Yokoyama Taisuke

by Ry Beville

Surfing has been one of the more colorful and enduring subcultures in countries like Australia and the U.S., where several generations of families have embraced the lifestyle in some cases. Historians note that Hawaiians—and other Pacific islanders—have been surfing for hundreds of years, and that many Polynesian kings were especially fond of the sport. But the subculture of surfing is a more modern phenomenon that evolved in the 20th century, especially in the 1960s when various forms of media helped catapult it into greater public consciousness.

Japan was not late in catching this modern wave. A handful of U.S. Military personnel stationed in Japan since at least the Vietnam War had boards, and some of those boards made their way into local communities. But the recording and dissemination of that culture as it budded in the early 70s in Japan began with individuals like Yokoyama Taisuke.

Taisuke sits down in a small café in Zushi looking nothing like his 62 years. He’s fit from decades of surfing and has a glow of deep satisfaction about him. This is a man who has been living the life he wanted. Sort of.

“I went to work for a film company, thinking I wanted to make surf films, but they had other priorities. I was working for them in Tokyo as an assistant, but when it looked as if I were going to be sent to Kyoto for two years, I thought, wait, there are no waves in Kyoto. So I quit. Or at least, I lied about my health so I could quit—in those times it wasn’t so easy to quit a company, because of societal pressures.”

Taisuke had been photographing surfing throughout his 20s. It all started with an unused Leica and the family’s proximity to the beach in Kamakura.

“My dad had an M-3 but never used it because he was a painter. One day in the early 70s—I would have been in my early 20s—I just grabbed a role of Tri-X and went to the beach to take pictures. I didn’t even know how to put the film in. It took me a few tries. A friend gave me some tips on shutter speed. I didn’t know how to develop them so I took them to a guy in town and he printed them out for me. I don’t have the negatives, only the prints from that time.”

Taisuke had an affinity for the beach and for surfing since childhood. Seeing Yokosuka base personnel surfing piqued his interest and he tried it out soon afterward. As most surfers are self-taught, it only seems natural that one of Japan’s original surf photographers was also basically self-taught with the camera, though he does admit some help from home.

“I learned about framing through paintings. My dad had lots of books of paintings and I absorbed a lot looking at those. That translated into photography. My brother-in-law was the original director of Photo Gallery International and he gave me lots of photography books, like Ansel Adams. He told me to look at various people’s books.”

When he was about 25, Taisuke got a Nikomat camera from his mom—no more sneaking off with daddy’s Leica. He put a Polaroid filter on it and walked around town snapping photos.

“Then I went to Guam with my friend who wanted to surf there and I started taking pictures. That’s when I really started to like it. I started shooting people’s portraits, too.”

After his film career failed to pan out, Taisuke continued on with photography, and those early days of shooting friends and his hometown gave him at least enough skill to be useful.

“My girlfriend at the time was a model and took me to a photo agency in Harajuku she knew. She gave me the introduction and that’s where I started to develop my own stuff, too. One of the other photographers working there was also a surfer, so he understood my needs, saying, look, if there are waves, you don’t have to come in. I basically worked for them as a helper. Lots of cameramen came in and I learned even more from them.”

“Around 1973, the first surfing magazine came out in Japan. A friend told me they were looking for pictures so when the editor came to Kamakura, I showed him my collection. My picture was used in a poster for the magazine. That’s when the Surfing World job came through. We were all amateurs then, and some of the pictures were really bad. You’d be embarrassed if you saw them now.”

Life as he expected it? Certainly not. And not life as he always wanted it either. Taisuke thinks for a moment, admits that dates have gotten fuzzy in his head, and continues with his narrative.

“I couldn’t really make any money from photography in the beginning and I didn’t really think of myself as a photographer, per se, anyway. I did all kinds of part time jobs. I even drove cars onto an export boat for a while.”

Then came the media surge, as it had elsewhere, most notably in the U.S.

“As I did more and more work for magazines and books, I started to get more requests. And I had been doing surf photography longer than anyone else anyway. In the 1980s the industry really started building out—wetsuits and peripherals—so my work started expanding. I started doing commercial stuff.”

Taisuke seems a little embarrassed about his commercial stuff, but you’d get a jolt of surprise on flipping through his portfolio. There are all kinds of portraits of A-list celebrities, including American icons like Keanu Reeves and even rapper and actor Ice-T.

Taisuke’s work shooting foreign surfers began in the early 80s when Surf Magazine (Japan) sent him to Hawaii for a month.

“People were surprised by the Japanese surf magazine and wanted to help out, so things went smoothly. I was really lucky. Professional surfing was expanding and the surfers of course wanted media coverage. It was a good era for me to be starting out.”

Around the 1990s, professional surfers from abroad started coming into Japan and Taisuke was a photographer for many of those early international competitions.

“I used to take the surfers out,” he says smiling, and some of his most interesting pictures are of those surfers out on the town in Japan. Soft focus is definitely a characteristic of much of this work. He explains that he just shoots when the moment feels right.

“When I have to do stuff for work, I have to put some technique into it, and it’s a little boring sometimes. It’s not like the old days when I could just shoot away. But I guess the business side of my photography is kind of ‘shoganai’ (can’t be helped). I grew up as a photographer in the business.”

Yes, and he grew up in the culture, too. Some would say he raised it. He certainly still enjoys it.

We walk down to the beach, hoping to surf. We survey a point well off the coast that had been pushing in shoulder-high waves for a few surfers that morning. But we’ve been talking for hours, drinking coffee, looking at pictures. The swell has gone flat. I ask him about the surf film he had intended to make before he joined the film company.

“It’s still in my head. I will make one eventually. Things have gotten easier, actually. We’re in an era where you can do it yourself. I’ll make one before I die.”



























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