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Interview · Isamu Sawa

Creative People

2nd August, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Friday 2nd August 2013

Photo by Melbourne photographer Isamu Sawa, art direction by Fabio Ongarato Design, for Lane Crawford.

Photograph by Isamu Sawa.  Ring by Rhys James.

Photo by Isamu Sawa, art direction by Tilt Creative for LK Boutique.

Portrait of Geoffrey Rush by Isamu Sawa.

Portrait of Kevin Rudd by Isamu Sawa, for Australian Financial Review Magazine.

Melbourne based photographer Isamu Sawa (or 'Issey' to his friends) was born in Japan, but immigrated to Australia with his family when he was nine.  With a photo journalist for a Dad, it wasn't long before Isamu inherited his first camera at the age of 10.  It hasn't left his side since.  Isamu went on to study photography at RMIT, and assisted legendary architectural photographer John Gollings for two years before going out on his own in 1996.  Once known as the 'Little Shutter Bug' in his childhood home town of Orange, NSW, Isamu has grown into one of Australia's most in-demand commercial photographers.

Though his folio is diverse, and includes everything from still life, to interiors, and some seriously high profile portraits (examples above!), Isamu's particular specialty is cars.  And, let me tell you, from my distant memory of life as a stylist / set dresser - car shoots are EPIC!    You've never seen the level of precision it takes to capture a gleaming vehicle in motion, with the perfect reflection on the bonnet, in exactly the right light against a flawless scenic backdrop.  Not to mention the camera rig required!  Only the most experienced, expert photographers shoot cars.  Due to the scale of automotive shoots, it's also the kind of work that demands a certain level of charismatic leadership, because car shoots are BIG shoots, and always collaborative at heart.

Isamu has shot campaigns for automotive clients including Holden, Subaru, Mazda, BMW, Mini and Toyota.  Unfortunately, the limits of our page layout makes it difficult to adequately share Isamu's incredible folio of automotive work - for a better look at this impressive body of work do visit his website!  It is hyperreal perfection!  Clients outside the automotive industry include Yellow Pages, Chandon, Peter Alexander, Aura Home, Vogue Australia, Australian Financial Review and The Age Melbourne Magazine.

Though he's often found shooting on location either here or overseas, Isamu also has his own impressive drive-in studio in Collingwood!  Ooh la la.  He is represented by the amazing Rachael Hart of Hart & Co (who, incidentally, we have also interviewed - here!).

Massive thanks to Isamu for sharing his story with us today.  He is quite the understated superstar.  And, I must say, rather handsome.

Isamu Sawa in his Collingwood studio.  Photo - Michael Oulton.
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study, did you always want to be a photographer, and what path led you to the kind of work you’re doing now?

I was born in Japan in 1972 and immigrated to Australia with my family when I was nine. My mother was a Suzuki-method piano teacher and my father was a photojournalist for a country newspaper. I was already playing the piano but I took a keen interest in photography when my father bought me my first camera at the age of 10. From then on I was affectionately known as the 'Little Shutter Bug' throughout the country town of Orange where we lived, carrying my camera everywhere and spending hours on end in our homemade darkroom/laundry!

How did you first start out in the industry, and what eventually led to going out on your own?

After moving to Melbourne and finishing high school I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts (Photography) at RMIT. It was here I think that I really discovered what was possible with photography and the different directions it could take you. I didn’t quite see out the course, finishing only two out of the three year degree, as I was offered a full-time assisting position with legendary architectural photographer John Gollings.

During my two-year stint I assisted him on not only amazing architectural projects both here and abroad, but also on fashion campaigns, still life shoots and portraiture. One day I would be hanging out of a helicopter holding his harness, the next we would be shooting from a crane cage 20 stories high in Bangkok. John was an incredibly generous and hands on teacher and quite often he would have me shooting assignments for his clients under his supervision. I was able to hone my technical skills and more importantly learn how to work to a brief and I gradually built up some of my own clients, shooting mostly portraits and album covers for musicians and rock bands.

