‘talking drum(mer)’ – words with steve jansen

This week’s post is just that little bit special. And when I say “just that little bit”, I actually mean “hugely & magnificently”.  For today’s contribution to the blog, features the very man whose name it proudly bears, having a bit of a chat about his new book…..none other than the rather lovely Steve Jansen. Exciting, isn’t it?

When I first approached Steve about starting up this blog, about 10 months ago, I also suggested the idea of doing a Q&A session with him. At the time he was reluctant to agree to this; his reason being that, as plans were under-way for the release of a book of his photos, it wasn’t really an appropriate time for him to publicly chat about his photography. He was happy to answer the odd question I had about specific photos, and to give the back story to some of the images already out there, but he didn’t feel it was the right time to be discussing this side of his work.

Fast forward to August 2015; Steve announced his plans for the book, (due to be released in October), and, after letting out a whoop of joy, the first thing that sprung to my mind was….”A-ha! maybe now I can ask him all those questions?” and, true to his word, Steve agreed.

So, here we are, my fellow blog readers……an exclusive chat with the man behind the (stills) camera.

Now, as you will probably be aware, Steve has spent a lot of time over the last few months answering a number of questions via his ‘sleepyard’ tumblr, so it was actually quite difficult to work out how best to approach this– I certainly didn’t want to just ask him the same-old questions; but for some people who read this blog, a lot of this information may well be new to them, and I couldn’t just assume that everyone has the same amount of knowledge, (or indeed interest), in Steve’s photography, as I do. It made sense to concentrate on the book itself, as I was interested in knowing more about the processes involved in its production, and so that became the main focus of this piece.

signed copies of the book
signed copies of the book

Steve has long said he would like to publish a book of his photography, but for various reasons (quality & cost implications, specifically) he felt it was unlikely to happen. In fact, about 18 months ago, he was asked about this via ‘sleepyard’, and his response to the idea was not overly positive –  “the idea of self-publishing a photo book is daunting because of the time and costs involved, due to the fact that all prospective images have to be test printed. It seems the first step to take would be to talk to an accountant (not much fun in that).”

So, why now, I wondered; what had changed?

The idea for the book came about in the Spring of 2014, when Steve was in Japan with his old mucker Yukihiro Takahashi, “spending some quality time together, and out of the blue, discussed how we might put this book out.” The book is a joint venture between the two, being released by Takahashi’s ‘Hints Music’ publishing, and features a range of images not only from Steve’s time in ‘Japan’, but also whilst he was touring with Takahashi’s band in the early 80s. The text is in both English and Japanese, so there is no need to produce 2 versions – and the combination of images of ‘Japan’, as well as members of YMO/Takahashi’s band, means that it will have a wider appeal. Which all makes perfect sense. And less time spent talking to the accountant, I assume?

Haruomi Hosono
Haruomi Hosono

Although limited copies of the book were made available at the World Happiness event in Tokyo last month, the official release date is still a couple of weeks away. But, this much we already know; the book consists of approximately 200 images, across 170 pages.  That’s a lot of photographs to sort through and test print, so I presume it was a lengthy process; working through the hundreds of images, digitising them and choosing which ones would reproduce well?

Over to Steve for the full low-down on the process:

“It was a lengthy and time consuming process that started almost a year ago and went through various stages.

Firstly, I made quick, small scans of all the negs because many of them have not been printed, apart from on a contact sheet (and sometimes not even that) and it wouldn’t be easy to make a choice otherwise. Having them all digitised, I could browse through each roll on a laptop and make choices that way; although I did already have a large amount selected for the ‘imageshop’ and ’sleepyard’, I needed to be sure whether or not anything else would be suitable for this book.

I was tempted to use previously unpublished images, in favour of ones already out there in the public domain (online), but I decided that this book should contain what I thought were the best selection, regardless – because the book is not reliant on technology and can be in someone’s personal possession, no matter what remains on the internet in future. A paper document rather than a digital file.”

Were you tempted to use modern technologies to ‘enhance’ some of the images, or have you kept them pretty much ‘as taken’?

“The next step was to have them professionally scanned and ‘dust-busted’ at the lab that I use (the shots on ’sleepyard’ are not professionally scanned because they only need to be small files – therefore they all had to be done). Then it was a case of going through each one and adjusting the ‘print’ as you would in a dark room, (‘dodging and burning’ as it’s known)… as well as cropping – this is all standard ‘photoshop’ practice when getting the best out of a shot.

The images were then digitally transferred over to Japan where Keiji, the designer, went to work on the layout – and there was also the task of writing the text.

Finally, test prints of the book were made, and the decisions about paper weight and quality were decided, as well as final adjustments to any of the images that weren’t printing up as well as expected.”

So yes, that does sound like quite a lengthy process, and may well explain why we are all still waiting for that, seemingly elusive, 2nd solo album from Mr Jansen!

