jansen – on photography

‘On Photography’ is actually the title of a collection of essays published by Susan Sontag during the 1970s which reflected her thoughts on the moral and aesthetic issues relating to photography as an art form. And anyone with an interest in such things could do worse than to flick through a copy of this worthy tome sometime.  However, as this is a blog about Steve Jansen’s photography, and most people who frequent these pages are here because they are (first and foremost) fans of Steve’s music, then all you need to know is that I nicked the title from Sontag’s book for this piece – and that is as highbrow as it gets round here, I’m afraid. Not for us the road of waffly pretension…..and if you ever see me heading in that direction, please feel free to yank me back to reality, sharpish.

Steve does not consider himself a “photographer” as such.  He would argue that photography was never anything more than a hobby; a passionate hobby perhaps, for a while – and one he enjoyed experimenting with and (I believe) excelled at  – but never something he considered as anything more than a happy distraction. He has always maintained that his love of capturing images was born out of boredom and frustration; being constantly photographed and told what to do, he developed an interest in being on the other side of the lens.  When he was interviewed on the arts programme Riverside in 1983, he stated that he really didn’t have the time to dedicate to film and photography, even though he had a real interest in them, because music would always come first – a “hobby stills photographer” was the rather unglamorous term foisted upon him by the dull interviewer at the end of the piece.

About a year ago, I asked him whether the advent of digital photography had lessened his interest in the art-form – was he still a “hobby stills photographer” I wondered?

“The combination of work, people and places provided the stimulus to capture what was going on and even with my lack of skills as a photographer it meant that I could still manage to capture something.  I like to photograph people, and being in a band touring, recording, there were always people. Now, not so much. I like ‘analogue’ cameras. I would have loved digital photography to be around back when I started but now that it’s here I’m thankful that I have stacks of negs that haven’t been accidentally erased and some of which I haven’t even seen except on a contact sheet. I feel I’ve not fully explored all the images I’ve taken. Right now that’s more interesting to me than taking more. I feel that photos from the past are a kind of treasure – the older they get, the more precious they somehow seem and the more significant they become in their purpose of recording a moment in time. Yes … I sound like I’m getting old, don’t I?”  (sleepyard)

Lost negs archive, only a torn contact sheet remains. At The Manor studios, Oxfordshire, circa 1981
Lost negs archive, only a torn contact sheet remains. At The Manor studios, Oxfordshire, circa 1981

And he recently followed this up with a response to a question from Mischa, asking whether he still actively enjoys photography:

“I do still very much enjoy photography but I don’t pretend to be ‘a photographer’. Photos I take now will look similar to many other people’s point & shoot images that fill the internet. My reason for exhibiting / selling / publishing retro photos is purely because of their historical interest / value. Images age well, so it’s like having a cellar full of fine wines. Those times are no longer to be seen, and because I was fortunate enough to be in a popular band of that time it perhaps adds to the insightful and/or voyeuristic aspect for the viewer. Anyway, I’m pleased I was snapping the old school way.” (sleepyard)

Lost negs archive, contact sheet. Mick Karn at The Manor studios, Oxfordshire.
Lost negs archive, contact sheet. Mick Karn at The Manor studios, Oxfordshire.

Given Steve’s obvious lack of trumpet-blowing when it comes to his skills as a photographer, I do sometimes wonder if a whole blog dedicated to his photography, with people (mainly me, to be fair) wittering on about how spectacular some of his images are, is a wee bit OTT? He is a pretty modest person, after all, and it may sometimes sound like we are aggrandising what are actually just some fairly decent shots; mainly of a group of friends, who all happened to be in a band – and were also spectacularly photogenic and wore some pretty smart clothes.  But, I don’t think so. I believe that there is a real talent behind some of the images he has published. Whether you agree with his assertion that it was mainly due to the circumstances and people around him, and all he really had to do was get the exposure right, there is no denying that he had an uncanny ability to frame a shot beautifully and capture a compelling image.

It has been stated here many times, and by more than a few people, that Steve’s photos of his fellow band-mates are amongst the most captivating out there – and this is a group of people who were photographed more than was seemly. The contact sheets he recently posted on his ‘sleepyard’ tumblr (see images above) are testament to this. But, it is not just the images he captured of his fellow ‘japan’ members which fit this description. This shot of Ryuichi Sakamoto is, in my humble opinion, one of the most mesmerising I have seen (and we can debate the issue about whether it is big and clever to glamourise smoking in such a blatant way – but this was the 1980s and times have changed, my friends); and ‘japanscape (2)’ below shows that, whilst he may have  favoured photographing people over landscapes, he certainly had a fantastic eye for spotting a beautifully contrasting scene of urban cityscape, juxtaposed with the towering majesty of nature.

