I won’t go so far as to quote myself, as some of us at this newspaper are known to do, but when first looking through the photographs of Setsuko Owan I immediately thought of a phrase made famous long ago by the Greek scholar Winckelmann, who spoke of the “noble simplicity and calm (or silent) grandeur” of ancient Greek works of art. Owan’s pictures are astonishingly simple and incredibly serene. They glow with a quiet, patient beauty such as can be found in the films of Yasujiro Ozu or the novels of Yasunari Kawabata.
That isn’t exclusively a Japanese aesthetic, although its roots in Japanese history and culture go back to Heian times if not earlier. Peter Quennell called Japan “a universe of half-tones and subtle hints,” but decades later, in The Logic of Images, Wim Wenders wondered how Ozu would respond to the Tokyo of today, awash in its “hectic inflation of images.” And that was before the infusion of cell phones and the spillover of modern communications technology. Owan herself doesn’t feel comfortable in modern-day Tokyo, and when we look at her photographs the answer why seems clear.
Moving for the movies
Tokyo wasn’t such a good place to be living in 1945. For decades, maybe centuries, “the flowers of Edo” was a euphemism for the fires that frequently plagued the city, on account of the wooden structures and their close proximity to one another. During the last year of the Second World War much of the city was bombed, and much of it was burnt.
That was also the year of Owan’s birth, in Tokyo. She grew up, with two sisters, and later attended Showa Women’s University, also in Tokyo. She majored in English and in American literature, and when she was 19 she decided that after graduation she would go to the United States and study cinema. Five years later, in 1969, when she was 24 years old, she was accepted by the University of Southern California (USC) and moved to Los Angeles.
She took film classes for five years, but at the end of that time had lost her passion for the subject and realized that she didn’t have the aptitude or talent to pursue film any further.
And so, with a green card, she began working for a Japanese company that had opened a branch in the United States. They had an office in downtown L.A., and for five years, as a representative of the company, Owan worked very hard, day and night. When the company needed to borrow money, she signed the papers. When the company went bankrupt, Owan was left holding the bag.
Ticket to ride
Shocked and exhausted, Setsuko Owan had the wherewithal to give herself a vacation. It was 1978, and she bought a ticket to Europe. When she arrived in London she felt it instantly: “This is the way to live,” she told herself. “I needed it; I had to breathe; I had to experience nature, the people, everything. So I determined to go to Europe every year.”
For the next several years, Owan followed a self-imposed regimen: She worked selflessly for nine months, paid her rent and her bills, and then spent three months traveling. She was 33 when she began doing this – she was young and in good health – and she continued until she was somewhere around 50.
Owan realized that we may think we’re irreplaceable when we work for a company, “but actually you’re just a piece of furniture. If you quit, they can replace you.” So she knew that she could get up and go, and she also knew that she would consider all kinds of work if at the same time she could sock away enough money to finance her next trip overseas. Anything, she says, as long as she kept her pride.
Naturally, this isn’t a path or a goal to suit every taste, especially for those who revel in job titles or who intend to climb the corporate ladder. And while the Japanese language probably didn’t help her a great deal while traveling through Belgium or Germany, she was able to communicate in English and – as those who’ve journeyed across Europe with just English in their backpack already know – that’s good enough to get by, even in France, where they sometimes pretend they don’t understand you, even when they do (the remedy is to produce a bottle of wine and two glasses: You understand me now, right?)
Finding her focus
Regarding her skills with the camera, Owan is modest. She claims that she knows nothing about the technical aspects. “But as least I have a heart, a warm heart,” she says.
There are intrusive photographers, who push their way into a scene, and then there’s Setsuko Owan who carried a small camera with her and captured the small moments that often go overlooked. If the view or setting appealed to her and resonated within, she photographed it.
For Owan, it was about capturing or documenting the time and place, but for her personal use only. Although she was too exhausted to take photos while in Greece, she responded very well to Switzerland (“which has become in my heart my second home”) – and she took many, many photographs.
