Date of birth: January 4th, 1972
Place of birth: San Diego, California, USA
Place of residence: Sapporo, Japan
Years snowboarding: 27
Years taking pictures: 21
Tell us a little bit about what life was like growing up for you. Where you come from, what life was like growing up, your family and all that kind of stuff…
Do you have a couple of hours? Just kidding I will give you the short version. My family moved from New York to San Diego, California just before I was born in January of 1972. So I am West Coast child of the funky seventies raised by an East Coast parental unit of the 50’s. My parents took an unorthodox approach to a lot of things and living in one place and going to school was not a part of the program. Home school, camping cars, log homes without electricity, farming, bear hunting, illegal vanilla extract importing, apple picking, a year on the road in Mexico and many more life experiences were gained all before my teens. In the end my parents separated with Mom staying in California and Dad finding a new home in Northern Japan. On a trip to visit my Dad I spent two months living and working at resort called Rusutsu in Hokkaido. This was 1985 and the rental shop had Burton Performer Elites! Free rentals and time for a few hours of riding each day, bang!, snowboarding became my favorite thing. After that, each winter was a chance to go to Japan to visit my Dad and snowboard as much as possible. Even before snowboarding grabbed me, movie making was something I had a lot of interest in. I can remember stating that I wanted to be a movie director at around age 13. So I think it was inevitable that the two things which interested me the most eventually crossed paths. I started living in Japan from spring of 1991 after graduating High School with a G.E.D. in San Diego and soon after I got the chance to be part of a new TV show about snowboarding called “No Matter Board” I was the English speaking host and for seven seasons that was my winter gig. Soon I was filming for the show as well as selecting the music soundtrack. From the mid to late 90’s I started shooting photo’s more and more and soon was getting shots in magazines and adds. From the early 2000’s I started producing my own films along with photography and the rest is history!
Did you take any formal training? University or the like:
No training. I never went to college except for a year when I took some drama classes at a Jr. College in San Diego. I was still High School age at the time, my mother encouraged me to get ahead and enter the Jr. College. I loved the drama classes, my favorite experience was working on the lighting crew for a couple of school plays. I guess that experience is still with me today as I love lighting things and I always seem to find myself up on ladders grabbing hot lights in order to get some decently lighting even when shooting a few portraits at an office building, etc.
But no I never took any photography specific classes. Not by choice really. When I started shooting photos in the early 90’s in Sapporo there just wasn’t any thing like that which I could find. Would still love to go back to school and re-learn the basics. Specially lighting, as I always feel like I know what I want, but I am not sure of the correct way to get it.
How do you work? Planned or un-planned shoots?
Some planned and some unplanned. There are catalog shoots for brands and video shoots that have to be planned out way in advance. For my movie series Car Danchi I try to keep the planning to a minimum and just let things happen naturally. It all has to do with weather anyway so even the best laid plans and intentions sometimes don’t work out.
Best work happens when…
Everyone gets up early. There is nothing that can compare to beautiful morning light! It doesn’t last that long and you have to be in the right place at the right time to get it. So getting up early seems to be the key.
Proudest accomplishments in photography.
Being able to put out a book of photographs from the last ten years of my photography work really stands out for me. It is tangible evidence of what I have been doing all this time and I love being able to share that with people I meet. The book is titled “Bluetiful” and is published by Bueno Books in Tokyo.
What’s your take on post photo manipulation? Do you do much of it?
I love the fact that I get to be the developer and printer now. I never developed my own film back before digital and I always felt like I was missing more that half the process of photography. I love how now with digital you can take a decent shot and turn it into something amazing just by “developing” it. I personally don’t take it very far though. My basic tools are “Dodge & Burn”. I don’t erase other lines from a photo or do any adjusting to the rider, but I will remove a random twig or garbage if it is affecting the ascetics of the shot but that is about it.
Tools. What equipment do you use for shooting?
My main camera now is a Nikon D800 and a variety of Nikon lenses. 10.5 fisheye up to 300mm. I still have and use my film cameras when possible. Hasselblad 503, Mamiya 7, Contax T3, Elinchrome portable flash set up, Gitzo and Manfrotto tripods.
Tips for people starting to shoot snowboarding.
Know snowboarding and specifically the style of snowboarding you are shooting as much as possible. Instead of pestering your riders with lots of questions you should already know where they are going to throw a turn or what trick would look best off a jump, etc. Even if you don’t launch off huge jumps yourself you should be willing to help build it and stand on the edge and visualize what it would be like to hit it. Putting yourself in the riders shoes is very important to visualizing good photos. Other than that I guess you really have to find your niche or your crew these days.
