Early each morning I walk with my dog Rudy in Caesar Chavez Park, located along the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay. Part of the pleasure of the walk is encountering other people who are also out enjoying the morning light, the fresh air, the fog lifting, and the great Pacific Ocean beyond. I recognize many of the early morning walkers now: we are a varied, colorful mix of humanity. The Philippino postal worker; the Nigerian nurse; the Korean couple who feed the squirrels; the retired lesbian couple who like to travel in their van with their two small dogs; the cigar-chewing Jewish fabric salesman; the Hispanic jogger who works at Juan’s Place, the local Mexican restaurant; the Sikh who is always inviting me to his local meeting hall; and the African American real estate salesman. We all stroll the same path each day. We are a typical cross-section of people residing in the San Francisco Bay Area; and we reflect, in microcosm, the population pool of the entire state. People have been drawn from all over the world to the fabled state of California, bringing with them cultural riches I welcome and love.
I rely on the chance encounter; my morning strolls, a party or exhibition openings are often my sources for finding subjects. For each person I portray, I want to provide the mood, the feeling and the attitude that will suggest a story or a mystery, but one that will engage and further stimulate the viewer’s imagination. Each person brings his or her own interpretation to an image, based on his or her own life experiences.
Being a people watcher and an obsessive collector of the visage, I am fortunate to live here, in a place with such a profusion and diversity of faces. Each person’s face holds the legacy of his or her own culture, and the potential for individual expression. What draws me to the people I photograph is their varied and distinctive physical characteristics, but even more that that, they must possess that thing called “soul”. No amount of conventional attractiveness or pleasing appearance can replace the sprit and essence of a personality. I want to expand the concepts of beauty. I try to get under the skin to reveal a complex interior life. These portraits, taken between 1997 and 2006, rely on the face itself to tell the story. The use of props is minimal, for the most part, nonexistent, in contrast to my early environmental portraits. The narrative is implied through the look in the eye, the tilt of the head, the contact one feels when confronting these faces. My portraits usually depict subjects in a serious or contemplative frame of mind. The smiling face does not hold much attraction for me photographically. It is so easily achieved and does not say much about the individual. Smiling in front of the camera is like slipping on a mask. Regardless of the individual posing for me, my goal is to make a portrait that not only reveals my subject but also reflects the viewer’s own inner thoughts, moods, and feelings.
Two major Japanese aesthetic concepts, and the way they express themselves through traditional Japanese art and culture have always intrigued me. Both are difficult to fully define, but here are rough descriptions. One is the concept of Wabi-Sabi: the idea that beauty is "imperfect, impermanent and incomplete." The other is "The Zen View," and could be defined as "less is more, or too much if a good thing dulls the senses." I believe these concepts influenced the photographs I made during my various trips to Japan over the years.
I first traveled to Japan in 1963, just a few months after starting to study photography. It was then I initially encountered visual expression of these concepts while looking at traditional gardens, architecture and various crafts. The recognition of the beauty found in decay, corrosion and the weathered, coupled with an austere dark palate appealed to me. Fifty years later, looking at the photographs I took on that first journey, I see an attempt to capture some of what I was feeling and experiencing. It was also a moment in time when Japan was emerging from WWII and still catching up to western technology. I wasn't conscious of that then, I only wanted to capture this new way of looking at things. It was like seeing old Japanese prints come to life; a bamboo water spout, a woman with an umbrella standing in the snow, Mount Fuji against a cloudy sky, a mother in a kimono carrying her baby on her back.
In 1976, the renowned photographer Eikoh Hosoe invited me back to Japan to teach for a month. I learned how to say, "may I take your picture" in Japanese, which always seemed to amuse the people I encountered. I made a small set of twenty black and white prints from that trip and put them away in a drawer where they remained for years.
There were other trips to Japan after that. Three in a row. 1989, 1991, and 1992. These were business trips in collaboration with Toppan Printing Company. From those trips I produced some photo collages and triptychs that were inspired by Japanese hanging scrolls and folding screens.
It was almost fifteen years later before I returned to Japan in the fall of 2006. This time it was for an exhibition at Tama Art University. I was using a digital camera on that trip and shooting in color. Once I returned home and started to print the photographs I became curious to look again at the photographs I had made in 1976. Going through them, I was amazed at how many shared characteristics I found in my images thirty years earlier. I was intrigued by the similarities, but also the subtle differences. In pairing them up, I could see many of the changes that had occurred over the past 30 years revealed in the way people dressed, their hairstyles, the signage, and the proliferation of technology. These pairings became the catalyst and the basis for this group of images.