Ryuichi Sakamoto
Ryuichi Sakamoto
'japanscape' 2
‘japanscape’ 2

However, as accomplished a photographer as he undoubtedly is, Steve is also keen to show that not every shot he has taken has turned out perfectly. Last time, I wrote about some of his pictures which have  obvious ‘faults’ – usually because of light damaging the film.  The image of Karn at the top of this piece is not a technically ‘good’ photo;  the lighting is all wrong and Mick is too close to the camera, his image slightly blurred and out of focus – but it is still a great shot.  But, the crowning image is this beauty – a photo which proves that even the most skilled of photographers will struggle if they are just too lazy to actually move to get the ‘money shot’…….classic.

David Sylvian and the black monolith effects rack London 1981.
David Sylvian and the black monolith effects rack London 1981.

‘japanscape (2) – and a range of other limited edition, signed prints – are available from Steve’s website here:


all the other photos in this piece were published on Steve’s ‘sleepyard’ tumblr here:


all photos are reproduced with kind permission © 2015 steve jansen all rights reserved

7 thoughts on “jansen – on photography

  1. As I was just that little bit too young to be a fan when Japan were still around, I never really saw any of their photos, I mean, I didn’t buy/read music mags… Over the years, of course, I did become aware of them, and now I find myself thinking: “oh, so that’s one of STEVE’s!” It’s the incredible sense of intimacy that oozes from his photos that captivates me, particularly the ones of Mick. And as Mick’s no longer with us, any ‘new’ photo of him is like a little gift. It’s exciting, it’s poignant.. . I do hope there are more, also of Rob and Richard… Steve, please, keep rummaging in your attic! And Victoria, keep blogging! xx

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’ve always thought a lot of the appeal and the strength of Steve’s shots was in that they are so characteristically 80s–not in the lurid awful self-conscious posed tacky Smash Hits way, but in that sort of…end of a long tradition of monochrome portraiture, movies, and candid photography way, that they are very much summing up a lot of what came before and are really the last of that tradition. Certainly in terms of technical aspects–film, the style, the actual composition even…but the fact he used film obviously imposes a look that were he doing the same thing now on digital would necessarily be very different. I suppose it’s ‘dated’ in the way a 40s soft-focus Hollywood movie or starlet pic is dated, but it is in a very characteristic and rather cool way, rather than a horribly out of fashion one 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Fabulous! I live this blog! I agree, we were all very young, I remember Mick saying how Kyoko was a child when Japan were a thing and too young to remember them but the same could be said of many of us. I was certainly too young to go and see them and the fan club was deemed too expensive at £3! So Leonne makes a really good point. We were aware Steve took pictures (I bet we were all watching that interview, I remember where I was exactly – and making Dad watch it!) but most of us didn’t realise so many of the images we have seen over the years were his.
    To be able to study them, find new ones and ask about them now is huge.
    They are terribly glamorous too, as Mischa says, charismatic. Imagine going through the negatives with Steve..it would be on a par with my, sadly never to be realised dream, of creeping into the studio and hearing Mick play alone…or even tune up.
    There is real treasure here. No wonder he is enjoying reviewing them. I do hope there will be more. Like the one at the top, a new photo like Leonne says , is a gift. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Probably, my favourite photographs by SJ involve no bandmates whatsoever. There are three that I covet which all appear to be in the same hotel room. ‘4003 hotel room, Japan’, another that is taken of the same television from a different angle and, finally, the frankly incredible ‘4014 hotel view, Japan’. They feel like a set so I’d need them all. Obviously. Perhaps I should start playing the lottery. But then I also really need the other Ghosts ‘outtake’ and Sylvian in the Paris café that’s shown in SJ’s journal – ‘paris ’82’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I completely agree Shane…..I think there are lots of Steve’s photos that would really well as tryptychs…..3 is obviously the magic number. The ‘Japanscape’ views are some of some of my favourites too and I love the TV ones. Possibly because they were ingrained early on, as they were used a lot in the publicity for his exhibition in 83…

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s