I recently took some time out to speak with someone I’ve been wanting to interview for a long time. Sean Lotman is a California-born photographer now based in his adopted home of Kyoto, Japan. He is one of the most unique photographers I know. It is rare to call a photographer unique these days, but I think that Sean’s work truly merits that description. His dedication to film photography and colour darkroom printing is awe-inspiring, and the resulting photos are sheer masterpieces. There is a lot of controversy about whether photography can be described as ‘art’ but I think in Sean’s case it is hard to argue that it is anything but.
I am a proud owner of Sean Lotman’s beautiful photo book ‘Sunlanders’ that was published last year, and he is also a member of a new photography collective known as ‘And The Last Waves’ that is made up of some of my favourite photographers and friends. Back in July I got to meet most of them while I was in Seoul but myself and Sean didn’t meet cos he flew in a couple of days after I left. So this was the perfect way to get to know him a bit better and pick his brains about his photography. In this interview myself and Sean Lotman discuss how he came to find his signature style, what it takes to produce his psychedelic images, making a book and finding a publisher. Enjoy!
Hey Sean, for anyone that doesn’t know you can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Sean Lotman. I’m a Los Angeles native who has been based in Japan almost 15 years, most of it in Tokyo, the last six years in Kyoto, where I live. My background is in writing (mostly fictional narrative), but I came to photography about eight years ago. That’s when I discovered my aesthetics, but it was only four years ago that I started darkroom printing, where I was really able to begin the process of composing a signature aesthetic.
How did your signature style come about? Was it a happy accident or was it intentional?
I honed a style in my fiction over the years so that a story of mine might have some certain elements. Early on, I wanted to do that with photography. I bought my first Diana f+ more than ten years ago and loved its surreal qualities. Early on, I realized this was what I wanted to convey in my images, an otherworldly dreaminess. Growing up and coming of age in Los Angeles, I’ve long been a film buff, especially films from the 1960s and 1970s. However, regarding color schemes, it’s Hollywood’s Technicolor period during the 1940s and 1950s that has probably been most inspiring to me. To be honest, I think I learned how to compose shots and tweak lighting from watching so many films over the years.
Before the advent of colour photography, master black and white photographers would toy with exposure and contrast to create an image as they desired it rather than just how it appeared on the negative. When colour film came along the new wave of photographers using it largely wanted to present the blatant reality of life as it was – without too much artistry or alteration in the dark room. They just liked the extra ‘information’ that colour could impart. I guess this is where the colour snapshot was born. You on the other hand are using the medium of colour photography to brazenly subvert reality, employing somewhat similar techniques to the early masters of black and white art photography but in a whole new and over exaggerated way. What is it that appeals to you about imbuing this altered reality onto what would otherwise be a ‘normal’ photograph? I wonder if part of it is you demonstrating the difficulties that can sometimes be felt by ‘the foreigner’ trying to integrate into and understand the culture of an adopted home?
Haha, that’s an interesting observation. I don’t know, maybe subconsciously, perhaps….? Really it just feels right to me on an intuitive level. But you’re right, the burning and dodging is a lot closer to B&W photo experimentation. The reason I can do this is the film is cross-processed (developing positive film in chemicals used for negatives). It’s very messy and often very ugly. I don’t like almost any cross-processed pictures besides my own because they often come out too monochromatic– too blue, too green, too red, etc.– when scanned or printed in a normal lab. So the negatives are really rough blueprints, very difficult to tame the colors, often with patchy holes in tones. For me the only way to do it properly is in the darkroom where you can really manage what you have into something that undermines reality or strangely approximates it. I often shoot with normal negative film for commercial work or side projects and there’s a bit less necessity to wildly experiment.
You are pretty much the only photographer I know who is working with colour in the darkroom. If that in itself wasn’t unusual enough, you also play with the colours, manipulating them more like a painter applies paint to a canvas. This gives your images an otherworldly psychedelic feel. First off, why do you choose to work in the darkroom using traditional methods?
Well, there are several reasons. You describe it well in your question. It’s like painting. You put your negative in the enlarger and then tinker with your colors and exposure until you have approximate colors and tones. But then you can get really creative, exposing the paper multiple times, changing colors while doing so in order to repaint skies or psychedelicize the environment, all the while dodging and burning certain areas to make certain highlights. I love it because it’s like the literal meaning of photography, that is writing with light, my hands dancing between the light source and the paper, making a picture. You experiment and sometimes amazing things happen. And you see the results right away, a beautiful print in your hands five minutes later.
I’m known for my colors but if it ever came to a point where I couldn’t print color anymore for whatever reasons, I would switch to B&W so that I could continue printing. It is the greatest pleasure in photography for me.
