George Nobechi was one of the photographers chosen in the 2018 Rfotofolio Selections.
Today we are pleased to share his work with you.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Tokyo. My father was Canadian and grew up in rural Ontario on a farm, but he became a globe-trotting, idealist businessman who believed in helping African and Asian nations to develop. At a conference in Japan, he met my mother, who was his interpreter, and happened to be a Juilliard-trained musician. They got married and my sister, now living in Vancouver, and I were born. When I was a child, my maternal grandfather, who was a teacher in Hokkaido, Japan, had a huge influence on my upbringing teaching me about biology, history, language and art. Thanks to him, I grew up with a strong Japanese cultural influence, even when we moved to Canada when I was eleven. Thanks to my parents, who believed in experiences over tangible gifts, we traveled all over the world and I continue to have “wanderlust” to this day.
They also got me my first camera, a very basic Contax 35mm that I loved as a kid. I still have drawers full of old film rolls and photographs I made of my family. I’ve also now been around the world four times, three of these were solo journeys, and it was for my first solo journey in 2008, across fourteen countries in six continents, that I purchased my first digital camera to document my journeys. Curiously, despite my passion for photography and travel, I never took a single class on photography until I was 34 years old. Once I finally did, the progression from passion into life-changing obsession was rapid. By the end of 2014 I had quit my job in finance in New York City, packed up all my belongings and put them in storage, and I journeyed while studying photography and shooting all the way until I finally settled back in Tokyo in the summer of 2014. I spent almost a thousand days without a real home, although I was very fortunate in having some dear friends putting me up in their homes during that time.
Where did you get your photographic training?
I often hear the word “self-taught” and while I will not judge others who use that term, I would never apply it to myself. I feel like I have been blessed with so many teachers along the way. It’s kind of a funny story in my case. In the summer of 2014, I was gifted a one-day workshop with the Brooklyn Collective in New York. My teacher was Alan Winslow, who teaches at Maine Media from time to time. It was a street portraiture class and I loved it, although I was terrified. We were in Prospect Park and we had three hours to ask three strangers to make their portraits. At the 2:45 mark I had made zero portraits. I finally worked up the courage to approach a young lady at the farmers’ market who had a cast on her arm about how she broke her arm. I then nervously segued into asking if I could make her portrait for my class. She happily agreed. And from that moment on, I was hooked.
I ran and made two more portraits and went back to Alan asking him where I could learn more. He suggested I take a look at Maine Media and Santa Fe Workshops. The adventurer in me got the best of me. I had been up the coast to Maine before and loved it, but never been to New Mexico. Thus it was an easy choice for me. But what workshop should I take? As I looked on the website there was a class that was starting in two days called “Visions of the American West” taught by Brett Erickson from Nebraska. It was a black-and-white capture-to-print class. The catalogue photo was of two wild horses running on the wind-swept Nebraska hills towards a gathering storm. I’d grown up a huge fan of horses, and my favorite book series had been “The Black Stallion” by Walter Farley. The photo called to me. I called up the Workshops and grabbed the last slot in the class. I think Mignon, the lady who answered the phone, thought I was crazy. “You know the class starts THIS Sunday? It’s Friday afternoon.” I was on a flight out to Albuquerque the next day.
My class with Brett was transformative. He is an incredible teacher and I learned so much from him. I encourage anyone starting out, or struggling with a “block” in their personal vision to learn from him. Brett saw my quiet style and referred me to the man who became arguably the greatest influence on my photographic life, Sam Abell. I know there are thousands of photographers around the world who can say that. But I also know I am one of the lucky few people who have been able to work with him very closely in our photographic lives. With Sam’s affinity for Japan and his sense of “quiet” photography, we hit it off immediately, and he told me at the end of my workshop with him in March of 2015, that if I wanted to truly walk away from my prior career and life and attempt a career at photography, he would help me. One doesn’t get offered that kind of opportunity every day. I jumped in with both feet.
With Sam’s introduction, I met photographers like Arthur Meyerson, Greg Gorman, Amy Toensing and other greats from whom I have learned so much. Sam and I have even been able to work together on several projects in Japan, the latest of which was a retrospective exhibition of his work from 1980 (incidentally the year I was born) in Hagi, Japan. I printed 72 of his works and we had a wonderful exhibition, reception and local workshop, all for free as a gift to the people of Hagi, and so many people from his days shooting in Japan showed up. That was truly meaningful. And we have another collaborative project happening this Spring in Japan, with Arthur Meyerson as well.