However, I digress……

The book is titled ‘Through a Quiet Window’, (with an obvious nod to one of Steve’s own compositions), but it is also beautifully evocative of a lot of the imagery in his photography. So many of his photos feature the juxtaposition of 2 ‘worlds’; the main subject (whether that is Rich smoking in a café, or an armchair in a hotel room) but there is often a second, more subtle, view – a glimpse of life outside of a window, or on a TV screen; or the sprawl of the industrial landscape butting up against the majestic peaks of a mountain. I was interested to know just where this inspiration came from?

Steve explained that he has written a forward for the book, which addresses this question pretty fully, so rather than spoil it for you all, we’ll leave that one aside for now. Something for us all to look forward to, come the beginning of October.

barbieri in ginza cafe
barbieri in ginza cafe

One thing that has become very apparent to me over the last few months, is just how modest Steve is, when it comes to his ability as a photographer; to the point where he seems uncomfortable when people try to elevate his work to lofty heights (something this very blog could be accused of doing occasionally?) Of course, when I asked him about this, what I got was an equally modest answer – no hifalutin delusions of grandeur here…..

“….because we can all take pictures, and I’m no more a professional than the next person with a camera; but I was in a fortunate position and had an enthusiasm for it. I don’t feel I have a special ability, but I’m more than happy if other people think I do. Rather than worrying about getting the perfect exposure, or focus, for me the nicest images are when the subject projects who they are; whether it be in a relaxed situation, or posing for a shot – it’s managing to capture that moment where the person feels more tangible.”

OK, so are there any images which really stand out for you; any shots you are particularly proud of, or where you feel that you really accomplished something special?

“There are a few that embody this quality for me…….”

……and at this point, Steve admitted that he would really rather not have to go back through all of his photos, to pick out the ones he was referring to …..which makes a lot of sense.  Having spent the last year-and-a-bit constantly browsing through hundreds of photographs, and fine-tuning the images for the book, I can imagine that the last thing he really wanted to do, was start looking at them all again and picking out the ones which best illustrate this.

Let’s just assume there are a fair few in there, shall we?

yukihiro takahashi
yukihiro takahashi

Time to change the subject!

When it comes to music, you have always seemingly embraced new technologies and been happy to turn away from the ‘old school’ way of doing things. With photography, it seems the opposite is true, and you have said you prefer ‘analogue’ cameras to the new-fangled digital versions. I presume you snap away using a phone, like the rest of us, but do you still use a SLR (rather than a DSLR) camera? Is your trusty Canon A1 still in use?

“My interest in photography was in correlation with my lifestyle, but that’s changed a great deal. I think that if I were on the road again, I would for sure take my Canon A1. Using a view finder is essential for me to feel engaged with photography; I can never fully appreciate framing up a shot on a display. You don’t feel as though you’re ‘in’ it. Camera obscura (Latin for ‘dark chamber’) is the place from which you, as the photographer, are observing; from the inside looking out. A display is like watching something already filmed and is playing back …. you’re on the outside looking in, and for me that takes away much of the magic.”

I asked Steve a similar question about his use of analogue photography about 18 months ago, and his answer is worth repeating here, I feel, as it further explains his preference of analogue over digital.

“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?”

And recently, in a response to a similar question about his interest in portraiture over landscape photography, he echoed the sense of how the ‘magic’ of photography is less about faithfully reproducing the image before you, than creating something new.

“….I think human content in general provides an emotional connection and it instils a sense of romanticism. By way of example, the image ‘Escaping The Room’ can work as just a chair in a room seemingly stark and moody, but with the tiny image on the TV screen, showing a person scaling the stairs, a title is suggested; and from there a whole other perspective is evoked from what would have been a very ordinary moment in a hotel room. That’s what I like about photography, it’s quite removed from the truth of the moment.”

'escaping the room' japan, 1983
‘escaping the room’ japan, 1983

So, the camera does indeed lie – or at least distort the truth, to some extent.

The last year has seen Steve become increasingly ‘visible’ to his fans, communicating with them on both facebook and tumblr; sometimes with hilarious results. I never realised I needed to know what he thinks of the current Dr Who incarnation (he liked Matt Smith, but found David Tennant annoying), or what he thinks are the best qualities of his life-long compadre Rich Barbieri; but once these questions have been asked, I find myself increasingly curious about such fripperies! (I mean, when he said that pastry brings him joy, did he mean sweet or savoury? Damn, I missed my chance to find out!)

However, with his long-awaited book of photographs finally about to be published, there was something I was curious about…….

Will you still continue to upload images on tumblr, or is that it, as far as your photography goes?

“That’s it.”

Oh, really?

“Just kidding … I guess I have more to share if there are people still interested. We’ll see.”

Conversation over……..


Huge, and heartfelt, thanks to Steve for taking (yet more) time out to answer my questions.

A selection of Steve’s images are available on his website: http://www.stevejansen.com/

and on his ‘sleepyard’ tumblr: http://sleepyard.tumblr.com/

‘Through A Quiet Window’ is available for pre-order from Artes Publishing:

http://artespublishing.com/books/86559-127-9/ and will be shipped from 1st October.

