It’s called the New Tokaido Road and it runs from Tokyo to Kyoto. In the cars of the bullet-train speedometers indicate 200 kph. Hamlets, shrines, pagodas, cherry blossoms flash by faster than the mind can reach and grasp. Like single frames in a film, traditionally clad country-folk press for a moment against the clanging barriers that hold them, suspended in time, from their daily chores.
Ando Hiroshige took this route in 1832. He did it in the company of shoguns, often on foot, staying at inns along the way. He sketched everything he saw. The result was a series of color wood-block prints “Fifty-three Stages of the Tokaido.” Hiroshige had the ability to reduce complex scenes to simple elements of a decorative character and effective composition. He carefully noted everything and turned his odyssey into a poetic travail, a romance of snow, rain, mist and moonlight which gives condition and mood to the prints which established his reputation. Later he traversed other routes and destinations in the same manner, producing, “Fifty-nine stages of the Kisokaido,” “Views of Edo,” etc.
There will forever be works to be had on the modest and the grand roads. Seeing the work of Hiroshige helps an artist to realize that great works come from small journeys — some as ordinary as the one from our studio doors to the corner store. It’s a go-slow opportunity — under serendipitous and adverse conditions, asking always what condition might be added or built, what time of day, what meaning or metaphor might be extracted. It may be simply a camera record, the minutiae of nature’s or man’s patterns, the freezing of the contemporary and mundane, the honoring of beauty or the abstracting of forms, but it may also be the filtering of found imagery through the marvellous sieve of the human imagination.
PS: “Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, our own, we see it multiply until we have before us as many worlds as there are original artists.” (Marcel Proust)
The following are selected correspondence relating to the above letter. You are welcome to copy this material to friends. Needless to say I found these ideas interesting and worthwhile. We are thinking of publishing many of these letters under the heading “Letters From a World of Artists.” Please let me know if you think this is a good idea. Thank you for writing.
Photographing from trains
Peter Page, Manchester, UK
Trains themselves present interesting challenges and opportunities. I have used trains for gathering material. The unique condition in trains, with the exception of the observation cars which you have in America, is that the opportunity is one sided and pretty well limited to lateral vision. I use a very fast film, sometimes pushing to 1000 or 1600 ASA, and taking a comfortable position in a forward facing window seat, manual focus on subject matter in the middle distance with a 100 or 150 mm telephoto lens. Close-ups are easier when trains are slowing into platforms but the subjects in these areas are mainly people which do not interest me too much. When moving quickly the biggest hazards are the impingement of foreground trees, trestles, and the sudden entry into tunnels. On the other hand I find shooting landscape, farms, buildings, churches and churchyards, or running horses or other animals useful and satisfying. Making compositional decisions in a split second, particularly in late or early light when conditions are best, is an aquirable skill.
Peter Mills, Mijas, Spain
Mijas is a small hill-town near Malaga. It has winding narrow streets, whitewashed buildings and picturesque views over our valley and toward the Mediterranean. The walls of the town are covered with potted geraniums and singing birds in wooden cages. Originally from Britain my wife and I retired here several years ago. I have painted practically everything in Mijas — everywhere I can carry my easel and paintbox. I work in oils but I also do watercolors. I know the place pretty well. Just when I think I have done my last painting I find something else or another angle on something I’ve done before. The light is very strong here and I guess you could say that it has been the major subject matter of my work. A few of my paintings I’ve sold right off my easel before they were dry.
Wendy Rouse, Ontario, Canada
I have a 35mm camera with a 50 mm macro lens. This permits close-up photos as little as 3 cm from the subject. On five occasions now I have given myself a project to cover a given distance of ground — generally a short walk in a provincial park or on a public footpath. One was less than 500 metres but I took a day to do it. I take close-up pictures of everything of interest. This means I spend most of my time on my hands and knees. I shoot with 400 ASA film and use a mirror to increase light when I need it. I take a lot of pictures, weed and crop them carefully, and mount them in a dated album. When I’m taking the pictures I often re-compose the subject to make it better, at other times I photograph things as I find them. I also try to make them color co-ordinated. A typical series includes leaves, flowers, feathers, nuts, pods, insects, needles, sticks, moss, lichens, pebbles, slugs, roots, centipedes, spiders, mysterious holes, bones, coins, human detritus, etc., etc. Apart from the shows I am preparing and mounting, the act is terrific, a bonding with mother earth.
