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Herbie Yamaguchi's Blog

100 Years of Leica Photography
03 November 2014

In 1974, I was living in London, and I came to Hamburg by land to visit my friend, named O, who was my classmate during primary school and junior high school days.

O used to belong to the brass band club, as I did, and was playing the French horn. I switched to the photography club, and I am still in the photography field. O continued to play French horn during high school, and he went on to Tokyo University of the Arts right after high school. He then came to Hamburg to continue his study in the instrument.

When I visited O in Hamburg, my visa to the UK was almost expiring, and I was planning to come back to London after visiting O for a few days. If I could re-enter the UK safely, then I wanted to stay for another six months, and continue my journey to become a photographer. The dormitory that O lived was located in a quiet green corner of a city which had a zoo named Hagenbeck Tierpark. As I remember, it was a time of the year just before spring.

Both myself and O were at the age of 24, and as we met each other after many years of absence, we frolicked and spent an enjoyable time together. What impressed me the most was his Japanese friends in music. All of them graduated from top level music universities and were playing in the orchestra of the city. Although we were all Japanese, they accepted me, who belongs to a different world, wearing London fashion cloths and calling himself a photographer, as a friend.

Every night, a few of us gathered in one of the rooms, and enjoyed gathering over tea and some snacks. The sound from their music instruments in which they major was really beautiful, and shook my emotion. Mellow sound of oboe, flowing piano and violin which reached to every corner of my hearing sense. What they wanted me to do was to play something together, which was impossible. So, I asked O to play his guitar, and I was to create an impromptu story. My story was really strange, but it stimulated their academic sense in a way, and they seemed to like it very much. They lowered the lighting, and sat on the floor or on a sofa, and they had hard time holding back their laughter. Although I was a visitor suddenly appearing in Hamburg from London, I was welcomed as an unexpected visitor.

When we went out into the nearby field during the day, the green of the grass in early spring was very beautiful. It was completely opposite of the strange and chaotic atmosphere of Brixton, downtown London, where I lived and really a relaxing scenery. When the sun is about to set, a few teenaged girls in the neighborhood came to take their dog for a walk. I quickly became friend with the girls, and I focused my camera to their long blond hair shining in the back light and their clean and pure profiles. As I walked to the center of the city, glossy Lake Alster spread in front of me, and I was further impressed with the natural beauty.

My original plan was to go back to London in a few days. However, because of such comfortable feeling, I ended up staying in O’s room for two months. When I finally left Hamburg on a boat for the UK leaving on a smooth surface of the river Elbe, I became emotional. I will be back to the UK, and continue my life with a dream to become a photographer but having no idea what was waiting for me.

In the middle of 1990’s, I had a chance to revisit Hamburg. It was the time when I accompanied Tomoyasu Hotei to his concert in Germany. Hotei-san appeared on the outdoor stage before Blondie. Heavy guitar solo by Hotei-san was really impressive, and it was my first opportunity to see Blondie singing the famous CALL ME.

In November 2014, I had my third opportunity to visit Hamburg. 2014 was a commemorative 100 years from the time Leica 0 was born. And in May of 2014, I was invited to the country town of Wetzlar where Leica started. At that time, I was told by a German curator that a photo exhibition titled “Eyes Wide Open! 100 Years of Leica Photography” commemorating the 100 years was being planned. According to the curator, this exhibition was supposed to be a large scale exhibition where 500 works by 140 photographers would be selected from the 100 year history of Leica.

In the summer of 2014, I was contacted from Germany saying that they wanted to exhibit four of my photos at this exhibition to my surprise. It was a supreme honor for me indeed. Because historical photographers including the late Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson and Ralph Gibson will be listed from the 100 year history, it will be my greatest pleasure to be one of them even at the very end of the list.

It was in November 2014 that I visited Hamburg to see the photo exhibition. The exhibition was held in a large building named “House of Photography”, a renovated building which was once a train station or a warehouse. Probably because of the high interest, plus as it was a Sunday, there were many people. 500 photos were exhibited in an orderly manner in chronological order. The average photo size was 16x20 inches, and each one used a different frame or mat. As a result, the exhibition did not make people boring in spite of a large number of photos as many as 500. Because famous historical photographs were displayed, each photo had its own power. But at the same time, such a superior sense of display was extremely effective.

