What is Weird?
In honor of my inaugural issue of my UrbanWeird Photo magazine (the link to buy a copy is at the top), I decided to post the main essay "What is weird?" in the issue.
Weird, to me, it is not a negative concept. Weird is making the mundane less so. In photography it could be the subject matter, like the photo above of a dead dried porcupine fish with plastic googly eyes hanging in front of a restaurant on a Tokyo street, how the photograph is treated, for example, simply converting a natural landscape into unnatural black and white, or just that weird feeling I get at the time of making the image or while post-processing it. Again, the dead dried porcupine fish.
I was exposed to the philosophy of The Weird through literature. My favorite genre to read and write is Weird, specifically New Weird. In literature, The Weird famously manifested itself in the writing of H. P. Lovecraft in the early half of the last century. Simply, it is a mixture of fantasy, science fiction, and horror; a horror that Lovecraft termed “cosmic horror”, which has as its premise the insignificance of humanity in the universe; that the real horror is that of humanity being wiped out by some unknowable alien force. In other words, the horror of The Weird is psychological instead of a more visceral type we are more familiar with.
I am not that pessimistic, so I am more of a student of The New Weird, which came about around the turn of this century with the literary work of authors including M. John Harrison, China Miéville, Jeff Vandermeer, and K. J. Bishop. Bear with me, I’ll get to photography shortly. In my opinion, The New Weird is a bit less on the cosmic horror of Lovecraft and more on the weirdness of the setting and characters, i.e., more on the fantasy. This is not a fantasy world populated with bucolic elves, dwarves, and mighty dragons, but a much darker urban fantasy of oozing, dripping, city streets inhabited by humans, somewhat humans, and pretty much any horrifically bizarre manifestation the author has clawing to get out of his/her brain. Thus, The New Weird often sets itself in richly bizarre and decadent cities; real or imagined, with equally bizarre and decadent characters, many of which are non-human (There is often at least one being sporting tentacles in one form or another – an ode to the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos. The squid and a multitude of squid-inspired creatures have become a sort of mascot motif of The New Weird). The actual city can be a character. In the New Weird, the reader is thrown into a strange often urban world without any orientation; major literary culture shock in a way, which can be quite horrific. To everyone in the story but the reader, everything is pretty normal. The psychological horror is put on the reader. Nothing is knowable at first. The reader has to navigate the utter weirdness of everything with the hope that at some point his/her journey will become an exercise in acclimating to the normalcy of The Weird.
I love the inherent weirdness and decadence of cities. I grew up in a rural area and always wanted to get away to a big city (and succeeded) where people could be pretty much whomever they wanted. Cities are liberating. Cities are creatures, unknowable creatures; horrific creatures; weird creatures. Cities are mini universes. Even though humanity creates them, they eventually take on a life of their own and humans become just thousands or millions of tiny cells, bacteria, viruses that give a city its being. So humanity, or in The New Weird, people and creatures, is a bit more significant than in Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. They are willing participants in a kind of symbiosis of The Weird.
Finally, on to the topic of photography. I call my photography and writing Urban Weird (The New Weird being a rasping tentacled child-creature of the postmodern; thus, refusing to be comprehensively defined, I needed to make my own version). As I said above, cities are weird; thus, people are weird. This doesn’t mean that every one of my images would be considered “weird” in the traditional sense. I do, however, try to include a soupçon of The Weird in each one. It can be as subtle as converting an image depicting the magnificence of Mt. Fuji into black and white. Taking away what we see every day, colour, makes the subject or scene weird, strange, a bit unknowable, and perhaps a tiny bit horrific. This is one reason I predominantly photograph for black and white.
The fact that I try to incorporate The Weird, The UrbanWeird, into my photography, is not to say I do not try to make images that are pleasing to the eye. There is no law dictating weird cannot be beautiful. Juxtaposition is good example of how The Weird can be disconcerting as well as beautiful. The incongruity of urban spaces, particularly in Tokyo, can be jolting – a split second of that cosmic horror where you feel totally disorientated. Walking by an ancient serene Buddhist temple jutting up against an ultra-modern glass high rise reflecting back a distorted but stunning doppelgänger of the temple is a common juxtaposition here in Tokyo. Within the same scene, an elderly woman with hands together praying for good fortune can be only meters away from another laden with brand-name bags standing in front of her own glass and steel temple of the Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton gods.
A fun way for me to incorporate the Weird in my images is in titling. Some photographers give titles to their work and some don’t. For me, a title gives an image that extra weird umpf. A lot of times, my titles just come out of the thin tendrils of my imagination and have nothing to do with what is physically in the image – I like playing word association to create my titles. Many times a title will consist of a word or phrase that immediately came to my mind while staring at an image; other times, it is a bit more deliberate and logical. If a particular image I really like and want to put into my portfolio or send out to the world is not really that obviously weird, then hopefully the title will be and make the viewer look at the image from a bit weirder viewpoint.
Therefore, The Weird, specifically, UrbanWeird, is my photographic style, my vision, my manifesto.