About ten years after her first travels Owan decided to set up an exhibition in her garage. Someone contacted a Japanese TV station, and they sent someone out. “But at that time, still,” she says, “I’m not a professional photographer, I’m just a photo-communicator. I want to communicate what I saw, and how life is beautiful.”
One day she entered a contest and sent in one of her pictures. She was awarded an honorable mention, and she received more honorable mentions in subsequent years. Each year the contest focused on a different subject, but Owan didn’t like trying to please other people. With art, she says, we should just try and please ourselves. They money, the competition, “it doesn’t fit me,” she adds. “I ignore it. I just take pictures of what I like.”
I contend that Owan must have developed her eye for composition during her years at film school, but she brushes this notion aside. “Cinema is so different, it’s always moving. I liked art when I was ten.” Her sister painted, and her mother – who worked as a pharmacist – began painting at age 78. “So I’ve been close to art in my family, and also I’m very close to European culture.” In this context, she also mentions the importance of music, which is of course a large component of cinema as well.
Setsuko Owan has lived in the same modest apartment, tucked away in Gardena, for about 30 years. She married her husband, David, in 1987, and they raised a daughter who is now attending school in Santa Barbara.
Owan and her husband know a great deal about Japanese art, literature, and film, and David’s bookshelves boast a most impressive collection of Japanese literature in translation. But with regards to Owan’s heritage and education and travels, I’m reminded of what J. Thomas Rimer wrote in his book, Pilgrimages: Aspects of Japanese Literature and Culture, in which he points out that, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans went to Europe when they desired culture. However, as Rimer explains, “Most Japanese intellectuals… went to Europe with at least a nascent sense of the fact that they represented a civilization with its own culture and traditions; they were not going to Europe for culture but as people of culture seeking to know the world.”
Presumably that’s not so true today, as America has produced a viable culture of its own over the past century and a half, but there’s still nothing or very little in the States to compare with an excursion through Paris or Vienna, Athens or Kyoto.
Owan draws attention to the obvious, that most artists or would-be artists want mainly to promote themselves, and of course the abundance of blogs and personal websites testifies to this. Her pictures are out there as well, but she’s not setting up neon lights to direct up to them. Very simply, the pictures speak for themselves.
She did, however, publish a book in 2010. It covers the first seven years of her overseas traveling, from 1978 to 1984. The book, in Japanese, also includes a selection of her photographs.
Owan says she didn’t take copious notes while traveling, sometimes just jotting down a line or two. Sometimes, she adds, she’d just sit someplace, like in a train station, and simply observe people for two or three hours. She claims that she can still visualize the people and places, as if it’s a movie, and we’re talking about events that go back 30 years and more.
Seeking the serene
Owan’s interest these days is not to add to her photographic archive, but rather to live among the cherished memories of her travels. “Physically,” she says, “there are so many things I cannot do like I used to, but mentally you’re still alive. So my next goal is to sell my book and to try to sell my photographs, and also scan my old negatives. It’s a big project.”
In the meantime, Owan continues to write, and on a variety of topics – most of them having to do with her own life and the people around her. She puts her essays on her own blog and also sends them to the Japanese-language newspaper, Rafu Shimpo, which then posts them online.
She again frowns at the prevalent competitive spirit that she sees, where for so many people the focus is only on being bigger or better or acquiring more.
“They should be looking for something inside themselves, and they’ll find happiness. We don’t need to learn from other people how to live or how to learn, just find yourself and peace of mind. Find beauty, find it by yourself.” Seek and find pleasure and happiness in small things, she says. “That’s what I’m looking for.”
And it’s this sensibility, this heart, that we find in her pictures.
That Day, That Moment, travel photography by Setsuko Owan, opens on Tuesday in the Malaga Cove Library Art Gallery, 2400 Via Campesina, Palos Verdes Estates. Among the 246 photographs from 24 countries are 18 pictures of bicycles – and seven photographs of cats. The work will be up through Monday, Sept. 30. The hours are Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sunday. Owan will be in the gallery each afternoon. (310) 377-9584 ext. 551. Owan’s website is ameblo.jp/romantictravel, and she can be reached at email@example.com. ER