Mr. Kotzler, the curator, happened to be giving a gallery talk that day, and approximately 50~60 people were gathering around him. Before the start of the gallery talk, he found me and approached me proposing to have a mini talk when he was to talk about my photos. After an hour, the talk group came to the place where my photos were displayed. It was a corner for Japanese photographers, and works by nine Japanese photographers, including four of my works, were displayed. Eight others were Kyoichi Sawada, Hiroshi Hamaya, Yutaka Takanashi, Nobuyoshi Araki, Tomio Seike, Keiichi Tahara, Kineo Kuwabara and Kosuke Okahara. And a 500 paged photo and information album, which was far better looking than a booklet, contained 1,200 photos. On the Japanese Leica photo page, a literature by Kotaro Iizawa was posted, and explanation on the photographers such as Ihei Kimura, Ken Domon, Kazuo Kitai and Yuki Onodera were included.

Then Mr. Kotzler pointed his microphone to me with a smile. The photos Leica and Mr. Kotzler selected for the exhibition were four photos of the Tohoku earthquake disaster. I was assuming that they would select portraits of musicians from my London days. But instead they selected photos of people in the Tohoku district as if saying that “These are the photos that Japanese people should show to the world”.

I started to talk in front of my photos. “This photo shows hands of women in three generations, grandmother, mother and daughter, who were reunited at an evacuation center after many months of separation. The grandmother passed away last year because of the stress caused by her life in the evacuation center. And the next one showed a man washing a damaged photo of his wedding. Before the disaster, he had a family with his wife and children. Now this photo was the only physical evidence to prove his happy memories from the past.” It was impressive to find some people with tears in their eyes while listening to my explanation.

After explaining about my four photos, I thought I should also talk about Leica camera. “I bought my first Leica in London when I was 32. Leica is a type of camera which gives courage to take photos to us photographers. This is something very important to photographers. Probably I may love my Leica more than I love my wife. Because of such relationship, Leica Camera AG may be causing jealousy by the wives of Leica users!” It caused a big laughter and applause in the area. I gave back the microphone to Mr. Kotzler, and bowed. At that time, some feeling occurred in my heart.

Since the Tohoku earthquake disaster in 2011, I have visited Tohoku area several times. There is a certain feeling that any photographers would have in Tohoku. That is some hesitation to point camera to the people who are in trouble. Am I not utilizing the hardship or misfortune of these people for my benefit? When I see many fishermen clearing the debris without uttering a word, I found myself leaving the spot quietly.

At such moment, I always heard the god of photography say to me, “Haven’t you been a photographer taking photos of people all the time? If you are not taking the photos of the people risking their lives for reconstruction, what do you want to photograph?” Then I was able to tell the people naturally, “I came from Tokyo to take photos. Please let me release the shutter to take your photo while you are making efforts in the reconstruction.” Then there was no one who said “Don’t!”

In Japan, photos taken in such a way became an album titled “HOPE 311 The sun rises again.” And the photos were displayed at various exhibitions. However, I have not been able to deliver the photos to the world. Now with the help of Leica for the exhibition this time, I was able to realize it to some extent.

I admire the selection and the will of Leica who tried to maintain the record of Tohoku to the next 100 years by selecting the photos of Tohoku and use them in the exhibition and the album instead of the portraits of fancy rock stars of the UK. After Hamburg, it is already decided that the photo exhibition would tour around several major cities in Germany in the next two years. After that, the exhibition may tour around other European countries, USA and even Japan.

Lake Alster in one November day 2014 was reflecting strong sunshine, which is unusual in Northern Europe, on its surface. When I went into a café facing the lake, a handsome waiter swiftly brought me a beer.

In the spring of 1974, exactly 40 years ago, I was walking in this city with a big dream of becoming a photographer at the age of 24. I remembered of the Japanese musicians I met at that time.

Certainly, we are still pursuing to express ideal and a theme for life through musical instrument in their case and through camera in my case.


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