Jerry Takigawa interview

Jerry Takigawa

December, 2006

Jerry Takigawa received a BA in art with an emphasis in painting from San Francisco State in 1967. He studied photography with Don Worth. In 1969 he started working exclusively with photography. In the early 1970s, he moved to the Monterey Peninsula and began exploring color photography. In 1982 he created the first color portfolio to be recognized with an Imogen Cunningham Award. During the 90s he returned to black and white imagery using digital printing techniques. He is owner and creative director of Takigawa Design, a brand strategy and design firm in Monterey, California. His work can be found at the Weston Gallery, J. Howell Fine Art, the Saret Gallery, or at www.takigawaphoto.com.

Jim Kasson interviewed Jerry at his house in the Carmel Valley.

JK: You backed into photography.

JT: I was a painting major in college. I got interested in doing photo-realist paintings and drawings. I had an opaque projector and projected photos to work from. I decided I wanted to take my own photographs and learn to develop the negatives. Eventually I was able to project my negatives from an enlarger.

JK: How did photographs turn into being your art, rather than just a means to your art?

JT: I graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in painting. I said to myself, “Okay, now what do I do?” They didn’t teach anything about business, nothing about galleries, nothing about what happens after school. There was absolutely zero, no information about how to make a living. This was in the late 60s; it was an idealistic time. I joined a Vista program that allowed me to harness resources at the University of California to help the West Oakland community. I did art programs and I published a newsletter for them. I had done design work in high school and college, so I knew how to use print media. I was painting then, but I realized that was going to be a hard way to make a living. Berkeley was a hot bed of politics, and I started taking environmental and political photographs for my newsletter. I was using photography purely to tell a story. Then People’s Park happened, and I went to the demonstrations every day and shot photographs. I ran pictures in our newsletter. At the same time I was in a show in Berkeley at the Phoenix Gallery, and I had a few pictures in the People’s Park book.I wanted to use my skills to make a statement politically about things that I believed in.

JK: Why did you shift your direction away from reportage?

JT:After being in Berkeley for two and a half or three years, I got tired of having my whole focus on political issues.I got tired of looking for things that weren’t right and decided to move back to Monterey to make pictures of things that I did like or was attracted to. I started doing landscape work and I began shooting color at that time.

JK: What did you do for a living?

JT: I had gotten my first design job when I was up in Berkeley. It was for the opening of the university museum. There was a woman who was doing a big bash for the opening, and she wanted me to design an invitation. She was generous about paying me. I carried that experience from Berkeley when I returned to Monterey. I quickly found out that in this area, at that time, people had no idea what graphic design was, and nobody thought they needed graphic design. I did sign painting for two, three years; it was something that people knew they needed. Eventually I got a few graphic design jobs and it started to grow from there. I learned a lot of design just from doing it. I asked a lot of questions of vendors and older colleagues.

JK: You had design courses during college.

JT: Some, but it wasn’t like going to an Art Center, where they teach you everything you need to be a graphic designer. I was growing as the area I lived in grew. I was able to provide what was needed and it just grew over time. Coming from a fine art background, my design work had a unique quality to it. I don’t recommend it as a way of entering the field, but it worked for me because it also gave me the time to wander around and make photographs.

JK: Tell me about the creative arc of your art photography.

JT: At the beginning there was black and white documentary, politically-oriented or environmentally-oriented work. And then the total opposite: West Coast landscapes only in color. I got into more experimental things in the early ‘70s–long exposures, like Wynn Bullock, but in color, mostly of water. I made a conscious effort to meet with Wynn because I was fascinated by his time-space ideas. I did a lot of work with reflections. Steve Crouch gave me my first Monterey Museum show based on that work. I did hand coloring. I did a small body of motion-blurred nudes–grainy black and whites with this soft glowing expansiveness from moving the camera. There’s a tie-in to when I was a painting major. I liked Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff–people who were painting tightly cropped figurative works. I was doing those things in my photographs, and they looked like drawings to me. I love graphite on paper, that texture you get with the shading. I loved the look of this series; it just had that feel.

JK: Because of the grain.

JT: Yes, anything that looks that way attracts me, Most of the things I do go back to composing things as if I were making a drawing or painting. I created a series of color motion-blurred trees, much like the images you’re shooting now. I started out in moving cars. Ron James had taught me this technique of pushing the shutter and rotating the camera so that the subject is sort of sharp at the center and blurred on the periphery.

