I travel to Hawaii each year to co-lead a workshop on the island of Molokai. The facility we use happens to have a few Ukuleles available to play. I was instantly smitten by this incredible little instrument, and, with my guitar skills was able to play one rather quickly. So much fun!
I have played guitar since high school. I am average at best, however, I have a deep love for the instrument. I marvel at the craftsmanship required to create such an instrument. I love anything created from wood especially instruments. I even love to smell inside the sound hole of a solid wood instrument. Mmmmmmm….. When I strum an E chord, I love feeling its deep resonance and warm tone. I love guitars!
If you’ve made it this far, thank you! Believe it or not, This story does have a photography connection. And quite honestly, its a fun story. At least many I’ve told it to, have told me so, and, encouraged me to write it out. Read on!
After purchasing two Pono Ukuleles, I started watching a Youtube channel “Got A Ukulele” I enjoy his reviews, very practical and fair, always playing the same chords and songs for each review. One day about three years ago, he lovingly held a blue Ukulele case in his hands, caressing it and exclaiming, “Oh, OH, Ohhhhh, I can’t wait to show you this one!” He immediatly had my attention! At the end of his glowing review he said, “this instrument is as good or better than any of the “K” brands coming out of Hawaii.” Quite a statement to make considering they are thought to be the finest in the world! Then he said, “and, its made in China!” I was intrigued. I immediately got on the Internet and looked up Anuenue to see if I might be able to purchase one. Sadly, I learned they do not sell to the United States. Not to be deterred, I wrote to the info@emai address to see if I might be able to get one sent and how much. I got an email back, $1,600!! I wrote back telling them it was too much for me at the moment, congratulated them for the incredible reviews they were getting, and told them I would save my pennies to in hopes of one day owning one. Then, the next day I received an email from the owner, Johnson Liao. He told me he had clicked my photography link in the signature block on my email. He said he loved my photography, and, offered to send me a UT-200 at cost, if I would photograph it as I traveled and send the images to him to use. I wrote back expressing my gratitude and excitement. I shared some of the places I’d be traveling, including Hawaii where I worked with National Geographic photographers, and could have native Hawaiians playing his Ukuleles. The next email I received said, “we’ve reconsidered, and would like to just send you the UT-200 so you can start making images.” I wondered, why did Johnson click on my website link? Why is he making this generous offer? His subsequent email shed light on my curiosity.
“I was born in Taiwan, and family immigrate to BC, Canada. I live in Canada for 13 years, and move back to Asia in 2005 for my love and passion for musical instrument. I won 1st place “under the microscope” photography when I was in high school.I collect a few African animal life photos, bought from yellow korner. I enjoy looking at good photography.” There is was! He clicked on the link because he too had a love for photography! That was the connection!
Again, if you’ve now made it this far…. read on. And even stronger photography connection to be revealed….
We struck a deal back in January of 2017 and in a couple of weeks e a UT-200 arrived to photograph and play. I remember that day well. I was as giddy as a 5 year old at Christmas! When I played the first chord, my wife stopped mid stride and blurted out. “OH MY! That sounds amazing!” I was in love, and began taking it with me everywhere I went. It is an incredible instrument.
Below, the Smokies in TN
If you go to the Anuenue website with this link, you’ll see my image from Zabriskie Point (lead image in this post).
The image below was used in a printed version of his Asian catalogue.
About a year after sending Johnson images he seemed pleased as he offered to build me a custom Koa Ukulele and even put my JB Logo in the head stock (see below). This is an incredible instrument. A one of a kind collectors piece really. He chose wood from his private stash, premium Koa. I am still in shock that I even own this instrument. By the way the instrument below is sitting in a Koa tree in Hawaii! Cool huh!?
Then Johnson asked me if I’d like a custom built “travel” guitar. Again, I was shocked, why me? Why so generous, but, how could I refuse?! About this time, I found out that Johnson would be visiting the United States with a group from his factory in China. In fact, he would be less than an hour away, visiting the Martin Guitar factory. Cathy and I asked if we could meet him and take him to dinner. He arrived with the guitar pictured below. The first strum and Cathy said, “that guitar sings!” Note the JB in the headstock with Dream- Believe – Create on the fretboard and then a Rosette around the sound hole made of 5 different woods to look like a shutter in a camera. Truly the finest small guitar I’ve ever played. Extraordinary craftsmanship and tone.
At dinner, I began to realize just what Johnson’s plan was all along. He wanted me to come to China, to photograph is factory. His vision was to have images that told the story of the loving care taken by his employees to craft the best handmade instruments they could make just for you! I asked, “but you have many wonderful photographers in China. Why pay for me to come to China?” His answer, “Yes, we have many fine photographers, however, we don’t have you! You love my instruments and you play. I believe your images will be different and show your passion and love.” Wow! He really gets it! He understands just how important connection to subject is! Something I have written about before and believe strongly. We agreed to an August 2018 trip to Guangzhou China to photograph the factory. That story, in Part 2, next.
