Your first book, Tiny Tokyo, is about to see the light of day. What can we expect?
I started out by studying 3-D design and animation in Adelaide. For about seven years now, I have been working as a photographer with a focus on exploring and creating works of art. Tiny Tokyo is my debut in the publishing world and I am a bit nervous, as it is my largest project to date. I worked on it for almost two years! After shooting around 13,000 frames, 200 of them made it into the book. Overall, it has been a fantastic experience working with such a huge, experienced, and progressive publishing house (Chronicle Books).
Tiny Tokyo is also part of your Cityshrinker project. What is the intention behind this intriguing scheme?
About ten years ago, when I moved from Adelaide to the much bigger city of Melbourne, I was really keen on discovering my new hometown. For me, the best way to explore was to head out and take photographs. Just by coincidence, I sought out higher vantage points to see what was around. I started experimenting with different tilt shift techniques and achieved some interesting results. After I released the first images on my blog, the response was incredible and prompted me to start exploring more options. In 2008, I was invited to Tokyo to shoot the next series. Exhibitions in Paris, Berlin, and the US followed. Meanwhile, I also did series in San Francisco, London, Sydney, New York – to name just a few.
What kind of techniques do you use?
I almost always work with natural light and shoot with two cameras. My prime camera is a Canon 5D Mark 3, the other a Canon EOS50 analog camera. At most locations, I charter a small helicopter, open the doors, and strap myself in to shoot out of the opening … trying not to fall out or drop any of my equipment!
Usually, I am up in the air for about an hour and might be shooting as many as 1,000 images within this timeframe. This enables me to capture all the sights I am looking to shoot that would ordinarily be difficult to access.
How do you choose your motives? What exactly are you looking for?
During the early planning stages, I spend a lot of time on Google Maps and Street View to identify the best locations, but my main focus has changed over time. Initially, I was quite fixated on shooting iconic destinations like New York’s Central Park or Yankee Stadium. More recently, I have spent a lot of time researching geometrically interesting locations. Lately, for example, I was shooting down at the Melbourne port shipping docks. I took some interesting pictures of the shipping containers and ten thousands of cars lined up to be shipped. I am more and more interested in showing hidden places that people wouldn’t usually get access to and wouldn’t necessarily even know about.
Where does this passion for geometry come from? Are you a very structured person?
I am not overly structured myself. My wife definitely tells me I should be more structured! I had a huge collection of LEGO bricks when I was a child and I loved to create interesting patterns and shapes. Maybe that was a starting point …
In a recent series, Accession, most of my pictures use kaleidoscopic and mirroring techniques. It reminds some people of the movie Inception. When I develop these images, I look for a way to blend the cityscapes that brings the geometry of buildings together in brand new shapes. To me, the geometry of our cities almost feels like a fingerprint. A collection of geometric shapes might result in a building, a bridge, or a road. They have a tremendous beauty – individually and together.
From this perspective – what were your most inspiring locations?
Tokyo is my undisputed number one. I still find it hard to fully comprehend the urban sprawl of that city. It just never ends. You move within these sub-cities and the seemingly endless cityscape is constantly changing. It is really inspiring. Even after five visits, doing the book, and an intensive three-week shoot, I still feel like there is a lot more to explore.
Any other cities on you wish list?
I am really keen to get to Rio de Janeiro, but I would also like to shoot in Spain for the beautiful architecture. And seeing Machu Picchu while it is still accessible would be fantastic.
What is your goal in photography – and what do you have coming up next?
To keep on doing it! It is a fantastic form of expression. I am truly passionate about it as it inspires me to do things better and better every day. I will continue with the Cityshrinker series, probably doing Boston and Chicago next. I am also planning on expanding the concept to do a “one shot, one print” series in Melbourne. I will exclusively shoot on film and only release one print each, including the negative of the respective image.
You have seen a lot of cities on your travels. What would make a better city?
From a technical point of view, we need to aim for more connected cities. The concept of smart cities powered by the “internet of things” would be a revolutionary advance. It will change how people experience the cities they visit or live in. The idea of a connected city involves core infrastructural services like city-wide Wi-Fi access – that is going be the next big jump.
Text and Interview: Romy Uebel
All images including header: Ben Thomas