Australian photographer Ben Thomas’s ongoing quest to miniaturize the great cities of the world, via tilt-shift photography, has earned him the nickname the Cityshrinker. After shrinking New York, San Francisco, Paris, London, and his home in Melbourne, Thomas has set his sights, like Godzilla before him, on the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, Japan.
In his new photo book, Tiny Tokyo: The Big City Made Mini, the 31-year-old Adelaide-born former architectural photographer employs tilt-shift lenses to warp the depth of field in his street scenes, aerial landscapes and scenes of daily Japanese life. The effect leaves real life resembling an architectural model adorned with miniature cars and toy train sets.
According to Thomas, the tilt-shift effect provided him an opportunity to experiment with “ideas of make-believe” in the context of the real world and the ways in which we relate the two.
“With this effect,” says Thomas, “a scene tends to look shiny and new, as if it’s been given a fresh start. I hope for my images to be instantly familiar, but also just strange enough to encourage that second, deeper look. In presenting real scenes as dioramas, I have found that the viewer will look at a scene that is perhaps very familiar with fresh eyes and often with nostalgia and a sense of exploration and fun.”
Thomas, who had been exposed to tilt-shift lenses in his day job (the tilt-shift lens was originally designed for correcting perspective in photos of architectural models), says he was inspired to take the camera outside after relocating from the small country town of Adelaide to the relatively larger Melbourne in 2007.
“At the time,” he recalls via Skype from Melbourne (where it’s tomorrow already), “I thought that the best way to discover a new city was to get out and start shooting it. I found a lot of really tall buildings and high vantage points just to get my bearings, and see where everything was. So I ended up shooting from quite a distance up.”
Although he makes no claim to being the first user to see the potential for tilt-shift lenses, Thomas’s Cityshrinker blog grew in popularity after he began to devote most of his time to the effect. Initially, he says he was posting what he called ordinary shots in Melbourne and various other cities he’d visit, but once the first few tilt-shift shots went up, the response was overwhelming. It may bear noting, that Thomas came from a 3-D animation and video background, which he studied at college in Adelaide as part of a broader multimedia diploma course.
“I’d actually been shooting a lot of video back in Adelaide for a number of large, 16-piece funk bands, with multiple cameras running, it was a lot fun. Then, still photography just seemed like my next logical jump. So with my deep love of architecture, I went into photography and start shooting a lot of buildings.”
But it was the move to Melbourne, one of Australia’s largest cities that would lead to the tilt-shift work he’s becoming known for now.
“It was really daunting for me at the time,” says Thomas. “So I began shooting these wide scenes, with the tilt-shift effect giving everything that toy diorama feel which really takes away the intimidation in a big city. But what started to happen over time is that I started to gain a real appreciation for the geometry and, I suppose, the individual fingerprint of each city; the combination of this amazing architecture and the way that the roads are set into a city, and the general make up of a that city. Every city has its own unique fingerprint, and beautiful geometric shapes emerge. It’s not something that even people who live in city are necessarily paying attention to.”
He says that shooting from high up allows him a different to observe wouldn’t get walking the street.
“Looking directly down onto a city,” Thomas says, “you see this amazing grid and pattern of the roads. In the last shoot I did for the Cityshrinker series, I went up over Melbourne in a helicopter for an hour. We had the doors off and I was hanging out the side of the helicopter taking these shots. It wasn’t until probably five or 10 minutes before the flight ended that I actually pulled the camera away from my face and had a look at what was going on around me. Something I’ve noticed over time is, as you’re shooting and shooting and shooting, you get to rediscover and even discover a lot of what’s going through the shots that you’ve taken, but there can also be a bit of a detachment while you’re shooting them.”
“Tokyo, on the face of it, is anything but miniature,” Thomas writes in the introduction to the book. “It is gigantic–a seemingly endless metropolis. It is brash and bold and larger than life. However, look a little deeper, and you will see that Tokyo is not that obvious. There is a lot going on under the surface … For the most part, the places in this book are those that anyone can easily visit on a trip to Tokyo. But I hope I’ve shown them here in a new and different light. The images offer a snapshot of a city that is running to its own beat, a culture that is warm and exciting and a wonderful mix of old and new.”
While Thomas found Melbourne intimidating when he first moved there, he says that this feeling was magnified multiple times over when he first came to Tokyo in 2008. But he now sees it as “one of the most influential experiences” of his life, and says he immediately knew that the character of Tokyo life was an ideal subject for his tilt-shift work.
“Tokyo is still a city that absolutely scares the crap out of me,” says Thomas,” the size and complexity of it is just totally unreal. But it’s also got just the most perfect combination of scale, culture, and an aesthetic to it. I’ve been to Japan five times now, and every time I leave there, I just want to come back to shoot more. The way that one city moves into the next so seamlessly and the culture of the people there and this amazing aesthetic you just don’t get anywhere else. At the end of the day, tilt-shift images are giving you the feel of a miniature diorama and Tokyo is just 100% suited to it.”
While he points to Tokyo’s Gundam Robot (seen in this Vimeo clip) as one of his favorite things to shoot, he recalls that getting the book’s cover shot, the iconic diagonal crosswalk in busy Shibuya, presented unique challenges.
“It was really difficult to get access to our location,” says Thomas, “and we had to talk our way in with this hotel. They get inundated with tourists at this vantage but we managed to get about 10 minutes there on a Thursday. If we had come on a Sunday, it’s just complete mayhem at that crossing, the place is out of control and you just cannot see the bitumen (asphalt) for the tourists.
Typically, Thomas shoots digitally to a Canon 5D Mark III body fitted with one of the three tilt-shift lenses in his arsenal. When he started this series, Thomas admits he would often add a few post-production focus tricks in Photoshop. These days, however, he’s relying solely on what the gets through the tilt-shift lens.
“I might still do some color correction in post on Photoshop, but for the last two years or so now, I’ve been at that point where I’m only using the lenses. I just really like the idea of getting the shot and the blur right at the time, rather than manipulating the image, or over manipulating the image, later on.”
In fact, his latest series for the Cityshrinker blog, finds Thomas bypassing digital entirely, shooting completely on film.
“The idea with this series is to take the one shot, they’ll only be one print and the negative will stay with the print for its life, and that’s it. It’s a reaction to this thing, particularly with the digital arts scene, where people can be printing these prints off forever and ever, and I think that something kind of gets lost in that process.”
That said, Thomas is no Luddite, and says he’s genuinely thrilled about the proliferation of technologies such as Google Glass, which promise to be “an absolute game changer” for photography.
“I’ve got no doubt,” says Thomas, “that in the not-too-distant future we’ll have these wearable devices that will have the resolution and technical level of what we now have in high-end SLRs. We’ll be living in a society where the camera’s always on and choosing the moments when we turn it off, as opposed to the other way around. That’s gonna be pretty amazing.”