about that until you mentioned that. That’s a very valuable skill that you learned while getting paid for being a model that’s helping you as a photographer. Yeah.
Martin: So, the next one, let’s see. Tell us a little bit about this one.
Kudzai: Most of the people that I work with end up being friends. I do take it upon myself to learn my subjects. Sometimes, even before I work with a model, I try and meet them, or call them, or text them, or at least just get the essence of who they are. This particular friend of mine, actually, I met in Cape Town.
Martin: Yeah, well.
Kudzai: I met in Cape Town once where we were both invited to a Christmas dinner. It was a fashion sort of Christmas dinner. When I moved, I didn’t actually know that she was here. And so, gradually, I discovered that she was here, and then we got in touch, and then we became quite close friends. She’s a really successful model here. She was born in Uganda, and she’s done a whole bunch internationally. She’s been in Paris, she’s been in London. She has worked for Balenciaga, Ralph Lauren’s, and whatnot. She’s done work for herself.
In this case, we were doing– It was a jewelry shoot. And so, I knew exactly who to choose for that particular jewelry shooting. It’s her. Her name is Akello. And I knew that she has a very amazing skin tone. When I set out to shoot, I didn’t know whether I wanted black and white or not, because clients with jewelry normally would request color. But when it’s a beautiful shot, there’s no resisting a beautiful shot. And so, I knew that I wanted strong highlights and then I also wanted very dark edges. I brought in a beauty dish from above and then I brought on two negative fills on either side, and we created that shot.
Martin: Wow. Are you illuminating the background as well? Because it’s pretty white. Like you say, you wanted to contrast. Did you do something with the background?
Kudzai: One of the tricks with that is not to have the model far away from the backdrop. In this case, I didn’t have any backdrop lights. I knew that I wanted it white, but then I didn’t want it super white. That’s why you see her first before you see the background. It’s illuminated way much more than the background is.
Martin: Sorry. Basically, it spilled from your main lights than just going on to the background.
Kudzai: Precisely. And then, I angled it in such a way where there are no shadows on the background as well.
Martin: Yeah, wow. Beautiful work.
Kudzai: This is a one-light setup.
Martin: Really? Okay. So, the beauty dish is the single light.
Kudzai: It is the single light. Yes.
Martin: Oh, wow. That’s so cool.
Kudzai: I did have a reflector below her just to– or rather, a bounce board. I had a bounce board right in front of her just to fill in the shadows on the neckline. But this is purely a one-light setup.
Martin: Wow. That’s impressive.
Kudzai: Hey, you can do a lot with one light.
Martin: Yeah. I’ve got a one-light t-shirt from– Zack Arias did the one-light course, the one-light video tutorial. It came wrapped up in a one-light t-shirt, which I still wear quite a lot. It’s a good philosophy.
Kudzai: Yeah. Sometimes, simplicity is beauty.
Martin: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, let’s see– Tell us about this next one. This is very dramatic. I love the shadow and everything. But tell us about this.
Kudzai: Oh, thank you. This particular image was, I created it for Vogue Italia. Vogue Italia is very on the edge of creating images that feel a bit different from the rest of fashion. They focus on very dark images. Sometimes, light images that tell a story that you can instantly connect to nostalgia. Actually, just to track back a bit. One of the intentions that I had this year was to create images that felt a little moody, something that had shadows. Because the previous work that I created before that, it was very illuminated. You could see everything quite clearly. So, I wanted to experiment with shadows, and darkness, and highlights, and whatnot in different colors as well.
So, when I got the opportunity to shoot for Vogue Italia, I thought out the concept pretty well. I knew exactly what I wanted out of the image, but I did not know how to get there. But then, when you have experience over the years with lighting, the same thing that you spoke about where you have one side illuminated and you’re trying to figure out how to illuminate the other side, you start getting all of that information in your head quite easily when you look at something or rather when you think of a concept or an idea. I didn’t know how to accomplish this lighting at all. But then, I started just planning it and experimenting with it. And I’m very lucky that whenever I have an idea and I have a big opportunity, I’ve got time to prepare.
I worked with a model that needed pictures for her portfolio, and I basically experimented with the light. By the time I got to the stage of this image, I knew exactly how to execute it. What’s happening here is that this is a cove and there are two different lights. The spill is protected by two V flats that are blocking the light from spilling onto everything else. I had one light that had a yellow gel, and then I had one light that had a green gel, and they were all facing up. They were all facing up to the ceiling. And so, you can clearly see on the foreground that some parts of that background are a little white.
Kudzai: So, I basically illuminated the background that way and the color merged in a very amazing way. And then for the front, what I did was I used a bare bulb, because I knew that I wanted harsh shadows. Where those shadows come from is from the body itself elevated. But then some of them I created using a second light, it was also a bare bulb. And the second light had black foil paper, basically and I crumbled it up in several ways, attached it with clamps, and step away from the light itself and so, it’s projecting the shadows onto the background.
Kudzai: This is a very complex lighting system.
Kudzai: But this is the way I figured it out and it worked beautifully.
Martin: Yeah, absolutely, it’s beautiful. The first thing that that came to me, but earlier, we talked about colors. And you may have noticed me looking over to the side here as we spoke a little there. But I’m going to just bring something onto the screen here. I don’t know if I can do this quickly, but if I go in and– Let’s see. If we get the colors from this image, I’m going to just quickly put these up. But if we open this palette, we should be able to see that, at least part of it, the colors that we’ve picked there are not so important. But if we look at the colors in your background here, these greens, if we look across to the opposite colors, it’s the purples in the dress.
Martin: I don’t know if it was conscious, but you’ve actually got the exact opposite colors in the background and the dress. Was that something that you were thinking of? Because that of course becomes a complementary color. An opposite color on the wheel is always going to be complementary, but it’s through direct contrast. Were you aware of that or conscious of that when you designed this?
Kudzai: I’ve got a huge respect for people who make clothes, because I feel they do shape who we are or how we express ourselves. Whether you’re a simple guy or your fashion choice is quite extreme, fashion tends to lead to an identity of sorts. And so, within this respect is probably why I also learned color. I made sure that I knew my color so well that I never have to think about it, I never have to plan it so intently because it might just make sense. I’m like, “Okay, so, I have this background in and then I have this model. What kind of garments would work for this?”
Martin: It’s coming natural to you.
Kudzai: Yeah. At this point, it comes quite natural to me.
Martin: I see.
Kudzai: In the past, I would think about it more. But then these days, it’s become so natural and easy. When I chose that particular garment– because we had a selection of different garments. And normally, before we proceed on to shoot, when we’re doing prep up, the stylist always brings in the garments that we’ve spoken about that support the concept and then, they also bring in extra garments. Me and her have a final say on the day of the shoot itself. We go through the wardrobe and I’m like, “Maybe that actually wouldn’t work. I thought it would work, but maybe let’s check it out.” And then, I saw this garment and it wasn’t part of the pattern. I immediately fell in love with it, because I knew what I could do with it. I knew that I wanted volume, and we had a lot of garments that had volume, but then this one stood out to me the most compared to what we had planned. And then, it worked so well, because I planned the lighting in this particular way, and I saw that purple and I was like, “Okay, yeah. This will be great.”
Martin: Wow. Beautiful. Okay. Tell us about this next one. This is another very striking photo. Tell us about it.
Kudzai: Oh, this image. It’s terrible to have– I don’t have any kids, but I feel to choose an image and say, “It’s your favorite,” to me, it feels like having to choose your favorite children. It’s terrible, but I accept this image. This one-time shoot is probably– A lot of shoots take more time. Sometimes, half a day. And it’s probably the quickest shoot that I’ve ever had, this one. This was two hours of shooting entirely and with different looks.
One of the things that fascinates me about New York is the infrastructure. I’m definitely fascinated by the people. When I think of New York now, I think more of people than the infrastructure. But then, the infrastructure reminds me off a dream. It reminds me of the promise of what New York City has to offer. One of the things that we do as creatives when we move to New York City, a lot of us is that we’re so inspired by the city and what it has to offer. And then, we come into the city and then we go directly back to the studio. So, I fell into that trap as well where I went directly into the studio. When I was thinking about my New York work, in my work, I couldn’t find New York itself. I could find that yes, I’ve shot a lot of New York artists, New York models, New York designers’ work. But then, I didn’t actually have New York itself.
And so, it reminded me to also start looking up, because when you live in New York for quite a while, you become desensitized. In any particular place that is so incredible, whether you’re talking about London, or Milan, or Paris, or Dubai, everything becomes normal after a while. So, it was a wakeup call to open my eyes again and look around me and look up above me.
Before I shot this image, I knew that I wanted to shoot it, but then I went on a journey to discover the city again in a new way. So, I started looking around the very same process that I described. I was fascinated by meeting points of buildings and lines. My Instagram during those days, people were probably either annoyed or celebrating it by my Instagram stories. I was posting a lot of building shots, just very interesting angles on buildings. Because for the first time, I was now looking at New York as fresh as I saw it when I arrived.
Kudzai: So, when he finally came to this image, I had a bank of images where I’d selected a couple of locations in New York. I knew I wanted to shoot on 57th Street and Seventh Avenue because of a building that’s behind there. On this shoot, there are about five people surrounding me, my team. I was literally laying on the streets and traffic was passing. Sometimes, when I do my work, I forget anything. I forget to eat, I forget to drink water. I always have to tell my assistant before I start working like, “Hey, please make sure I eat, please make sure I drink, and please make sure I don’t die.” Because to me, the shot is what matters the most.
Kudzai: When I was shooting the shots, I was laying on the ground and I was just looking for a particular moment in the people that are walking, because I had five people surrounding me. There was one light to one side. One light at a 90-degree angle, because I didn’t want the light to be in 45. I didn’t want the one site to be flat. I just wanted that kiss of light separates her from both sides. Because what’s to the left of her is the sun and then to the right is the light that I intended to put there.
Everyone’s waiting, traffic is passing, and then eventually, people start ignoring the fact that I’m there, which was what I wanted. People start walking past by and I’m just looking for that one particular moment where she’s the center of the frame, and then the people are walking by as supporting characters.
Martin: Ah, yeah.
Kudzai: And then, when that moment finally came, I snapped it, and I knew I had the shot. Yeah, this is how this image was created.
Martin: Yeah. Wow.
Kudzai: I love it, and it is my most viral image. On my social media, it has accounted to about 2.8 million views from LinkedIn, to Instagram, to Facebook.
Martin: Yeah. Wow.
Kudzai: Right now, actually, it has resurfaced again.
Martin: Why is that?
Kudzai: It had another viral moment of itself.
Martin: Oh, okay. It’s just based on the merits of the photo.
Martin: Just based on the merits. There’s no external reason why it’s resurfaced, just because it’s a good photo. Is that what’s happening?
Kudzai: Well, this time, I’ve remarketed it. Before when I posted it, at some point, I was getting thousands of followers and clients who started– I’ve got a lot of clients just from this particular image going viral. But at some point, I just have to let it go. I was like, “Okay, I can’t explain this image. People just love it.” But then, I didn’t realize what it is people loved about it until much later. Well, people love New York.
Kudzai: Everyone across the world is familiar with what New York represents or what it gives. And so, this is selling nostalgia, basically.
Martin: Wow. You mentioned the building behind. Is that the Trump Tower?
Kudzai: No, that is not Trump Tower.
Martin: The bluish one, I thought it was, but that’s not– Okay. I remember walking around there. I was in New York a couple of times in 2012. I remember walking around that area. You look up and there’s always buildings. Use a wide-angle lens and all the buildings taper in. It’s an amazing city to photograph.
Martin: It’s great that you’ve got it so prominent in this photo. Beautiful work.
Kudzai: Thank you.
Martin: We’ve got a couple of last ones. So, this is your photo on the cover of a magazine, I imagine? Yeah?
Kudzai: Yes. That’s L’Officiel Lithuania. In my work, I tend to be cheeky from time to time. Pun intended.
Kudzai: But I love the human form. I love the human form so much. I think before, I respected clothes a lot. But then, the more I shot, the more I started working with people that really understood their bodies. And so, separate to this conversation, I’ve had an art project that’s just centered around how we all connected through our bodies, basically. How we’re all a human, first of all. When it came to this image, I knew that I wanted form, but I didn’t know what image, where I wanted it. I was working with this amazing model whose name I can’t think of right now. But she works hard on herself, and I knew that. I wanted to celebrate the human form, the human body, and I wanted to shape around it.
When I initially told my team, they were quite surprised, because they’ve not seen anything of that form in my work. But then, I’ve always been lucky that whatever vision I have, my team trusts me. And I told them exactly how I wanted to do the shot and it was all in studio and we captured it.
Martin: Wow. Yeah, the balance is beautiful. One of the things that strikes me, apart from the cheekiness as you mentioned, you’ve got the little, tiny triangle of arm in the top right. I think, without that, this to me, the eye would go straight out that top corner, because there’s a line of light leading you up there. But you seem to have everything, just a perfect place, to really keep the eye in the frame and the lines and everything. You have done a beautiful job of it.
Kudzai: Thank you.
Martin: Yeah, sorry, go ahead.
Kudzai: All right. I’m a former OCD. I wasn’t diagnosed properly, but I like things in a particular way. If I didn’t have that in a particular way, then I would lose it, basically. But over time, I’ve always been great at self-diagnosing and realizing I’ve got an obstacle. And so, I decided to get rid of that obstacle, and that got accelerated by having in the past, a roommate that was the opposite of me. But that worked out well. But parts of that me being quite particular still exists in my work. So, I’m very, very–
I’m very terrible at shooting with an LCD screen. Right now, I don’t use that screen as the way I see an image. To me, looking through a viewfinder, and that might just me being old school, but looking through the viewfinder, I feel I’m observing every single thing within that frame. So, I’m adjusting as I’m shooting and I’m looking for that particular angle and those particular shapes that make sense and that gravitate towards you. And that’s exactly what happened here. I was looking for balance and I found it within this particular angle and that’s what you see.
Martin: Wow. Yeah. You just proved that you’re not old school by calling the R5 viewfinder a viewfinder, because it’s still an electronic viewfinder, right?
Kudzai: That’s true.
Martin: Many years ago, I use the R5 as well. I believe it’s probably still the best camera that Canon have made. But until this, my previous camera was the EOS R and that had a slightly clunkier electronic viewfinder. The R5, it’s so good. It makes you feel like you are looking through a real viewfinder. But the fact that you didn’t really think about that as you said that proves that you’re not old school. You’re in the middle of this.
Kudzai: You’d be quite shocked actually, because I didn’t advance my camera system not too long ago. I’m talking about two weeks ago. All this time, I’d been using a Canon 5D Mark III.
Martin: Oh, yeah.
Kudzai: And then, before that, I was using a Canon 50D, which was my first digital camera.
Kudzai: And then before that, I was using a film camera, which is what I learned on.
Kudzai: So, I learned the very hard way.
Kudzai: If you messed up, you would find out next week.
Kudzai: But I guess, is that a proper term to call it a viewfinder?
Martin: It is. Yeah, it’s 100% correct. You said that you don’t like the LCD and you prefer the viewfinder. I understand exactly what you’re saying. But they’re essentially now– with the R5, they’re essentially the same thing. It’s just like you’re looking at it through a viewfinder rather than looking at it on the back of the camera, and I understand that that’s what you meant.
One of the things that I love about the R5 is that you do get the– Because you’re essentially looking at a two-dimensional version of the scene, it’s flat on LCD, but it’s much closer and the experience is very different. It’s just that you didn’t really differentiate between that and a physical viewfinder, where you’re looking through the lens. It just proves that you’re completely comfortable with the equipment that you’re using it rather than thinking too much about the past. I am intrigued though, which camera were you using when you were shooting film?
Kudzai: I was using a Canon T1, I believe.
Martin: Oh, wow, yeah.
Kudzai: Yeah, I was using a Canon T1. Yeah.
Martin: And you cut your teeth on that?
Martin: Oh, sorry. Yeah. So, you cut your teeth on that?
Kudzai: Yeah. That’s how I learned how to capture images before the Canon 50D, which I used actually, for a lot of campaigns and a lot of people don’t know. The only way I advance is when I have the need to. Otherwise for me, the tool is actually not the biggest thing. The tool is an instrument.
Martin: Yeah. I think that the just speaking today, that comes across a lot. We haven’t even mentioned the gear until now. That comes across in how we’re speaking about this. But at the same time, I think it’s also interesting to hear. Obviously, I’m probably a bit older than you, quite a lot older than you. And so, I myself for many years shot film. I used to shoot slide film, mainly slide film. And I’ve recently come back to that. I’ve got an old Rolly, a Rolleiflex camera that shoots big, square medium format film. I’m enjoying that immensely.
But it is interesting that someone that has– You were talking earlier, I got a hint as to your age, when you were talking about that in Cape Town, and you were using Facebook, and all of that. When I was first doing photography, there was no internet. There was no Facebook. There was no internet or not one that public people could use. And so, I’m aging myself at the same time here. In the years that you’ve worked, it’s refreshing to see how you’ve really used the social media pretty much, it seems very naturally. You’ve got your Instagram with the followers and all of the likes and things, and it all comes very, very naturally to you. I’m envious of that. Because for me, although I use social media, it came along so late in my life as a professional, but also as a photographer, I really don’t use it as naturally. I put out posts saying, “Okay, I’ve just released a new blog post,” and that’s really a lot. Just pretty much all I do each week. So, I’m envious that it’s so natural for you.
But also, again, it comes back to the viewfinder comment. It all seems so natural to you. I think that is probably one of the reasons why your work is so beautiful, because you’re not overthinking it. And yet, you’re coming up there with the results that are really powerful and dramatic. And so, it’s been an absolute pleasure looking through these images with you. We do have one more. Tell us a little about this final image that I’ve got on the screen at the moment.
Kudzai: Oh, God, this is very latest. This is one of my latest works. Actually, maybe not the latest, because I’m doing a portrait series right now. But speaking about this work, looking at the fact that I feel the worst anyone can say is no, I did a massive reach-out to a couple of people on my dream list, basically. One of the people on my dream list was Tom Ford. I’ve been observing Tom Ford since I was a kid, since I was all the way back in Africa, in Zimbabwe. It’s a brand that just captures the way I visualize life, because of its intensity, because of its creativity. Because it is quite a commercial brand, but then being commercial, there also quite edgy. They present themselves in that way.
I reached out to one of the creative directors of Tom Ford. And then, they wanted to see my work. They wanted to see my portfolio. I quickly realized that I did not have work that quite felt like Tom Ford. And so, I gathered my team together, they were so excited. And then, I’ve been dying to work with this particular model, because she just has the most amazing look. She’s probably one of the best models that I’ve shot thus far. Her name is Anna Koval. And my stylist overperformed, just amazing work. And so, I created a different range of works, basically. I created beauty work, and then I created editorial work, and then I created commercial work, all under the taste level of what Tom Ford represents. And this is one of the images.
Kudzai: It’s work that I’m really excited about. And it looks like my audience really welcomed it quite well as well.
Martin: Yeah. Brilliant. Actually, I’ve just looked at my clock for the first time in an hour and 30 minutes. We’ve gone way– Are you okay to do another few minutes?
Kudzai: Sure. Let’s do it.
Martin: Yeah? Okay.
Kudzai: I’m enjoying it.
Martin: I’m going to stop sharing my screen for now. Obviously, you’ve made many bold moves. You’ve moved yourself around the globe. You’ve moved from in front of the camera to behind the camera. Lots of things in your life that you’ve made very bold moves. If you have one piece of major advice to give anyone that wants to do something similar to what you’ve done, what would you tell them?
Kudzai: Hmm, that’s a very good question. I think I would say pick what you love. Pick what you love, but not– I know people use this statement quite in a very frivolous way, but it’s important to have purpose. Because without purpose as human beings, we’re close to as good as dead. Purpose is what wakes you up in the morning. Purpose is what gets you out of bed when you’re like, “Ugh, not today, I’m tired. things to do and they have to get done.”
So, pick what you do and learn what you can do through any given source around you. There’s no excuse, especially during these days. We are quite privileged there. We live in a world that information is now all around us. You can open a book, you can open YouTube, you can open Instagram, you can open TikTok, you can open any platform, you can go to someone’s website and just observe what they’re doing. And so, pick what you do and then set out a clear goal for yourself. Sometimes, goals change. But without a goal, you don’t have a purpose. You’re not progressing towards something. So, pick out a goal, and that goal could be quite simple. It could even be a very complicated goal. But it gives you a map and a direction on how to move as you go about in your work career or even in passion that you’ve chosen. So, I think that’s probably the biggest one.