I’m playing devil’s advocate here I’m sure, but what are your thoughts on digital photography? You could achieve a similar style using a computer and photoshop couldn’t you?
Digital is a lot of fun. It’s getting better all the time. I love shooting with my iPhone and using Instagram. But it’s not the same thing. There is unmistakably a feeling in film that is unique from digital – film is softer, almost more feminine. And for me, what matters is the image as a material object, a print. Most people using Photoshop or Lightroom don’t immediately print out their pictures after editing. After a long day of printing, I might have only a half dozen pictures printed but there they are, evidence of a day’s hard work. And I love the physicality of darkroom printing, eyeballing the colors and my hands fluttering under the light, this intimate engagement with a picture, like I’m dancing with it. It’s amazing to have to see with your hands and make multiple calculations in the moment. I like that printing challenges my sense of perfection – because a lot of these prints are a lot of work and one small mistake might mean a do-over. So it pushes me to do my best. Moreover, there is a tradition in darkroom printing dating back to the 19th century. That is not necessarily causal to the production of a good photograph, but I want to participate in the lineage of the art form. And printing feels so damn good.
For those of us who are clueless about colour darkroom printing (myself included) could you give us a quick overview of your process from taking a negative to a finished print?
First I make contact sheets and when I’ve settled on a picture I want to print I put the negative in the enlarger. I use tear sheets (¼ of an 8 x 10 paper) to figure out the colors and tones. When I’m pretty sure I like what I’m seeing, I’ll print the image. Every time you expose paper you have to put it in the processor which takes around five minutes to expel the image. I often see areas in the print that could be changed to make it more beautiful or strange so I’ll experiment some more. It can take hours to get a print right. And I’ll often go back and reprint six months later if I think I can still make it better. Or I will reprint it larger at 11 x 14 to see how it will look big.
Having never tried darkroom printing myself, what do you actually have to do to get those psychedelic colours? What techniques do you have to employ to achieve them?
It’a host of factors – cross-processed film, wild dodging and burning, extreme color switching. I crop images as well. I am not a purist in the Cartier-Bresson school. For me, most important is the final image, not whether or not I framed it perfectly in those few seconds I composed on the fly.
I’ve tried shooting and developing my own colour film, but I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t achieve the colours I was looking for, and I was only scanning the negatives – I can only imagine that the variables increase tenfold in the darkroom? Do you often have trouble translating the image as you envision it in your head onto the final print?
Unfortunately, yes. No matter how much I print, sometimes I cannot get the colors just like I like them. I’ll leave them be and perhaps try again another day.
That’s probably a good way to look at it. Maybe I need to exercise more patience. I guess I was expecting film to give me the colours I wanted straight off the bat, and it just didn’t turn out that way.
So much of photography is patience. If you’re lucky you composed the images you needed with the right exposure and focal points the first time around. Maybe you did, but you have to figure out the correct way of printing. And then you need an immense amount of patience when working on long-term projects, shooting and printing until you feel you might be finished. And then you’ll need patience not just for finding a publisher, but for the whole process of bookmaking and marketing your photobook. It’s a long game.
With the rarity of colour darkroom printing these days, do you have trouble sourcing the film, paper, and chemical combinations that work for you?
Actually, no, it’s very easy. I share the darkroom with my wife, Ariko Inaoka. We order our paper from B&H in NYC, and even with three-day shipping, it’s cheaper to buy in bulk from overseas than to buy here in Japan. As far as chemicals, I get on my bicycle and ride for 15 minutes down to Yodobashi, a one-stop-super-shop for photography and buy developer and fixer chemicals for printing. That’s one of the great things about living in Japan, you have a lot of old-fashioned techniques just popular enough to have stores maintaining stocks. My favorite film, Kodak Ektachrome, was discontinued in 2013, wherein I bought 130 rolls before they became impossible to find. I still have about four dozen left– I’m a very slow shooter. I had to be, because every picture taken seemed one step closer to my aesthetic oblivion. But, haha, Kodak brought back my film so I’m good now. And I’m beginning to experiment with Cinestill 800, so hopefully I’ll get enthusiastic about that.
Yeah, you must have been over the moon when Kodak announced that they were reviving Ektachrome. It pleases me immensely that you’ll have the tools at your disposal to continue with your aesthetic style. In the UK we can only really get film supplies online nowadays, unless you just happen to be lucky enough to live near one of the big online retailers, of which there are few – I was amazed just how many camera shops there were in Korea that were dedicated to film cameras. It’s a luxury we just don’t have here. I am lucky to find half a dozen used film cameras in my local camera shop.
