Photographer John Paul Foster: ‘Little details separate a good photograph from a great one’

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

Name: John Paul Foster
Age: 47
Nationality: American
Occupation: Photographer, lecturer
Likes: Film, ukiyo-e, Italian food, Kyoto
Dislikes: People who blindly follow rules and all things kawaii (cute)

1. Why did you become a photographer? I started out directing short films. However, I realized that, to make a good film, I needed the help of many people, which is difficult when you don’t have much money. As a photographer, I only need the help of one person, my subject. Knowing that, I became a photographer.

2. What is the allure of geisha? If you are attracted to color, I can’t think of more interesting subjects than geiko (a term primarily used to refer to geisha from Kyoto) and maiko (apprentice geisha).

3. Was it difficult in the first place to get close to geisha? I spent hours photographing on the street for four years before anyone invited me inside, so in that sense, yes. But it was also one of the most exciting times in my life, so in that sense, no.

4. You’re finishing work on a new book about geisha culture. Tell us about it. It’s titled “Now a Geisha,” and it focuses on the most important time in the lives of three geiko: the day they make their debut. I’m going to show every single step in the process, both during the debut and in the weeks before and after it.

5. Where do you go to relax or retreat? My apartment is the only place I can really get far from the maddening crowd.

6. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase? Chokotto, meaning “just a tiny, tiny bit.” During a portrait session, I was asking a maiko to move a little to her right or left by saying chotto (a little), and she would move too far. Eventually she said, “You mean chokotto, not chotto.” I find the difference between a successful photograph and an average one is often chokotto.

7. What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had in your line of work? One maiko told me that I could use Photoshop on her if I wanted, and she even told me the things about her I could change. I told her that if I could not make her look good with posing and lighting, the fault would be mine, not hers. I didn’t need Photoshop.

8. One of your books is titled “One Hundred Views of Kyoto.” Do you have a favorite view? I like all the karesansui dry rock gardens of Kyoto such as Daitokuji, Nanzenji and Tofukuji — as long as there are no people there.

9. Are geisha photographers a bit too much sometimes? The tourists or people with cameras who crowd Gion Kobu every day wanting to get a photo of a maiko or geiko no matter what the cost are more than a bit too much, in my opinion.

10. Describe your ideal day off? Sleep late, enjoy two cups of coffee and a good book in the morning, and have the afternoon and evening free to do whatever I feel like doing.

11. Who would your ideal dinner date be? To have just a good time, Barbara Stanwyck. If I could have a beer with anyone, it would be the poet William Blake.

12. What’s the key to taking a great photo? It’s chokotto. There’s always one little adjustment you can make — whether it’s to the lighting, the subject’s pose or when you press the shutter — that separates good photos from great ones.

13. Which photographers have influenced you? I’ve been more influenced by ukiyo-e (Tsukioka Yoshitoshi) and painting (Georges de la Tour) than photography. I admire the photographers Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter and Edward Steichen.

14. If you could photograph one person, living or dead, who would it be? Jigoku Dayu, although she might not even have been a real person. According to legend, she was a tayū (courtesan) in the 15th century, and her uchikake (formal kimono) was decorated with paintings of the tortures of hell.

15. What’s your next photographic project? I’m hoping to do a book about Kikugawa Tayu, one of the few remaining Shimabara tayū left in Kyoto. I find tayū to be even more visually interesting than geiko, and they are even more mysterious.

16. In 2016, CNN asked if Kyoto was the world’s most photogenic city. Is it? I think it is one of them. You can find things in Kyoto that you can’t find anywhere else.

17. What drives you mad? The hordes that descend on Kyoto when the maple leaves are in full color and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

18. What’s your favorite book or movie? “The Horse’s Mouth,” by Joyce Cary. It’s about an artist/con man named Gully Jimson. He’s a painter and is inspired by William Blake. I think I learned more about living life from that book than from any other.

19. What do you want to be when you grow up? I want to continue to make photographs, write and get better at both crafts.

20. Do you have any words of advice for young people? Put down your cell phones, really look at the world around you and think about what you see. Think about why things are the way they are and if they really have to be that way.

For more information on John Paul Foster, visit www.johnpaulfoster.com.