Martin: [chuckles] Absolutely golden advice. Sorry, you were going to say?
Kudzai: And then the very last is what I’ve been repeating all along. The worst anyone can say is no.
Martin: Beautiful. Absolutely amazing advice. I have had an amazing time for, sorry, an hour and a half, way over time. Kudzai, where can people find you if they want to come and check out your work or hire you? I know that your main website is kudzaiking.com. And so, that’s K-U-D-Z-A-I King, K-I-N-G dotcom. And is there anywhere else that you’d like– I guess, you have your social media links and everything on your website. Is there anywhere else that you’d like to send people?
Kudzai: At the moment, I just started with a new agency that I feel can take me to the next step of within the work. I’m constantly making sure that I’m progressing as much as possible. I feel at the moment– Not at the moment. They’re just amazing at what they do, and I feel together, we could do something, create some magic together. This agency is called Cake Factory. It’s cakefactory.com and if you want to reach out for press or to inquire about rates, normally that conversation filters through my agency. So, cakefactory.com.
Martin: Is that C-A-K-E, cake?
Kudzai: Yeah. Cake.
Kudzai: Like pudding cake.
Martin: Yeah. Okay. Excellent. Well, I’ll include a link to that in the post as well. And any closing thoughts? I think we’ve pretty much exhausted the conversation. But any closing thoughts from you, Kudzai?
Kudzai: Any closing thoughts? This is probably one statement that I live by since I was young that my mother taught me. It says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I keep that in mind. I realize that I am great at a lot of things, but I need people around me who are also great at what they particularly do in order to support this juggernaut that we’re trying to build and to progress forward. I think that those are my closing words.
Martin: Okay, excellent. Well, thank you very much. And thank you again for your time, for your wisdom, and for sharing your past, and a little glimpse into the future of Kudzai King. So, thank you very much and I hope to speak again at some point.
Kudzai: It’s been a delight being here and thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
This week I welcome back an old friend of the show, Valérie Jardin, to discuss the importance of personal projects for the working photographer, not shooting for the likes, and finding your own voice, the importance of consistency in a body of work, and why every visual artist should write.
About Valérie Jardin
Valérie Jardin is a French photographer, currently residing in the United States. She is self-taught and worked for several years as a commercial photographer. Today, Valérie is known internationally through her workshops. When she is not teaching others the art of street photography and visual storytelling, Valérie is a prolific author and public speaker. She is also an official X-Photographer for Fujifilm USA. She lives and breathes in pixels.
I had our conversation transcribed, so I’ll include that below and add some of Valérie’s work to illustrate some parts of the conversation. I hope you enjoy my conversation, with Valérie Jardin.
Martin: Valerie, it’s been way too long. Welcome to the show.
Valérie: Hey, Martin. Oh, my gosh, it’s been so long. I don’t even remember, at least four years since we talked. You came on my show, but it’s been so long.
Valérie: It’s good.
Martin: That was about probably four years or so ago. Do you remember how long it’s been since you’ve been on my podcast?
Valérie: I don’t know.
Martin: It’s been eight years.
Valérie: Okay. It’s way overdue.
Martin: Yeah. It was nine years since we first talked and eight years ago you jumped in on, I think, it was like the 400th episode party or something.
Valérie: Oh, yes. I remember that. Now, you’re at what, episode 2000?
Martin: No. Well, I was going to say, I wish. I’ve slowed down a little. What I’m doing now is, I’m trying to do three episodes per month. This will be released at the end of January 2022, and it’s going to be episode 768.
Valérie: Wow. That’s crazy.
Martin: I was thinking the other day. If I’d have had a child on the day I started this podcast, it’d be in high school now. I’m like, “What’s that all about?”
Valérie: That’s crazy. I remember when I said, “Oh, Martin, I’m thinking of starting a podcast,” and you’re like, “Are you crazy? Don’t do it. You already have an audience. Don’t do it.”
Martin: It was lovely to hear from you, and you told me that you’d stopped doing your podcast. Tell us a little bit about that because your podcast was popular, I know that you could have kept going. But what happened? What was the reason for stopping and everything?
Valérie: Well, I had two podcasts. I started the podcast, Street Focus, with the TWiP Network over eight years ago, and then I did that for about three years. And then, I left and I started right away, Hit The Streets With Valerie Jardin, which was very popular. For several years, it was weekly. I run at least 12 workshops a year on a normal year, and they’re all international. The weekly podcast was getting really crazy. Having enough episodes so that I could actually get on the plane and not have to worry about releasing episodes and having– so that was difficult. About a year ago, I switched it to every other week, which ease things off, right at the beginning of the pandemic. And then during the pandemic, everything went online. I still had the podcast, but then I was doing a lot of presentations for online conferences and photo society and everything, and teaching some online classes. Everything was online. I’m a people person. I’m a face-to-face person. So, it felt like the podcast was yet another online thing. It was like too many things.
When I restarted the workshops last summer after a year and a half of not running anything. I just felt like, “Nope, I can’t do this anymore.” I remember when I started the podcast and we had talked, and you had said, “That’s a huge commitment.” I said, “Yeah, I know,” and you had told me, “But you already have an audience, your workshops are selling. Why would you want to start the podcast now? I had said, “I’m doing it for fun, and it will never be one of the top things I do. It will be kind of a side thing that I do for fun.” I had sworn to myself that day that I would stop doing it if it became a burden, and it became a burden. It was like, “Oh, no, I have to record another episode.” I didn’t need that extra stress in my life. So, I stopped. Also, I’m excited because now that I stopped producing my own show, I have more time to be the guest on other people’s podcasts, and I actually love this.
Martin: Yeah. It’s a lot easier, and you don’t have to edit anything, you don’t have to do anything–[crosstalk]
Valérie: I had someone do that for me. I hired a sound editor. Podcasting is costly no matter what, whether you do it yourself–
Martin: You hire people to–
Valérie: Yeah, but if you do it yourself, time is money. I hired people. It just all added up to being just one too many things on my plate. I miss it once in a while. It’s kind of funny, now that I stopped, the first few weeks after I made the announcement because it was very popular. It was probably on its all-time high and with an audience and over 150 countries, and then I started getting all those emails from people that I had never heard of that said, “Why did you stop? I loved it.” I was like, “Where were all those people when I was running it?” You kind of feel invisible when you’re podcasting. And then when I stopped, then all those people were missing it. It made me feel good because I think it’s a good thing to stop on a high note versus stopping because you have to because the audience is gone. So, it felt good to actually stop it on a high note.
Martin: That’s great. I remember the conversation when I said, “Don’t do it.” I know what a commitment it is. I was saying that my point of view is if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to keep doing it, and you’ve got to really make it into something. But you did the right thing in making the decision to stop if you no longer enjoy doing it. I don’t do anything that I don’t enjoy.
Valérie: Well, same with me.
Martin: I turn work down all the time because it’s either not enough money or it’s not something that I know I can hit out of the park. I just wanted it to be that. Really even now, I get you completely. I sometimes feel, especially as we were talking briefly before I hit the record button, about this development work that I’m doing. I am just not good at time management when I’m doing development work. But with everything else I do, I’m pretty good at managing the on-off of the work and not work. I’m pretty good at it. But I’m no Tim Ferriss. I am terrible. I overwork constantly and it drives my wife crazy. So, I should be taking it a little bit easier, but I–
Valérie: That’s very you though, you work under pressure.
Martin: I still enjoy doing the podcast. Things have changed slightly. I’m not sure if you’ve been keeping up with it, but because my business model was always, “Do the podcast, use it as a marketing vehicle.” Initially, it was just exactly the same as you started it for fun because I wanted to put something out there. Podcasts were new, I was the third photography podcast in iTunes. It was great, and it still is. It turned into a business, and the business model was rich people, and a percentage will end up in a bus or a car with me in some wonderful country. The money that I make from the tools helps to keep the wheels on the wagon, and the tools had to stop two years ago. I’m like, “Okay, now I’m in a little bit of a mess.” I’m frantically trying to release software products and things that I know will sell. But it means that I had to turn recently to Patreon. And now we’ve got 26 or so patrons, that are helping to keep the wheels on the wagon.
Valérie: It’s good.
Martin: Hopefully we’ll keep getting more. There were already 20 or so people that had signed up for what I call the MVP Pro Program. We’ve got like 50 people or so that are helping to support the show. It’d be nice to get more. But at the end of the day, I promised that the podcast itself would be free, and I’m keeping it free. It’s just that the text is now locked unless you’re a patron, and there’s a whole bunch of other things like a forum that I’ve started, it’s locked to anyone that’s not a patron. But it’s working, and it’s still a lot of fun. So, here we are.
Valérie: Yeah, it is fun. It’s the interaction with photographers from around the world, so many people that I would have never met, so many people that I got started in the industry even for the podcast, it was so gratifying. I loved every minute of it, but it’s a lot of giving.
Martin: It is a lot of giving. In some ways, it’s not a lot of getting back.
Valérie: That’s right. Yeah.
Martin: But it’s fun. We’re going to talk about a number of things today. We’ve got a little bullet list. You sent me some topics that you thought you’d like to talk about, and I instantly thought, “Oh, yeah, well, I want to talk about all of those.”
Valérie: [crosstalk] -we could be here for three hours.
Martin: I’ll try not to keep you for more than an hour. But one of the bullet points was the same as the topic– One of the topics that I’ve just done. I didn’t finish something I mentioned earlier about. I’m doing it three times a month now. Another reason for the three times a month thing is, because I’m doing one question time with my patrons, and the general audience doesn’t get to hear this. One of the topics of this month’s Patreon Question Time was working on a photography project. One of the first things that you had in your bullet list was the importance of personal projects for the working photographer. I want to jump in and just talk about some of these bullet points a little bit. I’ve got my own views, could you tell me a little bit about what you were thinking when you wrote this first bullet point?