Sam’s referral helped me garner a coveted Work Study position at the Santa Fe Workshops in 2015. I was certainly an unconventional candidate and I have to thank Renie Hajduk and Reid Callanan and company for taking a chance on an old fogey like me. There were so many great workshops I assisted on that summer, and specifically formative and memorable for me were Arno Minkkinen: who taught me so much about having a consistent vision/voice/life series that transcended projects, Whitney Johnson: who gave me the confidence to “not go back to my day job,” and one of my closest friends in the world. Kate Breakey: the alchemist who let me into her magical and healing desert world when we were both facing some challenges in our lives and we forged a great friendship there together. She led me to Mary Virginia Swanson, Keith Carter, Jace Graf, and on and on. And then I expanded my horizons and I met and learned from Newsha Tavakolian in Tokyo, and she taught me that I’m actually a lot better with people than I give myself credit for, and that portraiture may secretly be my strong suit if I ever gave it a real chance (we’ll see about that!).
And all through this time, I remembered my upbringing, my grandfather, my parents, and my life traveling with them and also looking out through windows from our apartment in Tokyo. All of it and all these teachers led me to where I am now. I didn’t go to art school, and all my photographic instruction has only come in the last four years, but my entire life’s journey to get here was my photographic training. And I am so grateful to those who helped me along the way.
Why do you create?
I create because there is in me, as there is in many of us, an insatiable desire to tell stories. I am looking out the window of my studio in Tokyo now and I see the thin, wispy branches of a cherry blossom tree, bare except for tiny buds, outstretched against a crisp, light blue, winter sky. The Golden Hour approaches and the facade of a rather non-descript modern home is lit a soft, beige-pink blend. Power lines rake across the whole scene. It’s not nearly as spectacular as Kate’s Desert, but it’s nonetheless beautiful to me. I want to record that, tell its story–I feel like every little nook and cranny of our wonderful world has a story to tell, and as photographers, if we can capture that and show others what we saw then we’ve made a meaningful contribution. And then of course, there is the whole process of printing and making these visuals we capture into their own art objects. I’ve always loved creating things–I used to make giant origami zoos full of creatures, for example, as a kid. This is an extension of that. But of all the media I have encountered in my creative processes (music, for example, my mother’s talent definitely skipped a generation), photography and I are a natural fit. We found each other and I do believe it’s not an exaggeration for me to say that photography saved my life.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
In addition to the people I already named, I have to mention the collective work of artists who have come before us. I love looking at Hokusai, for example, in the way his works incorporated people into the landscape, or Hopper and his cinematic scenes and carefully crafted light. I could go on and on. I would say, though, just to give a different answer from the standard ones, that my own failures have had a great influence on my process.
Sometimes I feel rushed to “get somewhere” with my photography. I think about how I didn’t start straight out of university and how I need to make up for lost time and I get frustrated with my results. I also, probably like most artists, sit on a pile of work that needs to be edited and I beat myself up over not getting to that work. But as Arno Minkkinen said to me, we should “Care most about the work we are currently making,” and I think that’s true. He also said “Just keep making the work,” above all else. And I think that’s also an apt thing to remember. Often, I take a peek into an unopened folder of images from three years ago and I falsely remember having made a bunch of photographs that I was happy with. Yes, there are a few gems in there–photographs that do stand the test of time and will be published in due course, but there are an awful lot that I thought were decent back then that I’m glad I didn’t get around to publishing.
Sometimes our own impatience is our enemy. There is constant pressure to have the next project done ahead of annual reviews and calls for entry, but I guess its’ good to remind oneself that projects do have a sort of natural course to them and failures along the way help you to reach a more meaningful, deeper place. So in addition to studying the great artists, I’d say it helps to take some time to study your own work as well. That certainly helps my creative process. It’s ready when it’s ready. Maybe that’s why we’d make bad journalists!
