We are so happy and honored to share with you a very special interview we did earlier this month. We met and talked to Yoshitaka Kono, a very talented photographer who took pictures of LP for 1883 Magazine in February. You will find a link to the original feature with Yoshi’s stunning pictures in the sidebar.
Yoshi, thank you so much for that beautiful meeting. Learning more about your work and the shoot with LP was a real pleasure! We’d also like to thank Jay Mitchell, the head of 1883 Magazine, for making it possible and for all his kindness and support!
“WHEN I TAKE PICTURES, I LIKE TO SEE SOME POISON IN YOU”
When the reply comes, we just look at each other and smile. “Are you ok to travel to Camden Town?” Of all places in London, Yoshi suggests Camden. So now it’s certain – the magic is going to happen again. It surely did happen for us in Koko Camden, a stunning club, where LP played her phenomenal tour-closing show in April.
The three of us meet at the underground station and we struggle to find any reasonably quiet place to talk. It’s July 1st, a day before yet another of LP’s shows in London. Finally, we manage to find a table outside the café. We try to be cool. We’re not journalists, nor photographers. And we’re about to interview Yoshitaka Kono, the man who blew us away with his photos of LP for 1883 Magazine.
February, 2017. LP is in between her two European tours and she visits London for a few days. She talks to the press, she’s being shot for different magazines, she plays live at the radio stations. One of her stops is The Woods bar, styled a la Twin Peaks’ red room, where she is interviewed by 1883 Magazine and where she meets Yoshi and gets up in front of his camera. The shoot gets published at the beginning of March and we are amazed by the outcome. It’s obvious that LP is a graceful object to shoot, with her rockstar aura, strength and cool. Most photographers go straight for it, while Yoshi did the opposite thing, to an absolutely smashing effect, and we simply had to talk to him about it.
We conjure the recorder app to function as we realize what that one important thing was which we forgot to check back at the hotel, and soon we are completely absorbed in the conversation. First, we want to learn more about Yoshi. There’s not much information about him online. Freelance photographer. Born in Amagasaki, Japan. His web page full of outstanding work: editorials, portraits, fashion. “I didn’t start on photography professionally until 6-7 years ago. Before that I was shooting people as a hobby. You know, shooting my ex-girlfriend and that kind of stuff [laughs]. And then people started paying me.”
“So,” we go on, “there was no photography school involved.”
Yoshi replies: “I never liked school in my life. I only did a part-time course on how to use the camera. The good thing about photography is that you don’t need qualifications, you just need a finger and an eye.” And some sensitivity, probably? Yoshi laughs and says he’s not sure about that. Japanese modesty strikes us, as always.
We noticed he cooperates mainly with fashion / art / music magazines. Is it his domain?
“Yes, I work as a freelancer and I mainly do fashion and portraits. I regularly contribute to some magazines in London, sometimes also with music portraits, like the one with LP. I love working with models, but I love working with musicians too. Being photographed is not their main thing, but still they are artists and they know how to say what they want to say. They might not know how to pose, but that doesn’t matter, they know how to show who they are and my job is to capture it. And when it comes together, then: wow!”
So how does he prepare to his sessions with musicians? We ask Yoshi if he does any background check or if he focuses on their music rather than their story.
“I think it’s their music. It tells the most about who they are. They have their life behind it, sometimes very interesting or traumatic, but all this comes down to music anyway. And then of course I want to know what they look like if I don’t know them. With LP, I saw some pictures of her, but I didn’t pay much attention to her previous shoots. I was listening to her music and I was watching the videos with her one by one. There is one particular video, my favorite. It was acoustic “Lost On You” recorded in a studio. I was looking closely at her facial expression and trying to understand her vibes. And, oh wow… I felt I really wanted to take the pictures of her. Standard music videos are made to be what they are. That acoustic session is natural. It tells more about who she is.”
We ask Yoshi about how this kind of photo shoot usually looks. Does he meet the people he’s about to shoot? He tells us the moment the session starts he meets them for the first time.
“For example LP. I didn’t know anything about her. And then I just googled her and that was three days before the photo shoot. And I listened to her music and that was kind of ‘wow! It’s quite cool!’ I’d been listening to her music every day until the photo shoot. And also, usually I don’t know the location of the shoot, it’s a place I’ve never been to before. I just go there with my camera.”
Yoshi explains how it works. “There’s no time for a proper chat, because everyone’s busy.” But he tries to say just a few words to the person before the photo shoot, just to introduce himself for a couple of minutes. “I find it a bit rude not to say anything before shooting you.”
And with LP, he did the usual – first he checked the location and then just right before he started clicking, he remembers having said: “Hi LP, it’s a great pleasure to work with you. To be very honest, I didn’t know anything about you, I’m so sorry”. And he remembers she went, “Ah, it’s ok.” “I listened to your music for the first time three days ago and since then I’m a big fan of yours.” And then LP smiled and the energy in the room changed a bit. “At that moment we got kind of… trust? At least we felt closer to each other, I think. I don’t know how she felt about it though, that is what I felt anyway. Her facial expression totally changed and then she started getting on it and she was like: ‘Yeah sure, oh, let’s do this, let’s do that.’”