Valérie: Well, I find that a lot of photographers once — this is mostly for pro photographers, forget to work on personal projects. And then, photography just becomes another job. I find that the only you’ll really be able to have your own voice and give your own voice in photography is when you’re working for yourself. Obviously, when you work for a client, yes, it’s your vision and the client trusts you with that, but the client also has requests and they want things done a certain way. So, you always have to compromise. I find that it’s always on your personal project, no matter what, the personal projects that you’re going to shine the most. It’s also such a way to grow too, because you can start projects in areas that you’re not so familiar with or in areas that you’re truly passionate about, and that will feed your creative soul, whereas client work may not.
I don’t work for clients anymore. I haven’t worked for a client in 10 years because I teach, and I only shoot for myself, which I find is the best thing in the world. I don’t have to please anyone else but me. That’s exactly what the personal project does. I shoot for myself, but I always work on different projects. I always have short-term projects, long-term projects, and that also is a way to get you out there, because sometimes, especially when the weather’s bad, it’s cold, it’s like, “Ugh, I don’t really feel like going out with my camera. I don’t have friends to go out with. Everybody’s busy.” So, it’s always easy to find excuses. Having several projects, you can always say, “Oh, yeah, today I’m going to go and work on this or that. I’m going to work on motion in photography, practice panning, or I’m going to work on my hand series,” that’s another one on my project, you can always fall back on one of those projects and it gets you out the door. The only way you will become a better photographer is by spending time with your camera.
Martin: You’ve just covered probably the majority of what I had in my notes and when I started speaking. Multiple projects at the same time don’t necessarily need to be. I quoted a few people, and one of them was Sebastião Salgado. He is a Brazilian photographer.
Valérie: I met him, actually.
Martin: Oh, wow. That is amazing.
Valérie: A year or so ago. Yeah.
Martin: When he did his Workers project or his Genesis project, he’ll go off and he’ll do things for years at a time. A lot of people can’t do that. Michael Kenna will go somewhere for a few weeks and come back with a good bunch of work to add to a project. I think a lot of people do it that way. Also, what you just said, you’re going to have your hands project, having lots of different projects in mind all the time, you used the word ‘fallback’. You’ll just go in and do something on a certain project, feed a project for a while and then go back to something else. That is a flexible way of working on projects that I’ve personally found really, really useful, and stress relieving in many ways.
Valérie: Absolutely. It’s very therapeutic. The projects don’t have to be far away. That’s the thing. I have a project that’s entirely in my home. You have to work with what you have. Yes, I much prefer to be photographing the streets of Paris, but I can’t do that every week. I’m stuck in a very cold climate for months at a time, especially during the pandemic. Usually, I travel a lot more in the winter, but, hey, it was minus 39 this morning when I got up. It’s warming up to almost the freezing mark tomorrow. So, we’re really excited. There’s no one on the streets. There were not a lot of people on the streets during the past winter in the pandemic, and now this winter, it’s pretty much the same thing. Or, you are photographing people wearing masks, and that kind of got old quickly. So, you want to back to normal.
Last winter, the first winter of the pandemic, I started hitting the ice, and I live in a state with over 10,000 lakes and the ice is so thick, you can literally drive semi-trucks on them. I started just exploring the lakes and life on the lake. That’s one of my projects called “On Ice.” I started that project last winter. That was probably my favorite winter in Minnesota, because I was out in the cold and snow, on the ice every moment I could, every weekend for sure. It became a family project because, “Oh, which lake are we going to have a picnic on this weekend?” We really spent the winter outdoors in a really cold climate.
I discovered so many activities. After living here for so many years, things that I never thought people would do on ice and I had so much fun. I’m continuing it this year. It’s not quite as fun the second year because I feel I’ve done it all. But then on January 1st, as I was just thinking, “Oh, should I continue the On Ice project or expand it to more anything on snow?”, I ran into a tennis match on ice and people were actually on skates playing tennis. I said, “Well, I didn’t see that last winter.” So, I photographed that, so I’m adding to the series. It’s all for fun. But it really saved my —
Valérie: It saved me. Oh, absolutely, because normally, I travel, I teach in the winter, I start the year in January in Paris, and last January and this January, I’m here. It really kept me sane. You know how it is. The minute you’re with your camera, you forget everything else around you, and you’re in the zone and things look better.
Martin: Yeah. You sent me a bunch of images and I see some of the On-Ice ones. Is this the one with the three people in the cutout square? This is crazy stuff. I love it.
Valérie: Ice swimming. They were out today at 30 below. They spent about 15 minutes in the water. Well, granted the water must feel pretty warm. But, yeah, they–
Martin: Compared to -minus 39 or whatever.
Valérie: In the air, yeah. They ice swim. They keep that square, they have to break the ice every time they go there. They have to go every day to break the ice. Otherwise, it would be unbreakable because the ice is so thick. That’s some of the people I met during my On Ice adventures. I met people playing ice Jenga. You know with a giant Jenga set with blocks?
Valérie: I met, of course, ice fishers, ice skaters, those are the normal things you see on ice. But ice dancers, I went last winter to a party on ice, where the DJ was on a little island. We were all dancing on the lake. I have one of those photos in the bunch too.
Martin: There’s a late lady with two fans and a veil.
Valérie: Yeah, she’s dancing on ice.
Martin: Thanks for sending these.
Valérie: It doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to cost money, you don’t have to travel. Do something that’s close by, and something that you’re passionate about. I find that if you’re passionate about dogs, well, then go find some dog walkers or go do a project about dogs. Really, if you can combine one or two passions with a passion for photography, for sure, with another passion of yours, not that I’m very passionate about ice. I was forced into it. But I couldn’t live in a warm climate, trust me. But if you’re passionate about something else like football or dogs or horses, then combine the two. I think that’s when you’ll do your best work. You never know who’s going to see that work. Two, if you post your work on– I only use Instagram these days. If you post your work, I get requests for prints. I’m not even trying, or some of my pictures were part of a major international ad campaign for a big ad agency in Europe. They saw it on Instagram. So, you never know. I think if you do that work with passion, it will show in the work.
Martin: Yeah. We’re the same. I sound like I’m listening to me talk to my audience a few weeks ago. Everything that you do from the heart is going to be your best work.
Martin: Your second bullet point was, “Don’t shoot for likes, find your voice.” I’ve never shot for likes. It’s nice to get a like, but it’s not the driving thing. I always shoot for myself. This was why many years ago– I haven’t submitted any work for a few years now, but I’m still with Offset, which is a Shutterstock sister company. It’s like their high-end, curated stock work. When the person that contacted me to see if I wanted to join that agency, when they first contacted me, I said, “I don’t have any stock photographs. I don’t photograph–
Valérie: Lifestyle, that kind of thing.
Martin: Yeah, or a cinema full of people all going, “Aah.” I don’t do that. She said, “Martin, we want your work that you do for yourself, and that will sell.” I’m still getting checks.
Valérie: Oh, good.
Martin: I literally just sent them a hard drive with all of my final selects I’ve ever shot. They loaded a lot of it onto their site. It’s continued to sell. So, working for ourselves, I absolutely agree. It’s the best way to go. And I, like you, I haven’t taken a commercial assignment for many years, just because I got fed up of trying to tell people that, “No, you can’t hire a photographer for three days for $100.” Yeah. I had one very famous company contact me and they wanted four dawn and dusk shots in three days, in different areas. I’m like, “Okay, so do we need to talk about the Earth’s rotation before we even get to the crappy amount that you’re offering for this?”
Anyway, there are a lot of reasons why I don’t do it anymore. But I wholeheartedly agree, finding what you want to photograph, and working on that in projects. You mentioned earlier about On Ice, you’re going to put it to sleep. I never really finish a project, if something comes up that I know will fit into it. Most of my projects, or what I call projects become portfolios. If you go to my portfolio area on my website, you can see the result of everything. I will drop an image into a project or a portfolio at any time afterward. I keep them in mind.
Valérie: Yeah, and they can turn into books sometimes too, which is what I did. Well, who knows maybe On Ice will be an exhibit or book. But the long-term projects, a couple of them have turned into fine art books, that’s a great goal for a project. They kind of die on their own if they die. It’s not like you’ll end it. It’s like, “Okay, it’s getting boring,” or, “It’s getting too simple,” or, “I’ve covered it all and it doesn’t excite me anymore.” I think you don’t need to put an ending to it.
Martin: Sort of fizzle out.
Valérie: Yeah, exactly. It’s good because also it shows growth. If you look at pictures you took 10 years ago versus pictures you take now, we’re all really tempted to go and delete all those pictures from 10 years ago. But on the other hand, it shows growth. I think that’s really good because we never stopped growing. So, long-term projects can be really good that way too.
Martin: You also mentioned in this second bullet point about finding your voice or finding your own voice. To me, that is another part of all of this. People ask how do I find my style. I always say you don’t find your style, it finds you. Anything that you can find by looking outwards, at least, is not your style. It’s always going to be someone else’s. Your style comes from within. Also, you mentioned earlier, you don’t get good at photography unless you do a lot of photography. That’s how it defines you, the more you do something and the more you shoot what you love, the more your style will gradually define you as a photographer. And that is something that I find you don’t really see in your work until you have a lot, many years of work that you can go back on. So, yeah, you see your growth, but you also see your style develop.
Valérie: Develop a style. Then, people start telling you, “Oh, I saw that picture. I knew right away it was you.”
Martin: Yeah. That is great.
Valérie: I hear that all the time. Actually now, an interesting thing, and something that came up today again, I can spot my students just from their work, because I see a lot of me in their work because either they attended a workshop or more, some people have attended 10 workshops. So, of course, they start to see a little bit as I do. It’s quite interesting now that I see my student’s work, it pops right away. I know that somebody that I mentored, so that’s really exciting, actually. But, yeah, it goes with the, “don’t shoot for the likes,” because if you shoot for the likes, you’re not true to yourself, and it’s easy to post pictures that you know people are going to like more than others. Especially in documentary photography, in street photography, I know exactly which pictures will get the most likes. They’re going to be more dramatic silhouettes, which are often easier than getting a true expression on somebody’s space, where humor is going to be so much more difficult to capture on the streets because it’s all candid, but that won’t get as many likes as an amazing silhouette will when one has actually more merit than the other.
If you start looking at what people like, then you will be more likely to say, “Oh, silhouettes are really big. I’m going to start shooting silhouettes and showing them more.” Or, “That night photography is really popular and really moody stuff. I’m going to start shooting that.” Well, that’s great if you really love it, but are you doing it for yourself, or are you doing it to get the likes on social media? That’s a really good question because I would say most people are shooting for likes.