R.S. Shapiro, New York, NY, USA
I have traversed the same street in Brooklyn for more than thirty years. In January I started to photograph the three blocks on both sides out from where I live. This is very ordinary stuff. Most of the shop owners know what I’m doing and don’t seem to be bothered any more. The police just laugh. One lady does pressing right in her window. I’ve got hundreds of photos of different people eating hamburgers. One man can always be depended on to be sorting his fruit. People seem to be always shopping — as if they were born into that state and it is now their only vocation and interest. As in a play many characters appear over and over, coming onto my stage to do their thing for me. Where this collection is going I don’t know. I now have a big box of photos.
Day to day imagery
Deborah Putman, Vancouver, BC, Canada
The works of an artist over the years are a recording of their path in life. Perhaps on those days when one is clumsy with the brush and all seems a waste of paint and canvas; that one is simply off balance, not quite connected on their path. We may be sorting our way through some challenge via the right brain rather than the rational, logical left brain. On days when the brush flies along and perception of time is non-existant there is a satisfactory feeling of relief and joy. We are connected on our path.
I’ve witnessed this incredible right brain synchronizing the painter’s individual and higher path. My students came to me asking if I would teach them how to paint their night dream images. One day my student was painting and decided to change the colour of one section and then added a door in one wall. This was not literal to the dream and I hesitated before my perfectionist self could request that she stay true to her dream. It was a divine moment as I observed a psychological shift in this adventuresome student. Her emotions surfaced from the darkness as the door opened beyond the wall. She had altered her perception, her psyche, her body and herself in that moment of changing her painting.
It is through the sincere artistic endeavours of professional as well as novice creative artists that the right brain can exhibit its connection to the unconscious, the “bigger picture,” or whatever you want to call that which inspires us to advance on our life’s path. It is indeed in ordinary moments and day to day imagery that profound and great works are created.
I have an extremely original travelling idea but I don’t want to tell anybody, particularly I don’t want to send it out into the world by email because I am going to exploit it for myself this summer.
Sue Legault, Vancouver, BC, Canada
There are many journeys that we each take in the course of our lives. Besides actual trips and travel, there are the journeys through the stages of our lives, from child to teen, from teen to adult, from young adult to mature, older adult, etc. We also take journeys inside our own heads if we are introspective, and for many adults, it is a long journey to find ourselves creatively.
We all know of people who have been blessed to be aware of the small steps along the way — photographers who capture single moments, artists and writers who show us those moments in their own way. But many of us have been too busy chasing after the “good life” and have missed those small moments in our past. Some of us many only now be treasuring those small moments because our previous harried lives drove us to a critical state of physical or mental ill health.
How precious our lives can suddenly seem when we stop outside our doorstep to smell the roses or to look deep into the cup of a tulip.
The deceptive road
Max Reimer, Berlin
Hiroshige sketched everywhere he went. It’s likely that he did what we now call thumbnails. It was only after the second and third generation of sketches that he committed himself to the color print. It was the transfer to the new medium that brought out the intrinsic and universal qualities that have made the work timeless.
I find the road deceptive. There’s an overload of impedimenta. It’s later, when I have assimilated the material, that I am able to abstract the essentials. Very often there are only a couple of images as the result of travel, and they may be much different than what has been seen, but they are the important ones.
My odyssey is through the landscape of my mind. It is more interesting and variable than anything that the real world has to offer. As I am not able to travel I must use the place I have been given. Anything can happen here. That is why my paintings are truly magical and have unreal color, fantastic design, and are populated with wonderful and improbable beings. Because I live and move in this space I am not limited.