Herbie Yamaguchi

Like the name that he uses, Herbie Yamaguchi is a photographer whose life and career has been divided between Japan and the West. He first became known as a photographer in Britain and it is still the Britain of a particular time that he is often associated with.

Yamaguchi’s London photographs are a unique record of the burgeoning arts and music scene of the late seventies and early eighties, when he photographed those who would come to define that time. His subjects include Sex Pistol John Lydon, Joe Strummer of the Clash, Boy George, U2, fashion designer Vivian Westwood, film director Derek Jarman, as well as Diana before she became Princess of Wales.

His photographs are important because they capture Britain at a time of change. A time when the punk movement would hijack popular culture, and musicians, artists and designers would turn their back on the accepted way of doing things. It was, most importantly, a time of intense creativity.

As interest in this particular period has increased in recent years, so too has interest in Yamaguchi’s photographs. Perhaps this is also because the fate of some of the subjects changes the way we see the pictures: Diana, Joe Strummer and Derek Jarman would all die young, while Vivian Westwood would go on to become a world-famous fashion designer and Bono, a rock icon and activist. Yamaguchi captures many of these people before they reached the dizzy heights of fame, and in very ordinary situations. We see Joe Strummer on the London tube, Boy George washing his shirt in the bath, Vivienne Westwood working in a cramped warehouse and a young Diana getting into her car.

I met the photographer in a café in Nakameguro, Tokyo to find out the story behind the photos and discovered that Yamaguchi has a story just as interesting as some of the people he photographed.

He describes his childhood as “isolated” and “unhappy,” partly due to a TB-related back problem which saw him take a long time off school. He was 14 when he became interested in photography.

“My father was a keen amateur photographer,” he says “so cameras were always familiar to me, but it was my second-choice actually. I was interested in music but I realized my lack of talent as a musician when I joined the school music society.”

Music would always be a part of Yamaguchi’s life, though not in the way he would have imagined. After leaving school, he was expected to do as other young men of the time did and become a salary man. Instead, in the manner of some of the outsiders he would later photograph, he packed his camera and went to Britain.
“I chose Britain because I was interested in English progressive rock music of the time, like Pink Floyd and King Crimson,” he says. Ironically, it was this music that would soon be swept away by the punk rockers who were to become some of his most famous subjects.

Through his first part-time job in London he met someone who would prove to have a big influence on his career.

“My first part-time job was in a theatre group run by a Japanese musician, a percussionist called Tsutome Yamashita, who at that time was pretty famous in England. After the theatre group stopped, he started making a solo album and he invited me to his recording studio. On that album many famous musicians from around the early seventies joined, like Stevie Winwood, Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, a couple of guys from Kraftwerk. I saw the faces of people I used to listen to in Japan, so I started clicking away. That was the first time I started photographing famous musicians. Then my circle of friends started spreading out.”
As punk rock hit the headlines in Britain, he found himself in a relationship with an artist who happened to be an ex-girlfriend of Sid Vicious. This kind of serendipity seems to characterize Yamaguchi’s time in London and it would lead to the punk scene, as he puts it, “coming into my life.” I ask Yamaguchi what the punk movement meant to him and he explains how he got the shot of the late Joe Strummer of the Clash on the London Underground.

“I hesitated to go up to him and ask if I could take his picture…. but I did and he said it was okay. As he got out of the train, he said to me ‘You can take pictures of whatever you want – that’s punk!’ Many young people misunderstood what punk meant,” he explains. “Some took it as a kind of violence, or a fashion, but Joe Strummer could translate the meaning to me as a photographer – it meant a certain way of life and an attitude.”

Yamaguchi went on to document the punk and new wave movement in a way that would go beyond the shock/horror pictures that the mainstream media were so fond of. His picture of John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols conveys what he describes as the singer’s “innocence,” rather than the anger so loved by the paparazzi. This desire to record “very positive moments” makes his work humanistic and uplifting. Yamaguchi relates this aspect of his work to his childhood.

“Because of my disability I couldn’t take part in many physical activities,” he says. “I felt ignored by my classmates and the teachers weren’t sympathetic, so when people showed tenderness to me it really had an impact. I can actually remember the concerned look on the face of a young girl who, by accident, nearly hit me with a ball once…I wanted to photograph these kinds of moments.”

On breaking up with his girlfriend, Yamaguchi found himself with nowhere to live and was invited by a friend to take a room in a ‘squat’ in central London. Squats, empty buildings taken over by communities of young people, were influential to the music and art scene of the time as they presented opportunities for youngsters to meet and swap ideas. They also supplied the rehearsal or studio space necessary to put the ideas into practice. Yamaguchi’s move to a squat would prove fortuitous in more ways than one.

“Six months later,” he remembers, “a young guy called George, who I saw in many clubs, moved in to the next room. He later became Boy George.”

His early photographs of the cross-dressing 80s icon are of someone for whom fame seems a long way off. We see him crouched in the doorways of a club, doing odd jobs around the house, and in one shot, hand-washing his clothes in the bathroom.

