Larissa Leclair interviews Emily Shur
Larissa Leclair: In 2008, your Blurb book, "I Can See for Miles," was selected as an honorable mention in the Photography.Book.Now competition. It is a book of photographs made in Japan from 2004 to 2008. In the introduction, you write "I have never found greater photographic inspiration in one place." You continue to return to Japan. You went on your honeymoon there. What is it about Japan that has you so captivated?
Emily Shur: For me, the enjoyment and pleasure of the act of photographing is just as important as the actual photograph. There is something comforting yet completely bizarre about Japan, which lends itself to being the perfect photographic background for my work. The scenery, the architecture, and the vegetation all lend themselves to compositional perfection; every little thing always in it’s place. In addition to my compulsive quest for visual idealism, I feel just as strongly about the emotional content within my photographs. To me, emotion does not have to come from a facial expression, or any human gesture for that matter. I think emotion comes through in photography when it is truly felt during the making of the images. Every trip I’ve made to Japan has been memorable and emotional, and I hope my state of mind comes through in the work.
LL: On your website, you have several bodies of work that include photographs from Japan - "Shizenkan" and "Wild Wild Life" - and your latest Blurb book, "The Woods," also includes work from Japan. Do you have an idea in mind when photographing or is there an ongoing fluidity and play with editing and pairing of the images later - even years later?
ES: I never really shoot with an idea in mind. I never have when it comes to my personal work. I’ve always used that work to feel free in my photographic process and shoot whatever speaks to me at the moment. I do put a lot of importance on editing and sequencing, and I do go back over time and group images that fit well together. The edit is important in communicating an overall feeling with the work. I think a good edit can transform a body of work from a seemingly disparate group of individual images to a cohesive unit of related pictures.
LL: You have posted rough scans of some of your photographs from Japan on your blog and asked for comments. I like this open dialogue. How is it part of your photographic process?
ES: I appreciate people’s comments and the fact that they read my blog in general, but to be frank, I have the final word on what goes in and what comes out. I am interested to hear what other people respond to, and sometimes when an outside opinion is overwhelmingly on one side or the other, it does affect my edit. There have been images that I love which no one else in the world seems to even like, and that usually makes me stop and give more thought to that image. Although if I still love it, it stays in.
LL: I spent my undergraduate years processing color film and printing in pitch darkness and I've read that you are an old-school color darkroom printer as well. You still shoot color film, but no longer print in the darkroom. Are you nostalgic?
ES: Yes, I would definitely describe myself as nostalgic...in life, in general. I shoot all of my personal work on film. All of my work from Japan is 120mm color neg, but I also shoot 4x5 color neg for personal work closer to home (mostly because I don’t want to make traveling any more annoying than it already is). I no longer make c-prints in the darkroom. Now, I do a rough edit of scans on my scanner at home (the aforementioned ‘rough scans’ blog posts). From there I do another edit and get those images professionally drum scanned. Then, I do color correction, burning, and dodging with my retoucher. I’ve learned to treat the computer work just as I treated being in the darkroom. When I print on the small side, I print at home on my Epson 3800 and I recently have been using Crane Silver Rag paper. When I print larger, I do digital c-prints on luster paper. I do those at my lab here in LA. For a long time, I scoffed at any sort of “digital darkroom” work, but over time, and through working with talented people, I’ve come to respect the skill level involved.
LL: I am drawn to what you choose to include in the photographic frame. For example, "Morning in Shibuya" - in what seems to be a chaotic urban landscape you have created a certain spatial order that I pick up on in all your photographs. Can you talk about this in your work and your thoughts about composition for this photograph?
ES: Composition is very, very important to me. In this photograph, "Morning in Shibuya", I would say it’s calculated luck that I caught everything where it is. When taking a photo like this one, I usually try to move my eye around the frame and shoot when I think would be a good moment, but it doesn’t always work out. I rarely take more than two or three pictures at a time...meaning, I don’t shoot a whole roll trying to get a certain shot. I shoot what looks good at the time, and I’ll go as far as to wait until a street gets more or less cluttered, for someone to walk into frame, for someone to get out of the way, etc. If the picture doesn’t look how I envisioned it once I get my film back, then that’s unfortunate, but just how things go sometimes. I am also not afraid to crop images or remove small items from the photo that are corrupting an otherwise very nice composition.
LL: That spatial order, composition, and attention to detail seems to be inherent in Japanese culture especially in traditional Japanese landscape gardens. Do you find calm in this meticulousness both photographically and in your own life?
ES: Yes. I have been toying around with the idea of a project or edit revolving around traditional landscape gardens. Every time I go to Japan, I always visit multiple gardens. There is something very comforting to me about Japanese culture, and the landscape gardens are a perfect encapsulation of so many aspects of Japanese life. The respect and attention paid to the vegetation is wonderful. Even insects and spiders are respected enough to be left alone. I love going to a garden and watching the workers tend to the trees and plants. It’s a bit of a fantasy world where everything is important and in it’s place. It’s quiet and peaceful, and there are always older Japanese men with very serious cameras taking photographs. I love that they are out on a weekday morning or afternoon with their cameras; quietly, patiently taking photographs. I’ve even seen some 4x5 view cameras out there, and I always smile and give a thumbs up. To me, this seems like such a lovely way to spend a day...in a beautiful place, with nowhere to be...just looking and seeing and appreciating.
Larissa Leclair is a photography writer, curator, and collector.