Yes, I feel very lucky indeed that as obsolescent color darkroom printing has become, I am still able to do it with relative ease.
For anyone reading this who’s interested in learning the ways of the darkroom, what is the best starting point for learning?
Unfortunately, if you are starting off now, it is very difficult. No one makes color processors anymore so anything you find will be used. Color darkrooms must be completely, blind-as-a-bat dark, and must have good ventilation because the chemicals are so toxic. So it has high startup costs, but it might be the only option you have if your city doesn’t have color darkrooms to rent (even Paris does not have a public color darkroom to rent). And even if it does, it can be very expensive.
Your wife, Ariko Inaoka, is also a talented photographer. What benefits come from sharing a close relationship with another photographer, and are there any pitfalls to look out for?
There is a lot more upside than down. It’s so important to have someone in your life whose judgement you trust. She’s been doing it a lot longer than I have and I value her good sense. She’s helped me a lot over the years. We have different styles and project ideas so we’ve managed not to step on each other’s toes.
You’re also a writer of fiction. Do you find it difficult to maintain more than one avenue of creativity, or does switching between the two help to keep the creative juices flowing? What are the similarities or differences between writing and photography and do the two ever cross paths?
I spent most of my adult life, my twenties and thirties, learning how to write. That encompassed finding my voice, a stylistic signature, and how to construct narrative. I think all these things are important in photography, especially in making a book. Between work, fatherhood, and photography, I just don’t have time at the moment to work on fiction or much of any writing. However, I do have some photography projects where I will be combining text with images. And really, it is important to be able to articulate what your images and projects mean, especially when engaging with the art world. It’s a language I’m still learning how to speak.
You published your book Sunlanders last year that is a collection of photographs you’ve made during your time in Japan, and what a mighty fine thing it is! Do you mind taking a minute to talk about what the book is about?
Thank you for your kind words. Sunlanders was shot over the span of five years. I traveled the islands whenever possible, three days here, a week there, shooting and collecting images. From hundreds of prints I culled my selection down to 48 photographs. I wanted to make a book that no one had really seen before, with vivid, exploding colors. More than Japan itself, I wanted the book to be a dream about Japan.
Were you actively shooting photos for the project with an idea about what it was you wanted to convey about your relationship with Japan, or did the idea for the book come later?
Originally, I wanted to do for Japan what Robert Frank had done for his adopted country with The Americans. I’d say I’m more immigrant than expat, because I feel this is home rather than a temporary stay. Because I’ve been here a long time, Japan has become very normal to me, and culture shock usually comes from visiting the United States, rather than going to some remote Japanese countryside. I knew I did not want Sunlanders to feel like a travelogue and even more importantly I did not want to orientalize the Japanese or fall into cultural traps. We’ve seen everything there is to see about Japanese tropes in photography and cinema. So for me the key was to defamiliarize certain touchstones like robots, schoolgirls, and sumo so that they appear in novel tableaux. But mostly, I wanted to present normal Japanese in surreal circumstances. And I wanted the book to feel timeless, so that it could be the 1970s or today or perhaps some glimpsed future. To do this I cut anything that might signal our contemporary moment, most especially fad fashion or mobile technology.
No doubt, however, there is some sort of physical isolation keenly felt in the book. It was only after I’d actually published it that I realized how so many of the book’s subjects are concealing their inner worlds or identities, with masks, uniforms, helmets, newspapers, or that their physical forms appear disembodied or silhouetted or partitioned by glass. Of course sometimes in Japan I feel isolated, and the name – Sunlanders – implies a certain tribalism of which I observe and record but of which I am not nor never will be a member. And there is fine line between the living and the dead suggested here in post-tsunami Japan (all the images were shot after the March 11th earthquake). However, I wanted to convey that this alienation might not be that at all, but that within we are passengers on a journey into a mysterious dream. This is why the first image of the book is a taxi waiting for us to climb in and the last picture is a torii laced with mist. We take the ride and when it’s finished we leave by the gate.
Interesting that I only noticed certain patterns after publication. But the most important process of editing the book together was that it had a consistent atmosphere, with the apparently contradictory notion that all images had to be completely unique from each other.
Yeah it’s weird how sometimes you only notice these connections after you’ve put together a series. I too have picked up on some trends in my own work after I have made a selection of images. On more than one occasion someone else has pointed something out that had never crossed my mind before, and I wonder whether I was making decisions subconsciously or if it was just coincidence. These days I try not to second guess my work so much, because it can lead to procrastination. In my own work, I just have to keep shooting and hoping for the best, if you know what I mean?