 All photographs are © 2015 steve jansen all rights reserved, unless otherwise stated.


22 thoughts on “‘talking drum(mer)’ – words with steve jansen

  1. Steve, thank you so much for taking time to answer Vic’s questions. And really, thank you for being in touch with your fans, it’s a rare thing these days and very much appreciated.

    “If there are people still interested” ?! Are you serious, of course we are!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. What a great surprise – loved this piece!
    It was nice to read how the book came about, too.
    I’ve got to say my heart sank a bit when I got to that “That’s it.” re: sleepyard (!)
    (Also, there hasn’t been a title on this blog I haven’t instantly liked :D)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mischa I am rather thrilled to note your perception. You were the first among us (to my knowledge) to focus haha on Steve’s way of framing photos with that two-world quality. The very title of the book suggests that you were spot on! The fact that you pondered that whilst reading ancient manuscripts, making traditional journals and mucking out stables really deserves our congratulations and this warm round of applause!
      *much clapping*

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It was alright, I s’pose. It’s brilliant, actually, Victoria. My favourite so far. I still think that SJ missed a trick in not getting you to write a foreword, from a fans perspective. When the book turns up, I’ll no longer be able to shout “BOOK!” I’m, strangely, a little sad about that. Perhaps I can shout “EXHIBITION!” instead?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. mmmmmmmm, pastry.

    Lovely piece, as always. I shall have pie with my book.
    *suddenly laughing at Mick and his “group-pie” story.
    “I want to be your pie” hahahaha
    See? THIS is what happens when you mention pastry to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful piece. Thank you Victoria. Its been an invigorating past few months. Thanks to the kindness of Steve, and his generosity in sharing his pictures, by way of the odd exclusive here, or on his tumblr page, its been a complete joy to look and share in the experience of his fantastic pictures. Its been just as joyous to read his replies to the various questions he answers on his tumblr page. Too many times i come away laughing at his many varied humorous asides. How long before a `Jansenism` becomes part of a Japan fans vocabulary ?? 😉
    Its almost upon us ….. to actually hold a book of his photos will feel almost as surreal as looking upon my wall and seeing an original Jansen print. Is it really 32 years from that initial feature of his exhibition in one of the `pop` magazines, when these pictures first became indelible within my own frame of reference. ? To have them now, all collected together ? Its beyond exciting !!
    Thank you both. To you, Victoria, for the continued enthusiasm you put into this BLOG.
    And to Steve, for his continued generosity in sharing. xx

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Thank you so much VCC! Lavishly and intelligently analytical – not anal. It takes knowledge – a lifetime’s worth in this case – insight and passion to get this broad spectrum of information on such a topic. I feel that this Blog will stand forever as an important investigation of Steve’s work as well as a fascinating gaze through the eyes of one of our heroes. You should give yourself a ruddy big gin – I mean pat on the back. Thank you, on behalf of TMK, for all the entertainment you have given us, for a step beyond ruddy facebook and for the steady stream of new members who have found us as a direct result. Bloody well done.

    Sincere and deepest thanks Steve, for the support you have given Victoria and TMK through this process and for the gracious gifts of your thoughts, feelings and priceless moments in time. ‘Through a Quiet Window’ you look to have a unique and really rather beautiful life. You deserve every success with the book and for the future which we hope will be creatively rewarding. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the huge difference you have made to my life and thousands like me. It will last forever; this really is just the beginning.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Strange now, that we ever thought facebook was the right platform for the blog – it would have been a chaotic disaster! Thanks to TMK and all the support you have given over the months….. and rest assured, the gin has been taken 🙂 x

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great piece again Victoria. I personally think that as long as Steve continues as he is where the pictures are concerned and captures the feeling, ambiance and mood of the pictures he will have fans and people interested in his work. It is when people start doing things for the money and what doesn’t interest them and you can see even they are bored and not enjoying their work (like And Warhol he ended up not enjoying what he was doing and just doing it for the money and not the love) that people also become bored with the work. It’s like I suppose when you can feel the person and love of what they are doing in their work no matter how diverse that it enraptures and captivates people once you become bored and don’t enjoy what you are doing it comes across in your work and that is when it is no longer enjoyable for the fans also x

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The genuine charm eases out with such fluidity in this interview. The modesty of Steve only serves to create more interest which depending on his future in -tensions could prove unfortunate for some of us. Simply put his audience is growing. We ARE interested in his work both photographically and musically and thankfully he is happy to supply us with additional information via sleepyard. Victoria thank you for this wonderful interview and Steve thank you for your past, present and future work! We’re with you all the way🙏🏽

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Indeed Paula; I think there is a real groundswell of interest in Steve’s work, which is apparent by the number of people joining the various platforms (tumblr/fb) and being involved in on-going discussions. It must be gratifying for him – and it is great for us, as it points towards a positive future for him…..and it helps that he is so accessible and amenable….quite unusual for someone in his position, I think x

    Liked by 2 people

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