Ryota Kajita, born in Japan, is a photographer, video artist and teacher currently living and working in Fairbanks, Alaska where he relocated in the mid’ 2000s after completing a BA degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Tsukuba in 1999. Ryota earned an MFA in Photography in 2014 from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has been an active international exhibitor for over a decade presenting several photographic series in the US, Canada, the UK and Japan. His work has been the subject of many competitive awards from Aperture, Aesthetica, Lens Culture and most lately the FotoFilmic SOLO IV Exhibition Award juried by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb.
Before Ryota’s SOLO IV Exhibition opens soon this Spring on Saturday, April 21 in Vancouver, BC at the FotoFilmic PULP Gallery on Bowen Island, we’re most pleased to have the opportunity to reach out to him with a few more questions on his photographic practice in general, as well as regarding his exhibited work ‘Ice Formation’.
FotoFilmic: First off congratulations on winning FotoFilmic’s fourth SOLO Exhibition Award and making a strong impression on such experienced jurors as Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb! That is no small achievement and we are truly delighted your ‘Ice Formation’ series can receive this well-deserved accolade, especially after already being shortlisted last year for FOTOFILMIC17! How does it feel to have your work ackowledged by such important artists in the field? And have the Webbs ever influenced your own photographic upbringing or inspiration?
Ryota Kajita: Let me begin by thanking your organization for providing film photographers with precious opportunities. Your organization highly values film photography and analog process, and that gives analog photographers like me hope. It’s a huge encouragement to analog photographers and an invaluable influence over the entire photography culture. I hope you would keep this platform continuously to the analog photography community.
I am deeply honored and feel very lucky to receive the SOLO Exhibition Award juried by internationally renowned photographers, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb. I own several of their photobooks. What I love in their photographs is the sense of motion and improvisation while conveying a strong story. Their images are like jazz music to me. In a way, their images are opposite of my images, which focus on stillness and formal aspects of nature with limited colors. However, their sincere attitude toward photography and subjects, trying to invent new ways to show our world through capturing everyday life, greatly influence my thought and way in photography.
F/F: Alex and Rebecca’s work, as well as the unique collaborative dialogue at its heart are generally more associated with street photography, social documentation and visual prose, all genres and practices whose canons they have come to often challenge and help redefine through the course of their artistic careers. With this in mind, were you at all surprised to have them endorse such a seemingly different body of work as ‘Ice Formation’? Not that one would expect accomplished artists like Alex and Rebecca to ever pigeonhole their reading and understanding of photography in any way.
RK: Totally. It came out of the blue! As I mentioned above, I see that my work sits at the other end of the spectrum from their work. For example, my work pursues forms in nature with minimized tones while theirs visualize social issues with bright colors. Stillness against movement, tranquility against dynamism, simplicity against splendid. The difference might be one of the reasons why they have selected my work. Still, I’m grateful that they have chosen my work for the award.
F/F: You started photographing the natural phenomena of frozen gas bubbles and ice patterns in interior Alaska back in 2010 and traveled since to more than 50 remote villages in bitter temperatures with no guarantee of finding what you are after: that in itself is an incredible artistic commitment! Can you tell us how it all started, what led you to approach and embrace this arguably pretty difficult and demanding subject?
RK: I have traveled the wilderness in Alaska by snowmobile and have flown to many villages in Alaska by small propeller airplanes. The travels were mainly for scientific research purposes that also included a video project. I worked as a research assistant for an engineering professor and set sites for collecting data. I made trips with my friend, a bush pilot, to photograph and record video of Alaska’s wilderness from the air. As journeys accumulated, I felt that our planet, the earth, is tremendously large and also we are part of it. Everything around us, like wind and air, are part of great nature, and you can feel and see it even in small scale. For example, a tiny snowflake is part of nature’s cycle. This realization, we are surrounded and connected to vast nature which changes everyday, sounds very simple, but it’s very difficult for us to notice in our busy daily lives. Thus, I pay close attention to ice patterns that appear in frozen surfaces in my town, Fairbanks, even though they are tiny compared to Alaska wilderness landscapes. The first discovery of an ice formation in 2010 was utterly by chance; however, to keep documenting the subject since then became my lifework rooted in my awareness fostered by my travel experience.
F/F: Before we discuss the work more formally and explore its abstract aesthetics and metaphorical quality, let’s talk about the facts of reality viewers look at in each ‘Ice Formation’ photograph: trapped methane and carbon dioxide. As seductive to the eyes as these ephemeral geometric wonders might be, they also uniquely speak of the dangers of global warming as more and more of Antarctica’s ice sheet melts and releases ancient gases fixed there millions of years ago. As such the series stands as an extraordinary record of time where the millenial and the ephemeral meet and briefly coexist in the face of an uncertain future. How important is this deeper, darker narrative to you as the maker of the work, and do you intend audiences to also connect to these environmental issues through it?
RK: Firstly, I hope viewers enjoy the beauty of the patterns created by nature. Every fall since when I see the bubbles first begin to form, I anxiously await for the perfect conditions to photograph them. The window of opportunity is so narrow. If it’s too early, the ice is too thin to hold my weight and there are not many bubbles. If snow falls after freezing, it covers the patterns and clouds the ice for good. Every year the timing is different. Also, the patterns vary from year to year. For example, one year deep clear ice and many layers of bubbles formed while another year ice formed shallow patterns with tentacles like arms. So, this makes me keenly aware of the changes in the temperature and weather. I was photographing bubbles in early October when I started, and over the last few years, I have gathered in late October. It’s a dialogue between me and my surroundings, which leads my thought on how I live in the place I currently choose to live. I know most viewers won’t know these details of my work, but I hope they will become more interested in nature’s changes, as well as in the sub-arctic and arctic areas after seeing my works.
Some viewers have mistaken the patterns in my images for other natural forms, like cells or nebulae. However, it is unmistakable that the patterns are natural and not created by humans. I hope viewers think about how the patterns form in nature without our intervention, emerge and disappear without ever being noticed. We see a tiny fraction of nature’s creations. We are so small compared to the earth, but I feel the change when seeing the small ice formation patterns. If viewers start to pay attention to their surroundings and eventually think about the earth, that’s gratifying for me.
F/F: All ‘Ice Formation’ photographs are shot on medium-format black-and-white negative film: can you walk us through what a typical shooting out in the artic might be like? How does one handle film in sub-freezing temperatures, and does it hold any advantage over say digital capture in such a harsh environment?
RK: For shooting this series, I use a Fuji GF670 medium format camera and Kodak T-MAX 100 or 400 films. The GF670 is amazingly lightweight (the camera itself is only 1.0 kg without film and battery) and perfectly suits my ice hunting on foot. The patterns of bubbles of ice in frozen swamps, lakes and rivers are not very large (from 10 to 50 inches), so I spend time to carefully decide the composition and shoot them close-up. As I mentioned above, the time period between thick enough ice with not much snow is short. Perhaps only a few weeks, and sometimes only a few days before heavy winter sets in by November. I always make sure the ice is thick enough, and sometimes give up a photograph I’d like to shoot for safety’s sake. I don’t use a tripod for several reasons. It’s difficult setting up a tripod not to include the shadow of tripod leg[s] in the composition, plus, daylight hours are rapidly waning at the time of year. So, time is too precious for me to spend setting a tripod. Because of the cold temperatures, I always bring extra batteries along to keep warm in my pocket with disposable heat pad and swap them out as the camera battery gets too cold. Changing film under cold temperatures doesn’t bother me at all except getting my hands numb. If you are comfortable changing film with gloves, you would have no complaint. Using a mechanical analog film camera that doesn’t need a battery would be a great advantage, though.
F:F: You are also an avid wet darkroom printer producing your own silver gelatin exhibition prints: as such printing is an integral part of your photographic practice, enabling you fine control over the final presentation of your work. Plenty of photographers nowadays have somehow relinquished that sense of continuity and control hand printing (and hand developing) allows by turning to either labs to handle their printing, or to automated inkjet printers: can you talk a little about how you view darkroom processing and printing today in the context of digital photography? And are you yourself photographing digitally at all, perhaps for some other projects?
