When I first heard about the Exposed: Japantown photo contest, I was determined to win it. Which is an irrational goal, since no one can control the judge’s tastes, the competition’s skill level, or one’s own luck.
Still, Seattle’s Japantown is the spiritual center of my background and being, and its revival has been spearheaded by my longtime friend (and former NYC roomie), Binko Bisbee and her husband John, whose shop, KOBO at Higo has become the area’s center of culture and commerce. Plus the central goal of the contest, to expose and promote the area, spoke loudly to me. Marshaling the means to produce meaningful images of a place so important to me also would represent another milestone in my journey as a photographer, it still being in its early stages.
NOTE: Clicking on images produces the full version in a separate browser window).
I had a plan that I thought was solid: I would scout and stake out the area for a month. I was committed to it. But I got really sick, which dashed all but one night before the contest deadline. Which goes back to my point about not being in total control of something so specific.
Five of my entries eventually landed among the top 100 images in the contest, all of which were on display on Dec. 5 in a space next to the Panama Hotel. Four of those were taken on a single, cold and foggy October night, and the subject of two of those was the Panama, including the following, “Panama Alley.” The scene, especially the stacked green-lit, fire-escape landings, caught my eye as soon as I arrived. I also liked the three spotlights, to play off the three green squares.
(By the way: I intentionally used an ultra-wide lens, then did not correct for the keystoning, because I wanted the power lines to play off the top edge of the building. I’m guessing the judges did not analyze the image so deeply and just thought, “Oh, that’s cool.”)
The contest would produce a winner in four categories – Food, Spaces and Places, Culture and Shops. However, the judges apparently decided during deliberations to add eight Honorable Mention awards for creativity. “Panama Alley” was among those, meaning of course that my dashed plans didn’t completely sabotage my efforts and goal.
I had a hole card that I actually didn’t remember until later. At the beginning of summer, I shot some photos for my wife Florangela’s national story on NPR about Umai Do, a Japanese sweetshop which harkens to my childhood days of visiting a similar shop called Sagamiya but closed 40 years ago. Moreover, owner Art Oki is intrepid but humble, the kind of person for whom you root. He graciously allowed me to haul in a bunch of gear into his kitchen, during his delicate preparation process.
The winning image (Food category) that emerged from that shoot was one I decided early on was the money shot – an artist’s hands producing his artwork. I had to crawl out of my comfort zone to get it. In my former photographic life in sports, and now in my embryonic pursuit of outdoor photography, my main task has been taming light, not producing it. I could have produced something with available light because Art’s shop has huge picture windows. However, there’s no way the colors would pop without additional lighting. I used two remote flashes and managed to get pretty even light, and most critically did not blow out the abundant whites in the t-shirt, apron, flour and mochi.
Still, you cannot count on the tastes of the judges, to go back to my main, earlier point about control. I thought the picture of Art’s hands was strong, but my favorite entry was “Spotlight on Main and Maynard,” shown here. The image depicts an iconic street corner, illuminated by a street light, on a foggy night. So it has meaning and, more than that, was so difficult to execute and process!
So my three photographic milestones – this, my published photo in Outdoor Photographer Magazine (this month!) and Smithsonian exhibit – involve images that I probably would not include among my favorites of my own work. Go figure.
The best part of this? Seeing the look on my parents’ faces when I was announced as the Food category winner at an artists reception, then celebrating with them and my mother-in-law, appropriately enough, just down the street at one of our very favorite restaurants, Fuji Sushi. Smack in the middle of Japantown.
My two other top 100 entries: