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Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012
Enjoying the quiet life in Kanazawa, in black and white
American Mark Hammond captures the beauty of his 'second hometown'
By GIANNI SIMONE
Special to The Japan Times
Coincidence can shape people's lives in many ways. Ask Mark Hammond, and he will certainly agree.
Indeed, chance seems to have pushed his life and artistic activity into unpredictable directions. While attending college in the United States, he was more interested in broadcast journalism and video production than photography. "I think there was a school newspaper that had a darkroom, but I was too busy getting drunk and chasing girls to hang out with geeks who liked to write and take pictures," he says.
Hammond has spent almost 20 years capturing the beauties of his adopted home of Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, with his camera.
Born in Philadelphia in 1966, Hammond tried to break into the film and video production business after graduation. But it was hard to make a living as a freelancer in the small local market, so he decided to try something else.
"I met a guy at a party who told me that he had worked in Japan for a year, teaching English, and that he loved it. So I decided to try my luck," he recalls. "During my first week in Tokyo, I interviewed for a teaching position with a conversation school. By the time I got back to my room, they called and asked me if I wanted to manage their Kanazawa branch. I said sure, not even knowing where Kanazawa was, and left Tokyo for good after my month-long training."
When, after two years, that school went bankrupt, they asked Hammond to run their Osaka branch, but he decided to stay, and eventually began to teach at Kanazawa University and Kanazawa College of Art. "I really like this place," he says. "Sometimes I wish it was closer to a bigger city, and the entertainment scene is admittedly small. But on the other side, if you like traditional Japan, this is the place for you.
"Perhaps because Kanazawa escaped the destruction of World War II, occasionally I feel like I have slipped back a few hundred years in time. Try walking around the narrow streets of Higashiyama at night; it will not feel like modern Japan at all."
Being part of a community is what Hammond loves the most about Kanazawa. "The slow pace of life allows for spending a few moments to chitchat, whether it is an elderly woman in my neighborhood, or a former student out shopping. My wife and I play a game sometimes: When we go out downtown, we try and guess how many friends or people we know we will run into. Usually it is about 10."
Community plays a big role in Hammond's artistic activity as well. "I have been involved with Sora Aruki magazine, which comes out twice a year. All the people involved are creative in some way, and the magazine gives them a platform to write about things that they find interesting. I have done all the covers, except No. 1, and they even helped me design and publish my book 'Kanazawa in Black and White' in 2008."
Another important player in the local community is Art Gummi, a nonprofit organization whose website lists and promotes art events in Kanazawa. "They also have a nice gallery space that is right inside the Omicho Fish Market — one of our biggest tourist attractions. They recently rented four of my works for display in one of the companies that support them financially. I find it a winning situation for everybody: The company and those who work there get to see something nice on their walls; Art Gummi gets the financial support that they need to keep going; and the artist gets to make some money while keeping his work."
Last but not least, the Center for Arts and Architecture is another NPO that focuses on bridging the gap between the arts and the local community. "I like the fact that they have their office in a machiya (old townhouse). The space is used for lectures or workshops, but also for occasional exhibitions.
"I love it because it is not a gallery but an old traditional house. You can open up all the doors and make it easy to walk into. What happens is that even people who usually don't attend exhibitions just stop by and see what is going on." Last July Hammond had an exhibition at CAAK, with local photographer Shinobu Hashimoto.
Hammond still marvels at how taking photographs has become an essential part of his daily routine — especially considering the way it all started. "I learned the basics on my father's Nikon F2, soon after graduation, but I never really thought that I was that good. It wasn't until I got my own Nikon FM2, about a year before coming to Japan, that I really started to love making photos.
"In my whole life I've had about 30 minutes of instruction — 15 minutes each from my father and a professor at the art college who showed me how to print black and white photos in the darkroom — so you could say I'm self-taught."
One of Hammond's more interesting projects dates back to 1997 — he started taking photos of people jumping, inspired by the work of Philippe Halsman, who used to shoot a lot of celebrities for Life magazine. Hammond accumulated more than 100 jump shots from about 10 different countries, but then he became interested in other things.
"Especially in the past few years the solitude that the camera brings to me is what I crave. I shoot my son a lot, but I have not been doing too much work with other people as the subject."
For several years Hammond shot mostly color slide film, but decided to use only black and white in 1998 after he saw the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition in Tonami, Toyama Prefecture. "It totally changed how I thought about photography. I knew right away that I wanted to take photos like him. He never cropped his photos, so I swore to myself never to crop a photo. He wandered the streets of Europe, so I started taking my summer vacations in Europe."
Hammond confesses that he does not have a particular philosophy about photography. "But I like this Cartier-Bresson quote: 'I'm not responsible for my photographs. Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience. It's drowning yourself, dissolving yourself, and then sniff, sniff, sniff — being sensitive to coincidence. You can't go looking for it; you can't want it, or you won't get it. First you must lose yourself. Then it happens.' Maybe that is why I like photography. I like to lose myself.
"The hardest part about photography is not taking good pictures, but hanging around hoping that something beautiful is going to happen. A lot of times I give up and go home, but some days it is almost like a sixth sense. You just walk and keep your eyes open and you find what you are looking for."
As Hammond has been a Kanazawa resident for nearly 20 years, snow is prominently featured in his photographs. "At first it freaked me out because we get a lot of thunder and lightning during snowstorms, which is something I never saw in Philadelphia," he says. "The basic rule of snow removal is that you are a good citizen if you clear the snow in front of your house. Otherwise, you are bound to have serious problems with your neighbors.
"I love the snow for only one reason: photography. When there is snow here it is perfect for black and white. All this white makes everything pop out in contrast."
Snow was also the subject of Hammond's and Hashimoto's exhibition at CAAK. "The concept was to show photographs of Kanazawa's cold and snowy winter, on a hot summer day. There is a Kanazawa tradition of packing snow in the cellar (himuro) of some shrine in the mountains. On July 1 they open the cellar and bless the snow. On the opening of our show, about 100 people came, which really surprised me. I don't know if it was the snow photos, but remembering the winter is a common bond here."
Hammond is satisfied with the way things are shaping up in what he calls his second hometown. "Sora Aruki has developed a following, not only among the local creative scene, but also from outside of the city, as it gives a more personal face to Kanazawa. Even though I only contribute a photo, I get a lot of satisfaction when I see somebody on a street corner holding the magazine. I feel as if my photography plays a part in getting them interested both in the magazine and the place."