Irwin Wong: A Year In Japan With Carl Zeiss Lenspire

Oct 12, 2017
Photographer Spotlight

Over the course of 2017, Tokyo-based photographer Irwin Wong has been traveling across Japan photographing traditional master craftsmen and women, hoping to help preserve some of the artisanal histories that are slowly becoming extinct in Japan.

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What began as a personal project quickly transpired into a year-long commissioned project for the Carl Zeiss Lenspire Blog. Irwin had completed one shoot, using Loxia lenses, when he reached out to Carl Zeiss Japan to show them the project he captured with their technology. They were immediately interested in a long-term partnership and asked Irwin to work on a year’s worth of blog posts for Lenspire.

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Every month, Irwin writes about a new project, including stills and video, shot with Zeiss equipment on the Lenspire blog. Each project includes information about a different type of craftsmanship that is entrenched with tradition, history, and culture in Japan.

My goal for the project overall is to help these master craftsmen gain more recognition around the world for their tradition, history, and of course their handmade work. Japanese craftsmanship produces some of the finest things money can buy, but despite that, many craftsmen are struggling by not being able to tap into a wider market. I also want to document all of these crafts before they become extinct – which is very likely in some industries here.

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On one journey to Kyoto, Irwin stopped to visit Yamamoto Fujio and his son Akihisa, who are the last two craftsmen that produce hand-made magic mirrors. After five generations of artisans in their family, their business is being swallowed by imitation knock-offs and mass-manufactured products. However, the real magic behind these mirrors is how they're created by hand.

What starts off as a block of solid bronze gets polished until one side is completely smooth and reflective, as clear as glass. When the mirror reflects light, it reveals a mysterious image, which gets engrained into the mirror through the polishing movements of the craftsman.

The Magic Mirror Artisan from Irwin Wong | Photographer on Vimeo.

In another month, Irwin traveled to Gujo Hachiman where the ritual called Koinobori no Kanzarashi takes place. From Watanabe Shokichi’s indigo dyeing workshop that dates back to 1570, carp streamers are dyed by hand. On the coldest day of the winter, the craftsmen and volunteers wade into the freezing river to soak the carp streamers overnight, leading to more vibrant colors. This ritual is unique to this town and can’t be seen anywhere else in the world.

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On yet another trip, Irwin can be found in Gifu, cormorant fishing with Yamashita Tetsuji, the 26th generation of cormorant fishers in a tradition that has taken place in the Nagara River for 1300 years. To fish with cormorants, the fishermen take boats out at night on the river, guided by a fire lantern, which helps attract the trout. Eight cormorants are attached by a leash to the boat and dive to catch trout, jumping into the boat to give the fish to the fisherman. While the amount of fish has decreased dramatically, cormorant fishing primarily takes place as a tourist attraction today.

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When planning for these shoots, Irwin makes a list of subjects he’s interested in interviewing and photographing and reaches out to them directly or through mutual connects he’s made through his travels. Luckily, his background in shooting artisans before this project has made him a few contacts who have been able to recommend exciting subjects.

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Each shoot is a great learning experience, as I get to witness firsthand the labor that goes into crafting each individual piece of work. Artisans are generally very focused, yet friendly people, and they are often more than happy to show you what goes into their craft. Sometimes we’ve had to travel far for a story (4 hours by train and another 2 by car for the Yodoe Umbrella shoot) but each experience has been great.

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As Irwin makes his way from Gifu to Kyoto to Tottori Prefecture, photographing unique industries from meeting the last Maiko to tea canister manufacturing to Kuno pottery, he becomes more passionate about his project. In the ninth month of this year-long project, and with hopes of creating a large photobook filled with portraits of Japanese master artisans, Irwin continues his travels. The posts have attracted a loyal following and regular commentators on the blog and social media, and have been met with wide praise, and Zeiss HQ in Germany has been thrilled.

A Master's Tools from ZEISS Camera Lenses on Vimeo.

My favorite part is having a passion project that I was working on independently become a legitimate paid project. I’ve been given an extremely high amount of autonomy with how I pick my subjects and how I write about them. This project will continue until the end of the year and hopefully, fingers crossed, Zeiss will want me back for another round next year.

To follow along with Irwin on the Lenspire Blog, click here.

See more of Irwin at irwinwong.com!

And check out our other members on our Find Photographers page. 

Tags: carl zeiss industrial photography irwin wong japan lenspire blog portrait photography portraiture photography tokyo travel photography wonderful machine