‘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)
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)
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.
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.
‘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