Ikeya Tomohide: Drawn to Water

Photos ©Ikeya Tomohide

By Irwin Wong -- Tokyo-based commercial/advertising photographer Ikeya Tomohide [池谷友秀] creates images that feature people in the context of water. He uses simple, dramatic lighting and execution -- combined with complex themes -- to create powerful photos.

A scuba diver before he was a photographer, Ikeya's series of Wave, Breath and Moon demonstrate the value of using personal experience to fuel own your creative process.

Ikeya’s personal work deals primarily with the issues of human control and its limits, and seeks to express through photos the interstitial quality of our existence in nature. Water plays a big part in each series, which together comprise a thought-provoking, raw set of images. The full galleries can be viewed here. [NSFW: artistic nudity]

The thought and execution that has gone into producing his images is balanced by a minimalist approach to the lighting. In 90% of the shots he uses a single light -- a Broncolor Verso A2 RFS 1200 pack with a Pulso G Lamp in a 32"x32" soft box. But he manages to get distinctive looks for each of the three series.

His Wave series is perhaps the simplest of them all to deconstruct – one soft box, from overhead and to the side. For some of the shots he stood on top of a step-ladder to get the top-down perspective. The location was a public beach a couple of hours from Tokyo. Easy, but elegant and well-executed. And demonstrating that a well defined, focused concept for your shoot will make or break a shoot as much as great lighting will.

The shots from Breath, his next series, are all done underwater. Ikeya said he rented a Scuba training pool for these shots, and that the level of preparation jumped up quite a bit. He had to cover every surface in the pool with black fabric to avoid having reflections from the light. Then he sandbagged the crap out of the soft box combination that was boomed out inches from the surface of the water. (Live electricity + people in water = potentially bad situation.)

But once again, the lighting serves to elevate the photo rather than dominate it. Ikeya said that he pays more attention to gesture and timing rather than lighting because he knows they are the big payoffs for his project.

In the Breath series Ikeya sometimes brings out a second light, but uses it more as a compositional element rather than a light source. He notes that it was a weird experience photographing nine naked girls underwater [NSFW: duh] at once, saying it was like “stepping into the wrong bathhouse by accident" (one of the many joys you can experience if you live in Japan).

In his third series, Moon, [NSFW: mild nudity] he tries to emulate the light from the moon by using his favored Broncolor + soft box combination. Here, he drapes several silks over the front to take even more edge off the light.

For most of the shots he mounts the light on a stand and varies his positioning to take advantage of different lighting angles without having to move the light itself. Again, simple light with a well-developed concept -- simplicity and harmony being the very model of everything Japanese.

In contrast to Breath, Ikeya said Moon wasn’t very expensive to shoot. A kiddie pool, a stepladder and a couple of wigs for the extra hair were all that was required in the props department.

For all three projects, the lighting remains simple, and is subordinate to concept and image. It’s about helping him achieve a look, which helps him to convey his message.

But most important is the inspiration. Ikeya has a fascination with water and its effect on us. As a scuba diver, he has explored underwater locations in Maldives, Saipan and Egypt. Those experiences of feeling vulnerable underwater, despite so much preparation, planted the ideas that would eventually evolve into Wave, Breath and Moon.

Photography needs fuel to stay interesting. A hobby or personal experience can be a powerful catalyst for a photo project -- and this is something anyone can do.

Tokyo-based photographer Irwin Wong is Strobist's Asia correspondent. Check out his work at IrwinWong.com.


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