When it comes to Yoshi’s pictures of LP, what stands out for us is that she seems quite introverted and nostalgic, nonetheless cool at the same time. We really were in awe when we saw the outcome. No other shoot showed it to that extent. Was he trying to make her show that side of her?
© Yoshitaka Kono, courtesy of the author and 1883 Magazine
“I did ask her to do some expressions. I tried to get some kind of edgy side of her. The kind of vibes she might show in her performance on stage. She looks cool anyway and I didn’t want to maximize it. We wanted to do more… to do something different. And shooting in a bar, with her wearing whatever she wanted to wear, was a part of the whole idea of trying to show who she is. The location was the magazine’s concept and I really liked it. It would be nice to shoot her in a studio too, but it might kill some part of the vibes.“
What about this nostalgia in his pictures of LP? Where did it come from? Was it simply there and he found the way to get it out?
“When I take pictures, I like to see some poison in you. That makes you look even more beautiful. Not in a way of being beautiful, pretty and full of love, which is great and I love it too, but when there’s some kind of poison in you, that makes you look more real. So LP is looking into the camera with ‘what the fuck are you looking at?’ kind of attitude. It’s a twist. And she nailed it.”
We show Yoshi our favorite picture from his session – a close up of LP sitting on the floor with her eyes almost shut. Then we say what struck us the most in his work: “What we saw in your pictures was her being a songwriter as well. To actually show a mighty rockstar and a delicate songwriter at the same time is an amazing thing.”
Yoshi replies all he had to do was to click. “I’m not being modest or anything, it’s really true. She expressed herself, performed for my camera and all I had to do was to capture it. She’s a great performer. Really. When I work with someone like that, my job is really easy. I did ask her not to do anything if she wouldn’t feel comfortable with my direction, but she never said no to anything, she was like boom boom boom, done. Somehow I felt really close to her, I felt some kind of connection with her through my lens. And it was only half an hour session, but that was a really great photo shoot.”
It’s getting darker when we start digging into Yoshi’s work. His portraits of musicians are exceptional – intense in expression, colors and outlines. They are telling a story. We try to understand what is the vision, or maybe even the statement, behind Yoshi’s shots. What caught our attention is that the color palette in Yoshi’s work is always just as intense: vivid and saturated. All those reds in his session with LP look mesmerizing. Does he interact with the world that strongly?
“Actually I prefer black and white. I’m not too keen on mid tones. Black is black for me. White is white. But when you have a strong color in your outfit or in your background then I don’t want to kill it with the black and white. I want to see the red as red as it can be. It’s not always good, because sometimes that kills the main subject. It’s kind of a gamble but it did work in this case.”
Why is it so important to him, to see those colors that intensely?
“I don’t know. I’m always looking for something visually strong. Sometimes I ask colors for help – ‘Hey, please help me! You, red; you, green; help me make it look more pronounced’. Maybe that’s why, but I’m not sure. However, I don’t really like certain colors. When I see too much green, for example, I might just shoot in black and white [laughs].”
Towards the end we risk sharing some of our thoughts on the shoot spot choice. “The Twin Peaks series was way ahead of its time, there was a lot of complex stories in it. Visually it was beautiful and sensual. Was the choice of that scenery a way to illustrate how LP might be seen, or just a cool background?” Yoshi smiles and it becomes obvious that sometimes too much thinking just isn’t the way.
We say how much we’d love to see another photo shoot with LP by him. “Another photo shoot! Yes, I’d really love to work with her again! I hope it would happen in the future.” Yoshi is all excited and we can tell this must be a dream for him.
Any ideas on how to shoot her? “I don’t want to make her look too posy. I like the way she dresses and I’d love to use that again. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a studio or an outside location. It’s more about the connection between you and me. I point my camera at her, she does something cool, and all I have to do is just catch it. I don’t really want to think about ideas like: ‘yeah, let’s go to that place wearing that, maybe holding something crazy…’ I love it when it comes to fashion shoots, but with music portrait sessions, I’d rather just go there and see what happens. Just to capture the vibes.”
Yoshi falls silent and only then we realize that we are sitting in the middle of some very loud Camden Town party. Till now the earsplitting sound of it was isolated by his story. It has to be like that when the artist talks. But now it’s way too noisy to handle it over a coffee. “So… alcohol?” – we suggest, watching greedily our neighboring tables. “Oh, right, you’re Polish!” – Yoshi is clearly out of his reflective mood by now and into some party plans. We move to The Hawley Arms pub, one of Amy Winehouse’s favorite spots. We order beer and talk Europe vs. Japan stuff, but for a couple of minutes we come back to LP’s shoot. Maybe the fact of him being Japanese brings some oriental sensibility to the table and allows him to reach deeper into his subjects’ souls? “Maybe,” he answers.
We leave the bar and Yoshi insists on escorting us back to the center. The streets of Camden are literally flooded by people and colorful lights, happiness and, basically, pulsating with life. When we wave goodbye to each other at the underground station, we suddenly feel nostalgic. So maybe Yoshi has a magic key that opens some hidden door? And when there’s an artist in front of his camera, they achieve a very unique and beautiful symbiosis, impossible to describe.