Lukasz Palka is an exceptional photographer based in Tokyo whose art reflects his unique perspective on life. Lukasz’s work is the culmination of rigorous exploration and visual discovery, as he seeks to capture the beauty in the mundane and the extraordinary in the everyday.
His lens takes us on a journey through the bustling streets of Tokyo, where he captures the vibrant energy of the city in his street photography. He also explores the abstract world of geometry, finding beauty in the patterns and shapes that exist all around us. With his photography, Lukasz reveals the world as he sees it, and invites us to see it through his eyes.
In this interview, Lukasz shares with us his inspirations and influences, his favorite photography books, and his thoughts on what makes a great street photograph. We learn about his process of exploration, and how he challenges himself to push the boundaries of his art.
As we explore Lukasz’s world, we discover an artist who is constantly seeking new ways to express himself, and who is unafraid to take risks in pursuit of his vision. Join us on this journey below:
Brandon Ballweg: How did you get started in photography?
Lukasz Palka: Since I was a kid, I have had at least a passing interest in photography. I remember an old Praktica which my father had since around the time I was born (in Poland). I always liked holding it in my hands, and eventually got my hands on the digital cameras he would purchase over the years in the early days of digital photography. But it wasn’t until I arrived in Tokyo in my early 20s that I became motivated to buy my own ‘proper’ camera and set off into the city with the express desire to simply photograph. Tokyo awoke in me a passion for exploration, visual discovery, and creative rigor like nothing else before.
BB: Who are your biggest influences in photography?
LP: In terms of photographers, I take a lot of influence from these four: William Eggleston, Saul Leiter, Alex Webb, and Siegfried Hansen. All of them work in color and use it in various ways that are unique to each (and sometimes even incompatible). Between these (and many other photographers) I was able to find the courage to simply accept that there are no universal rules, that we as artists, must forge our own and discover a personal rigorous framework that defines our work. It can only come from within.
Besides photographers, I also take a lot of influence from cinematography. Since reality has a time dimension, films feel more real than still images. So, I try to think of a photo like a single frame from the motion picture of reality. Not to mention, there is a lot of amazing use of composition and lighting in the world of cinema. I draw inspiration from all of it. Some of my favorite films include Blade Runner (both of them), Fifth Element, Ghost in the Shell, the works of Stanley Kubrick, films by cinematographers Emmanuel Lubezki and Roger Deakins and countless other things. An exhaustive list would be quite long.
BB: What are some of your favorite photography books?
LP: I already mentioned Saul Leiter. His Early Color is a great book. I also recently picked up The Unseen Saul Leiter, which is a collection of his less-famous photos that I really enjoyed. Alex Webb’s The Suffering of Light and Siegfried Hansen’s Hold the Line are favorites. Also, recently released, Lee Chapman and Giovanni Piliarvu collaborated on Tokyo Conversations, an instant classic in my view.
BB: How would you describe your photographic style?
LP: Bruce Lee once said, “I do not believe in styles anymore.” I am of the same mind, making it very difficult for me to describe my own style. I am simply a guy with a camera and interests. Moments, people, and objects catch my attention and I photograph them while trying to completely freely express myself. The same goes for editing my work. Also, the ‘style’ changes drastically from subject to subject.
I shoot some things very geometrically, with straight lines and order, and other things chaotically, dynamically. Much of my work is very colorful, but some is nearly monochromatic. If I compare my series on Halloween in Tokyo with my abstract work and then also with my architectural work… it’s hard to find a common pattern. A friend once critiqued my work and called it ‘hyperrealism’. I’m not sure if that’s applicable, but it’s the only label I might accept. However, internally, I don’t think about style. It’s not important to me and in fact thinking about such things can only lead to limitations in one’s expression.
BB: What inspires and motivates you to create?
LP: There was a time when I needed motivation, when it was hard to get myself out of bed and go shoot. Now, I simply do it. I create my art the same way an oyster creates its pearl. It just does oyster things, and the pearl is a byproduct of those normal activities. For me, it is simply my nature to go out and shoot, as normal as going to the supermarket to buy food, or even to breathe. As I walk, I see, and I shoot. When I am home, I edit. I do not know who or what I would be if I did not explore and create. But how did I get to this point? Through rigor and repetition. Even on days when I was not inspired, I just forced myself to go out and walk the streets, camera in hand, but sometimes shooting nothing. Over the years it became my nature. It was not always this way.
BB: What do you think makes a street photograph stand out?
LP: To me all street photography has four fundamental qualities: candidness, mundanity, transience, and context. There is a fifth element that I think of as ‘otherworldliness’ which attempts to describe an ineffable quality. This quality can be some detail or arrangement that evokes a particular strong feeling in the viewer, transporting them into the universe of the photo, or in other words ‘some other world.’ Such photos are also usually ‘unrepeatable’, in the sense that the specific moment is so unique that it may never happen again. The image is a record of a chance encounter between the photographer and the scene. This concept is beautifully summarized in the Japanese phrase ‘Ichi-go ichi-e’ which means ‘one time, one meeting.’
BB: What would you like viewers to feel when they see your work?
