While taking the first steps to a new series in Cuba, the Connecticut-based husband-and-wife team discussed their special connection and planned return to the Land of the Rising Sun.
DPP: Where did your concept for "The Japan Diaries" come from?
BJ: It had its roots in our childhoods. I’m a Navy brat. My dad was an amateur photographer. He always had his Minolta with him, which he had bought when he was stationed in Japan. I’d see these pictures of this soldier standing in front of these wonderful exotic locations like the Big Buddha in Kamakura and the Golden Temple in Kyoto. In the back of my head, I thought, "What cool places to visit."
Richeille: I had a crazy fascination with Japan and always wanted to go there. I had a poster of Mount Fuji on my wall when I was a kid. I used to go to travel agencies and get their old posters. I actually added Japanese middle names to my name—Yasuko Tanako—when I was 12. My mother didn’t even know. I was so obsessed when I was a teenager that my ultimate goal was to remove my forename and surname. I had a friend of my mother’s teaching me Japanese when I was 14. She was from Japan and was married to an Englishman back in the UK. She’d show me all these pictures and magazines from Japan. Her first name was Yasuko so I took that, and I met a TV presenter named Mako Tanako, so I thought, "Yasuko Tanako, what a great combination."
DPP: When did photography come into the picture?
Richeille: I studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. That’s where my love of Japan came in, too. The rigid simplicity of design work. I also took photography courses while I was doing my degree. I ended up becoming an art director. I was sent to Florida in 2005 to direct a series of stock photography shoots and hired BJ for one of them.
BJ: One of the biggest breaks I had was assisting on shoots for Getty and Corbis. One of the art directors for Getty noticed how I was acting on set and said, "Obviously, you’re also a photographer. Can you show me your work?" I did and started shooting right away for a pretty good day rate, so I stopped assisting. This was in New York. An offshoot of Getty was Digital Vision, where Richeille used to work.
Richeille: When Getty took over Digital Vision, we had just come back from our honeymoon in Egypt; I took the redundancy package, and BJ and I started as a duo. Shortly afterward, we started Eye Candy Images, our stock agency. That paid the bills as we gallivanted around and did our fine art. We haven’t fed it with images in four or five years, but it’s still out there with about 25,000 of our images. One photographer, one art director. It’s on various stock site portals. After the stock, we did "Circumstance" from 2008 to 2011. We bought an RV and stopped doing the commercial imagery. That’s when the fine-art work really took off.
BJ: It was also during the recession and jobs really slowed down, so we decided to just shoot for ourselves. We wanted to show the abandoned America at the height of the recession. All the models we were meeting were living out of extended-stay hotels and their cars. That added to the mood of the imagery.
Richeille: "Circumstance" was partially a reaction to all the years of producing stock photography with all the bright happy images, especially for American stock at that time. It was such a lie. There was such a recession going on, and people weren’t very happy. We photographed 130 women across America for the series. I did most of the hair and makeup.
DPP: How did you find the models?
BJ: The catalyst was the location. There was a certain staged cinematic feel that we wanted.
Richeille: We had the RV and the truck, and we’d say, "Okay, we could get there tomorrow." We’d get to Ohio or New Mexico, then we’d start scouting for a location. In advance, we’d look online at Model Mayhem to find a model in the local area or put an ad in Craigslist. Sometimes we would find someone in an RV park or in a café or in a Denny’s.
BJ: We were in each place maybe three or four days tops. Sometimes we’d drive through and leave the next morning. So it would be helpful if we had someone that we were going to meet right away.
Richeille: Some of the girls would say, "Oh, you can hook up your RV in front of my mom’s house," and they’d pull an extension cord out to us through their front door. We had a 1969 silver Airstream.
BJ: We got it from a guy in Oregon. We flew out there not knowing how to pull it or even owning a vehicle to pull it with. We just knew it was a great deal and perfect for what we wanted to do. We took a cab to his house, gave him cash, then said, "Okay, we need to buy a car or truck to pull this." After we did two years of photographing women across America, "The Japan Diaries" came out of a desire to travel somewhere completely different.
Richeille: After "Circumstance," we wanted to go in a completely different direction. We actually had been in Japan to scout things out on the way back from South Korea, where we oversaw the printing of our "Circumstance" book.
BJ: It wasn’t so much the opposite direction. We still incorporated our love for cinema. We looked into the film noir of Japanese movies. I’m also a big fan of Araki, Daido Moriyama and Eikoh Hosoe.
