Café Japan. Maureen B. Fitzmahan. American/irish


mbfitzmahan. Café Japan. 2012. iPhone 5.

photographer's thoughts

📷  Maureen

I am reevaluating my photos and my photography. For the last 3 or 4 months.  In Japanese Buddhism there is a term,  初心 shoshin, meaning to begin again.  

I am searching to clarify 1) why I take photos? 2) what kind of photography is important to me? and 3) what is the aesthetic I want to cultivate in my photos?  

I started this process by moving my digital photo storage and editing from iPhoto over to Lightroom.  I had 77,000 photos.  I pared that number down to 35,000.  And finally, I chose my top 1000 photos that I identified as better photos.  I am now slowly culling those photos.  I expect that I will end up with less than a couple of hundred photos that I identify as good photos.

This photograph that I show here,  I hadn't looked at since I took it 5 years ago.  When I rediscovered this photo, I said,   “Yes!  This is what matters.”  

This is a digital photo.  I took it in 2012.  I took it when I was living near Nagoya, Japan from 2012 to 2014.   My husband and I lived and worked in Japan.  It was the third time I lived in Japan. 

I used my iPhone a lot for street photography. It is unobtrusive and I felt less conspicuous about taking street photos or photos on the trains.  Today I might use my little Fujifilm X-T1 camera, which sticks out less than my heavy black Nikon.

I feel a strong connection to the aesthetics of traditional Japan.  And this photo includes some of the elements from that aesthetic.  It is a simple, clean photo with strong contrasts of black and white.  Asymmetrical.  And a muted, yet, strong presence of light.  

I have included people in the photo, focusing on the woman.  People are another important part of my photography.  While living abroad, it is important and interesting for me to connect with others.  I learn their stories.  I relate to their emotions.  I remember them.

This is a photo of a modern coffee shop, but it has elements of traditional Japanese architecture - notice the window, the wooden floors, the minimalism. Light is very important to me.   It was the light that drew me back to this photo and to wanting to develop it.  

The paper I’m using to print the photo is new to me.  Previously, I used a high gloss paper that I like very much, Epson’s Exhibition Fiber Paper.  But, this photo is printed on Epson’s Hot Press Bright.  It is a smooth matte with a very bright white.  It almost glows!  It does a great job of capturing the light of this photo!

The photo is not cropped. 



If you want to learn more about the Japanese aesthetic, you might enjoy the writings of Donald Keene, the American doyen of Japanese literature.  See Donald Keene, Appreciations of Japanese Culture. 1971   He talks about Japanese aesthetics clearer than anyone.   

I have also begun a study of Chinese art and aesthetics, as well as looking at modern Chinese photography.  Certainly, the late 20th century and 21st century photography in China is outside anything the traditional Chinese scholar and artist would consider art.  For over 2000 years, the very purpose of art was "fundamentally ethical and philosophical.” (Sullivan. Art and Artists of 20th Century China. 1996). 

What I see today in the photos of many art photographers in China is more a study of individuals expressing their individuation, expressing a strong, if not violent, rebellion from strict moral and social mores.  This movement has been replicated in Japanese and Korean art photography.  Japanese photography seemed to have followed that trajectory from post WW II until recently.  Japanese photographer, Rinko Kawauchi seems to be taking a different path.  See her work at

In contrast, amateur Chinese photography does not seem to feel a need to be iconoclastic.  Instead, I see amateur photographers making an attempt to document the old ways, the old beauty of China.  See those photographers at

Members engage with the photographer

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Kaitlin.  You do a great job of capturing a person in your photos, as you do here.  Usually, your framing, brings the audience in - you get very close.  Your street photos are more like portraits.  They are gorgeous.  A piece of art.  But, in this photo I see the influence of the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson.  This has more of a street photography style.  
This photo is an amazing combination of both the portrait and a street candid photo.  I’m happy you didn’t crop this anymore than you did.  It is a panel of narrative - you go across, then back.  This photo has a lot to say.

Zoey.  I am intrigued by the woman in the photo.  Can you tell me something about her?  She looks pensive.  