Martin: It’s like the so-called influencer. To a degree, I’ve been approached with someone saying, “You’re an influencer?” In some ways, yeah, but I’m not. I don’t do anything to influence people. If what I do influences people, that’s nice. I’m always humbled when people say– I just had one gentleman who started a mentorship with me via the Patreon program. He was thanking me for the inspiration that I’ve provided over the years. If I can inspire someone, that is humbling and an honor for me, but it’s not why I do this. I do it because I want to do it. And if it has that effect, that’s an amazing thing to be able to achieve.
Valérie: It’s the icing on the cake. I totally agree. Doing what we do and being solo entrepreneurs is hard work. You better love it. Otherwise, you’re not going to stick with it. Teaching workshops is hard work. I think a lot of people have a misconception of what that actually is. They think, “Oh, they travel the world and take pictures.” No, that’s kind of secondary to actually what running a workshop is. It’s a people business. It’s a lot more than just traveling.
Martin: Yeah. In your notes, you have the importance of consistency. What are your thoughts on consistency and how important it is?
Valérie: I’ve been shooting with an X100 camera for nine years, and that’s 23 millimeters. It’s very rare that I shoot with anything else. Except, sometimes I use the Lensbaby on another camera body because they’re fun lenses. People say, “Don’t you miss shooting at different focal lengths?” No. In a body of work, the consistency of a focal length, especially in street photography is quite important. To start shooting at 23, and then 200, it’s not going to look very good in a body of work, in that genre of photography at least. I think limitations are really good anyways. So, for me, it’s the simplicity of the kit makes me happy. I think it also made me a better photographer, for sure, just working with that limitation and then enjoying the consistency of it.
I don’t shoot only black and white, only color. A lot of people do, and people want their body of work to be consistent in that way. I don’t, because that is something that I feel is not up to me whether the photograph should be color or black and white. It actually is dictated by the subject itself. If the subject is all about color, it’s going to be in color. If the color is distracting, then it’s going to be black and white. I don’t make those limitations, but I make the decisions before I press the shutter, however. That’s important to me.
Martin: One of the photos that you sent is the red door. If you’re going to have a white wall with a red door in it, it’s going to look better most of the time in color because it’s about red. Again, I feel I’m listening to myself here as you speak. Pretty much everything that you’re saying is very much close to my own sentiment. I like to work in black and white, but I will leave color in a shot if the color is what the shot is about. I like to take out the color if it’s not adding anything to the photograph. But if it’s adding something or it’s obviously about it– Some of the shots I see that you sent, were it some brushes as well. Yeah, paintbrushes.
Valérie: Yeah, that’s actually another project that I started last winter. It’s all shot in the classic negative, camera simulation. When I shoot a project like the On Ice project is only in black and white. I set some rules for myself.
Martin: For each project.
Valérie: I’m the only person I have to please, so that project is black and white Acros yellow filter. The project of more contemplative photography, which was objet du jour, objects of the day or object in the light and was purely objects that I saw during my outings, I could be in a store or around the house, that jumped on me because of the way the light hit it or because of the color and they were all shot in color. No moving the object. So, I don’t touch the object. It’s all about finding the strongest possible way to make the photograph without changing anything. So, it’s about moving myself. Those are all fun projects that I do to keep them– they’re like visual push-ups in a way. Because we were all stuck in lockdown for so long and I couldn’t photograph people, then I started looking at ordinary objects in a different light, and then I started that project. It was a lot of fun. Anywhere I would go, I’d always have my camera with me and I’d see, “Oh, the light on that red door,” which is an elevator door, I stopped right in my track when I saw it, the way the shadows or the light was hitting on it.
So, any ordinary object can become so extraordinary if you just take a moment to see it because we look but we don’t usually take the time to see. And then, make it an exercise to work the frame. You may only have time for one shot, but if you have a few minutes, then shoot it from different angles, with different depth of field, and try to really work it. Every time you do an exercise like that, whether you show those pictures or not, it doesn’t even matter. Every time you do an exercise like that, you learn, and you become a better photographer. Get out there. But again, that could be in your own house. I spent a lot of time photographing objects in the window light in my house. Things that look sometimes invisible because I never saw it with the sun hitting it in a certain way, and then all of a sudden, I see this lamp that just looks beautiful because I just happened to look at it at a certain time. All of a sudden, it just became so extraordinary. So, I just grab the camera and make a few shots. Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s only for you, you are learning something. And that’s really what matters.
Martin: I’m having problems remembering everything that I want to say in response to the comments that you’re making. One thing that I did want to mention. You talked about the one focal length. As a nature and wildlife photographer, I obviously use a lot of different focal lengths. It’s horses for courses, you use the lenses needed for different types of work. But I’m not a big street photographer. Your genre is something that it’s– I love looking at street work, but going out and doing it, is something that I don’t do often. You’ll probably recognize this, the brown leather cases.
Valérie: Oh, yes. Fun.
Martin: I have a Rollei. This, I love it. It’s got a 75-millimeter lens on it, which is the equivalent of 15 millimeters roughly in 35-millimeter terms. When I go into Tokyo these days, most of the time, I’ll throw 12 frames, one roll of 120 film into this. I completely appreciate the fact that it’s only got a certain lens, I don’t even miss the fact that I can’t zoom with it, because that’s what it is. I don’t really think of it as a limitation. It’s just one aspect of this camera. I have to do various things that I don’t normally do with my EOS R5. I understand what you’re saying completely about how they’re liberating. Not have to think about that extra thing. When I’m using this camera, it’s like a passport.
I remember when I was in Ginza, an up-end part of Tokyo, it’s got a lot of people walking around the streets there. This elderly gentleman came flying over to me and saying, “Oh, my God, you’re shooting. I used to have one of those cameras.” Just using a camera that’s actually three or four years older than I am, it opens doors.
Valérie: Yeah, that’s true. [crosstalk]
Martin: People will come and talk to me about it. To a degree, we all understand that it’s more about the photographer. We are the brains behind the camera, we are the eyes behind the camera. But to a degree, the gear that you’re using does influence the work that you do. I’m completely with you when it comes to the one focal length and not having to think about that extra stuff.
Valérie: Yeah, actually, I used to have all the beautiful Canon L lenses and everything. But overnight, I switched to that camera, and it’s about the time where I let go of my last commercial client. I was getting ready to board a flight, I had my 70 to 200, my 24 to 70, and everything in a backpack, and I had just received the X100. I wasn’t familiar with it yet. It was kind of intimidating. It’s so different. I was flying to Europe, to Paris, but I was doing a few-day layover in Reykjavik. At the last minute, I left the backpack behind and I only took the X00. I saw Iceland with a 23 millimeter. It was so liberating. I’m not saying that I didn’t miss the 200 when I saw some horses in the distance, but I worked with that focal length, and I spent the whole summer with that camera. I sold everything else when I got back. There’s no way I could have gone back to the other camera. No regrets and that was about nine years ago. I got good money from my– it was a 5D Mark II at the time. All my lenses, I still had all the boxes and everything. Back then, you could still get good money for a DSLR.
Martin: I sell all of my stuff back to the shop that I buy it from, and I get good money from those as well. It’s nice to be able to do that. Literally though, over the last couple of years, I have completely changed everything, still with Canon, but changed to the mirrorless system. I actually ended up spending the first $100 this year, put towards getting the new RF macro lens. But everything else that I’ve done over the last couple of years was done with money selling my own EF lenses and gear, and gradually I’ve converted everything to the RF system. I’m loving it still.
Valérie: Yeah. I think people spend way too much money on gear. I’ve never been a gearhead, but even when I was working for clients, I never spent money on gear until the client was paying for it. I started commercial photography. I did food photography for really big restaurants with a $100 50-millimeter lens because it did the work. I wasn’t going to invest in expensive gear until I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I always live by that. Do we ever use the potential of our cameras ever before we trade them in? No, I really don’t believe it. It’s pretty rare. Pretty rare that a photographer ever switches cameras because, “Oh, it doesn’t do what I need it to do.” No, it’s because people want the latest and greatest. It’s good because camera manufacturers need those people. They would all be out of business with just people like me.
Martin: I would sort of respectfully disagree that we don’t use the full potential but I do agree that we change before we need to change. For me, most of the time, it’s because I want to do a review. As much as people say the gear is not important, gear posts are popular. I like to get a review of new gear out. But I also like to be using the latest gear. But I totally agree that we could use, as you are, like eight years or so, you’re saying with the X100?
Valérie: Yeah. Because I’m an ambassador for Fujifilm, I always get the latest version. I actually still have the old ones. But still, that’s pretty much the same camera. It’s evolved a lot, it has a little bit more bells and whistles. But if I wasn’t a Fujifilm X-photographer, I probably would still be shooting with the previous one and this one came up a few years ago.
Martin: What’s with the X-photographer thing? It sounds like you used to be a photographer.
Valérie: I know it’s funny. It always sounds like that. That’s how they call their ambassadors. Official X-photographers because of the X series, which actually turned 10 years old this month.
Martin: We’re actually getting through your bullet points pretty well here. Why every visual artist should write, tell us you tell us a little bit about your thoughts on that. Again, I totally agree.
Valérie: Well, that’s also very much for people who make a living with their photography. First, I think it’s nice to have a little bit of backstory on the photograph. People like that. If you’re working for yourself, being able to write articles— you don’t have to be a writer. I wrote— I don’t even know, 12 books in five years. I’m not a writer. I just know how to get my message across. I love to teach. So, my teaching, my writing is pretty much the way I teach. I could not write fiction if my life depended on it, but I can write, I’ve written hundreds of articles. To be able to write can help you share your work better. Also, everybody dreams of selling their travel photographs, for example, to a magazine. It’s really hard to do. Even online magazines, there is no money in that. But if you put a little bit more chance on your side to make a little bit of money by having your pictures published, write the words that go with the pictures and give them the finished product.
Again, if you’re writing about a destination and you have amazing photographs, and then the 600 words that go with them, that will most likely sell because what are they going to do with just the pictures? Nothing. Then, they have to look for somebody to write the article. So, if you have the finished product, you’re more likely to be published. That’s a pretty easy thing to do. I think people are really intimidated by the idea of writing. I never thought I could write a book. It’s really not that difficult. It’s not even the fact of writing. Now, I dictate all my books. I dictate them to my tablet, so they write themselves.
