Learning by Doing

Sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way. You make a mistake that you will never do again. While the last week has seen further strengthening of lockdown here where I have been grounded for the last year or so (hopefully the last spell before things start to get better), I have spent time organizing my analogue archive—those stories and images that I never got around to properly store after they were shot.

One such story was from a travel to Japan and about sumo wrestlers. This is back in time, way before digital cameras were even thought of. Obviously, the story was captured on film. However, it never made it into a published story. I screwed up.

I had been in Japan already for some weeks, trying without much success to get access to a gym where the sumo wrestlers train. I had been attending a tournament but was not able to access their training grounds. Then someone, now years later I can quite recall whom and how, tipped me about a gym where the big fellows trained every morning. It was in the outskirts of Tokyo.

So, I just turned up at the break of dawn. And there they were, already into their morning routine. I had no appointment, but just started photographing. It was still dark inside the gym; with the only light provide being daylight streaming through the doors and windows. Aka, harsh contrast and difficult shooting conditions.

While I was in Japan, the big Japanese film manufacturer released a new slide film with, back then, the exhilarating speed of 1600 ISO being able push to 3200. Remember at the time a slide film with 200 ISO was at the high end—before this new film. I had just bought some rolls to test it out, and I thought it would be perfect for this dark gym.

First mistake! Never do important work with equipment you have not tried out beforehand, whether a camera, a new lens or, as in this case, a new film. I pushed the film to 3200 ISO. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the rolls developed while still in Japan. When I got back home and got the rolls developed, all the images where too dark. Somehow, the lab hadn’t gotten it right, I believe because they had never developed this film before.

The second mistake, which wasn’t doing things worse, really, since the films were screwed anyway, but would have been, if not for the underexposed and/or underdeveloped rolls. I didn’t move close enough. I felt I was intruding, most of all because I had not made arrangements beforehand, and couldn’t communicate with anyway at the gym. It was a little intimidating being in a place where nobody understood, and I wasn’t sure they wanted me to be around in the first place.

As I was photographing the sumo wrestlers’ morning training, albeit not knowing nothing would come out of it, a crowd started to gather outside the gym. I slowly gathered it was me, that I was the attraction. Nobody out in this suburb of Tokyo were used to a gaijin—a foreigner. That sure put extra pressure on me, and maybe part of why I failed so miserably.

At least, I got back from the whole experience with a lovely memory. As I was packing down my equipment, believing I had done a scoop and would get the biggest story ever published in a major magazine, a young Japanese man from the crowd approach me and asked in poor English if I would like to come along and have breakfast with him and his family at his home. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the invitation—and wouldn’t want to—and had this lovely breakfast with him, his wife and their only child. We couldn’t say much to each other, but used the international sign language.

Today that would be quite unusual, to be invited home to a total strange in the middle a big city. At least I got away with something.

The images here are an attempt to recover some of the images, by scanning and processing them. Took quite some time…


68 thoughts on “Learning by Doing

  1. I very much like your story, Otto, about your “hard” experience in Japan on the one hand, but with this very special and positive ending and impressive images!:)

  2. They didn’t get published in a big magazine, nor provide you a famous byline, but they did get you some wonderful memories and a great story to tell, so I consider these a success.

  3. To me, I think these pictures are great. They are nostalgic of film. I love the grain and the tonal. I think it may not be this classic look and feel if they were perhaps properly done.

    I think the most concerning point that you encountered is feeling unwanted in a foreign land or location. From these shots, I think you managed that quite well.

  4. A really unusual “cautionary tale” and what a fascinating experience. “A tale to dine out on” as the older folks say.
    I remember my father talking about being excited to obtain that high-sensitivity film for the first time. He took it along on his honeymoon, and arrived in Ireland to find it was the only film he’d packed. His light meter was broken somehow during the flight, and the internal light meter on his Honeywell Pentax quit. My folks were traveling on a budget, so he didn’t replace it, and “guess-timated” his way, until he could get find some familiar Kodachrome 64 or whatever. So he came back with several rolls badly overexposed. Well, they had a grand time and still married. Three of the shots that came out, my grandmother used to create a set of three oil paintings they treasure.
    I think these sumo shots have a great feeling of authenticity, and the darkness and grain give the wrestlers a sense of monumentality.

    1. Thank you for sharing your father’s experience with the same film, Robert. Kodachrome 64 was my go-to film. It was supposed to be “the best” back then, but today I can regret, because it’s almost impossible to scan Kodachrome slides, or at least it takes a lot of work.

  5. Your images brought the story back to mind for you so you could share it with us. They may not be the best quality but they certainly put us with you in the story. I say that’s a win.