RK: At the present day, cameras are not a special gadget anymore. Whether you like it or not, most smart phones come with a digital camera and produce images sharp enough to make letter size or larger prints. My smart phone is no exception. However, I exclusively use my analog cameras to create my works. The reason is not because of the quality which film cameras provide. If you pursue a sharper, more vivid and higher resolution image, digital cameras are undoubtably a more convenient and presumably cheaper way to fulfill the purpose. Generally speaking, a digital image captured by a digital camera has more advantage to produce a flawless image which you desire to achieve in both shooting and printing. It’s not hard at all to imagine that commercial photographers receive significant benefits to meet the demand of clients with the power of digital cameras.
In the meantime, as a fine art photographer, I seek a precious moment and subject which the spirit of the universe gives. In that sense, I see that photographing is not to take, it’s to receive. This view of photography clearly reflects on my series of ice formation, and they are a collection of that which the universe gives me. Film is a symbolic medium and allows me to participate in the cycle. You feel, see, and then imprint the image inside of a light proof container. The roll of film contains the spirit of the universe. In a way, film is the universe and also myself. Only after developing the film am I able to materialize the gift. It’s a ritual. I’m receiving the images from something larger than myself. Even if the images are not perfect, I appreciate them as they include the imperfection. Therefore, to me, taking digital photographs is an act of shooting and capturing. Taking film photographs is an act of receiving. This is why I use film for my work. I sometimes make mistakes and ruin film. I’m an imperfect human being, so mistakes happen. So, I have to be very careful to handle film and camera. I like using my camera, which I’m used to, and I like the process. The practice of hand movements in the darkroom process and the dirty hands from the results foster more intimacy between the film images the camera captures and myself. I hope to explain the darkroom printing at some other time due to the lengthiness of the process.
F/F: Now onto the best part: the ‘Ice Formation’ photographs! These are truly stunning pieces filled with intricate, organic details laid flat on a black or white background. Astrophotography and microphotography come both to mind, with a twist of abstract expressionism and photographic modernism. As much fractal objects as fossils, these mesmerizing geometrical figures still speak the language of the great Western masters such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams in their sharing of a primary concern for nature preservation, as well as in their ability to aesthetically transcend our representation of nature. Did this particular philosophy and movement play a role in your photography? And what are your other major influences?
RK: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston applied more rational and intellectual approaches in photography than I have been practicing. The west coast photographic movement as represented by Group f/64 gives me great inspiration, while on the other hand, I am not limited by their aesthetics. I follow my instinct frankly and choose a photography subject more freely. Personally, I think some people might find more similarity between Minor White and me. For my philosophy especially about my series of ice formation, please see my answers above. I think that black and white photography is a medium great for capturing forms of subjects, and I’m working with this idea in the series of ice formation. And also, I digitize the image at the end of the process and add very slight colors and print. I think this process shows the quality of ice well. I love silver gelatin prints, but I think it makes the image look somewhat watery and not right for this series.
F/F: Thanks for taking the time to answer our few questions! Before we let you go: what’s next for you? Any other projects ongoing? And any chance to see ‘Ice Formation’ in book form some time in the near future?
RK: I have several projects in progress. One of them is deeply related to my Japanese aesthetics. Because my relocation from my homeland to a foreign country urged me to realize the difference between others and me, I discovered my originality comes from my cultural background and personal experience being outside of the culture. This realization has made me see an ordinary everyday subject as a charming object for photo shooting. I found myself seeing a common urban scape as a curious subject radiating a distinctive feel when I went back to Japan few years ago. Since then, I have been trying to capture the new finding in the way that could be understood universally. In addition, I am seeking to use different format of film, panorama and 4×5 large format. I slowly started to take pictures with those formats.
Publishing a book of my ice formation series is my dream. Photobooks are highly respected in the photography community, and publishing books is a milestone in a career of a photographer. Desktop publishing and online publishing is now much easier today, so it might be a good idea to set up a cloud funding and do self-publishing. Or, making a prototype first, and finding a publisher interested in my works with the use of the prototype might be better. I am open to ideas for publishing my images. Please contact me if you are interested. I appreciate any kind of help. Thank you in advance!
View Ryota’s SOLO IV Exhibition page including a foreword from Jurors Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb and also presenting the works of Runners-Up Ikuru Kuwajima from Japan and Clay Jordan from Athens GA, USA.