JK: The photograph that started me on that 15 years ago was a CPA print program photograph by Ron of some trees along Highway 68. I stared at it for hours before I figured out how he did it.

JT: Ron was my neighbor for about four years in Pacific Grove. I began shooting out of moving cars but it was hard because you had to have a driver and your subjects had to be someplace a car could go. I also did stop/blur images with a handheld strobe. I used the same trees as subjects but I would light the trees with the strobe and then shift the camera a little bit and get a shadow blur because it’s now the silhouette that’s blurring. I usually shot against a sunset or something that would give me a luminous color backdrop. American Photographer ran a portfolio of that work. I called it the “largest color backdrop” in the interview, and they got letters from people trying to figure out what I meant. It was just the sky.

I also did a series about the same time of figures that were in color with a strobe and motion of the camera. Working with a figure, I would put colored cloth down and put hot lights on them so that they would stay lit. Then I’d do a pop with the strobe so that there would be something sharp, and I’d move the camera so the hot-lit stuff would go soft. There’d be blocks of soft, glowing color, going back to that instinct of painting. That series showed me that if I did something in the studio I’d be able to produce a lot more work than I could in the field.

JK: But you didn’t stop the field work.

JT: No. In the early 80s I was living with Claudette Dibert, who was also a photographer. We would travel in an RV and camp at the beaches in southern California. I brought some cloth samples on a trip and took a photograph that keyed another direction in my work: shooting pieces of fabric in landscapes.After a while I shifted to Japanese fabrics. Claudette had a little scarf with Japanese painting on it that I shot at Zabriski Point. It was about the size of a necktie, but it looks huge in the landscape. When I saw the Japanese graphics on the scarf I got really excited–maybe it’s in my DNA.

I started going to sales and used clothing stores to find kimonos and fabric. I especially liked those that were hand painted. They used an airbrush technique that made soft graduations. I had a dozen kimonos and started doing a series with those and the landscape. That was the series that was recognized by the Imogen Cunningham Award in 1982.

Then Claudette and her pregnant model died in an accident when a light fell into a hot tub while they were doing some underwater figure photography. It was such an immediate departure. I’d said good-bye that morning and went to work, and then boom.

I spent some time with Claudette’s kids. She had two teenage sons, and we lived together for awhile. I did that for continuity for them and for me. I didn’t have a lot of desire to take pictures then. We had spent so much time doing photography together. All I was interested in was pulling out all the pictures that I had of her. We were surrounded by fine art but the only photos that mattered to me were the pictures of her and what we had done together.

It took maybe two years for me to get back to photography. Her passing had happened in the middle of that series of the kimonos in landscapes. I decided to try shooting them in cityscapes to get my energy going.I shot in San Francisco and L.A. mostly, lying on the sidewalk shooting up at buildings with a friend waving a kimono over my head. I got a lot of strange looks from people walking by, but it made interesting pictures. That rounded out the series; half of it was in nature and half of it was in the city. An exhibit of the Kimono Series in Sacramento gave closure to that project.

Somewhere along the line I must have figured out that the fabric represented spirit. Spirit in harmony in a natural setting, and in contrast to a man-made, hard-edged environment, and beautiful in both . That work had an energy about it that feels timeless to me.

I made myself finish the series, but it took me a long time to get to the next thing. I was taking pictures all the time, but I couldn’t connect. I was still grieving. What I was doing was sorting out what was going on inside of me.

In1986 I got married and then divorced within a year and half. We spent a year in counseling, and I learned a lot about communicating emotions. It was an amazing time for me, learning how to communicate with people, especially to a partner, about things that mattered to me.

JK: How did your current series start?

JT: In 1988, I was in the early stages of my relationship with Pamela. Around 1989 I took a trip with Pam to Hawaii. There was a big floral bedspread print, and Pam was wearing a kimono robe with flowers on it. We also had flower leis that we had bought. The whole thing was flowers, and I could see it in black and white right there. It was a pattern-on-pattern image where you didn’t necessarily see the figure immediately.That started me on black and white again. I began using the same Japanese fabrics that I had used before, only now in black and white. They actually were beautiful in color, too, but when they’re in color you would just look at it and say it was a kimono. I wanted something more abstract, a slower recognition where the feeling transcends the subject.