John had a ‘two-year assistant’ rule and when my time was up I had to decide whether I would continue being an assistant with someone else or take a chance and start shooting for myself. My decision was to shoot and John offered me an office space in his St Kilda studio where I launched my career as a professional photographer in 1996.

If I could give any advice to aspiring photographers out there it would be this: assist as many different people as you can on as many different jobs as you can. Be diligent and be professional, but most of all keep shooting for yourself, it is the only way you will really learn and improve.

Photo by Isamu Sawa, art direction by Emery Studio for the Australian Dance Awards
How would you describe your approach to photography, and what influences the style of your work?

My approach to photography has always been about technical precision and polish. My dad (similar to John Gollings in some ways) was always quite considered and precise with his approach and those traits have been instilled in me from a very young age.

Photography to me is very technical and I have always enjoyed the process of learning about different techniques and new processes that enable you to capture each creative brief in a different way. Images in the old analogue days were captured as a single complete photograph in-camera requiring a different level of discipline and technique.

When I was shooting film I was always experimenting with different film stocks and processing them in certain ways to create different looks. These days with digital photography the process has changed completely bringing with it a whole new set of rules and processes. Most of the commercial automotive jobs I shoot these days require a lot of post-production to compile multiple shots into one final image. As you can imagine there needs to be a lot of planning and preparation to ensure that you photograph each one of those elements in a way that will allow them to be composited together seamlessly in post! It requires consideration of finding locations that match in terms of perspective, lighting direction and overall colour grade and then making sure that each image is captured using the correct lens and camera angle.

Although the fundamental photography techniques have remained the same the new digital medium has evolved my style from capturing a more traditional single frame image of the existing world to creating a more illustrative version of the world.

Subaru Forester campaign imagery. Photo by Isamu Sawa.
Having worked on big automotive campaigns for Holden and Subaru to taking the portraits of big name personalities including Kevin Rudd and Geoffrey Rush, your folio is as diverse as it is impressive! With this in mind what have been one or two favorite shoots/clients in recent years?

I have to say that the most recent brochure campaign that I have just finished for Tank Branding and their client Holden for the new VF Commodore will go down as one of my favorite shoots in recent years. The job was epic and one of the largest projects I have ever undertaken and it took over three months to complete! The project was top secret from day one and after a week of quoting and subsequently winning the project, included a month of scouting locations, both here and abroad, another month of shooting and a month of post-production. The brief was quite involved and very detailed so every shot had to be made up of multiple locations and we had to come up with some clever techniques to create the final images. We travelled extensively from country Victoria, South Australia, to Tasmania and across to New Zealand...I always love shoots when it involves travel to new and unique locations!

Another shoot that comes to mind is a project I did for Badjar Ogilvy and their client Lindeman’s back in 2010. I travelled to Japan with my father (as translator and producer) to shoot a landscape of some cherry blossom trees. We were given a very strict timeline, which made it quite tricky since the cherry blossom season is relatively short. We had found a location that matched the brief perfectly, which included almost a kilometre of blooming cherry blossom trees in a single row and we were so lucky that on the day of the shoot they were in full bloom. It snowed the very next day!

Isamu behind the scenes on a recent shoot with Tank Branding for Holden.  Photo - Tank Branding.

Isamu and assistant behind the scenes on a recent shoot for Holden.  Photo - Rachael Hart.
If you look back now and give the 21-year-old Isamu old career advice, what say to your younger self?

In terms of career advise not much. I think my 21-year-old self could probably teach this old dog a few tricks. I think if anything I would have advised him to experience life outside of work a little more rather than being so engrossed in his career. He may also tell me to buy that new car I keep eyeing off!