Jon.  I can see why Zoey asks about the woman's face.  There is a biological reason that we are attracted to the human face.  Babies are drawn to the face immediately upon birth.  So, I also keep coming back to that face.  Is this a faint smile?  Or a bemused look?  The Mona Lisa? On the other hand, there are the hands… they remind me of the Edvard Munch painting, “The Scream.”  

Erin.  The woman is looking to her right.  It makes me wonder, what she is gazing at?  And then I come back to her face.  It is the constant play between the two sides of the picture.  

And the fact that there is this beam that splits the scene.  You have the external world and the internal world.

📷  Maureen.  By the way, the beam is probably the reason I didn’t go further with this photo when I first took it.   At the time I thought, “That’s not right!  That beam’s in the way!”  But, now I think that beam is what makes the photo interesting.  This change of mind, is an example of the growth process that you go through as an artist.

Erin.  And interestingly, the beam accentuates the angles in the photo, don’t you think?  

📷  Maureen.  That is true.  I try very consciously now, as I make photos, to remember to look for the Japanese traditional aesthetics.  1.  Irregularity, 2.  Suggestion. 3 Simplicity.  4. Use of empty space. 5.  The imperfect. 6. Evidence of aging, or change. And more.

I find that I am taking photos differently.  I now know the aesthetic that I am looking for.

Erin.  I can see that you are framing your photos differently.  Instead of being surprised when you look at your photos, and say “Ah ha!  That is the look I am looking for,” you are intentionally designing ahead of time in your mind’s eye, and looking for that kind of image.

📷  Maureen.  I think you are right.  In reality, I think I was unconsciously taking photos in this aesthetic most of the time because it was what I was attracted to.  

I have been taking photos for a long time. Now, since I spent time analyzing the work I like,  I am able to damper down the crazy and see a quieter, more peaceful world in my photography.  

Jon.  I have a question about this composition.  When you took that photo, did you know you wanted that diagonal perspective on the side?  (The window).

In the first short film by the Lumière Brothers "The Arrival of the Train,” the angle of the train coming into the station was important to the director.

One of the brothers said that you don't take the picture face on, you take it at that very angle that you, Maureen, have designed in this photo.

Did you know as you took this photo that you were following the Lumière rule?

📷  Maureen.  I’d like to say "yes."  But, I think it is more a feeling.  I believe that you slowly develop that sight, the more you look at fine photography and the more you make photographs yourself.

In truth, it also has a lot to do with post production.  The selection of the best photos comes when you go through your photos, select them, and develop them.  This photo said, “I am a good photograph.”  And I agreed.  It makes me feel good to look at it.   By the way, this magic doesn’t happen all the time.  In fact, taking and choosing a great photograph happens only very occasionally.

About Maureen


PHOTOGRAPHER.  Maureen Fitzmahan.  American and Irish citizen.  Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.  1948.

Born and raised in America, Maureen graduated from Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, and received a Bachelor's Degree in Far East Area Studies.  Maureen has been making photographs since the 1970s.  She was inspired by her father who, in the early 1930s used a Rolleicord to document Chinese junks and dock workers in Shanghai, China 上海市中国.

Most of Maureen's work is street and documentary photography.  Always a black and white photographer, Maureen first worked in film and developed her photos on an old Omega enlarger.  Professionally, Maureen has worked as an attorney, a university professor, a writer, and a high school teacher.  She left America in 1997 to travel and work in Europe, and later Japan, where she taught, did research, and wrote.  In the meantime, she continued to make photography.  She joined a photography studio in Ukraine and continued to film and develop in black and white. When she moved to Wales in 1998, Maureen bought her first digital Nikon.  She lived in Ukraine, Wales, Estonia, and Japan.  She returned to the United States in 2014.

Maureen writes, makes photos, and works with other artists.  She lives with her husband, who is her co-creator. Since 2018, she lives near her daughter in Brooklyn, N.Y., living in a multigenerational family home in upstate New York with her oldest daughter and her family.

Maureen works in digital black and white photography.  For the last few years she has been using a Fujifilm X-T1 with a 35mm f/1.4 XF R lens (53 mm equivalent).

Cameras:  Maureen uses Fujifilm X-T1, Leica M6, and iPhone8.