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
Of all the photographs I have seen in my life there is one that stays with me and haunts me all the time. It’s an image by W. Eugene Smith from his series on Welsh miners. But it’s not the iconic “Three Generations” photograph you’re probably familiar with in its own right a stellar picture. Instead, it’s another that has this effect on me, but it is, to me, the greatest photograph I have ever seen because of all the layers and dimensions that it transcends while still achieving an aesthetic beauty that is memorable and evocative. It is “A Welsh Town, Great Britain, 1950.” Without being so presumptuous as to purport to knowing what the photograph is about, I’ll just say that very few photographs succeed in capturing the sense of place and sense of time, measured in generations as well as this one does. And still fewer do it with emotion and aesthetic beauty to this degree. The layers are seemingly endless. What do I mean by “time measured in generations?” I direct you to the horse and carriage, the motor car, the railroad tracks and the sign on the horse and carriage, and leave you to explore the image from there. A Welsh Town Great Britain, 1950 by W.Eugene Smith
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?
The first one that comes to mind is my image “Women at Horseshoe Bend,” and it’s an image that I made during my travels in the Southwest. One thing I admired about photographers like Sam Abell and Arthur Meyerson was their dedication to “getting the shot” no matter what the circumstances. My Japanese side usually keeps me from making photographs that disrupt the wa or peacefulness of a place or people. In this case I was doubly troubled. My mother was visiting me in Arizona and I drove over 1600 miles in five days to show her many of the iconic places of the state. We’d spent a couple of hours on a very windy day at Horseshoe Bend. Most of the visitors there were young people approaching far too closely to the cliff edge to capture their daring self-portraits.
We were still planning on visiting Monument Valley before sundown so we began to head up the path, which if you have been there, you know it’s at least a half mile walk between the parking lot and the cliff. We were almost all the way back to the car when I saw a group of young women, presumably Mennonite, headed down to the cliff, camera in hand, to take pictures like any other young people there. I knew immediately there was a possibility to make a different picture of Horseshoe Bend. I apologized to my mother and left her on the trail and ran ahead of the women to get into position to compose my shot. I was hopeful that they would select the area I had in mind. And I waited patiently and they came to the cliff edge, put their water bottles down, and one of them began to take pictures. Next to them happened to be a young couple busy taking selfies and I snapped a few with them, but it seemed too obvious a juxtaposition, so I waited until they left. I had all the elements of my composition I wanted there, save for perhaps some unfavorable mid-afternoon light I had no control over, but I slowly raised my camera, a not-flashy, mirrorless fixed 35mm lens model and made a couple of shots. And then one of the women saw me out of the corner of her eye, and she raised her arm to block her face from being captured. And that was the shot from the sequence that I chose.
Every time I look at this image, I think of my poor mother waiting for me under the hot sun on the trail (terrible, I know–we had lots of water, hats, sunglasses, etc., and I drove her everywhere she wanted to see–promise I was a good son otherwise!), and I think of how I disrupted these young ladies’ wa. I still struggle with those feelings when I look at this photograph. But I absolutely know what Sam and Arthur would have done, what Cartier-Bresson would have done, and so on. Most of the time, I’m pretty shy and “Japanese” about doing things like this, but every once in a few years, I will find a moment where I have a choice: to make the shot or not–and if in my mind I feel that shot has a chance to be special, then I will break my inner moral code and go for it.
Last month in Kanazawa, Japan, I had a similar moment, where I got in the middle of a wedding through similar circumstances, I went ahead to a setting and composed it, and they came into my composition but I stayed, even when they wanted me to leave. Some people reading this probably think I am horrible, and others might think I’m a wimp and what’s the big deal? I can relate to both perspectives, but it’s still a struggle to me to do, and it’s a teaching moment repeated for me every time I look at this image. That image went on to win a number of awards, so I’m sorry ladies, but it was a special moment. Thank you for letting me capture it. And thank you to my mother as well.
What makes a good day for you creatively speaking?
Any day that I am out in the world, breathing fresh air, and making images. When I get into a “zone” there’s really nothing better. Editing, promotion, putting together PDFs, responding to e-mails that’s all the stuff we have to get through to do the things we truly love. Printing my work is always a close second, but for me, nothing beats making new images.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer or artist living or passed who would it be?