Martin: Yeah. It’s pretty amazing. The technology definitely helps. I’ve written about photography, and I’ve not sat and actually calculated how many pages I’ve written. But in letter or A4, it’s got to be tens of thousands of pages. I think that writing, for all of the reasons that you just mentioned, I totally agree. I think as well, writing helps us to put some sort of a logical format around our thoughts. Say, for example, they say that the best way to really learn something is to teach it. I feel as though, for me, for years, even when I was studying for college here in Japan, and you’re in a culture and a society that is not even your own native language—
Martin: But for me, in college here in Japan, I was doing all of my notes in Japanese, because I was learning in Japanese. But just writing it all out really helped me to put a logical structure around what I was being taught. I would go home each day and write out more notes. I think that even writing a journal about what you’re doing through the day, writing, that act of handwriting, or even typing it out on the computer, helps you to hammer it into your own memory as well. You remember things much more easily if you write it down. I find that just to become better at something, writing is an essential part of that. Even if— sorry, you’re going to say something?
Valérie: No, it’s true. I agree. I can’t say it’s for everyone, but I think more people should give it a try. Too many people are way too intimidated by the thought of writing. You don’t have to be a trained writer to write. I don’t even write in my own language.
Martin: I know. That’s so cool you do that.
Valérie: And now, my books are translated into so many languages. It’s cool. Also, I find even if you do it for yourself— I started a series of eBooks on teaching moments. It’s the creative vision behind the lens because I find that every photograph has what I call emotional metadata, which is to me much more important than the regular metadata. It brings you back to that moment. It has the power to bring you back to that moment. It could be 10 years old, it brings you back to that moment. Now, if you take that emotional metadata that you feel when you look at the picture, and you actually put it into words, it’s almost like journaling. It’s so therapeutic. So, I love writing those because while I use them as teaching tools, what I saw, how I approached it, and then what emotion I had at the moment when I saw this, and what emotion I have now that I see the finished photograph. Just putting that into words, I think it’s wonderful.
It’s a great legacy too, because what is going to happen to our pictures when we’re gone? That would be another whole other topic. I think about it once in a while. Just to know that I have a few books out, a couple of fine art books, but mostly educational books. It’s nice to know that we’ll be there after I’m gone and forgotten, and somebody will pick up a book like, “Oh, yeah, that’s how Paris looked like,” in the year 2040 or whatever. I like it. I feel photography is going to change very rapidly, and the way we capture the world is changing so fast. I think we need to put that into words. How do we feel when we actually hold that camera and capture that moment that has never happened and will never happen again? I think writing a few words about that is good too.
Martin: How you feel when you hold the camera is vitally important. Rich Annable, actually just joined my Patreon community, which is amazing. Do you remember the Focus Ring podcast? It was Chris Marquardt and there was Ibarionex Perello, a number of us used to get together occasionally.
Valérie: That was probably before I even met you on TWiP.
Martin: Probably, yeah, it must have been. Rich, I believe, was a part of that. One of the things that he talked about was how he felt as though when he picked up a camera, everything went quiet. He’s in this bubble. I always think of it as like I’m in a bubble. It can be a dangerous bubble because it can stop you from hearing trucks coming towards you and things like that. But if you’re careful with it, it’s a wonderful place to be. It can be so stress relieving. It starts quite often as you put your hand around the grip of the camera and raise the finder to your eye. I feel that just framing the world through a camera viewfinder is a big part of taking away the rest of the world. It’s like, “Okay, the world to me right now is everything that I can see through here.” And it’s a great place to be.
Valérie: It’s very therapeutic. People are needing that now more than ever. It’s an escape. It’s definitely an escape. It’s such a beautiful one. We are so lucky to have that. So many people don’t have a passion as we do. I am thankful every day for having photography in my life. I started late, but I just can’t imagine my life without it.
Martin: Well, when the pandemic locked us down, one of the things that I did was try to figure out how to keep the camera in my hand. And I ended up it’s like this is actually the second version, but this is my main lens now and it’s an adapter for a microscope. So, I’ve been doing microscope photography for almost a year now.
Valérie: I saw that yeah.
Martin: It’s been a savior for me. This is what’s kept me sane over the last year.
Valérie: Your world got smaller, so everything got smaller for a while.
Martin: One of my favorite shots at the moment is literally just less than two millimeters wide. It was a four-frame panorama of a cross-section of a ginkgo leaf stem that had fallen from a tree.
Valérie: I saw some of those. You must have posted them on Twitter or something.
Martin: Yeah, it’s crazy.
Valérie: That’s crazy. Yeah. Wow. I think everybody delved into some uncharted territory out of obligation because we were all confined to our own little world. But I think that probably was good in many ways. There was some positive in all this mess, hopefully.
Martin: Absolutely. My wife says it’s tough to have to be together like 24 hours a day, all the time, but she also has appreciated that I’ve not left her on her own. Normally, my trips are two to three weeks at a time, and not being left on our own for those periods, has been a bit of a silver lining around the COVID cloud.
We’re coming up to an hour, and I don’t want to keep you too long. We’ve already covered the last one. The purposeful limitation is something that we’ve talked about quite a lot through this. So, we’ll skip the last, we won’t jump in on the last of these bullet points. Valerie, is there anything that you wanted to add before we start to wrap this up?
Valérie: If people need a little boost, I just published a free little downloadable eBook. It’s short, but it’s sweet and people are loving it. It’s 10 Tips to Boost Your Creativity. A lot of people were in a rut coming out of this pandemic, and then back in it and hopefully coming up for air again. So, they can go on my website and download it.
Martin: Just in case someone wants to type this out right now, what’s your website address?
Valérie: They just go to valeriejardin.com, they can find me. V-A-L-É-R-I-E J-A-R-D-I-N, or they google my name, I’ll probably come up in the first few.
Martin: I would imagine so. Yeah.
Valérie: Everything is there. I’m on Instagram and Twitter, but I post my pictures on Instagram daily. That’s pretty much for social media these days. I left Facebook years ago and never looked back.
Martin: You reminded me. An ex-girlfriend contacted me a few years ago and said, “Oh, I feel like a super sleuth. I tracked you down and all of this.” I’m like, “Type in Martin Bailey. I’ve got the top three pages on Google.”
Valérie: That wasn’t too difficult. That’s funny.
Martin: Anyway. Well, Valerie, it’s been an absolute pleasure. I always enjoy speaking. I thank you for your time this evening.
Valérie: That was fun. So nice to catch up with you.
Martin: Yeah, you too. Absolutely.
Valérie: I may be going to Japan. It could have happened this year, possibly but a few things happened the past couple of years that kind of laid a lot of workshops. But I may be teaching a street photography workshop in Tokyo in the next couple of years.
Martin: Well, it’s one of the best places to do it. Let me know
Valérie: Yeah, you’ll be the first to know.
Martin: Yeah, we’ll go out for something to eat or something. Maybe I might even take my Rollei and go and wander around the street.
Valérie: That’s right, we’ll tag along. Sounds good.
Martin: Well, it was an absolute pleasure to speak.
Valérie: Thank you, Martin.
Martin: I look forward to talking again at some point.
2021 is drawing to an end, and to be honest, in many ways I’m pleased to see this year fall into the past, and looking forward to a brighter 2022, although with my winter tours not possible, we aren’t going to get off to a great start. Still, my yearly top ten selection of my own images is an important part of my year, and I know that some of you listeners and readers enjoy this, so I’m sitting down on December 30 to go through my yearly ritual. Before we jump in on the top ten, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the year.
I can’t complain. I’m still alive, which isn’t something that 5.4 million others can say. I’m kind of amazed that the world has been in the grip of this virus for two years now, although experts did warn that it would probably take up to three years to get through this. I think my general optimistic tendencies just hoped we’d handle this better. The governments around the world seem to be handling things with varying degrees of incompetence. The Japanese government has actually done a reasonable job of getting more than 80% of the population vaccinated, although they are dragging their feet with the third vaccination. Luckily the people of Japan are far more intelligent than the leaders of the country, and our collective efforts have kept casualties relatively low, although again, people have lost their lives here too. My heart goes out to anyone that has fallen to the pandemic and to their loved ones left behind.
Apart from gaining even more unnecessary pounds through increased lack of exercise, I’ve gotten through the year healthy, considering I have a hole in my sphenoid bone that leaks cerebrospinal fluid if I take enough medication to shrink the remains of my brain tumor to the point that it no longer completely plugs up the hole. I did have a slight dance with the C-word this summer too. I had a hard growth on the side of my nose, near where my glasses perch themselves, and it grew pretty quickly, so I went to the hospital and they quickly whipped it off, then tests showed that there were cancerous cells in the tissue. The dermatologist told me it was what they call pre-cancerous solar keratosis, which would probably become a form of skin cancer if left to its own devices. I’m told that although I may get more, there isn’t really anything to worry about, and that suits me fine. There’s plenty of other stuff to worry about, and as a terminal optimist, I’m pretty good at not worrying too much about things that I have little control over.
I haven’t done so well not getting concerned about my lack of ability to travel and pursue my passion for landscape and wildlife photography. Apart from the much-needed visit to the Tatsusawa Falls in October, it seems that almost every time I try to plan something, the pandemic tightens its grip on us again, putting the mockers on my plans. I’d dearly love to go up to Hokkaido over the next month or two, and am still hoping it can happen, but watching the daily cases of the new omicron strain of COVID increase, I’m not sure it will be possible. Fingers crossed on that one.
Anyway, let’s have a look at my 2021 photographs. This is something that I’ve done each year since 2007, and you can actually see all of my posts on this with this link. I’m running a little short on time as I’ve had a few reports of issues with the software I’ve developed that have taken a bunch of the time I put aside to do this, so I’m not going to go into quite as much detail as I usually do. It’s also a pretty light year anyway, with my new passion of microscope photography somewhat dominating my selection, so we’ll whiz through this relatively quickly.
As usual, I started by creating a folder to drop my first pass of images into. As I work through the year I drop all of the images that I am happy with into a year folder in my Finals catalog, which I keep on a separate SSD to my main shoot drive which contains everything for the year. So far my most productive year was 2018 with 1452 images that I was happy with. For 2021 I have 333 images. The last time I had less than that was 2010 at 230 images, and all years from 2005 and earlier.