Bandon Beach, Oregon
Wow John, I’m in awe by this story and of course by the beautiful images The story got to me from the start since I’m currently researching to purchase a guitar. My daughter, Isabel, mentioned to me several times that she wants to learn to play. It’s definitely not going to be as expensive and exclusive as your ukulele but it will be to her, I’m sure. Looking forward to part two of this adventure.
Thank you Ray. Always good to hear from you. Johnson makes many levels of guitars and will ship right to you. I can put you in touch with him if you’d like.
Thank you John, that’s very kind of you!
What a wonderful story. Mr. Johnson is a generous, kind and innovative businessman who saw what an asset your photos would be to his company. Congratulations to you both.
Thank you. It’s bwen a wonderful friendship that has developed.
John, what a wonderful story. Truly inspiring.
Your images are breathtaking.
Enjoy your trip to China.
Thank you Madeline.
Wonderful job sharing hun!
Thank you sweetie.
John, just read part one. What a wonderful connection merging your love for photography and music. Great story! Looking forward to part two.
John, I love this story. I play the ukulele if somewhat poorly and also enjoy photography, so this one was a special story for me.
Hello Charles. I find many photographers have a musical background. More than you might think. Seems they go hand and hand. Glad you enjoyed the story. Thanks for your kind comment.
Good Morning, John ! Thanks so much for a story that can reaffirm our faith in mankind. Always a good thing and even more so these days. As for your observation about photographers being musically inclined did you know that Ansel Adams was trained as a concert pianist ? And he was as good on the keyboard as he was in the darkroom ! More if you’re interested at https://www.blog.jimdoty.com/?p=15327. Slainte !
Yes, I did know that Ansel was a concert pianist. Pretty cool!
What a beautiful story! The images are breathtaking and tell a story. Johnson surely chose the right photographer to promote his exquisite instruments. Congratulations!
Thank you sweet Carla! You are always so kind.
What a wonderful story and extraordinary connection you have made, all because of your love of art, the art of photography the art of music, and the art and fine craftsmanship needed to create these wonderfully beautiful instruments. Hope to hear some music one day…Thank you for sharing this story and I look forward to more…
Thank you Barbara.
Beautiful, beautiful …. the instruments, the connection, and the story!! Yes, people who are “artistic” usually have a “cluster” of skills and interests in music, dance, artwork, photography….. it is a “left brain, right brain” thing (says the therapist…. also an “art”).
My first love was a baritone uke, until my brother fell on it accidently. Second was a $10 guitar at the markets just across the Texas border into Mexico, which eventually led to a D-3 (Martin), which was treasured until it got stolen when movers stored my belongings. Maybe someday I’ll have another, but in the meantime I enjoyed reading of the “intersection” of your passion with that of Johnson Laio…experiences such as this are to be valued as the great treasures of life.
Is your brother still living??? LOL! So sad. And then to have the Martin stolen? Awful! Well, when it comes time for another instrument, let me know and I’ll hook you up with Johnson! Thanks for taking the time to comment.
I always enjoy your stories and how you connect the world to your art! I find the pictures that I enjoy viewing and revisiting, of my own or others, are the ones that strike a personal chord! Your life and music and photography resonates! Diana
Thank you Diana!
What a wonderful story of your journey of connection, love of music & photography. Thank you so much for sharing
What a great story, John. Can’t wait for part II.
Glad you enjoyed!
Awesome story and photos John! Thanks for sharing.
Your welcome! thank you!
I love that story John. Love the passion you have for photography and music, and it makes your work very special.
Thank you Jane. I appreciate your comment.
John, I just read this story. I am impressed and feel your joy!! We are three weeks away from our workshops in Acadia NP as I write this. Will you be bringing any of these with you? I would love to see. And, I would love to photograph you with your instrument in one of my favorite environments.
Oh my, what incredibly beautiful guitars, and such a fantastic story to go with it! I love it when passionate artists get together to collaborate. I too play guitar and have always been interested in playing a ukulele, I just must hear one of these now!
We must get together and play sometime David!!
John, what a great story of connection with, and passion for, your subject! I can’t wait to read Part 2 and see your story of the factory.
Part 2 is posted. Enjoy.
Very beautiful shots with impeccable lighting!!!! One Question…what happened to your headstock in certain photos? Was it due to the angle of your flash making it seem translucent and seeing the glue underneath or is yours custom with a type of special design/inlay?
Mahalo your the equally superb write up and storyline.
I did not use flash on any of my images. The high gloss was challenging to be sure. I did my best in post to work with it. I believe you are seeing light being reflected is what it is. Thank you for your kind words.
Again, lighting is so painting like and in a way almost magical, plus very inspiring!!!!
On technical note were you then reflecting/redirecting natural light back on the ukukele?
Aloha JB, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so i can send you a link to some really great ukulele tabs. Wes
Hello John, I found myself scrolling around on your website to see fresh images today and saw this blog post – what an amazing story of connection, passion, insight and creativity!! I too play guitar, although it’s been many years now, and as Jed and I prepare to travel, I have been thinking about a travel guitar. But the ukele sounds like fun, too! I will have to evaluate which one now.
Hello Brenda! I’m late in getting to this… Ukulele is a blast! Such a happy instrument.