Can you give us an insight into the inner workings of Isamu Sawa Inc? What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Every day is so different but if I’m not shooting I would usually arrive at my Collingwood studio around 8.00am, go through emails and browse through a few websites and blogs for a bit of creative inspiration before the day begins. I am very lucky to be represented by my agent Hart & Co so often I will be on the phone to Rachael (Hart) going through briefs, working on quotes and organising logistics for upcoming shoots. Otherwise if I’m in the middle of pre-production for an upcoming shoot you’d find me in front of the computer researching for potential locations or liaising with location scouts and producers on the phone.

On a typical shoot day I will arrive at my studio an hour or two before the shoot to prep the gear and pack the cars if we are off on location, otherwise my assisstant and I could be pre-lighting for a studio shoot. If we are shooting on location the circumstances of each shoot will really vary depending on the location and the brief. I may need a van full of lighting equipment, or just my camera and a tripod! To tell you about a job I am shooting this week for example: we are shooting in a city laneway for a night shot, and due to the fact that we are in the CBD and need to close roads we have to start at 9pm and wrap at 4am! The day following the shoot I will need to go through all the digital of files and head over to the retoucher’s studio to start pulling the shot together for the client to preview.

I am lucky that pretty much every day for me is different. Different clients, different briefs, different teams and different locations. It is never dull!

Isamu's studio in Collingwood.  Photo by Isamu Sawa.

Isamu's studio in Collingwood.  Photo by Isamu Sawa.
Can you name for us 5 resources across any media which you visit regularly for a bolt of creative inspiration, or just to be kept in the loop!?

I keep up to date with the latest and greatest photography and film campaigns from around the world through a weekly newsletter by GoSee – Creative News Services. I also like reading articles on the blog by Rob Haggart, the former Director of Photography for Men's Journal and Outside Magazine at A Photo Editor. I subscribe to Top Gear and Wheels Magazine for all the latest automotive news and visit Luminous Landscape and Dpreview.com for the nerdy technical stuff.

Which other photographers, stylists or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?

At the moment I really like the work of the English photographer Julian Calverley especially his amazing landscape photography. I am also inspired by international automotive photographers Anton Watts, Frank Kayser and Simon Puschmann.

What are you most proud of professionally?

I am very proud that from my humble beginnings I have created a very successful business and have maintained my passion for the industry for the last 17 years.

What would be your dream creative project?

An Aston Martin. European Location. Open brief. Oh and a healthy budget…!

What are you looking forward to?

I am really looking forward to going on a holiday with my wife soon when we eventually have time!

Photo by Isamu Sawa, styling by Glen Proebstel for Emporium Magazine.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighborhood and why?

Collingwood/Fitzroy. I have lived and worked in these suburbs for over 15 years and the area has come a long way from it’s once dodgy reputation. Now this area is vibrant and trendy with a Gertrude Street’s chic shopping strip and culinary hotpots everywhere along Smith Street.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Specular is conveniently (dangerously) located just a few hundred metres up the road from my studio in Collingwood, and is where I buy all my Phase One and medium format camera gear. I go to Sun Studios in Richmond for Broncolor flash equipment and everything else I buy online mostly from B&H.

What and where was the last great meal you had in Melbourne?

Last weekend I was eyeing off this dish another customer was having across the table from us and had to try it, it was blue corn soft tacos with beef brisket, pickled cabbage, manchego corn and avocado black bean salsa with a bottle of Daylesford & Hepburn Mineral Springs Organic Chinotto for lunch at Fifty Acres café on Bridge Road in Richmond. Yum!

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Depends who you ask! <y wife says I am always working, but when I am not you’d find me at home giving her a hand with her floristry business either delivering bouquets or setting up a venue for a wedding reception. Otherwise if we are lucky enough not to be working we would be at home having homemade pancakes with berries and maple syrup.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

I hear there is a lot of good coffee in my neighborhood but I wouldn’t know these days since I gave up coffee a while ago!

Isamu and assistant shooting for Holden Cruze at Bondi Beach.

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