After my first pass through my images, I had 66 shots in my selection, and as you can see in this screenshot, it was a pretty colorful crop of images. I’m grateful that I was able to stay somewhat productive with microphotography. I honestly think I’d have gone insane this year if it wasn’t for the joy I found in the microscopic world. It actually reminded me of when I had a somewhat stressful day job and would find it relaxing to simply have the camera in my hand. I wasn’t always shooting the greatest images, but just the act of doing photography was stress-relief in itself.
After my first selection, I went through and removed all of the obvious offenders. I was never going to have four yellow flower shots, for example, but wanted to have another look at all four before picking one or throwing them all out. This was more difficult than I thought it would be, and that is why this is such a valuable exercise. Editing skills are important and although I do this regularly as part of my job, selecting your favorites from a year’s work is never easy, even when the year was as crazy as this one was.
I ended up with 32 images after my second pass. I’d just over halved my selection, but I was stuck to a degree on what to remove next. I was actually not looking forward to this process this year because it’s been such a dry year, but looking at this screenshot, I’m feeling a lot better. Despite the work lacking the grand landscapes and majestic wildlife that I hang my hat on, it’s still quality work in the most part. The difficulty now is in removing some of the images that I know are simply left in the selection for variety.
I kept the more abstract yellow flower shot but the cherry blossom photo really does nothing for me. I can’t justify keeping it in the selection simply to show that I did more than the microscopy work. How I feel about an image as it comes onto the screen is an important indicator, and I feel a slight dip in my mood as that comes on screen, so out it goes. And, as bad as I feel removing it, the woodpecker shot doesn’t really cut the mustard either, so out that goes as well. I also removed the Shinjuku Eye photo from a few weeks ago. I like it, but it doesn’t do that much for me.
From an artistic perspective, as I got down to thirteen images, I decided that the plankton shot had to go too, and the black and white flowerhead shot seemed out of place at this point too. Compared to what’s left, I might as well remove the final abstract yellow flower shot, after all, leaving me with my final ten. That leaves me with just two real-world photos, and the other eight are microscope shots. Of those eight, only the scarab beetle is still something that could just about be seen with the naked eye. I’ll quickly walk you through the final selection before we wrap up for this episode.
We’ll look through these in chronological order rather than a ranking. This first image from the beginning of May was one of the first shots that started to really draw me into the microphotography world. These are citric acid crystals sandwiched between two polarizer filters, which causes these beautiful colors, and the rainbow colors that we’ll see in some of the following images as well. The flower of crystals here grew around a spec of fiber that had gotten onto the microscope slide, and kind of seeded the growth into this particular pattern.
The next image is one of my favorite sodium sulfite crystal shots. The colors are really appealing to me. This was also one of the first shots to show me the potential of these microscopic crystal formations. We’re looking at less than half a millimeter of the world here.
The next image is another sodium sulfite crystal shot, looking like an explosion in space to me. The fact that we can imagine these forms to be pretty much anything is probably part of the attraction for me.
Here’s the scarab beetle I mentioned, which was shot with my stereo microscope as opposed to my compound microscope. I found this beetle dead at the bottom of my apartment steps, which ultimately became my preferred way to shoot insects, as I thought it probably would.
Here is the third and final sodium sulfite crystal shot, which I have actually minted on Foundation, so if you collect NFTs you can check that out on my Foundation page at https://foundation.app/@MBP/~/114844 If this sells for more than 1 Ethereum I’ll send you a large format print as a thank you!
This next shot is one of my wife’s kindly donated gray hairs, which I also sandwiched between two polarizers to create these wacky colors. This was a massive 206 frame focus stack to get the entire knot in focus.
The next image was another eye-opener for me, as I looked at thinly sliced cross-sections of the stem or peduncle of a cucumber to find these vascular bundles. They were stained with light green, as they are almost completely transparent without a bit of stain to help us see them. You can also see the tiny chloroplasts in the cells, which I also got a great higher magnification shot of, but resisted included it in my final selection.
Back to the real-world, here is one of my shots of the Tatsusawa Falls from my October trip that also contributed to keeping me sane this year. These really are beautiful falls and I’m so pleased that I was able to get out there this year.
Here is another real-world shot, which is one of my favorites from a visit to our local park while the autumnal color was gracing us with its presence.
And finally, we travel down into The Abyss, which is actually the microscopic gap between two citric acid crystal formations.
OK, so that’s my top ten for 2021. A very different year from previous years, but as my selection shows, microscope photography is probably here to stay as one of my chosen photographic genres. That’s not to say that I’m not chomping at the bit to get back out into the field, but under the circumstances, I’m relatively happy with the year.
As usual, I invite anyone who has selected your own top ten to leave a comment and share your work with me and the rest of the audience. And finally, a huge thank you to our new Patreon supporters Larry, Char, and Paul, who, along with the rest of the patrons are awesome supporters of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast!
It’s hard to believe that it’s been eleven months since my last walk in the park episode, but here in Tokyo daily corona infections have plummeted, and we are expecting to come out of our state of emergency this week, so my wife and I decided to take a morning to visit our local park, and, of course, I took my camera to see what I could make of it. We thoroughly enjoyed the morning, and after a few hours of looking through and editing my selection of images in the afternoon, I ended up with 12 images that I’m happy with, so I reduced that to ten to share with you today.
The oppressive summer heat has been easier to bear here this September, with temperatures lower than usual, although today when the sun was out, it was still pretty hot, but bearable. The birds, insects, and flowers are also now making the most of the cooler weather, and having just passed the autumnal equinox, a timely Equinox Flower caught my eye as we walked towards the center of the park because it was highlighted by a patch of light pouring through a hole the still thick canopy of leaves. Here’s a photo to illustrate.
In manual exposure mode, I adjusted my settings to get a 1/400 of a second shutter speed at ISO 400, which required an aperture of ƒ/7.1 at 500mm, as I was using my Canon RF 100-500mm lens. The long focal length helps to compact all of the elements into a shallower slice of the world, which I think helps to isolate the equinox flower, along with the dark background.
Up close, I grabbed a few more frames of the equinox flower, as you can see here. I knelt for a lower perspective but stayed high enough for the patches of green in the background to mostly fall into the top of the frame above the flower, which helps the red to stand out against the mostly black background. My settings were the same as the previous image, with the same lens.
We started walking towards the stream that we like to cross at a particular place, using the stepping stones, but I heard a familiar tapping in the trees, so we hung a left and walked towards the sound. Anxious to meet what I knew would be a Japanese Green Woodpecker, I walked past its tree during a rest between taps, but turned and found him as he continued to tap on the outside of a tall red pine tree. My first few shots had the bird backlit, so they were just insurance in case he flew off, and I then moved around to the other side of the tree to get this shot (below, left) in much better lighting.
I had attached my RF 1.4X Extender to the 100-500mm lens and short this first image at 700mm. Forced to ƒ/10 by the extender, I increased my ISO to 2000 for a 1/500 of a second, which is fast enough for a stationary bird. Wanting to get a little closer though, I switched out the 1.4X for the 2X Extender, and got a second shot here (above, right) of the Woodpecker as he peeked out from the hole that he was busy making. I am thinking that he was probably working on this hole for next year, or maybe for winter nesting, as this year’s chicks will have already been raised and now fledged. I love the splashes of red on these woodpeckers and felt pretty happy to have encountered this one during our walk.
Next, we crossed the stream via the stepping stones and walked along to an area that usually has some Golden Cosmos flowers at this time of year, and they generally attract butterflies and bees, so here is a shot of the first, a Lesser Marbled Fritillary, which I cause flitting between the cosmos flowers feeding on the nectar.
I was still using the 2X Extender, so this was shot at 902mm, at ƒ/13, so I had my ISO at 320 for a 1/500 of a second. Trying not to let the orange blow out, the butterfly was slightly dark, so I brought it up a little with the Shadows slider in Capture One Pro. It’s still a little dark, but I don’t want it to look unnatural.
Here too is a Carpenter Bee, busily collecting nectar as well. This one I really had to push the Shadows slider, because the bee was on the underside of the cosmos flower, making it very dark, but at least I was able to salvage something. These bees have a large, shiny, black abdomen, and thick yellow coats with what I always think looks like an apostrophe shape on their backs. My settings were the same as the previous shot, and I’d zoomed out a little to 856mm.
Having annoyed my wife a little by still being at the Golden Cosmos when she came back from a walk that I had failed to even notice she’d embarked on, I managed to get another five minutes or so with a Bluebottle Butterfly on a patch of large red flowers. Here are two photos of it that I was pretty happy with. Click on them to open them up in the Lightbox, and note that I have cropped all but the first of today’s images to a 4:5 ratio, as I felt that this ratio suited them all better than the longer, native 3:2 ratio of my camera.
I also increased my ISO to 2000 for a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second, because this guy was constantly flapping those wings and didn’t stay still for a moment. I needed the fast shutter speed to freeze his motion, and switched my camera to high-speed multi-frame mode. I’d been shooting single frames up to this point, but needed to be able to blast off some rapid-fire frames to capture this butterfly. I love the Canon EOS R5 for its high frame rate, and because of this, I won’t be getting the lower resolution R3 that Canon has announced. I’d like the weatherproofing and hardier build, but there are too few other benefits to warrant the purchase, and I simply prefer the higher resolution of the R5 anyway.
After a steady walk through the rest of the park to the Dahlia area, my wife was kind enough to hold a patch of black velvet behind two nice heads for the following two shots. The first of these (on the left) was bright orange and the second was a deep purple, but I really like black and white flowers, with dark backgrounds, so the color was never going to make it into my final edit. I just find these more appealing artistically.
These were the only two images that I shot with a different lens. I switched to my EF 100mm macro lens for these images, along with the adapter to fit it to my R5. This may actually be one of the last times I’ll be using the EF 100mm macro, as I have the new RF 100mm macro on order, but the global shortage of transistors and the pandemic are holding up Canon’s production, so I’m not sure how long this lens will take to actually come into stock. Needless to say though, I look forward to providing a review with example photos once I get my grubby hands on it.
