February 14, 2010
01. Allison O’Connor


Allison O’Connor, 22
Vancouver, WA

It’s a funny story. The first time I met Allison O’Connor, we were both struggling with our phonetics. Involving, specifically the rigorous demands of the dialogue pattern, “Is the door open?”/”No, it is closed.” In hindsight, it probably sounded like the worst ever attempt at small talk, but the truth was we were in the middle of a third-period Japanese language class and the problem of expression was something we were only all too painfully familiar with.

It goes without saying that the door topic soon fizzled out, and Allison and I quickly fell to talking about other things (furtively, and in English) – namely the large camera she was using, almost defiantly, as an oversized paperweight for those Japanese conversation worksheets which had held us prisoner for the past hour or so. I told her I had a similar one in my knapsack, only it was a Nikon instead of a Canon, and that it used film. “So does mine.” She flips it over – indeed, no digital back. “Ooh, onaji.” By the time the end of the period rolled around, we were photographing each other at the back of the emptied-out classroom, and a couple of days later, a portrait of me was being surveyed – along with a score of others that Allison had made – by over 10,000 people on the World Wide Web.


Tokyo Bike Lot; 2008.

Even though this particular encounter with Allison and her camera was no doubt, somewhat serendipitous, it wasn’t the first I’ve heard of her. A couple of weeks before, I was sitting with my friend Ben at a McDonald’s in Hiyoshi, a bustling student town in Tokyo, and he had been trying to sneak a picture of me unbecomingly stuffing French fries into my mouth. In return, I snapped a couple of quick shots of him with a straw in his mouth, half-joking, half-lamenting that those pictures weren’t likely to “make it anywhere beyond the four walls of Facebook.” “Dude,” he said. “You should meet Allison. She has a Blog.”

I didn’t know who Allison was, or why exactly he said “Blog” the same way one would upon meeting an American Idol in the flesh (“Awweeesooome”), but according to Ben I was one of the rare few who didn’t. Allison started her web journal, Urban Research, just before she first arrived in Japan in September 2008. Then, its readership comprised of just a handful of friends, family members, and “customers at the coffee stand where I worked [back in Vancouver, Washington]. They told me I should so they could follow along with my adventures in Japan - I’m not sure many of them actually read it though.” Allison’s initial plan was to keep a travel log of sorts – documenting her day-to-day trips through Tokyo’s teeming warrens, making notes on charming hole-in-the-wall cafes (she’s a vegetarian), shops, and museums as a little window into her life abroad for those she knew back home. (See - 1 December 2008. A musing comparison of Café Zoka’s Seattle and Akasaka-mitsuke outlets.)


L. Ploy and her Bike; 2009.


On-the-go Graffiti - Park Avenue, NYC; 2009


Street Art - Seattle; 2009.

The attention, then, was clearly unprecedented. It was barely two months into the Blog’s quiet launch before passers-by began to take notice – many stopped in simply to comment on how beautiful her pictures were. And although communicability was something we tussled with everyday during those grammar classes, it seemed to come across effortlessly in Allison’s photos. Urban Research is now being accessed by readers as far as Thailand, and Allison credits the surge of interest in part to her recently-discovered love for film photography. “I started it kind of haphazardly and put up a lot of lame pictures at first, but got a lot more into photography as I went along.” A well-timed thrift purchase on EBay gave Allison her first film SLR – the Canon that she now shoots almost exclusively with – which in turn led to an equally well-received series of creative projects, including a self-published photobook entitled 24:00 (for “24 hours,” she explains). Her personal Website, allisonoconnor.com, is an “online portfolio” containing various photo sets ranging from cityscapes to candid portraits. (Rather reminiscent of the styles of Martin Parr and John Loengard is the short set, “L. Ploy and her Bike”, a cute no-holds-barred homage to the sweat stains and high-contrast purple bruises of summer bike rides.) While the ticket to emerging from Blogger obscurity these days usually involves a hefty amount of artful Photoshopping, Allison’s images are personal, “pretty, but not pretentious” (as noted by one approving stranger). Her mom, her brother Ben, and her boyfriend Paul are regular fixtures in her posts, as are the vestiges of Seattle’s many roving street artists. She covers the issue of street graffiti extensively on Urban Research as well as on The PBLKS, a design and culture site produced by former Vice contributor Douglas Haddow. “When you walk around a city you’re just inundated by advertisements. Artists who spend time creating artworks for the public that are likely to be removed seem to have a particular dedication to their work. Instead of flooding people with messages of consumerism, street artists are making social statements and posting art for art’s sake. Street art is ephemeral in nature - it almost always gets removed – so I like to capture it on film when I can.”

It may interest you to know Allison and I did eventually pass the class, despite our misadventures in verb conjugations. Not that it mattered exactly - like Vancouver’s urban muralists, she much prefers showing stories to telling them. December 2, 2009. “Alas,” Allison quips one after finding herself – as many of us often have - quite unable to articulate her sublime love for chocolate. “I am no poet – and if you are here I assume it’s more because you like my pictures than my words.”

Urban Research
Allison O’Connor @ The PBLKS
24:00 by Allison O’Connor [Buy]

Images courtesy of Allison O’Connor.

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