Boy George would be Yamaguchi’s link to the next wave that would hit the British music and fashion scene, the so-called ‘new romantic’ movement, which Yamaguchi’s photographs would help export to the world. Around this time another serendipitous event occurred.

“A friend living in Earls Court in London called to tell me that a few photographers were trying to take pictures of a pretty young lady going in and out of one of the apartments nearby, so my friend suggested I should go and photograph this lady.”

The lady, Diana, would go on to become one of the most famous women on the planet. Yamaguchi’s photograph of the future Princess entitled ‘On her way’ shows a young woman unaccustomed to media attention, nervously smiling as she begins her journey into history. The presence of the paparazzi in the background and the fact that she is getting into a car, in retrospect, lend a somewhat ominous note to the picture.

Yamaguchi’s London photographs are not only of the soon-to-be famous. We see schoolchildren, old people, the wealthy, the homeless, as well as something of the environment they lived in—the parks, pubs, houses and schools of a London that had been in economic decline for a number of years.

When Yamaguchi’s photography began to be recognized in his home country he decided to return to Japan for the first time in eight years.

“A Japanese fashion company invited me as a photographer along with ten young British boys (some of whom included an eventual film director, a singer, a musician and a designer) to act as models for fashion shows in Tokyo. Later, a fashion magazine did a ten-page feature on my pictures.”

And from this time on, the young photographer’s star rose in his home country. He came back again after PARCO decided to show an exhibition of his pictures, which was ecstatically received by young Japanese people in particular. From then on, Japan became his base.

He has since taken photographs for numerous publications as well as appeared as a commentator on television programs. More recent exhibitions have included images of the old Tokyo Daikanyama apartments before the bulldozers moved in. He describes his reasons for choosing this area as a subject.

“I’d been wanting to photograph something Japanese, but I wasn’t sure what. When I stepped into that area, I felt something special. The old buildings and the greenery made me feel calm and reminded me of London.”
His realization that the buildings were going to be demolished made him decide to make a photographic record of the place. At first concentrating on the buildings, he then moved on to the people who lived in or visited the area, finally combining the two to show the relationship of people and their environment. He describes this as a development in his work

“In London, at first I concentrated on people. Towards the end of my stay I took pictures of the city. In Daikanyama, it was the other way round, I started photographing the buildings but then became interested in the way people reacted to them.”

I ask him about the differences between the urban landscape of Britain and Japan and he talks of change.
“After a seven-year absence I went back to London in 2006. Some things had changed, some things had not,” he explains. “In Japan, after seven years, if I go away and come back, I don’t recognize it, I would be lost. It is important to keep a balance, but in Japan, the newer the building, the more important it is, we think.”

Although he lives in Tokyo, Yamaguchi returns frequently to Europe, especially London. Aside from being a full-time working photographer he also hosted a regular T.V. music program called ‘Music Tide,’ which ensured a continuing involvement with the popular music scene that has been so entwined with his photography. His work regularly appears in exhibitions in both Japan and overseas.









「イギリスを選んだのは当時人気だったピンク・フロイドやキング・クリムゾンなどのプログレッシブ・ロックに興味があったから」 皮肉なことに、彼が被写体として主に選んだパンク・ロックの隆盛とともにプログレッシブ・ロックは衰退していくことになるのだが。

パンク・ロックがイギリスでマスコミを騒がせ始めた頃、山口氏はシド・ビシャスの元ガール・フレンドだったという女性アーティストと付き合い始めていた。このような「幸運」によって彼はパンク・ロックの世界へ自然に入っていくことになる。彼にとってパンク・ムーブメントとはどういうものだったのだろう? 彼はその答えをクラッシュの故・ジョー・ストラマーをロンドンの地下鉄で撮ったときのことを引き合いに出しながら説明してくれた。



「僕は体が弱かったので体育の授業とか体を動かすことには参加できないことが多かった。クラスメートからは仲間外れにされるし、先生も同情的ではなかったので、たまに暖かい気持ちに触れるととても感動した。今でもよく憶えているのは、ある女の子が投げたボールが危うく僕に当たりそうになったときに彼女が見せた心配そうな顔・・・ ああいう瞬間を撮りたいんだ」




この女性が後にダイアナ妃となった女性であった。彼女を撮った作品、“On Her Way” は、まだメディアには注目されていなかった彼女が強張った笑みを浮かべる様子を捉えている。後ろにパパラッチがいるのと、彼女が車に乗り込むところを捉えた様子は、後の不幸な出来事を予感させる。








今は東京に住んでいるが、頻繁にヨーロッパ、特にロンドンと日本を往復している。写真家としての活動を続けながら、昨年まではテレビの音楽番組「Music Tide」にもレギュラー出演するなど、彼の作品と切っても切り離せないポピュラー音楽との関係を保ち続けている。ハービー・山口氏の作品は日本および海外での写真展などで定期的に紹介されている。

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