One of my favourite photography quotes is from an old TV show where the fashion photographer was enthusing about some great shots he’d taken. Wonderful was the reply, you managed to take some nice pictures of an incredibly beautiful woman.
Despite all the Dove ads out there, neither Dove nor photoshop is the reason for amazing shots of fashion models. Fashion models are the reason for those amazing shots. They are the 1% of the population that are incredibly beautiful without makeup, expensive soap or photoshop so of course Fashion photographers start with them.
In an Aikido class recently I discussed the need for uke (the attacker) to keep attacking. If you want to look for a way to distinguish the “pure” Aikido experience from wrestling or MMA or even Judo, you need to have a willingness to stop when aiki stops. By that I mean that if you are practicing and your partner is just standing there after you have moved out of the way of his attack, just step out of range and be done with it. You can’t blend with someone else’s energy if you’re wrenching him around. Forcing people to move into the positions you want is wrestling, not the magical “fakery” of Aikido where your partners throw themselves.
If you make an honest attack and then keep trying to attack the center of your partner, keep trying to get to grips with him hip to hip, keep moving toward his center, you will provide your nage (the guy that’s throwing) with the chance to make you throw yourself. That’s not fake, that’s aikido. That’s being a good attacker. That’s being a fashion model to your photographer.
Trust me, at a certain point (as I was told by some very good photographers) you need to move to New York or Milan or Paris where the top makeup artists and the top models are if you want to be a fashion photographer. No matter how talented you are or how well you can use photoshop, you need the partners to be real about it. Otherwise call it glamour and charge the local matrons a decent penny for your work because they’ll be happy with it. Just don’t call it Fashion Photography. At best it’s fashion photography.
If you don’t have a partner that can keep attacking you, you can wrench folks around and throw them in what looks like Aikido but it’s really just aikido.
Kendo isn’t Kendo if you don’t assume your partner has a shinken, and you both act accordingly, otherwise it’s kendo.
In kata-based arts like jodo or Niten Ichiryu you also need a good attacker or you are simply going through the motions. You’re lighting the girl like Avedon lit them, you’re using a white sweep like Penn used but you aren’t shooting Lisa Fonssagrives. Your shot will look somewhat fashion-like but your girl isn’t Fashion so the shot isn’t either.
Let’s take the first kata of Niten, which is Sasen. You walk together and on the third step your attacker cuts down on your head, you move to the right to avoid that and stick him in the throat.
You have no idea how many people I’ve seen do that kata exactly as boringly as you just read it. There’s no way that kata can be anything but boring without an attacker that is trying to crush your head for real, one that will track you if you move too soon and one that will leave you bleeding and unconscious if you move too late. You, on the other hand, will crush his throat with your wooden sword if you move forward four more inches, or if he trips on his hakama.
This is not boring, this is also something that few people can see from the outside. A photo of a skinny girl in a nice dress with the expected lighting on the expected seamless background is going to be called fashion by most people. Substitute skinny for sexy and the dress for some underwear and now you’ve got glamour. But some photographers are still being highly paid to take shots that look somewhat like those, and some people can see the difference. The model and the makeup and the stylist makes the difference, not the camera or the lighting diagram. The partner who is willing and capable of attacking at the edge of your ability to defend is going to make your technique look awfully good.
In Aikido there is a tendency to bring along your own attackers if you are a big teacher. Often this is explained by saying the art is too dangerous for working with strangers, that someone who is used to the teacher must take his falls. Eh, maybe, but personally I don’t buy it. Most of the time in Aikido the attacker is lower ranked than the defender because the defender is the teacher. There’s lots of reasons for this, mostly it’s tradition, but I think it’s also in large part that instructors can’t take the falls any more. So that explains the balance of power dynamics which says you can’t just pick Joe Blow from the class to throw, but again, I’ve got a different idea. It’s because your usual lower-ranked student in a seminar isn’t going to know how to attack, he’s going to make you look awkward and force you to wrench him around into the throw you want to teach.
In the sword arts I practice the attacker and defender roles are reversed from the usual Aikido model. The higher rank attacks, the lower defends and wins. This means the attacker has the control, and the defender is always working hard to keep up and try to control the technique being studied.
It could be the same in Aikido, it should be the same. The problem is, few people explain this and beginners see teacher throwing student so figure that’s how you learn. Teacher is demonstrating what should be learned, but should always explain that learning goes from experienced attacker to inexperienced defender. It seldom goes efficiently the other way. How many classes of Aikido have I attended where the beginners learned how to throw by being crushed into the ground by the more experienced people. None? OK I was one of the rag dolls for a lot of years in our club and yes, I learned how to do aikido “backwards and in high heels” as Ginger Rogers said, and I wouldn’t have traded that for the world, but it was a tough way to learn. I never saw the technique, I felt it through my hands and had to translate it to understand the other side. Oh, and I wasn’t getting crushed into the ground either, I was being thrown to the edge of my ability to handle it. First and foremost I learned how to be the best attacker I could be.
Yes, I like to have my own attacker when I’m demonstrating Niten Ichiryu from the winner’s side. I like to have someone who will try to take my head off so that the students can see what a struggle it really is to stay alive. I also try to remember to switch the roles and push that student to show a good technique and I explain at least two times a year that the teaching side is the attacking side.
A good enemy makes a good budoka.
What about iaido? There it’s absolutely critical that you have a good enemy. Yes you’re really just waving a sword in the air, and that’s all you’ll ever do until you make your imaginary enemy appear, and then make him better than you. Solo practice is the one place where you can’t pretend to be doing budo, you either are or you are doing calesthenics. You can pretend if you’re waving sticks with a partner and you can pretend when you’re wrenching your partner around in aikido. Until you get an honest attack from a good enemy you’re going to continue pretending.
You’re going to console yourself that you could take a photo with your point-and-shoot that looks as good as Juergen Teller’s if your model only used Dove and you learned to photoshop.
Get a good enemy for your budo and a good model for your photography and you’re going to look like you know what you’re doing.