Richeille: I really hoped Japan lived up to the country I had dreamt about. I had put it on such a pedestal. We were blown away by it. Our senses were engulfed. We were just killing ourselves that we had no equipment with us during that first trip. We said, "Right, we’ve got to come back ASAP." We did and spent six weeks there.
BJ: Because of the language barrier, we knew we had to go through agencies for the models. On that first trip, I think Richeille brought home a hundred kimonos.
Richeille: I did all the styling. I knew I wanted to show Japan with the kimono, but I also wanted to introduce a little bit of the 1950s from our first body of work. So it was the ’50s postwar Japan kind of look that I wanted to incorporate. For instance, after the war, Japan opened up a trade in these cheap little pearl collars. You’d add them to a cardigan or a sweater. So we used these in a shot.
It was actually quite sad how many of the young women couldn’t tie a kimono. They would say, "Oh, my grandmother usually does it for me." I’d say, "This is becoming a lost art; you have to know how to do this." I took YouTube lessons on how to tie a kimono. One time, we were in a sento [public bath] and I was putting one of these girls in a kimono, and the woman who ran the sento—she must have been 90 years old—helped me tie it. She was so proud. All these older women would step forward and help me wherever we were. You could see that they were bursting at the seams to help. They were so happy that someone was interested. I got all the kimonos from flea markets in Kyoto and Tokyo—they were all secondhand.
DPP: What about lighting gear?
BJ: I had four Profoto 7Bs with me in beat-up suitcases. We had no assistants with us. I do a lot of shaping with the light with flags, beauty dishes and seven-inch reflectors. I just acquired a couple of Profoto B1s, which are great because there’s no external power pack. They’re 500 watts each. The whole thing was shot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The 40×60-inch prints we displayed at the Fahey/Klein Gallery look amazing. I used mostly the 24-70mm lens. It’s ideal for travel. I had a Carl Zeiss 50mm ƒ/1.4 on a second body.
DPP: How were you able to get the shot of the girl in the sento having water poured on her?
BJ: After we did various shots around the location, the owner came up to us and said in a very nice way, "You have about five minutes." She had to open the doors to the public.
Richeille: All the old ladies were queuing up outside. We lined up three buckets of water and did three takes. The one that worked best was the second shot. The woman pouring the water is a graphic designer I had met in a store while shopping. She was the one who got us into the location.
BJ: I told her don’t be shy. Just nail the model with the water. Then you hope that the model’s expression is good. And it was. Two of our lights were positioned in back to bring out the water.
DPP: How about the images showing the Japanese arts of kinbaku or shibari—rope bondage?
BJ: We hired a 20-year master, EvilTHelL, to do that. He’s Dutch, speaks fluent Japanese and has lived there many years. We wanted to show the traditional and the modern.
Richeille: But we have just scratched the surface. There’s so much to explore. We were engulfed in so many aspects of the culture. Our series is a taster, almost.
DPP: Speaking of which, you used the famous Ramen Museum in Yokohama as one of the sets. Did you do a lot of post to try and re-create the mood of the ramen shops of the 1950s?
Richeille: We’re purists, in a way. We try to shoot everything as close as possible to the final product. The only thing we do is desaturate a little bit in post.
BJ: And minor Photoshop to clean things up. I came into photography through the darkroom, and I still love the smell of stop bath and fixer in the morning. Maybe that comes from the way I learned photography. After I got my BFA in photography from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, I went in 1999 to assist many of the modern masters in New York. I worked with Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, Michael Thompson, Annie Leibovitz a couple of times, and once I was a fourth assistant for Richard Avedon.
DPP: You just mentioned Annie Leibovitz. One of her earliest shots was in the Philippines with a Minolta camera her father got for her in Japan from a military PX while they were stationed in the Philippines.
BJ: I know that photograph! It’s of a tiny elderly woman with these big servicemen. I lived in the Philippines from age 7 to 14. My parents are both originally from there.
DPP: What are your plans for "The Japan Diaries"?
BJ: We’re having our 10-year anniversary in 2015, so we’re setting up our renewal of vows in a temple in Kyoto. We’ll expand our series to a variety of new scenarios and locations, everything from snow monkeys to Mount Fuji.
Special thanks to the Fahey/Klein Gallery for their assistance with this article. You can see more of Formento & Formento’s projects at formento2.com.