OK, so we’ll wrap it up there, as we just walked back to the entrance and down to our car after this, with an ice cream break on the way, and I somehow ended up with three bottles of local craft beer in my large vest pockets, before driving home to watch Japan get a new prime minister. It wasn’t the one I’d hoped for, so he has another month or so to stay out of trouble before the impending general election that will hopefully oust him and his party if things don’t improve by then. Anyway, enough politics! I hope you enjoyed joining me on my morning walk.
A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had plans to at some point photograph some of the cups and bowls that my wife and I have collected over the years. A number of you mentioned that you’d like to see them, so yesterday afternoon I took my camera, a few lenses, and my tripod downstairs, along with a medium-sized collapsable reflector, and spent a few hours making those photographs. I used only ambient light and occasionally popped in a little bit of golden light from a gold reflector, but at ISO 100 most of the exposures were between half a second to just over a second. It was late afternoon on an overcast day, and we had our lace curtains drawn. As I think you’ll see from the photographs though, this does produce quite a soft light that I’m quite happy with.
I didn’t go over the top on positioning the pieces. I will talk about my thought process as we go through these but keep in mind that my main goal was to show the pieces beautifully, but I didn’t run off to get a bottle of sake to pour into them or anything like that. That would have resulted in my drinking the sake and the rest of my working day would have gone down the toilet.
I experimented with both my RF mount 50mm ƒ/1.2 lens and the EF mount 100mm Macro lens. I ended up though using only the Macro lens because of the narrower angle of view. I wanted to use shallow depth of field so that you could see the color of the wood on our dining table and the wood on our kitchen cabinet which houses most of the crockery we own. Some of it is boxed up and stored away, and occasionally gets rotated, but the majority of what we use regularly in the cabinet next to our dining table.
Anyway, I have selected 15 images, though not all of them will have anything special to add, so I’ll break my usual 10 photos per episode rule and we’ll blast through all fifteen today. Here is the first photo that I shot of three of my favorite sake cups, otherwise known as “Guinomi”. Guinomi is usually used to describe a slightly larger sake cup, and the name is related to a hearty drinking style. “Ochoko” is another word for a sake cup that you may have heard, but they are usually slightly smaller, and used to drink sake in a more refined and gentle manner. It’s kind of like the difference between guzzling and sipping the drink. Personally, I prefer the former drinking style, and that’s why I have these Guinomi.
You’ll notice that there is a slightly lighter area in the wood that forms a kind of halo around the top of the center and left cups. That’s actually the back of my chair just visible over the surface of the table. I left it there to provide a little variation, and although it’s very blurred, I think it adds to the domestic situation slightly. This is the only shot in which I included that base from what I think is the “Tokoname” kilns which we bought from the Tokyo Tableware Festival at Tokyo Dome a number of years ago.
After that, I switched between three placemats that I bought from a department store here in Tokyo, purely for photography purposes. We’ve never actually used these when setting the table. Here is the almost black one with the same three cups. I’m afraid we can’t remember where the center Guinomi was made. We bought it at the Tableware Festival too, but the name escapes us. The black cup on the left is Kuro-Oribe. Oribe is a famous group of kilns and the vessels from there are usually the signature green of the Oribe cup on the right. Kuro just means black and added to the name when the Oribe is not green.
I should also mention the concept of Wabi-Sabi, which is what put me on to the topic of shooting these cups and bowls in the first place. In Japanese aesthetics Wabi-Sabi basically means beauty in imperfection. These cups are intentionally rough, not straight, and as you see, in this case downright gnarly, but that, right there, is what makes them so beautiful. You’ll notice this in pretty much all of the pieces that I’ll share with you today.
I won’t mention the shooting data for all of these images, as you can see that by clicking or tapping on the images and opening them up in the Lightbox, but just to get us started, I was using my 100mm Macro lens at ƒ/2.8 with a 0.8-second shutter speed, so you can tell there was very little light. With a well-chosen shutter speed though, essentially just exposing to the right of the histogram as I always do, it is nice soft light, which I enjoy shooting in. Note too that while using these mats with lines on them I was relatively careful to ensure that they were in line with the lens axis so that the whole thing didn’t look skewed.
This next cup is for drinking Shochu, which is a clear alcohol that comes in various grades from pain-stripper cheap to incredibly expensive. Shochu can be made from just about anything, though wheat and rice based Shochu is common, and I’ve also seen it made with corn, potatoes and many other ingredients. My favorite, and a drink that I easily drink more than Sake is called Imo-jochu. Imo means potato but in this instance it’s actually sweat potato, and creates a type of Shochu that is much more of an acquired taste. When I first tried Imo-jochu around 17 or 18 years ago, the first glass I tried was horrible. Fortunately the alcoholic content kicked in, and the second glass was much better. By the time I’d finished my third glass that evening I was a convert.
I bought this cup directly from the person that made it at a department store here in Tokyo. I fell in love with this instantly, and although it was a little over $50 I couldn’t prevent myself from buying it. One of the setting points was that single red dot that you see in this photo, but I like the overall design, and when I peered into the cup, I found the white base mesmerizing. I was both surprised and completely not surprised when the person that made it told me that his kiln was Taisetsugama, right by the Taisetsu mountain range in Hokkaido.
This next cup is made of a section of bamboo, treated with the lacquer also used for lacquerware, but here they’ve left the organic feel of the bamboo, and the lacquer almost has almost a matte feel to it. I use this one more often than not when I want to drink Sake, as in Japanese rice wine, from a larger cup than my Guinomi that we looked at earlier. I generally use the Guinomi when I sit with the bottle so that I can fill it up more often, but when I’m drinking something chilled or maybe relatively cheap sake from a carton, I will just pour it into this larger cup, and then I don’t have to sit with the bottle or carton.
This cup is very light, and you have to wash and dry it after use. You can’t, for example, as we often do with the cups used at the end of the day, just fill this with water and leave it to soak, then wash it in the morning. When I use this cup I have to wash it as soon as I’ve finished using it, then I dry it with a paper towel and put it back into our cabinet. One of things that I fell in love with with this cup is the base, which I included in this photo.
As you can see, the craftsman that makes these simply leaves the natural segments that form inside the bamboo to form the base of the cup. You can generally see where these sections are from the lines seen from the outside, so they must be cutting them at just the right point to make use of this base and leave the top open.
Very long time listeners might recall a commercial shoot that I did around 12 years ago when I drove all the way up to one of the northern-most prefectures of Japan and spent two days photographing a man that farmed trees to scrape lines in their bark and collect the sap, which was then used to make the traditional Japanese lacquerware. The town was called “Joboji” and is famous for high-quality lacquer and lacquerware. While on that job I visited one of the craftsman workshops where the lacquerware is made and spent over $200 on these two lacquerware bowls. Luckily my wife loves these as much as I do, so I got away with the hefty purchase, but these have become one of our household treasures.
I love how there is a little bit of black lacquer showing through in areas in the red bowl, but that deep rich black and the texture of the black bowl is simply beautiful to me. In English when we want to describe very deep black, we might say pitch black, or black and pitch. In Japan, the word for very dark black is “Shikkoku” which literally means this very dark lacquerware black that you see here. I should also note that although the red bowl might be considered slightly Wabi-Sabi, with the black showing through, the black bowl is perfect in every way. To get that dark black the bowl would have been carefully milled, then sanded smooth, then the lacquer applied then allowed to dry, then polished and lacquered again up to 30 times to get it that perfect.
By contrast, these three bowls that you see in this next photograph were bought by my wife and are relatively inexpensive, but also some of our favorite pieces. They’re just fun to use for small items that we put on the table, such as for example, a bowl of sugared black beans that might end up as our dessert after a meal.
So that I could shoot these from above, I put the placemat on the floor and just pointed my camera down at them. This is one of the shots where I used the gold reflector to the right to bounce a little bit of warm light back in to what would have otherwise been pretty dark shadows.
Here also is the same three bowls but back up on the table, so that you can see their shape from the side, and that they are actually tripods. They have three little feet, which I think is quite cute. Thinking about it, these are from Okinawa, when we visited around ten years ago now to do a workshop. My wife went out with a friend’s wife and picked these up while I was teaching my Pixels to Pigment workshop. A good find that we both enjoy a lot.
These next two bowls are also lacquerware, from the city of Aizu in Fukushima. These were about half the price as the Joboji bowls, and have a more down-to-earth feel about them. You might not be surprised to hear that we have actually never eaten from the Joboji bowls, but we use these two pretty regularly. After cooking most of our meals for the last 25 years my wife is frankly tired of cooking. She also doesn’t really like me to get into the kitchen, so I don’t get permission to cook for us very often either, which means that we sometimes rely on take-outs and convenience store bentos, but it’s a good way to keep stress levels down. When she does cook though, she always does a really good job of selecting the best bowls to serve each dish in, and it’s always a pleasure to see what she’s selected.
The three little bowls that you see in this next image are inexpensive again, but we really like the simple design, and how the smaller bowls fit away nicely, nested inside the larger ones. These are often used to serve some “Shichimi” or seven spices to put into noodles, another favorite dish.
You’ll notice that the painted lines aren’t perfect, but again, even in these regular kitchen bowls, we get a sense of the Japanese Wabi-Sabi that I mentioned earlier. It’s that beauty in imperfection that we enjoy so much.
I also shot my three Guinomi individually, but as I’ve already talked about these, I’ll just drop them in here in a gallery for you to look at.
To finish with, here are two Soba-Choko, again, from the Oribe kiln, hence that signature green color. You’ll see that they’ve broken up the monotony a little with those amoeba-like forms in the design, which we found quite appealing. The word Soba means buckwheat noodles, and Choko is the cup, the same as “Ochoko” which is just adding the honorific “O” to the word for a small cup. These are what you put the dip for the noodles into, often with some thinly sliced onions and broken up nori, the dried seaweed that you often see wrapped around rice balls, or Onigiri.
OK, so we’ll wrap it up there. We have heaps more crockery, and we only concentrated on Japanese vessels. If I start on our western-style crockery I’d need another few episodes, but it’s not as interesting as this Japanese stuff, which I hope you enjoyed seeing. I think I’ve captured the warmth of our home in these images to a degree too, so I hope that comes across. I’m incredibly thankful for the life we have, and my wife makes it all so very special. I’m lucky to have her in my life to make it richer and so much more fun!