Ono Shouichi: The Spirit of a Century

Photos © Ono Shouichi

By Irwin Wong -- Multi-light setups, gear reviews and lighting tricks are all worthwhile food for thought. But when people are looking back at your life’s work, will you be remembered for your lighting or for what you tried to tell the world with your camera?

In a long-spanning portrait series, Tokyo-based editorial photographer Ono Shouichi has (to date) photographed two hundred Japanese centenarians. The lighting, while there, is subordinate to the message. As it should be.

“I photographed the first 100 portraits starting from 1991 over a period of 2 years,” says Ono-san. “It was a project that took me on long trips up and down the length of Japan for several weeks at a time. I’d take the train up one side of the coast, do a loop and then come back to Tokyo, photographing my subjects all along the way.”

“It was a lot easier to find my subjects back then,” he says. “There weren’t as many restrictions regarding personal information twenty years ago as there are today. You could just go into a city office and ask if there were any people over 100 living in the area, and they’d tell you.”

Ono-san used a 4x5 view camera to photograph the first set of 100 portraits. It was an Ebony SV45 – a massive view camera, the type that is hardest to manage in the field. “We’d go to the location, often right before twilight to catch the best light, and shoot 30-40 frames of those huge plates with the aperture wide open.”

Even so, decent shutter speeds were difficult to obtain and often exposures were up to 1 second. With the difficulty of focusing large format -- and with the thin depth of field -- he says that out of 30 frames they were lucky to get one or two that were usable.

Twenty years ago there weren’t as many options for artificial lighting. So Ono-san used continuous halogens inside a soft-light box to simulate the airy twilight look in the other photos.

“Most of our photos were shot outside in available light." he said. "If we were shooting inside we wanted to make sure the lighting was consistent with the other photos.”

In that sense, the lighting was there but not there, in the very sense of artful restraint that characterizes many Japanese sensibilities.

Twenty years on, he’s just finished photographing his second set of 100 centenarians in order to document the aging face of Japan’s elderly population. Now, he uses a Nikon D300 and a Panasonic PE-36s flash. When quizzed about the change from large format film to digital, along with the standard answer that digital is more practical in the field these days, he mentioned this:

“The change in formats also reflects the many changes in the extremely elderly over the past 20 years, he said. "Back when I first started the project, people over 100 were revered as some kind of village elder, and were accorded a great deal of respect. Now, people over 100 have changed to be more down to earth, normal and generally closer to society than before.”

He feels the change in format also seems to fit this change in status.

But as before, the lighting isn’t the focus of the images. It’s there when it is needed. But it doesn’t crowd out the main focus of the photo, which is to depict each subject in their home/work environments. (Yes, some of them still work).

Sometimes he uses ceiling bounce for the shots. In the photo (below) of the lady mixing tea, he bounced a flash off of a reflector to camera right to simulate the light coming through the paper screens. He used a small halogen lamp in a soft box from behind the subject camera left as an accent light. All of the lighting is motivated, makes sense and isn’t applied too forcefully.

Ono-san understands the obsession a lot of beginning photographers have with perfecting technique, but he says that there is a lot more to consider beyond that. Communication, and the ability to make a positive difference in people’s lives are what motivates him as a photographer:
“The camera, especially in the digital age when you can show people what you’ve just taken, is such a great tool for bringing forth reactions and expressions that many families are stunned when the see the photos. ‘I forgot that he had that smile,’ someone remarked to me once.”

“That’s the great thing about this job. You’re not just making images, you have the ability to make something for people to treasure. When I’ve delivered to a family a photo of their eldest relative smiling and having fun, it’s much more satisfying than delivering an image to a client. That’s when I’m the most glad that I chose to become a photographer.”

Ono-san does not have a website, but he does have iPad and iPhone apps for both sets of photos. They are in Japanese, but you can see screen shots of images from both series:

:: Set One ::
:: Set Two ::


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
Grab your passport: Strobist Destination Workshops