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One World, One Lens
Contrary to the timeless poems that are his photographs, speed is everything to James Whitlow Delano
To look at a photograph by James Whitlow Delano is to peer inside a meticulously crafted poem. Viewing a gallery of his images, each one as concise as haiku, is like traveling through scenes from Marco Polo's dream-world. But the eye and the art are Delano's – and only his. The Tokyo-based American-born photographer once told an interviewer, "I don't change anything for anyone.… I have a point of view and a reason for each undertaking."
Knowing this, one might find it hard to believe that he shoots everything, regardless of what it is, with one – and only one – lens.
Much as a poet finds and polishes his voice, Delano has found and polished his singular lens. "I have two Leica M-2s and two 35mm f2 lenses. They are likely older than me," he told News Photographer. "One lens means speed. Very simple operations. That is critical. If you miss the moment, you cannot get it back. I shoot exclusively with Leica. On the few occasions that I have used a Hasselblad, which is a wonderful camera, I feel like I am driving a Mack truck. But the Leica makes the work possible. You can suggest the energy rippling just below the surface."
The absence of an overstuffed camera bag filled with the latest, greatest gadgets is not only evidence of an artist with a clear vision who has found and mastered his essential tools, it's also a reflection of his intent. "Early on, I had just one lens and two bodies," he says. "I dumped all my money into getting to places as far off the beaten track as possible. So, it was a trade-off."
The trade-off had a pay-off. It succeeded in taking him from college in Colorado to New York City and Los Angeles, where he became a professional assistant to some of the biggest names in photography, on to Italy to Tokyo, and then on to most of the rest of Asia and the remaining world. And through all that, he stayed true to the 35mm lens.
"That modestly wide-angle lens mimics our field of view, and it means that I have to interact with the people I photograph," he says. "There is an interaction. If they do not like what I am doing, they can reach out and grab me. That is the way I like to work."
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Understanding the way he likes to work, the interaction that must take place – and just how he got to be that way – is crucial to Delano's own understanding of himself and, therefore, his photographs. "This all sounds tragic. It was not entirely though," he says. "I, a French and English kid who was exposed to Italian-American culture, became a true hybrid and even more typically American. My tie to Italy now, despite living in Japan, is stronger than ever. So, I am one of the luckiest people you will ever meet. Things could have fallen apart [in childhood]. They did not, because of a strong family."
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It was in Boulder that the lightning bolt of photography struck him, at a time when he was "bored studying physics and engineering" at the University of Colorado.
"I came upon the work of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Andre Kertesz, and others in the rare-books room of the university library. I found the work of the FSA photographers, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and William Klein as well. I have never been the same since. Photography became, and remains, an obsession."
Delano changed majors to study journalism, "one of the best decisions I ever made." He studied journalism "in the broader sense, not just regarding photography. I love to dig deep into researching a subject. I cannot get enough from history."
Graduation presented him with another tough decision. He found himself accepted by Harvard's Special Studies program, but photography owned his soul: "This was the most important period of time in my adult life. I was considering medical school and would have studied at Harvard to make up courses necessary to move on. But that acceptance, in a perverse way, motivated me to really dive into photography with more intensity. I reasoned that if I walked away from Harvard, I had better make it worthwhile."
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From 1986 through 1993, on both coasts, he worked for Annie Leibovitz, Deborah Turbeville, Joel Meyerowitz, Michel Comte, Greg Gorman, and Paul Jasmin, on shoots for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Paris Vogue, G.Q., Christian Dior, and Bergdorf Goodman: "I went back and forth, depending on my finances, between New York and Los Angeles. Photographers like Leibovitz and Meyerowitz opened my eyes to the level on which I would have to work. Period. They are immensely talented, driven people. They produce work every day, if necessary, no excuses. They eliminated any ego problems before they could germinate in me. They taught me that there are so many talented people in photography."
Delano began researching a move to Japan, to get out of the fashion photography world of Los Angeles, in the early 1990s. "I'd already bought my first Leica M-2 and was doing street photography. In 1993, I made the jump to Japan. I needed a visa, so I taught English and spent every spare moment on the street with the camera. I traveled abroad on both paid and unpaid holiday. My mind never left photography. I built a body of work and began to sell stories. Very soon, I could support myself shooting self-generated stories I had researched.
"Frankly, that model has not changed much since. I have grown over the years, and traveled a lot over the years, but the method of researching a subject that I care about – going out and photographing the story, and then offering the stories to magazines – remains the same. Over time I've added the dimension of having certain countries, or subjects, I like to return to so that a new story can tie into larger projects. I take assignments, but the projects still generate the most important work. I've always kept my eye on my goal, photographically, but the path has been anything but straight."
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Then Delano won the 2000 Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, an honor administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. "The Eisie was won for work done in China. Believe it or not, the reportage was not published in a journalistic magazine. It was published in a now-defunct magazine called Madison. It was a fashion magazine that published documentary photographic essays as well. On a lark I sent the series to them, and the layout and edit were amazing."
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Often his photographs look more like paintings, the scenes stolen from the corners of Asian tapestries and panoramic folding screens. Physically, his prints look different in a way that's both curious and attractive in today's world of digital photography. The black-and-white scenes, the candid nature of the subjects, the tonality, and the contrasts touch a chord in our memory of photography as it was in the long-ago, more glorious time of Cartier-Bresson and Frank.
"I use T-Max 400 and T-Max 3200 pushed to 6400 ISO," Delano reveals. "It is like night vision Tri-X, and perfectly suited for the streets of Tokyo at night. I print my own work, though the loss of Agfa [photographic paper] was a great loss. I now use Ilford paper. This year I've begun to experiment with flatbed scanning the prints, which is not a new process, then printing with an Epson archival printer, and the results have been eye-opening."
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What kind of mysterious power lurked in Asia that could draw a young man all the way to Tokyo to make a new home for himself and his photographic essays? "From the moment I set foot in this part of the world, Asia surprised me," Delano says. "In the West we have a rather two-dimensional view of Asia. That is the easily defined part. Then there is just some sense of compatibility with the energy here. There is no better way to describe it. There is nowhere else on the planet where there are so many highly developed, distinct cultures packed into such a limited geographical area. There are several lifetimes of work here.
"In fact, one of the most satisfying aspects of living long term in Asia is to start realizing how layers and layers of cultural influences link up and blend. Politics can make 'inconvenient' links in culture or affinity with a neighbor or rival a source of embarrassment, or even quasi-treason, somehow. Over time, the discoveries are endless, especially in surprisingly culturally diverse Japan. The thought of this is new to this country."
Delano lists Asian photography topics in the Himalayas, in the deserts of Central Asia, in the steppe grasslands and the various rainforests – including tigers and elephants – and in the biggest, often the most polluted, cities on earth. "Asia is a bottomless well of stories," he says.
To support his projects, Delano sells some limited-edition prints in galleries. "I hope to intensify efforts in this area so that I can continue to choose subjects that I care about, and to photograph them as long-term projects. And selling prints can also be another way to build a meaningful body of work for a different, new audience."
See more of James Whitlow Delano's photography online at http://www.jameswhitlowdelano.com/.
© Donald Winslow
Editor, News Photographer magazine
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