Journal

18 Dec '18 OWL MEETS: Tokyo-based photographer and architect JAN VRANOVSKY on capturing a mood of the city less well documented  

OWL: Hi Jan, for those of our readers who may not have come across your work can you introduce yourself…

JAN VRANOVSKY: Hi, thanks for having me! I’m a Czech architect, designer and photographer currently based in Tokyo, Japan.

OWL: You are perhaps best known for your photographic series titled “Parallel World” that documents urban Japan in a way that eschews the perception of Tokyo as a futuristic 24/7 sprawling metropolis, in favour of something more still, even plaintive. What was it that initially drew you to spaces not normally given much attention?

JV: Tokyo is actually full of surprisingly quiet streets and neighbourhoods, it’s a place extremely diverse in urban structure and scale. As for what drags me to these places, there are a number of reasons, but the initial motivation was subconscious. I simply enjoyed exploring those areas, I was fascinated by their complexity and strangeness, and, perhaps above all, lack of any pretence. Architecture and space in such places is often built without any intention to impress; it’s merely a diagram of forces that formed it, which makes it not only honest, but also amazingly emergent: you can really see the city as an organism, with some basic rule-sets hidden behind its skin, where everything reacts to each other. I quickly found myself more interested in the slightly hidden aesthetics of backstreets or downtown areas than the more flashy or well-known assets of Japanese cities, particularly Tokyo.

OWL: Do you have specific times when you go scouting for locations with the intention to photograph, or is it a more ad-hoc way of working whereby you are constantly on the lookout for interesting spaces?

JV: It’s both. During the first two or three years of living in Tokyo I was on constant lookout. I would never leave home without my camera. There was minimum free time, so a large portion of the shots were taken on the short walk to my lab at university or back home. But whenever the time allowed, I would go exploring the most random places I could think of. I simply wanted to know how the city looks like in its entirety, which turned out to be quite difficult because Tokyo happens to be very fragmented, and very big.

OWL: Pattern and repetition in urban landscapes are reoccurring motifs. Why are they so important to you and what do they tell us about Japan?

JV: Aside from being ubiquitous, I think they help create an impression of a certain flatness, lack of depth, which seems to be significant for Japanese architecture and art. They also tie the images and topics together and help establish a common language.

OWL: A trope throughout your work is an entire absence of humans. On a practical level, how hard, (or easy), is it to find these unoccupied spaces given Tokyo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world?

JV: It’s surprisingly easy in most cases. I must say I don’t find Tokyo as crowded as most people imagine. I think many historical European cities face much bigger issues, proportionally to their size at least. Plus, as I said earlier, Tokyo is extremely diverse even on very small scale, meaning there’s always a quiet street hidden somewhere next to a busy one.

OWL: Secondly, more figuratively, what are you trying to convey by presenting city spaces in this way?

JV: I find it natural to depict only the part that I want to be the topic, and filter what is not. People of course do belong to the city and are an integral part of the cityscape, but I’m not interested in shooting the whole thing. I try to re-interpret the city by focusing on selected fragments. This helps me to bring out a certain side of its complex personality and to communicate it. It also makes things easier for me as a photographer: I’m quite shy when it comes to taking shots of people who didn’t agree to it, and Japan has very strict laws when it comes to privacy protection.

OWL: In The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, the author Olivia Lang writes: “You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.” When I read that passage I associated it with your work in that there’s a quiet, contemplative, and, in some cases, even a haunting quality to your compositions. As a Czech man living in a foreign city have you experienced loneliness at all, and if so, does that pervade your work in any way?

JV: Absolutely. I think it’s nearly impossible to avoid feeling lonely when you move abroad, far away from everything and everyone you know, and Japan is especially good at delivering a whole palette of emotions connected to loneliness or separation. But I do find a beauty in it. And I do think that an element of it goes through my work, not just photography. It’s something that was always there, for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I feel this tendency to celebrate melancholy is somehow hardwired to our national, Czech personality.

OWL: As a Westerner you’ve moved to one of the most fascinating places on the planet and been drawn to neither the quintessential traditional Japan, nor its dazzling new futuristic incarnation, but instead the mundanity of everyday life that falls in the cracks somewhere in-between. In some way is your work an attempt to capture a truer reflection of Japan, behind the clichés as so often presented?

JV: Yes, I was interested about the atmosphere of everyday life and mundane space when I came here. I still am, both as a photographer and as an architect. Personally, I often find it difficult to feel something when facing spectacle, I have hard time watching movies, even going to galleries; somehow paradoxically I find it awkward when things, particularly spaces, are designed to be observed or experienced in an overly defined way. There’s something deeply off-putting in it for me. As an architect I am very concerned about the issue of creating space that is ambiguous enough to allow different readings, while still having specific personality or identity. And I constantly fear of leaning too close to the “spectacle” zone. I find Japan extremely successful at answering this issue of ambiguity vs. specificity (to what degree they do so consciously is a different question), and it forms a big part of what makes it difficult for me to leave.

OWL: The writer David Mitchell once said: “Tokyo is too close up to see, sometimes. There are no distances and everything is above your head - dentists, kindergartens, dance studios. Even the roads and walkways are up on murky stilts. An evil-twin Venice with all the water drained away.” Looking at your work, what it does is allow a pause for breath and to see Tokyo beyond it’s mass of people and activity. It’s like you’ve paused life and cut everyone out of the picture to reveal just what they have created – is this a fair assessment?

JV: I think it’s a nice way to say it. But I deeply hope that different people can find slightly different readings of my work. I always try to show only fragments of a big picture. These fragments are framed by me, but how you connect them together is entirely up to you. When creating the exhibition catalogue for Wrapping the Void, we made a randomised page order: every copy featured the same images, but in a different order. I think this is very close to how Tokyo feels: a collection of recurring elements and patterns inside of a system too huge and fragmented to be perceived as something stable or fixed (not to mention it really is not fixed; the speed of change inside the urban fabric of Tokyo is immense). Parallel World tries to capture this, including the ambiguity of the big picture.

OWL: From an aesthetic perspective, the kind of prefabricated, often concrete or corrugated steel buildings, or spaces you shoot, are for lovers of modernism beautiful things. However, for many, they would be perceived as being quite ugly. What draws you to works that are not always architecturally championed?

JV: This goes back to one of the previously answered questions I think. I find spaces that are not architecturally championed especially appealing because of the range of possible readings and interpretations they offer to the visitor, as well as their honesty to what they really are.

OWL: As a trained architect, how does the work you document in Parallel World influence your own design ethos? How hard is it to step from designer to architect to photographer – or do you think all these disciplines are intertwined?

JV: To me, the disciplines are deeply connected and they influence each other strongly. Doing and thinking about photography extended my understanding of how to read space, which is fundamental for creating one. I think that in retrospect a number of architects see their own buildings through the perspective of photographs, which interpret them, and I am very interested in embedding this relationship to the process of creation of space.

OWL: You quite often shoot spaces still in the process of being formed, with building work ongoing. Does this in some way reflect the way Tokyo is always in flux and a sense of perpetual impermanence?

JV: It does. I think the construction sites are not only integral and paradoxically permanent element of the urban landscape, but can be seen as something of deeper significance in the unique context of Japanese culture. We can find interesting relations to concepts of impermanence (“mono no aware”, “wabi sabi”), wrapping (as explained in Joy Hendry’s Wrapping culture or touched in Barthes’s Empire of Signs), ma (difficult to translate but an extremely important Japanese concept related to space and time; Isozaki has written very good texts on the topic), void, purity etc. The focus on process rather than matter is also deeply rooted in context of Japanese architectural history, beautifully manifested by the Sengu ceremony in Ise Jingu. And finally, construction sites in Japan are unusually clean, well organised and often visually intriguing, making them an excellent target for photography.

OWL: From a European perspective, Japan appears to be from another planet architecturally at times. Do you think the west would benefit from taking heed of how Japan makes really interesting buildings in the tightest of spaces and seems less concerned with pre-ordained notions of what is “normal”?

JV: I actually think the Japanese are very concerned about what is “normal” and what is not, perhaps more than we do in many ways. They seem to understand the society or system they live in in a slightly different way than we do. As the famous social anthropologist Chie Nakane explains in her book Japanese Society, Japanese people tend to relate mostly to their direct surroundings: both on a social and spatial level, while in West I feel we have a tendency to relate to third party systems: a universalist cartesian grid, metaphorically speaking. Ideologies, religions, governments, philosophies, concepts, geometries, etc.

This seems to give the Japanese an advantage when dealing with extreme and unusual conditions, as they don’t struggle with preconceptions as much. They just find a good solution within the specific conditions they have. It is not, in my opinion, a disregard for “normal”, they are just much more flexible and contextual in defining the normal, at least in some disciplines. And yes, I do think we could learn from them. This goes really deep however, it’s not a simple observation that can be easily adapted I’m afraid.

OWL: On a technical level, what do you shoot with and how much editing do you do? Do you photograph alone?

JV: I shoot with Fujifilm X-T1 and Sony Alpha 7RII together with a bunch of lenses, but I prefer 35mm. I shoot raw only so I develop and edit all my photos. I usually do shoot alone, it makes it much easier to focus for me. Sometimes I shoot together with my wife, who’s also a photographer.

OWL: At Owl we’re all big Japanophiles and stock a lot of Japanese labels. The attention to detail in the how they cut and finish clothing is phenomenal – how stylish is the average Tokyoite? Design is obviously important to Japan as a culture, were you surprised just how much when you moved there?

JV: As I said, it wasn’t my first time in Japan when I moved here. In fact I took Japanese Studies at university, prior to architecture, and travelled here on multiple occasions, so I wasn’t exactly surprised. But yes, design clearly is extremely important. It has a fundamental role in Japanese culture and especially in Tokyo, one can see manifestations of this on every corner. As for fashion, Tokyo is probably one of the most in-style places on Earth: just the sheer concentration of both major brands and local designer fashion boutiques is amazing.

OWL: You mentioned on email we stock some of your favourite brands – what’s your personal style? Are there any Japanese labels we might have missed that you would recommend checking out?

JV: I think I keep things simple lately, wearing mostly white shirts with black trousers and sneakers. I think this is a bit specific for architects: we can go neither too casual nor too formal, so it’s always somewhere in between. As for Japanese labels: there’s a bunch but I find it difficult (close to impossible) to find my sizes here so I keep wearing western brands. The few rare exceptions are Comme des Garçon or Y-3. For the less known ones, you can check out The Reracs, they have some really cool stuff. 

To see more of Jan's work visit his Parallel World tumblr page