That’s a tough one. My knowledge of the personal lives and personality traits of photographers is still very shallow at this stage. I learn their work and then work my way through their biographies, so my answer might change over time, but if I had to pick, I would say Dorothea Lange and Mary Ellen Mark for their humanity, strength and sensitivity in their work and how they harmoniously brought those elements together. Sorry, I know that’s two answers.
How important is the photographic community to you?
The photographic community is vital to me. Through it I have made so many friends and my world has expanded far beyond what it was before photography. I am exhilarated to see the success of my friends and colleagues globally, and I love traveling to photo festivals and reviews whenever I can, to meet people and get to know them. As photographers we are pretty solitary creatures by nature. I like to think of us as comets wandering the universe in giant orbits and only passing each other every once in a while, but we take great energy and inspiration from that and carry on our way once again. I do feel a bit isolated from that world in Japan, where the community works a bit differently, I think. Things are more structured here, and I am not necessarily a round peg here, but that’s why I am trying to create a new type of community here as well, and be one of the bridges to the Western photographic communities.
What equipment have you found essential in the making of your work?
A good printer. Your work definitely changes when you print it and changes for the better. Leaving it on a screen is not enough. If I had to add one more, I’d say a sous-vide cooking device. I can set my dinner on slow cook and head out all day to shoot and never have to worry about dinner not being ready, or overcooked/burned/fire hazards before I get home. It’s a hungry photographer’s best friend, and I highly recommend it.
If I were allowed to make one more mention, I would say that in my self-training as I journeyed and shot, I heeded Sam’s advice and put away my zoom lens and worked exclusively with fixed focal length primes–doing so taught me to move my feet as a photographer and not rely on zooms. I stayed active, in better shape, learned to move my body to set my composition and memorized focal lengths quickly. If you are relatively new to shooting and want to see your photography improve quickly, grab a 35mm and learn that, then a 50mm, and a 28mm, and then jump up to an 85mm. Keep challenging yourself when one length becomes “second nature.”
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
Yes, a major portrait series (Hi Newsha!). That and a multi-volume life work on Japan as seen through my eyes.
Whats on the horizon?
Personally, I am working on several new projects. One is a project about love in Japan and how it’s expressed differently here than in the West. Another is a portrait series on my former colleagues in the business world. I’ve also been working on a long-term project about train travel in Japan. This will get a significant boost when Sam, Arthur and I travel the country together from North to South this Spring by train. And I’m also working on a project about the North of Japan in particular, where my grandparents and mother are from. There’s something special about the North Country for me–with its heavy snow, long winters and short, but vibrant Spring. An offshoot of this project will be published in Japan in a special feature article in Asahi Camera magazine’s March Annual Cherry Blossom issue. It’s one of the best-selling issues every year, and it’s a great honor for me to be featured in this 90-year old magazine. Unfortunately, that will only be available in Japan, but if you want a copy, feel free to contact me and I can ship you one (signed, of course, and with a translation thrown in).
Elsewhere I’ve wrapped up a couple of solo exhibitions of “Unmoored” (Here.Still.) in the US in 2018 and just been invited to exhibit this work in Germany next year as well. I’m working on editing this work toward a possible book, which will not just be about these pictures, but a bit about my journey and transformation as well. There are a few other pending developments on this project in the US that I am not yet able to reveal. And, I continue to build on a very successful launch year for Nobechi Creative, which is my platform for creating workshops, exhibitions, photo tours, free talks and events, and a community of photo experiences in Japan.
Thank you George Nobechi for sharing your work and words with us.
To learn more about the work of George Nobechi please visit his site by clicking on his name.
Having recently been through a period creatively in which I felt as though I had just passed through a roomful of cobwebs, unable to get them off of my skin, out of my hair, this interview has gone a long way toward clearing them. Thanks to Mr. Nobechi for his thoughts and his wonderful, quiet work Norm Snyder
Hello Mr. Snyder. Thank you very much for your comment. I love the analogy of walking through a roomful of cobwebs. I am glad to hear that they are beginning to clear, and that this interview may have played a small part in that. That means a lot to me and I appreciate it. I wish you the very best in your creative ventures and am confident that your period of difficulty will lead you to new pathways and growth for you as an artist. George Nobechi