I shot and proofed that material as regular silver prints in the early to middle ‘90s. I had faith that sometime down the road digital printers would get good enough that I could print on rag paper bringing me back to something that felt like a drawing again.

JK: You created a body of work without being able to print it the way you wanted to print it.

JT: Yeah. It looked okay in silver prints, but I had this sense that they would look much better printed on soft rag paper, so in the meantime I kept making them. The first time I saw one of those images come off the Epson printer was like the first time you see a photographer coming up in the tray: “Oh, this is magic.”I couldn’t believe how good it looked. It just felt right.

JK: You don’t want to think about your tools.

JT: I do like to keep my technical life simple and just enjoy the feeling of doing it. When you’re putting paint on a canvas, you never know what you’re going to do next. When I was a painter, sometimes I did these abstract things. I just put some color here because it felt good, and that’s the feeling I want to have making photos. Once something works, I am fine with it. I don’t want to mess with it. I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. That’s one of the reasons I’ve resisted shooting this work with a digital camera. I don’t want to break that feeling because the work I’m doing now, which I call Landscapes of Presence, has to do with being present in the moment. It’s always been instinctive; I’m placing things, and discovering how to put things together that work. When they work I’m perfectly happy to take a picture of it to record it, but it was the process that I enjoy. If I started checking the little screen on the back I might break that feeling of spontaneity. It’s like switching from right brain to left.

JK: Nobody’s going to make you look at it.

JT: That’s true. I know that eventually I’m probably going to use a digital camera, just like I knew I was going to print those images with a digital printer eventually.

JK: But film is working for you now and you’re not having problems with the grain.

JT: I love the grain.I’ll probably have to create artificial grain when I get into shooting digitally.

JK: You have been doing variations on a theme for fifteen years now, right?In the studio, black and white, the patterns and the arrangements.

JT: Yes, but not exclusively. There’s a series I haven’t shown that’s been going on for seven plus years. It’s in black and white and it’s shooting things that are divided right down the middle.There’s an attraction for me to do that, and it’s not just to break the rules. There’s an aesthetic attraction about it. I have some theories about it, but usually it takes awhile for me to understand why I do things. I’m just following my instincts. It’s sometimes more enjoyable when you’re unconscious. It’s pure enjoyment.

JK: You’ve been a designer all these years.How has that influenced your photography?

JT: I’m sure it has in knowing how to achieve something if I want it to come off a certain way. It’s tuned me to a lot of what is possible and what happens in advertising. But fine art for me is separate enough that it doesn’t seem to cross over. The design sense that I use is the same aesthetic sense that comes out in my photography because that’s just who I am.I know how to light things and how to get things to look the way I want because I spend time with commercial photographers, but when I do my own photography I don’t want all that formality to be there. I just want to be with the subject. There’s a great amount of control that we have in advertising that I just get tired of. I want some accidents to happen.It takes effort to achieve a timeless feeling versus something that may look cool for awhile but it doesn’t have the same resonance with my heart. I don’t want my photography to look like it was overdone in any way.

JK: When you lay it out is it, “It’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and then suddenly it’s right?”

JT: It’s like that. It’s basically drawing with objects. I have collections of things–little boxes of leaves and rocks and pine needles that I play with and it’s like I need some pattern here, so what can I use? Creating patterns is like taking a paint brush, putting it in the paint and then to the paper.

JK: Except it’s easier to undo.

JT: It’s a lot easier. It’s cleaner. You don’t have paint on your hands. But, it is just painting with those objects. I shoot here in the dining room with the blinds open. I don’t want to get a light setup. If it’s a nice overcast day I’ll shoot. It just makes life a lot simpler, and I like that.

JK: The light is broad. You probably don’t have any exposure problems.You take the picture. What then?

JT: I get 4×6 proof prints because I use C-41 chromagenic film. If something looks promising I scan it and make a print and live with it. It changes the feeling from being on a piece of glossy paper to being on a piece of Somerset. What’s good this week is not always good next month because I do more work and I think, “Well, that was good then, but this is better now, and so I’m not going to show this one.”

JK: Is this a huge body of work?

JT: There’s a huge body of rejects. There are usually 20 that I really like at any one time. The more work I do, the more the 20 changes. That’s what makes any body of work stronger in the end; the longer I stay with it the more refined the final group of pictures will be. They will be different from what I started with even though I thought the beginning set was really strong.

JK: Over the last 15 years, is there a overall direction to the way your work is changing?

JT: I do something for awhile and I exhaust the possibilities. If I had a box of crayons I’d get tired of those colors. I start to exhaust the possibilities of what I can do with the 30 objects I have. Then I’ll think of another set of objects, and then it’s a whole different thing.

JK: When did you decide you were a photographer?

JT: I’m not sure. The first time I sold a photograph, I thought, “Maybe I could be a photographer.” That’s a question of either self-realization or external validation.It wasn’t like a lightning bolt, but I always felt I was an artist and it was just another medium.

JK: You’re married to an artist.How does that affect your work?

JT: The idea exchange is wonderful. I like being with somebody who has a visual aesthetic sense, and we help each other out enormously. If I had a disinterested partner I’d have to go somewhere else to get the interaction; it’s so nice to have somebody right here to talk to. Pam’s aesthetic will creep into my work, and probably vice versa. I get very interested in what she’s doing because I used to do some of the processes she’s working in. It’s exciting, but I know that I don’t want to go there because I just don’t have enough time to do what she’s doing. Printmaking is so meticulous. I’m happy working in the medium I’m working in. I’ve been hanging out with Pam and other artists, and my sense of aesthetics keeps shifting back to the aesthetics I had when I was a painter or printmaker. It seems sometimes that photography is limited only because you’re limited to what you can put in front of the camera. Although Photoshop has expanded those options, I haven’t had a desire yet to modify my images.

JK: You think there are fewer limits in terms of what’s aesthetically pleasing in other art forms?

JT: In other art forms there is a huge variety of all kinds of wild different things. In photography it seems a little narrower. I can pick up a photographic magazine at the newsstand, thumb through it, and most of the time there’s nothing different for me to see. Maybe I’m not looking close enough, but there’s just nothing that surprises me anymore.

JK: If you picked up a magazine with paintings in it would it be any different?

JT: Painting or printmaking often has shapes and lines and things that are totally abstract. If you took a photograph of something like that it would be hard for people to take it seriously.

JK: Most people want their photographs to be of something even if they read as abstractions.

JT: Maybe that’s an older paradigm. I talked about the pictures that are split down the middle. The images have one whole world on one side and another world on the other. Or maybe illustrate parallel universes. These are loose constructs I carry in my head as I make these photos. Lately I’ve been hanging around print makers, and I started thinking, “Why can’t the image just be about composition or a pattern or texture that’s interesting to me even if it isn’t two different things.” I don’t know if this direction will pan out or not, but it’s s exciting for me to think that I don’t have to do the same thing all the time within a series. I can just do things because it feels good. I like having more freedom instead of always thinking “What would I say to the critic if he asks me to justify this?” I should get to just play and if it works out great, then I can show it to the world and it’s up to them to figure it out.

JK: Worrying about what others will think doesn’t seem to slow you down much.

JT: If you’re attracted to something out there in the world and you want to make images of it, you should do it. You always end up figuring something out from the process. Even if it is derivative, you’re going to do something of your own with it or it will lead you into something you hadn’t thought of.

JK: Is there a meaning to your current work that you can put into words?

JT: In my work there is something that I can see because it reflects mylife. There is content in the image that I can see and feel, but I’m not sure it communicates to other people. I can look at an image that I made 25 years ago and think, “This still has that energy.” Am I the only one who feels this energy? The only thing that I can do is hope that image has some longevity beyond its content. My goal is to create something that has a timeless aesthetic to it. The aesthetic itself can carry the image for a long time, and the longer it does the better the chance for somebody to see below the surface. I’ve found there’s always a deeper personal reason I’m attracted to something. I’ve learned not to be in a hurry to find out what that reason is.

JK: I think the reason photographers are often not very good at explaining their own work is that if they could explain it succinctly and completely they wouldn’t need to do it.

JT: My work always embodied a spiritual approach that had to do with my beliefs about reality and life and what I was studying. Recently I’ve been studying concepts of time and this series is my doing an exercise in being present and enjoying the exercise and showing it to somebody else. The pictures don’t literally mean anything except that it’s what I did when I was in the moment. I hope that somebody who lives with one of my pictures will get the sense of a peaceful, in-the-moment calm. That is how I would like to be able to live my life, and surround myself with things that promote that feeling. That feeling is a non-thinking presence, just being. Presence is what is needed to become aware of beauty.

 

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