Sensibly simple

Toaki Okano shares with Adrian Hatwell his latest work for Fisher & Paykel, illustrating that simplicity is just a matter of focus

When your new advertising campaign is entitled Simplicity by Design, few local photographers who would seem a more effortless fit than Toaki Okano. Since moving to New Zealand from Japan some 15 years back, Okano has established a distinct brand for himself on the back of simple, bold, immaculate imagery. When homegrown appliance manufacturer Fisher & Paykel decided it needed a facelift for the international stage, it chose Okano’s inimitable style to become the brand’s distinctive new visual calling card.

The photographer’s relationship with Fisher & Paykel began in 2011, when advertising agency Alt Group invited him to collaborate on a challenging new brief. Although the appliance manufacturer operated plants and sold in markets across the globe, there was a feeling the brand’s campaigns weren’t reaching the desired heights.

“It had kind of lost direction, and they wanted to freshen up,” Okano recalled of his first Fisher & Paykel job. “It was an exciting project to work on, because they really wanted to take it to a more international level — that was the big brief.”

And Okano was an obvious pick for it. He had a level of experience in global product photography that is rare in this country, due to his extensive assisting experience in the Japanese industry. Since arriving in New Zealand, the photographer had diligently established a reputation for product shoots that combined a flawless commercial aptitude with masterfully controlled artistic still-life influences.

“I want to show an object nicely, rather than just a product,” Okano explained of his aesthetic intent.

This calm, attentive, and thorough approach was an ideal fit for Alt Group’s ambitions for the appliance brand. Over the years, the photographer would work on campaigns for all manner of Fisher & Paykel products, from refrigerators, washing machines and cooktops, to specialist items from the company’s more recent developments in the healthcare sector. The wide array of subjects gave Okano plenty of opportunity to continue developing his distinctive approach, the scope and complexity of many shoots often coaxing him to extend his expertise.

As the appliances have continued to become more elaborate — ActiveSmart refrigerators, Aerotech ovens, SmartDrive washing machines — so too has their aesthetic become increasingly sophisticated. Stainless steel, burnished surfaces, and gleaming panes of glass and plastic are all highly reflective surfaces that present difficulties for shooting — often on a large scale, with images covering full kitchen fitouts.

Okano is fortunate to have a generously sized studio of his own in Auckland central from which to deal with these challenges. More so than his other work, the Fisher & Paykel jobs require a large amount of lights, even for small products, and set-up times can take three hours or more.

“I always want to keep the shot nice and calm and controlled. Because when it comes to dealing with reflective surfaces — glass surfaces, mixed material — it’s hard to get everything well balanced in the shot, that control is quite challenging.”

As well as being renowned for his conceptual product work, Okano has developed an idiosyncratic portrait style, which has attracted a swathe of enviable clients. It is also a skill set he has often called on for various Fisher & Paykel campaigns, where certain images require the participation of models, even animals on occasion. Although this presents its own set of challenges, he finds the warmth a live subject brings to a shoot to be very rewarding.

“When I’m shooting products, I get complete and total control. But with talent, you need to work with hair, make-up artists, and others. It’s busier, but it’s a fun process.”

On product jobs it is generally just the photographer and his assistant in the studio, accompanied by few agency creatives. But when talent is involved, the crew can balloon quite noticeably.

“The studio seems a lot smaller, and I start to feel I need a larger studio, but only for the Fisher & Paykel shoots,” the photographer said with a laugh. “Working on anything else I realize, no, it’s actually quite a big studio.”

While every job for the appliance brand has had its own practical differences, Okano’s latest campaign for Fisher & Paykel, Simplicity by Design, also differed in scope and personnel. After years of working with Alt Group on the manufacturer’s campaigns, this latest assignment came from a another agency, Special Group.

The Simple by Design campaign was of a nature that Okano had not yet tackled — a global billboard campaign. His previous Fisher & Paykel images had, of course, been seen around the world, in brochures and promotional material. But this was the first time his work would be on large-scale display not just in New Zealand, but in the United Kingdom and United States as well.

It was an exciting opportunity for the photographer, but it did come with mixed feelings after such a long and successful relationship with Alt Group on previous Fisher & Paykel jobs.

“It did feel a little bit difficult, a bit awkward. But that’s sometimes just the way it is with commercial work.”

Because the job was of a different nature, the client decided to try out a different agency — but regardless of who is handling the campaign, it would seem Okano remains the hand-in-glove photographic fit for this brand. This was made abundantly clear when Special Group presented an image mood board for the brief that, unbeknownst to the agency, referenced many of the photographer’s past shoots for the brand.

“I told them, maybe you’re talking to the right person, because I shot all this. I don’t think they understood how much I had already done for Fisher & Paykel,” Okano says with a wry chuckle.

It was an important job for the advertising agency, as they had not worked with Fisher & Paykel before, but Okano enjoyed his relationship with the creatives at Special Group, and together they created a striking, vibrant visual promotion of the manufacturer’s latest whitegoods offerings.

The watchwords for the brief were simple and strong, with the top half of each image dedicated to a natural food item, the lower to the stylishly-built whiteware that would preserve it. The campaign stars six different vegetables — cabbage, beetroots, spring onion, and mushrooms among them — shot up close with a macro eye for natural contours and textures. The curving, organic graphics explored in the plants sit side-by-side with the bold, angular design lines of the appliances.

In shooting the vegetables, the brief initially called for a wider view, but to really explore the object’s natural state the photographer ended up cropping extremely tight.

“The texture and character of what we were shooting became much more dynamic than we had initially thought. We started off working from the brief, but eventually just went closer, closer, closer … which was quite a brave thing to do, in a way.”

While the two segments of the combined images have a natural graphical contrast, the photographer was mindful to ensure he maintained the overall tonality in matching vegetables with product shots.

“In my execution, I wanted to control the mood using different scale, different colour, different items.”

The end result is bold, elegant, and unmistakably Okano. While the engaging minimalism of his imagery makes the photographer’s approach look effortless, in truth it is a style he has worked at with a tranquil, dedicated discipline for years. And that’s a philosophy that reaches beyond photography, to his business and lifestyle as a whole.

“You see so many images these days: I try not to see so many. You want calm, to be deliberate, to take care of your ideas. You don’t want to just be mixed by the fashion, all those images you’ve seen.

“Images should reflect your own lifestyle and your personality. That can be a hard thing to do if you’re just following styles.”

True to his word, if you search for Okano online, you’ll find none of the usual marketing trends that are assumed to be essential these days — no website, no self-promotional social media presence. He prefers the classic networking technique of actually meeting people, and getting on with the job.

“Keep it real man,” the jovial photographer enthused. “I do my service, it’s quite simple for me. I’m not screaming to be the big commercial guy, the big studio guy. I’m not like that, I’m quite shy in a way. And I enjoy what I do.”

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 216 March-April 2017