Stephen Driver: Photographer of the Stars

Story by Brian Covert

Commercial photographer Stephen Driver came to Japan with his Japanese wife three years ago and set up a studio in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture. With a handful of contacts and “a lot of leg work” he has been able to build a portfolio that includes some of Japan’s best-known figures, from kabuki actor Danjiro Ichikawa to Dietman Shin Kanemaru. Driver says business continues to grow as more and more Japanese are coming to recognize his style of work as a unique type of portrait photography in Japan.

[Stephen Driver:] “The first thing I noticed in Japan was that portrait photography was all done in the studio — nothing was done on location.1 was surprised that there is such an emphasis on studio portraits. Why not show people that portrait photography is a unique experience, something you don’t do every day? I decided that one exciting thing I could do for my Japanese clients was to photograph them on location. I have a studio in Takatsuki, but I do most of my photographs on location.

The difference between my way of making pictures and the Japanese way is to, first of all, arrange a consultation with the client to find out what they like and what it is they specifically want. Then we make the photographs and later look at them and discuss them. In other words, I try to give them the advantage of my total art, not just selling them a photograph.

I always like to spend time getting to know my clients. Westerners have a tendency to loosen up faster with a stranger. But once the Japanese start to loosen up, the process is very much the same. I don’t speak very much Japanese, and during a photographic session we speak in English as well as Japanese and this works out nicely because it makes them more comfortable than if I spoke fluent Japanese.

It was really interesting when we talked to Shin Kanemaru. I immediately felt his directness and calmness. He was just as relaxed and calm during the actual photography as he was when we talked beforehand. This was the way I chose to photograph him — the kind of person you can talk to — powerful but not overpowering, someone you would like to know.

Kanemaru used my portrait in his recent autobiography. He liked its informality, instead of being serious and imposing.

I also do annual report photography. I’m trying to show the Japanese that their corporate people can look dynamic without looking harsh.

The first well-known figure I photographed in Japan was Danjiro Ichikawa, the kabuki actor. I had met him when I was working at the Japanese pavilion in the 1984 Energy Exposition in the U.S., and so when I came to Japan I contacted him.

In some cases I had contacts like that, but most of the time it was a matter of arranging meetings and showing my photography. Doing leg work and making presentations — this is the key to success in Japan or anywhere else. Since coming here I’ve never been out of work — I mean, I’ve always been able to make a living from my photography, so I guess you could say I’ve been successful.”

Driver’s personal insights on...

Shin Kanemaru, Dietmember: “I was pleased with this picture because it showed some of his warmth and power and dignity. He didn’t look threatening but at the same time he didn’t look weak.”

Danjiro Ichikawa, kabuki actor: “I felt that he was very friendly and interested in what we were doing. Throughout the whole photographic session there was a feeling of composure, calm, quiet and balance. These traits are, after all, reflections of who he is and what he does.”

Shijaku Katsura, rakugo artist: “I saw all his passion and energy on stage and I was interested in the contrast of that flamboyant self with what I considered, after talking to him, to be his real personality — this quiet kind of person. I wanted to portray this seldom-seen, quiet side of him.”

Kazuo Inamori, president Kyocera Corp. in Kyoto: “I was impressed by his personal style, his energy. I wanted to get the feeling of involvement across — as if he were engaged in conversation with the viewer.”

Suzuki Shinichi, founder of violin-teaching method: “He has a wonderful way of making people feel at home, and I wanted to make a picture that showed his calmness, his gentleness, his concern for people.”