34th Street and 7th Ave © Shigeki Yoshida

Shigeki Yoshida is a Rfotofolio Selection from the 2021 Denis Roussel Award. We are pleased to share his work and words today on Rfotofolio. 

Would you please tell us about yourself?

My name is Shigeki Yoshida. I currently live and work in Brooklyn, New York. I came to the United States in 1997 as a painter supported by the Japanese government. I started to take photographs after arriving in the US.

Where did you get your photographic training?

I did an MFA at Hunter College. When I came to the US, I couldn’t speak English at all. I decided to learn English. It was by chance that I enrolled in an ESL class at Hunter College, where I never thought I would go to graduate school and where I studied photography with Mark Feldstein and Roy DeCarava. I didn’t even know the college had an art department when I started to learn English there.

Who has had an influence on your creative process?

Many people have influenced my creative process, but Juichi Saito, Mark Feldstein, and Roy DeCarava the most, I think.

Juichi Saito, painter, printmaker, and sculptor, made me a painter. I was a student of his at Wako University in Tokyo. He influenced my way of life. Without his encouragement and support, I would not have been able to be who I am today. He died of leukemia at 61 years old when I was 29 years old. He often told me about his experience in Paris, where he studied print-making with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17. Actually, his initial plan was to study sculpture with someone – I forgot his name – well, yes, it’s Ossip Zadkine, but he met Hayter by chance and unexpectedly started to learn printmaking. I thought it was a great story, and I was longing to have an experience like his. The story might have influenced me to come to NYC to find something new or to make a fresh start. After his death, I quit the teaching job that he gave me and came to NYC.

I met Mark Feldstein in his advanced photography class as a student at Hunter College. Studying just English was somewhat boring. So, I took the class. It was an interesting class. He encouraged me to study photography at graduate school. The art department accepted me for the program, but the graduate school office found my TOEFL score was three points short. So, I had to get three points more before enrolling in the program. He got angry at the situation, protested, and tried to help me get into the program. To make a long story short, I needed to wait for a semester, but I was accepted because of his appeal.

During the waiting semester, he was worried about missing access to the darkroom, so he allowed me to use it. Actually, I was accepted as a painting major, and I was still not sure that I would study photography. I told him my honest feelings, and he just said, “It doesn’t matter.” However, I decided to concentrate on photography on the registration day. On that day, he made me promise to buy something related to darkroom equipment every semester. He said he was serious, and he would ask me every semester. My first purchase was tongs, by the way. I really appreciate this because, after graduation, I smoothly established my own darkroom in my one-bedroom apartment. It’s a so-called bathroom darkroom. And another promise I made to him in advance was a shooting record. He showed me his own shooting record on a small notebook, saying, “You should take a note every time you take a picture, how, when, where, and what you took. And don’t forget bracketing.” I have been keeping this promise ever since.

He died of a heart attack during my second semester. It was really unexpected and all of sudden. He taught me everything I needed to know about photography’s technical aspects and the fundamentals of photography. It was a short, but intensely condensed time I spent with him. He allowed me to use his equipment. He shared his ideas and techniques with me not only as a teacher, but also as an artist and a good friend. When his students organized a show for his memory, I wrote in the show catalog: “In spite of my limited knowledge of English vocabulary, Mark’s jokes always made me laugh. I tried to make him smile with my photographs. How much satisfaction did I give him? I still communicate with him every time I release the shutter.”

After taking Roy Decarava’s tutorial class, I became his teaching assistant for a few years. Roy had no secret, answering all the questions I asked, no exceptions. It was fascinating to inquire about his specific work and learn why, when, and how he did it. I had so many interesting stories from him. He exposed me to the internal aspects of photography. Conversations with him were like philosophical dialogues. Sometimes there seemed to be no answer. Therefore, his question echoed in my mind. Every time I showed my photographs to Roy, he always said, “I cannot lend you money, but there are so many things I can do for you.” At that time, I was still too young to understand the meaning of what he said. I didn’t ask anything. Instead, I replied to him, “That’s enough. I can learn photography from you.” That’s what I regret. I should have asked.

I stopped being a teaching assistant to go to UDK in Berlin as an exchange student. He asked me why I needed to go. I said, “I’m interested in German photography.” He asked me, “Is there such a thing as “German photography?” I replied, “Mathematics has no borders.” There is no difference in mathematics between Japan and America. So is photography. However, I think there are differences in form, style, and approach. I want to confirm it.” In another episode, in a group critique, looking at a photograph of a female figure, Roy asked the student, “Do you love her?” Then he said, “If you love her, show me her best.” The photograph the student showed was a portrait of his mother. I’m still thinking about what Roy said. Did he believe that photography could depict something invisible, like the psychological condition of the photographer and his subjects? Even love?

Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.

There is no particular image that has stayed with me over time, but there are scenes like the memory of light in my childhood. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s something gentle, sweet, and bitter. My memories of my childhood are monochrome, by the way.

What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson?

Well, I have to tell you about one image I was embarrassed about. Just before I took that image, I had a big argument with my wife. The argument was about whether or not we would have our baby. We both wanted one, but it was financially difficult. I was baselessly optimistic, but my wife was not pessimistic but realistic. We had had this kind of conversation many times before. We were always not able to reach a conclusion. I found beautiful light on a wall in my neighborhood where I rarely walk. I simply turned my camera toward it. I knew there was a show window and something displayed inside, but I didn’t care what it was because the light was changing quickly. After I developed the film, I realized it was a child’s dress. Did the photograph depict my mental condition? I entitled the photograph “Expectation and Oblivion.”

Mother and Child, Coming Up Stairs © Shigeki Yoshida
Fifth Ave /57th St. © Shigeki Yoshida

Please tell us about the work you submitted to the Denis Roussel Award.

The Images I submitted are from my ongoing project: the “Identical Light” series. I started the project in 2000.

“34th Street and 7th Avenue.” It’s in the corner of Macy’s. I found an interesting light there. In a photograph, there is an African man and a Caucasian woman. They are standing a certain distance from each other. They are waiting for someone. And it’s hard to see, but it’s an Asian woman’s image in the show window. Among them, there is a communicative tool – it’s hard to see these days, but a payphone. In an actual scene, it was noisy and busy, and even smelled, but in a photograph, it’s quiet and, of course, there’s no smell.

“Fifth Avenue/57th Street.” I took this image just after Mark Feldstein died. I think the image shows my mental condition. I was depressed. I put a camera on a trash can for taking slow-shutter shots. So, someone didn’t know what I was doing, the person passing in front of the camera. The image depicts a typical Fifth Avenue scene, with a man carrying a shopping bag. The interesting thing is the image showing the time and date. I was there with my camera and deep sadness.

“Floor.” This image was taken when I participated in the residency program at Instituto Sacatar in Bahia, Brazil. It’s my studio floor there. I like the charcoal drawing-like texture of this work.

“Grand Central.” This image was taken at Grand Central Station in NYC. I like the station because it is where people say “Hello” and “Good-bye.”

“Mother and Child, Coming Up Stairs.” Actually, I don’t know about their relationship. Is it really “mother and child” or not? It’s low-light conditions. I hold my camera tightly, looking at the water (bubble) level on my camera. It’s crucial to keep a vertical line of staircase bars. It’s no-finder shooting. I knew someone was coming up the stairs, but I didn’t pay much attention. My priority was to take an image of the staircase, holding the camera tightly because there was really beautiful light there. I concentrated on keeping my camera horizontal.

“Stage Door.” Actually, it’s not a stage door, but to me it looked like one. There is nothing wrong with imagination. By the way, before having a teaching job, I worked as a stage carpenter. People say my prints are too dark, but again, I don’t think so. As long as the darkest part has detail, it is fine. I always ask the negatives (film) how they would like to be printed. I try to hear their voices. It’s hard to see it from a digital image, but the actual print keeps the details. You can see the driver in the car.

“Window.” This image is from the “Identical Light” museum series, a museum photo without artwork. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but some people find my photography minimal. I just try to make things simple. I’m not taking “objects,” but “things.” People think photographs show something, but actually, they hide something. The more hidden, the more apparent. It’s by so-called “imagination.”

What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?

I simply like to take photographs. Taking pictures is the most rewarding thing for me. I don’t think I’m a control freak, but one good part of the image-making I do is that I do it by myself, from taking photos to making final prints. I prefer “composing” rather than “playing.” In addition, taking a photograph is close to drawing, and making a print is close to painting to me. While the former is spontaneous, the latter is constructive and structural. It is not only in terms of the process, but also of time and mental state. I see it’s very important to make prints, but the negatives that have to be printed pile up and up because I’m a slow printer and like to take photographs. Of course, I’m dealing with an image, but the image is ultimately going to be on a piece of paper. I choose the film and decide how to use it, thinking of the final image and which paper I might use. Meanwhile, the papers have mostly vanished. It’s sad to see many photographic papers disappear, while those remaining are getting expensive, as you may know.

How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?

I never push myself. And taking photographs is not so difficult for me at all times. The good thing is that no one asks me to take a picture. Working on photography is my own choice. I’m doing what I can do and what I have to do. I have a certain image I want to see, but it does not exist because nobody is working on it. That’s why I’m trying to make it, because I want to see it. Right now, I’m part of an artist-in-residence program at Escape to Create in Seaside, Florida, where I have the freedom of creation. Participating in residencies as an artist is a great way to meet new people and create new work.

What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?

Having an open-minded heart. So, through the lens, it’s possible to observe, describe, and express.

Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?

I have a project, “Dear Cartola.” I’ve tried unsuccessfully to raise funds for that project. “Dear Cartola” is a photographic letter to the Brazilian composer, singer, and poet, Angenor de Oliveira, known simply as “Cartola,” who died in 1980. It was nine years ago in 2013. I had the opportunity to pay a visit to Rio de Janeiro en route to a Sacatar residency in the state of Bahia, and this led me to his grave to pay my respects. However, it was very difficult to find the cemetery because not very many people knew about Cartola any longer. Actually, it took me three days to reach his place of burial. I came to understand that Cartola was justly famous in the past, but no longer. I asked many people, and most of them helped me in some way, large or small, to find the cemetery. In fact, I visited many graveyards before reaching the correct one. Even after finding the right graveyard, it was even harder to locate where he was actually interred. People were supportive, especially after I explained how important his music was to me. I needed to personally say “Thank you” to Cartola, because at times it seemed like I might not be able to live without his music – his music was always with me, through good times and bad times. Finally, one grave-keeper showed up and took me to “Cartola” (his grave). I cannot remember exactly what he said in Portuguese, but he said, more or less, “Everybody dies, famous or not.” After our deaths, will people forget someone’s creativity? I really want to take pictures for Cartola and his creativity. You may think I’m crazy, but I want to communicate with him through my photographs.

How does your art affect the way you see the world?

Well, I don’t know if my work is “art,” although I hope people find “art” in my work. I prefer to say “work.” According to Maurice Blanchot, “Art is real in the work, and the work is real in the world.” Obviously, my work shows how I see the world. My work is very dark sometimes, and people worry that my eyes have something wrong. However, I don’t think my work is too dark. And vice versa, my work might reflect how the world perceives my work. I think “artist” is not an occupation but a title for someone who creates work that people see as “art.” Did I answer your question?

How has the pandemic influenced your work methods? Or has it?

Generally speaking, I try to take things in a good way. I lost a job supporting me and my wife because of the pandemic, but got unemployment insurance for a while. Needless to say, that’s not enough money, but I tried to make a living with it. What I can do is limited, even though I am trying to find a new job. The good thing is having time. I used the time for my future. For the last three years, I have spent most of my time trying to make a living. So, I have been behind on my schedule for taking photos, making prints, etc. I have plenty of negatives from which I need to make prints. I didn’t have enough money to buy the photographic paper I needed, but I ventured to buy some. And I’ve been making some prints. I felt very good when I saw the good prints and could forget about COVID-19 for a while.

The pandemic made me begin to think about getting a teaching job again. It was more than a decade ago. I almost gave up trying to get a teaching position after the UC Davis assistant professorship I missed. It’s not a final selection, but I had an interview. One of the interviewers said, “You are the first person who came to the interview with a camera bag.” I thought I had to say something funny, then I made a bad joke. “I spend more time with my camera than with my wife.” Everybody laughed, but one person didn’t. She was the art department chair. I don’t think it’s for that reason that I didn’t get the job, but I realized it’s difficult to get a teaching job. However, I want to teach, even in an adjunct position. Teaching is, most of all, a contribution to our society because I was also a student who owes a lot to the many teachers who taught me how to learn and made me explore the art world with an open mind. “Ongaeshi” in Japanese. I think it’s never too late to do anything good.

Whats on the horizon?
Currently I need to develop the 130 rolls (120) and 240 sheets (4×5) of film exposed during a residency at Escape to Create, Seaside, FL. Of course, I need to make prints as well. It’s not yet on the horizon, but most of all I want to continue with the project, “Dear Cartola.” It sure would be nice if I also had a chance to have a show in the near future. I hope I can tell you some good news soon!

To learn more about the work of Shigeki Yoshida please click on his name.

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