Question you wish someone had answered you when you started
No questions, no answers, the unknown is what makes life interesting!
Shooting snowboarding professionally is tough, specially getting into the industry. What do you think separates you from the rest and made you successful?
Location! 90% of my success is probably due to my location. Being the only foreign based photographer/filmer in Hokkaido, Japan in the 90’s and early 2000’s was a big advantage. I was able to meet, ride and shoot with all the pro’s that came through back in the day and was able to learn a lot from those experiences. I think I was able to “brand” myself as the “Neil in Japan” and still to this day that is one of my advantages. When editors need photos or info about Japan my name pops up and I get contacts from around the world with requests. Even if you are not the only one in your zone I am sure there are ways to brand yourself and make sure people know what you do and how well you do it.
Do you shoot only snowboarding? If not, what else do you shoot and why?
Now I shoot a lot of stuff outside of snowboarding. Most of it is corporate related projects, catalog shoots, store openings, product photos and video, other sport competitions like trail running and whatever else I get asked to do. There is a lot of stuff out there which need to get photographed and I have decided saying no is not the thing to do right now. Maybe later on in life I will be more selective with my projects, but for right now I am learning a lot from doing so many different kinds of shoots.
How do you level the work / life balance with all the traveling?
I don’t! I just try to stay healthy and make sure I am not always tired and sleepy when I get home to my wife and kids. I don’t spend months at a time on the road, most of my trips are a week long sometimes two weeks if I go overseas so it is not that bad. Someday I won’t get this many opportunities to travel the world with other people’s money so I am focusing on enjoying every chance I get and learning as much as possible.
How do you manage creative blocks?
I don’t think I get creative blocks. There is just too much going on to take time out for a creative block! I think balance is important too. I have two houses and a large property to manage so anytime I get stuck editing footage or get tired of looking at photos I just step outside and take on a project. Chopping firewood or painting or cutting grass has an amazing way of clearing the mind!
What is it like to live in Japan?
Japan is nuts! The longer I am here the weirder it gets. Nature certainly shows its power in this part of the world. From huge amounts of snow, to typhoons, earthquakes and Tsunami’s we have a lot to keep us on edge and living in the moment. There is a lot of natural beauty to enjoy and thanks to the deep history of the culture there is an endless supply of inspiration. Plus if you want to eat good, Japan is the place! Unfortunately the great earthquake and nuclear disaster of 2011 certainly put a wrinkle in life here. I used to go to Fukushima prefecture for snowboard contests every year and now many of those beautiful areas have been radiated and are personally off limits for me. It was an eye opening experience to see how the government here along with corporate and media control around the world have waxed over what continues to be an incredibly serious and ongoing disaster.
Was it difficult for you to blend in with their cultural differences?
Blending in is not really an option. I will always be a “foriegner” here. There are still so few non asian foreigners here that I stand out. I take it as an advantage though. There are a lot of cultural things that I can avoid just by being a foreigner and that can be a good thing a lot of the time. There are a lot of seniority issues here along with cultural and language formalities. Even if I say something “rude” to someone I get excused as being a “foriegner”.
You also shoot a lot of video. How do you balance both things?
I try to make sure my backpack is evenly weighted on both sides! Ha ha! I love both so much for me it has never been an issue. Now both video and photos can be shot with the same camera so it is even easier. Just flick a switch and shoot whichever works best at the moment. Some movement or scenes are best expressed with motion and some look best in still form. I like the way a single photograph can stand alone and represent someone or something. Video is a different animal. You need a large amount of footage well put together with a good soundtrack before it becomes a work of art. So for me photography is a solo project more artistic in nature and video is a group effort of which I am just one part of. It’s a community effort of which I am the manager.
Do you do them at the same time or you go out on different days to shoot photos or video?
Now my focus is mainly to go out and get some good video shots, along the way I like to shoot a lot landscape and portrait photos and then if there is a line or jump which I don’t think will work that good on video I shoot photos. For catalog or other projects I usually shoot only photos and have a filmer tag along to get the video shots.
Anything else you’d like to add?
When I first started shooting photographs a local Japanese photographer told me to expect only one good photo from every 50 rolls of film. To this day I still think that holds true. I guess we could update it to modern terms through… “you have to shoot 32GB to get one good DNG file”
Where can people follow what you are doing?