You may not know it, but you’re probably familiar with Emily Shur’s celebrity portraits, from Helen Mirren and Will Farrell to Lupita Nyong’o and Larry David. Her active, vibrant and playful commissions have been seen on posters and screens the world over, and have helped her become one of LA’s most sought-after photographers when it comes to shooting comedians, actors and musicians in their most natural – or unnatural – habitats.
But in Super Extra Natural!, her new book published with Kehrer, Shur trades in the digital camera and studio lighting to take us on a journey through Japan. Shot on 16 trips between 2004 and 2016 using nothing but her Mamiya 7, there is a quietness and space in this massive collection, which she describes as being less about the places and more about the states of mind they conjured. And in recognising “the harmony of the physical and the emotional, the tangible and intangible” in her travels, she says, she’s also re-found the sweet spot in her work.
“Japan is so in tune with my photographic sensibility,” she says. “I’ve taken pictures like the ones in this book my whole life, I started off as more of a documentary, street shooter. I worked really hard to polish up my work and learn lighting, and now I work on these large production shoots with lots of people and phone calls and discussions, but I’m actually a very quiet, introverted person.
“When I first visited Japan I was just really taken by the way the country looked, but I think over time it’s morphed into something else,” she adds. “I’ve become really comfortable there. It’s a meditation. It’s a continuous source of inspiration that’s also brought me back to the experiences I wanted to have with photography.”
While still passionate about her commissioned work, wandering around Japan’s quiet streets and countryside with her medium format film camera – her first love – has reminded her how different photography can be, and how meditative.
“I love light and composition,” she explains. “I love how emotional content can come from space, colour and light without having to have a person acting in it or having a big expression. These are things I’ve been trying to explore in this quiet, singular way.”
Using film also forced her to be more conservative when shooting, and she only opened the shutter if she felt she’d found something really worthwhile. She admits to having toyed with making this kind of work a full-time endeavour – but also questioned whether doing so would make if feel less liberating.
“One of the nice and freeing parts of this work is that I don’t need to please anyone but myself,” she says. “If I’m doing a job where someone’s paying me, and one that depends on someone else’s likes and dislikes and trends, I can only assume that it will change my practice a bit. It has to be meaningful to someone else because they have to want to spend money on it. I’m used to that, but I don’t want to have that outlook around this work.
“The whole point is to have something that’s just for you,” she adds. “To go away and not think about work or anything else and just and see and feel things. That’s all I want out of that experience. I want to leave with some good pictures, sure, but what is good, I hope, can remain up to me.”
In making the picture edit of the 135 images in Super Extra Natural! she enlisted her friend and fellow photographer Michael Schmelling, as well as getting insight from her husband, who was on most of the trips with her. Getting the sequencing right was crucial, she says, to ensure that such a big project remained engaging.
“Sequencing is an art,” she says. “It’s so important to the viewer experience. It can make or break a book. We went through lots of different versions but eventually wound up with the right one, I think. My hope was that it would feel like a bit of a journey of discovery and exploration but a little bit more technical in terms of colour palette, light and crop and the seasons. It’s not chronological or geographical, it’s more to do with mood and tone.”
For a book so rooted in mood, peace and meditation, the title and front cover seem more active – something that Shur puts down to her sense of humour, as well as the Japanese culture she has fallen in love with over the years. The title is a dual reference, she says, pointing to the Japanese tendency to very liberally use adjectives and exclamation marks on packaging but also to the natural landscape she loved so much there.
The cover, Schmelling’s idea, blends a traditional landscape photograph with one of a “weird” sculpture in a playground, and speaks to the energy she wants the book to present. “I didn’t want this to just be another collection by someone who went to Japan and took some photos!” she says. “I wanted to draw some attention and have people pick it up. So we went a little wacky.”
And ultimately it’s the humour and emotional quality of this collection that Shur wants people to see, and not just another bunch of “pretty” pictures. It took 12 years for her to put the project together and, with her esteemed career in commercial shooting still very much at the fore throughout, it was definitely a labour of love. “I just want it to feel thoughtful, sincere and meaningful,” she says.
“I can’t dictate what it means but I just think everyone has these moments in their life when they experience something, step outside of themselves for a moment, and say ‘wow, life is pretty cool. This is a cool moment’. Ultimately I want this book to explore all those moments, whether they’re small or big, happy or sad. These are meaningful moments that I want to appreciate and acknowledge.”
Super Extra Natural is available now through Kehrer Verlag (€45) https://www.kehrerverlag.com/en/emily-shur-super-extra-natural-images-from-japan-2004-2016