LP: I hope they simply enjoy it, whatever that means for each person. Whether a photo evokes nostalgia, excitement, longing, sadness, wonder, mystery, or any other countless emotions and moods. Just like a song can evoke sadness in one person and happiness in another, so can an image. And if they are bored by them, that’s okay. I will produce my photos even if there is no one to see them besides me.
BB: What have you struggled with in your photography, and was there anything that helped you overcome it?
LP: Going back to some of my answers to questions above about motivation, style, and audience perception: I used to care too much about what other people think of my work. This means worrying about what ‘genre’ the photo is in. Is it ‘street’ enough for my peers? Will the online gatekeepers tell me it’s wrong? Will other people like it? Will I get criticized for the colors, the framing, or whatever? This led to low regard for my own art.
It’s possible it caused me to learn and grow—adversity can certainly be a source of drive. But I feel like my work truly flourished once I completely stopped caring about outside opinions and trusted only myself to make creative choices. The key realization is that art is a journey of self-discovery. No one can or should make decisions for you. You have to find your own path through the foggy forest of creativity.
BB: What do you think the point of street photography is?
LP: I don’t think it has a point other than what the artist gets out of it. The audience are just coincidental beneficiaries from the artist’s activity. It’s like asking what’s the point of sports? They’re just games, but it happens to be that some of the games are fun to watch, so they become spectator sports. Street photography is kind of like that. It’s a one-person artistic sport, and some people like to see the results.
BB: In what ways has your photography evolved over the years, and is there a particular style that you’re gravitating towards?
LP: Though I already made clear my thoughts on style and how it really plays no role in what I do, I can say that my work has gotten more honest, more personal, and more authentic. By authentic, I mean I am shooting the things that interest me intrinsically.
I rarely seek out subjects from some extrinsic motivation. This really doesn’t say much about the appearance of the images though. I can also say that I’ve always been interested in the city itself, whether it’s street photography or other ‘genres.’ By exploring the city so much I feel I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into it conceptually, to the point that more and more it’s the minutiae that interest me: bicycles, broken objects, textures, an odd piece of glass, a twisted pipe, and so on. But that does not mean I don’t shoot the more obvious subjects as well: people, broad cityscapes, architecture. I am open to it all, without prejudice or judgement.
BB: How do you balance street photography with the other types of photography you do?
LP: I suppose I don’t. I don’t really draw a line between them. In fact, I personally think of myself simply as an artist. At most, I would say I am an ‘urban photographer’ but then again I shoot out of the city at times too. So, to me there is no ‘balance’ necessary. Now I am shooting a street photo. In the next moment I am shooting architecture. Next, I see a bicycle propped against a wall, and I click the shutter. Soon after I see a plant lit the deep red glow of neon. I shoot it. And so on. To help put a label on this I coined the term ‘un-street photography’. It is similar in that we do it in the same space, but there are no rules or anything about what you can shoot. Everything is an ‘un-street photo’.
BB: Your project Chromodynamics is striking to me in its vibrant color themes. What’s been your approach to this project? Do you go out and photograph with this project specifically in mind or do you decide that in the editing process?
LP: Chromodynamics is the accumulation of images shot over years and years, one by one. They trickled in, and as I collected them, I saw that certain images started to coalesce into something with cohesion; some overarching theme that connects them. Chromodynamics evolved this way. Years ago, I had a category of ‘street photography’ on my website because I tried to fit my work into the neat boxes that existed before me: genres. I eventually realized that those are arbitrary and meaningless to my own journey and instead I needed to come up with my own rules and guidelines to define my work and categorize it.
However, instead of fabricating the rules, defining a ‘bucket’ and then going out to fill it with photos, I prefer to ‘discover’ the rules of a project in the mass of images I produce. So, as I was out simply shooting, exploring, and capturing candid street moments I began to see that some of these images have these striking colors, with a sense of some motion, shape, geometry. So, I began to play with the idea of how to arrange them and create a kind of color-space-time experience. I feel I am not finished with this, so the images continue to slowly trickle in.
BB: I often find street photographs (mine at least) with one subject to be lacking. In your single subject street photos, I think you do a really good job of incorporating layers into the composition. What’s your thought process on that?
LP: I love using layers! This is something I learned from my favorite masters: Saul Leiter and Alex Webb. but of course, many other photographers do it too. It’s a concept that I did not understand in the beginning, even though it’s quite simple in its basic form: put something between the camera and the subject. However, it’s tricky in practice to find the right thing in the moment. So, I don’t hesitate to shoot a scene or a subject ‘directly’, with no obstructions, but after that I may look around and try to find something incidental in the space I am working in. Sometimes, it’s the other way around: I find the perfect ‘screen’ in the foreground and then I pray for a fitting subject to appear.
In many cases it takes many visits to a spot. I certainly have plenty of locations in the back of my mind and when I happen to be in the vicinity of a promising spot I’ll drop by and try to get a shot for a few minutes. If I am fortunate, the light will be right, and the subject will be there or appear within a short time. Every once in a while, I just see the opportunity already presented to me, the subject, foreground, and all on a silver platter. Those instances are rare but very exciting!
Many thanks to Lukasz for participating in this interview. Here’s where you can find his work: