Seeing New Life: George Nobechi’s Path to Photography

Back then, photos were produced in a darkroom, where a film negative was enlarged to expose a sheet of paper. The paper would appear pristine, until lightly rubbed in a bath of developer liquid. Gradually, an image emerged.

This way of dealing could be the perfect metaphor to describe the life of Japanese-Canadian photographer George Nobechi. For 12 years, Nobechi worked in the world of finance, trading stocks and taking on stressful jobs that left his world empty. One day, he abandons the office, and plunges into a completely different bath, pursuing a career in photography. This is when his imagination really begins to develop.

Nobechi, now 41, is by all accounts a successful artist. In addition to numerous awards and solo exhibitions around the world, his work can be found in the collections of the Detroit Center for Contemporary Photography and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. This month, he is the subject of an exhibition called “Eastern Light, Western Wind”, which runs until May 9 at the Tokyo American Club. Although the club is not normally open to the public, Nobechi has set up a reservation system to admit people into the gallery.

Even the briefest glance at the photographer’s work will elicit two thoughts: first, his use of wide-angle lenses evokes a border-like immensity, even when the subject is a view through a window, and second, he there is an unwavering focus on rough imperfections and grainy details that seem to draw from Japan wabi-sabi aesthetic. This duality is not surprising, given Nobechi’s revelations.

Nobechi grew up in Tokyo, the son of a Canadian businessman and a Japanese mother trained in music at the Juilliard School in New York. He benefited from a cultivated education, with many trips and visits to art exhibitions with his maternal grandfather. He even remembers having a Contax 35mm camera and taking rolls of family photos. One of his strongest visual memories, however, is of gazing at Tokyo Tower, then lit by an outline of white lights and a few flashing reds, from his bedroom window.

“I tended to sleep with the curtains open,” he recalls, “and somehow the stillness of the Tokyo cityscape view at night was reassuring.”

‘Walk, Run, Jump at DT Suzuki Zen Museum, Kanazawa’ (2018) | © GEORGES NOBECHI

When Nobechi was 11, his family moved to Edmonton, Alberta, and the culture shock was severe. At the time, in Edmonton, “all Asians were considered ‘Orientals’,” recalls Nobechi. The rural landscape also left an impression. “It was 40 degrees below zero, the crossover point between degrees centigrade and degrees Fahrenheit,” says Nobechi, “a temperature that froze my eyelashes and nostrils as I walked to school.”

Regardless of the harsh climate, Nobechi enjoyed Edmonton and, after moving to Vancouver several years later, wanted to return. He was only 19 when his father died suddenly. He helped his mother and younger sister get back on their feet, earned a degree in history and international relations, then returned to Tokyo to enter the field of finance.

For 12 years, Nobechi worked in the world of finance, both in Tokyo and then on Wall Street. Then, one evening in 2014, Nobechi found himself sitting with a circle of young photographers exhibiting at Photoville, an outdoor photo festival held at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Something about the moment, under the city lights and in the company of people dedicated to their craft, made him see a different future. He quit his job, stored his things, and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to take his first serious photography class, “Visions of the American West,” with Nebraskan Brett Erickson.

Erickson found merit in his silent pupil and, perhaps admiring Nobechi’s daredevil cowboy move of switching horses along the way, introduced him to Sam Abell. Abell, a master in the art of framing life and light, known for his work for National Geographic Magazine, took Nobechi under his wing, and the two remain friends to this day.

“We hit it off immediately,” says Nobechi, “and he told me at the end of my workshop with him in March 2015, that if I really wanted to step away from my previous career and life and try in photography, he would help me. You don’t get this kind of opportunity every day.

Nobechi acknowledges the influence of his mentor and a close examination of Nobechi’s work – particularly his haunting Through the Window series “Here, Still (Unmoored)” and his Prix de la Photographie Paris 2020 award-winning series “Japanese Aquariums” – reveals flashes of similar attention to framing, spatial awareness and deep calm. Nobechi traveled nearly 1,000 days between his time with Abell and his return to Japan in 2017, wandering around the world like a wanderer, returning to Tokyo for three years, before moving on again, this once north into a larger space in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture. There he had space to print his own work, offer photography lessons, and hike in the woods surrounding a nearby volcano.

“The neighbors I meet are foxes and Kamoshika (Japanese serow) and the many wild birds,” says Nobechi. “Still, if I wanted to meet you for coffee, I could be in Marunouchi in 70 minutes. It’s rare in this world. Karuizawa is a special place, and I fully intend to bring everything I know and learned along the way to make it a vibrant artistic community.

'The moment the snow fell from the trees', Meiji Shrine, Tokyo (2018) |  © GEORGES NOBECHI
‘The moment the snow fell from the trees’, Meiji Shrine, Tokyo (2018) | © GEORGES NOBECHI

Nobechi isn’t shy about encouraging new and upcoming photographers, perhaps recalling his own path to art, but he recognizes that the challenge of excelling is heightened when most of the locals carry a decent enough camera. , most of the time.

“I would say digital cameras mean there’s a very low barrier to entry,” Nobechi says of modern forms of photography. “You can also set most cameras to automatic mode. They’ll do the tuning work for you 90% of the time and you’ll get a competent picture. But at the same time, I think it’s become a lot harder to do work that stands out. At the end of it all, it won’t be “whoever got the most likes who wins”, but rather, as these images fade from our memories, what original ideas will remain.

Image manipulation and compositing is something Nobechi eschews (but doesn’t necessarily despise), nor is he a big fan of post-processing.

“I think metaphorically when I photograph and then imagine what would be needed to complete the visual poem…and then shoot as close as possible,” he says. “So later when I come back to make further adjustments, what I have in my raw negative is pretty close to what I saw at the time. A few small adjustments and it’s done.

When asked what is the most important piece of advice he would give to serious photographers, he talks about finding your own “voice”, finding 10 people you trust to give you honest feedback and, finally, KonMari your files.

“Street photographer Garry Winogrand died with over 200,000 undeveloped photographs,” says Nobechi, “so don’t be a Winogrand. In the digital age, we often take so many photos – hundreds a day, sometimes thousands – and many of them are 99.9% identical. As much as possible, at least try to eliminate the obvious “failures” so that your intact archives are a few thousand, not hundreds of thousands. I was on the road for so long, just taking pictures and throwing them on hard drives and thinking I’d get there eventually. Well, seven years later… ha! Don’t be a George Nobechi.

For reservations to see Nobechi’s show at the Tokyo American Club, contact reserva.be/georgenobechi

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