Lee Basford – Creative movements
Perspective can be found in a variety of forms. In terms of a design rendering, it might provide the viewer with an intimation of depth in relation to other objects. But apply this in a cultural sense, and the viewer’s own position – both geographically and emotionally – can have a significant impact on the insights offered. As an English designer and art director living in Tokyo, Lee Basford has spent many years defining his own perspective in a series of movements. These movements have resulted in a richly creative professional life and a connection with the city he now calls home, a city he’s beautifully captured with his camera.
“I originally studied at Bournville School of Art before a move to Central Saint Martins in London,” Lee remembers. “I focused mainly on design, although the Visual Communication course crossed over into Fine Art and very much encouraged exploration and original thinking. Even from the very start of my working life, a design solution did not necessarily mean a graphic representation. If it answered the brief, it could be in the form of a sculpture or some other form of communication.”
Following graduation, Lee began working as a designer and art director, often creating things by hand as a relief from time spent behind a computer and enjoying numerous personal projects that embraced elements of both art and photography. A chance email from a friend asking for contributions to a new lifestyle and culture magazine coincided with the first in a series of visits to Japan, where Lee made lots of new friends, won a UNIQLO design award and featured in a number of exhibitions. It was an enjoyable period of work that eventually led to Lee’s decision to relocate to Tokyo in the summer of 2013.
“The day before I was leaving for Japan, I received an email from a friend who’d also been part of the Ride BMX, Level and Dirt MTB magazines. He was starting a new cycling website and global club called Nowhere Fast and arriving in Japan with my bike gave me the incentive to start creating content for them. So much was new and interesting to me, and I suppose that being behind the lens as an outsider gave my images a unique perspective. It was through these stories that I began working with Rapha, initially photographing and writing content before art
directing larger projects like the three Japanese-themed Rapha Rides films.”
Although he enjoys a collaborative process working alongside people who share a common connection and vision, Lee’s previous role for his UK-based design agency involved a series of big campaigns but offered little control over the choice of clients. He made music sleeves, video games and movie posters—work that he was proud of but that left him with a desire to choose the types of projects he would take on.
“After moving to Japan and starting up by myself, I found I could pursue work that fit more with my own sensibilities, directing design solutions and outcomes from a more personal perspective which I think helps to keep things interesting. And whether it’s photography, illustration, sculpture or writing, very often there’s a crossing over—a meeting point where these disciplines come together.”
Spending his spare time documenting Tokyo street life and cross-country journeys by bike fed into Lee’s professional relationship with Rapha. The British cycling brand had already cemented a strong photographic identity through the images of Ben Ingham, a body of work that Lee found visionary and influential in his decision to make photography a more integral part of his creative process.
“My photography is definitely more of a documentary style. It’s a desire to be real, to interpret a true moment. I imagine subconsciously my design background affects how I see things, but I’m usually looking to show something that’s not posed or set up. I prefer to keep moving and blend into the background. With documentary photography, it can all happen very fast – especially if it involves bikes – so if you stop, you miss things.”
“I think narrative is important,” Lee continues, “but something I tend to focus more on when I’m editing a story. Depending on the shoot I usually have an idea of the variety of shots that will be needed but, other than that, it’s more important to be focused on what’s actually happening at the time. Because it’s often the little things you didn’t expect that make the best photographs.”
It's a sentiment that’s perfectly illustrated by Lee’s capturing of the Nobeyama Supercross: freezing temperatures, mud, snow and rain, a true sense of a body emptied in the hunched shoulders of a competitor. This emotive response to a subject is once again echoed in a poignant set of images taken in Tohoku, the scene of a devastating tsunami to which Lee had travelled along with an aid team a month after the disaster and has returned to almost every year since. A conversation with Paul Smith after a photo-shoot in Tokyo lead to a commission to document the region once more by bike and exhibit the photographs in the fashion designer’s gallery. This sense of cultural connection has heightened the longer Lee’s lived in his adopted home.
“Living and working in Japan has now become very normal for me, but I can clearly remember my first year and the surprise of a blue sky on most days. Tokyo obviously has the advantage of being one of the world’s cultural and creative centers. Having access to that on your doorstep is not to be taken lightly. But much of what can be eye-opening for a first-time visitor can so easily become the norm when you’re concerned with the everyday, as most people are. Obviously, being an outsider to some degree gives you a different perspective on things, which can be advantageous in many ways. The energy and pace can be very intense with a high-speed turnaround of everything. Perhaps too fast and wasteful at times, but for a designer, it means there are always opportunities.”
Considering the work culture in Japan – a subject Lee believes is often discussed negatively – he recognizes that long hours are an everyday aspect of professional life, but not that dissimilar to the fast-paced design environment in England. It’s an understanding of societal nuances that he extends to cycling as Lee appreciates how the Japanese are, by nature, accepting and non- judgmental.
“Saying that,” he adds with a smile, “being perfectly turned out in your cycling kit, even for a first-time ride, is not uncommon. Similarly, with bikes, the standard and quality is very high at most levels, and there’s a lot of custom steel.”
With rinko bags a common sight on station platforms (transit laws require cyclists to completely cover their bikes when travelling by rail), Lee describes how riders will avoid the junk miles of getting through the numerous suburbs by taking an early morning train out of the city to the nearby mountains. Alternatively, those choosing to ride from the Tokyo city center enjoy the 50 km Tama River route towards Okutama and views of Mt. Fuji.
“I’ve seen the Rapha scene in Tokyo grow from early pop-ups to the clubhouse first opening, building in strength each year with the Prestige rides a particular highlight, bringing together people from all across the country to ride some of its most spectacular and challenging landscapes. And the RCC rides are increasingly member-led with a constant flow of overseas riders who appreciate the welcoming atmosphere and advice on local routes.
As for his own riding, Lee enjoys meeting new people from different backgrounds, but also long solo rides where he explores places both in the city and beyond.
“Tokyo is so rich and varied that it still feels fresh every time I go out. I love discovering new routes and relish the freedom to stop and explore whenever the mood takes me—often getting lost in the outer edges where the gloss is removed and deeper parts of the city are revealed, places I would never have found had I planned where I was going.”
“It’s a city where you really don’t need to drive, and I enjoy cycling everywhere with my four-year-old daughter in a child seat. It’s a heavy bike and she weighs almost 20kg, so the pace may be slow, but it’s still a good workout. And it’s so much better to be connected that way, too, experiencing the city and chatting along the way together. When you navigate the city by train, you get an unrealistic idea of its geography. By bike, you really get to know the city.”