Yes, keep shooting. And listen to your heart. Sounds corny, but deep down you know if a photo works or doesn’t. It usually doesn’t and you should be ruthless if there is any doubt.
You went down the route of finding a publisher for your book, somewhat bucking the trend for self-publishing that seems so popular these days with the prevalence of crowdsourcing and the ability for photographers to make their own online shops. How come you ended up going down that route? What did working with a publisher bring to the table?
I wanted to go with the traditional route of finding a publisher for my work for several reasons. Most importantly, a publisher has experience in bookmaking, a pre-existing fan base, contacts in the industry (book reviewers, art directors, magazine editors, collectors), and a capacity to market the book beyond the scope I might be able to do. Bemojake, my publisher, often does photo book events (like Paris Photo) that introduces my work to clients and book collectors that I would otherwise be unable to meet.
Did they have any say in the final edit and sequence? What role did they play in the production of the book?
I’m sure every case is different, but Maxwell Anderson, my publisher, allowed me final say, for example, on sequencing, book cover, paper materials, and font choice. But we negotiated on a lot of aspects, and his suggestions and ideas were often very helpful. We talked a lot about the design and materials, and Maxwell met me in Bolzano, Italy to oversee the printing of the book. So he played a very large role indeed.
For someone who wanted to find a publisher for their work, what advice would you give them? How should a photographer present their work and what is the best way to approach a publisher?
First off, you need to make sure you are finished with your project before you go looking for a publisher. Once it’s published, it’s done, so having the feeling that you put your photo book out into the world prematurely would be an awful feeling. If it’s your first book, it is going to go a long way in establishing your reputation. As an opening salvo, you’ll want to make it as close to a masterpiece as possible. Don’t worry about taking years to work on it. Maybe you’ll do five photo books in your life, but they’ll be hard-won and beautiful. Second, you should find a publisher with whom you think you’ll vibe with. Go through their back catalogues and see who and what else they’ve published. If you’re simpatico, then get in touch any way that you can. If you are able to meet the publisher face-to-face, I highly recommend you show your best prints, no more than 20-25, as that will leave the strongest impression. Also, I recommend if it’s at all possible to visit one of the big photography gatherings, such as the one in Arles during that city’s opening week’s photo fair. Even if you don’t meet a publisher, you can make certain contacts and make progress on your career. I see a life in photography as a one-day-at-a-time process. Maybe today I take some photos, tomorrow I make some prints, another day I find a magazine to publish a story on my book, another day I take notes on a possible idea, still another day I prepare for a show or take an important meeting or just go down to the store to buy film and chemicals. Every day accumulated gets you closer to making something larger than oneself, something hopefully more beautiful than you could have ever imagined. I absolutely love photo books. For me, as a photographer, they are everything.
So what does the future hold for you? What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m intent on Sunlanders reaching a larger audience. I’m also working on finding a place in the art world. My immediate long-term book project is called Blown Zen Moments, in which I pair Diana f+ (toy camera) prints with a haiku. I’m still experimenting with how the text should be presented and I really would like to shoot at least a year or two more before I secure a publisher. I’ve been working on this off and on for seven years so I’m not in too much of a rush. I love printing images from the Diana, as they are really, really dreamy. I’m also working on a long-term project about my son, Tennbo, related to my concepts of freedom, and travel. Some excerpts of this will be published in the upcoming Our Streets zine. I also have a zine coming out sometime soon from a London publisher, Soap and Rocket. And I’m in a photo collective, And The Last Waves, with fellow photographers JT White, Nicholas Dominic Talvola, AikBeng Chia, and Junku Nishimura. We hope to put out our first zine early next year and teach some workshops.
I love that picture of Tennbo man! Since I like your work, who else should I check out?
Some people I follow on Instagram are @thefamilyacid, @benoit_paille, @jacquelinebadeaux, @todd_gross, @thequietx, @dirtyharrrry, @hohum, @kaushalpar, @mjasik, @k_koenning. I discover great new artists via @ourstreets_, @deathB4digital, @fullfrontalflash.
And do buy photo books. It would be nice if you would like to buy mine, but there are so many beautiful books out there. Indulge yourself.
I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Sean Lotman’s fantastic book, Sunlanders. You can either get it from his publisher, or by contacting Sean direct via email or through instagram. If you ask nicely he might even sign it for you.
For anyone interesting in seeing more of Sean’s work, check out his website at www.seanlotman.com as well as his flickr and instagram account. Make sure to check out the And The Last Waves instagram too, there’s some great stuff to come from these guys and they definitely deserve your support.
If you want to check out some more surrealistic photography, then go read my interview with Jack Simon.