  6. What an interesting memory and I’m so glad you shared this story. I think the caution to not utilize new techniques or equipment when engaged in something very special and important is good advice for anyone, whether or not photography is involved! Your time with the Japanese family touches me greatly. What a beautiful display of hospitality.

    1. It was a stunning display of hospitality, indeed, and I was really taken by surprised. But after having spent more time in Japan, it does not surprise as much any more. But it may have changed now, it’s quite a few years since I was there the last time.

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  8. I had this feeling on many occasion. This involved something connected to power. You had wonderful pictures on street with common people, I am sure, there you were in your soup. Well done! You accepted the invitation.

  9. At least you were able to take those pics, despite your personal disappointment in their quality. Plus you got to experience some of the Japanese culture. Flashes me back to 1971, when I was stationed in Iwakuni. Spent most of my time with my friends mingling with the people and places of our interests.

  10. You managed to turn them into works of art, Otto. All lessons are worthwhile and some are worth preserving and tweaking and bring out the best you can…

  11. Whenever I read about photographic mishaps, I’m reminded of the nightmare experience of photographer William Henry Jackson (1843-1942). During one of his trips in the West, all the photos he had taken couldn’t get developed because his glass plates were destroyed–but he didn’t find out until after he had returned from his journey. I’m sure you can relate to the utter sense of dismay he must have felt.
    So even if your photos didn’t turn out the way you wanted them, Otto, they still tell a significant story.

      1. He talked about it in his autobiography. You, as a professional photographer, might really be able to relate to his experiences. The book is “Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson.” Just in case. 🙂

  12. wow, what a story, Otto!!! and i love the pictures anyway, but you know me 🙂 xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxox

  13. A very interesting story, Otto. Especially because it happened in Japan, a country where i had to travel because of my job. When coming back, i used to say that Japan gave me the feeling to be the most different country in the world, though i “knew” many countries in Africa or in the Americas.
    A question, if you allow me: what did you eat during this breakfast in Tokyo?

    1. I have to laugh of your question. I love Japanese food, but their breakfast is a little difficult… So for the most part I had Western kind of breakfast. What about yourself?

  14. Mi piace molto come metti in luce i tuoi errori, innanzitutto sono segno di modestia e poi sono un grande insegnamento per chi ha molto da imparare. Hai fatto un bel recupero delle foto, complimenti.
    Un caro saluto, Patrizia

    1. Sono contento che ti piaccia la mia presentazione e la mia speranza è che anche gli altri possano imparare qualcosa dai miei errori. Molte grazie per il feedback, Patrizia.

  15. I think these shots have character. Maybe not what a magazine would look for, but hey, wrestling is a gritty business.

    Black and white slide film? Or did you convert them?

  16. Really great story about an experience that took several decades to come to fruition. Glad you took the time to follow through. Really nice experience in your career I’m sure. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Sounds like quite a few lessons were learnt throughout all of this. You did get some good pics. Plus a nice breakfast invitation!

  18. There’s one experience we’ve shared, Otto: being invited into the home of someone in a foreign country. After I’d returned from working in Liberia, I went back for a six week visit to West Africa. One day, I stopped on a Monrovia street to ask directions, and ended up in the home of a Mandingo family, sharing the most wonderful lunch possible. I laughed at your mention of becoming the prime attraction, too. Privacy’s an unknown concept in bush villages, and more than once I’d waken to find the children lined up at the opening that served as a window, entertaining themselves by watching the white woman.

    As for learning by doing: of course. Even the mistakes are worthwhile. Without them, we’d not move toward real accomplishment. Just last week, I received a complimentary copy of a book published by the Xerces Society, filled with photos of plants that can be used to sustain the monarchs and other butterflies. One of my photos is included: you can imagine how pleased I was when they sought permission to publish it. One step at a time, mistakes and all!

    1. Yes, the attraction of strange foreigners! When I travelled first time in China in 1984 I almost always had a crowd surround and following me, wherever I went. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Cool with the published photo and the complementary book.

  19. Inexperience told on you, Otto, but you certainly learned from it. And now have the skills to turn them into atmospheric photos. A good story, and fine memories 🙂 🙂

  20. I like these images a lot. The “gritty” texture of them gives them an artistic quality. Maybe not the thing you want for a commercial client, but would look great in a gallery exhibition.

  21. I wonder whether any of the latest photographic software could make your grainy images more pleasing.

    People sometimes speak about “the kindness of strangers,” as when the main character in Tennessee Wiilliams’s play “A Streetcar Named Desire” says “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” I remember being “picked up” and befriended by some people in Mexico City in the 1970s and by a couple in Paris in 1985.

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