The PhotoBook Journal

November 14, 2014

Hiroshi Watanabe – The Day the Dam Collapses


Copyright Hiroshi Watanabe 2014 co-published by Daylight Books and Tosei-sha Publishing Co., Ltd

First I need to declare that I may be a tad bit biased in my photobook review as I was one of the text editors for this book.

Hiroshi Watanabe’s (b. Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan 1951, currently resides in Los Angeles since 1975) recent photobook, The Day the Dam Collapses, is unusual in as he is well known for his photographic projects utilizing black and white film while this book project is completed with digital color.

Watanabe has been making color digital “snapshots” for many years while deferring to his medium format camera and 120/220 film for his more serious projects. Since the birth of his recent child he has become a bit more reflective and over a period of five years built a large body of color digital work. What I find interesting is that Watanabe will zoom in to examine the details and introduce a high degree of ambiguity much as he does with his large format capture. In this regard he has a consistency of vision.

Watanabe is very familiar with a square image that results from his medium format camera that the square being an inherently a static framing as compared to a traditional 35mm format or 8 x 10” image. Even though his digital camera has the capability to create rectangular images Watanabe imposes the equal sided format that he is so comfortable with. After so many years working with a 6 x 6 vision he is able to introduce a delicate balance and tension within this structured format. The square image which is printed one per page seem to gain some dynamic energy due to the random placement within the page’s frames.

The photographs upon first reading appear playful but with closer examination an undercurrent of tension and drama develops. This is apparent as both singular images and as well as the carefully pairing of images as they play off each other across the book’s spread. In one page spread, below, an object that appears to be childlike is awash and submerged on the shoreline surf. There appears to be a large air bubble above the face as though the air is being exhaled. The agitation of the water and this object being total submerged is startling as it is disturbing.  One the facing page is photograph of a bare tree or bush situated in front of a wall revealing the skeleton of the plant’s structure. This plant may be dormant at the moment or has died. For the reader both of these images are ambiguous and both have a dark undertone that is further reinforced by their approximation on the page spread.

Interestingly the book’s title hints at a pending disaster creating more tension which is subsequently elaborated on by Watanabe in his Afterword. He acknowledges that the reader and everyone he knows will as some point die and when we never know. Nevertheless we take for granted the normal, banal aspects of our lives as though we might live forever, a somewhat fatalistic viewpoint. Watanabe is essentially advocating that the reader should remain grounded in the moment and see the wonderful things as these are today.  The book’s dust cover provides another metaphoric reading; perhaps life is as delicate and fragile as the wings of a butterfly.

The book was designed with the Daylight team in the US and subsequently printed in conjunction with Tosei-sha in Japan which is an interesting collaboration that was orchestrated by Watanabe. The dust cover is printed on a beautiful paper with a wonderful texture although I also note that this paper is also a dirt magnet; so handle carefully.  The essay was written by Watanabe with the text provided in English and Japanese. The pages are numbered while the photographs lack captions.

One aspect of this photobook that does bother me is that although this is a very beautifully printed object the binding does not allow a lay flat viewing for the reader as you will note the inclusion of my hand frequently in the book’s interior photographs, below. The flip side is that this is a stronger book binding technique.

Other Watanabe photobooks reviewed on The Photobook include: Love Point, Veiled Observations and Reflections, 99 Findings (iTunes which includes my interview of Watanabe), Ideology in Paradise, Findings.

Cheers! Douglas Stockdale

Note: this photobook review is co-published in EMAHO magazine.

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January 31, 2014

Hiroshi Watanabe – Veiled Observations and Reflections


Copyright Hiroshi Watanabe 2002, self-published

This is another in my series of reviews of Limited Edition photobooks. This limited edition book and print set was self-published by Hiroshi Watanabe using early Print-on-Demand (POD) services available at that time in Japan. The title of the book coincided with his L.A. photographic exhibition of the same name held in 2002. Many of the images in the book were later submitted to Photolucida’s Critical Mass which Watanabe garnered a book prize and the subsequent publication of Findings by Photolucida.


Book, slipcover and print

Watanabe created two versions of the limited edition book and print set in an edition of 200 each. The POD book publisher in Japan provided a translucent poly slipcase with each book thus enabling Watanabe to create a silver gelatin print in a matching size. He designed his print to fit within a poly sleeve which subsequently fit into the outer translucent slipcover with the accompanying photobook. Fortunately the book was square as are Watanabe’s photographic format and prints.


Book within the translucent slip cover

The interior signature along with the end papers are bound with a sewn binding while the end papers are glued to the interior book boards to hold the covers. It is a minimalistic and clean book design that nicely complements Watanabe’s body of work. Together the book and accompanying print make for a nice presentation.

Previous Watanabe books reviewed on The PhotoBook include: Findings, Ideology in Paradise and Love Point.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook







June 24, 2012

Hiroshi Watanabe – 99 Findings

Filed under: Photo Book Discussions, Photo Book NEWS — Tags: — Doug Stockdale @ 5:58 pm


copyright the photographers

Earlier this year I had the great pleasure to be included in a iPad App project that brought together my friend and photographer Hirohsi Watanabe, videographer Michal Kastenam and myself, as the interviewer, to expand on an earlier Watanabe photobook Findings a photobook which I had reviewed in 2009. Watanabe was a Critical Mass winner and the resulting Findings was published by Photolucida, Portland, OR. The iPad App is titled 99 Findings and increases the number of Watanabe’s photographs to 99 for this digital project.

The iPad app is being produced by Hibiku, Inc in Japan this summer and 99 Findings will be available very soon on iTunes. In addition to the 99 photographs there is my interview in which we discuss some of these photographs as well as Watanabe’s background and philosophy. There is also a segment of Watanabe working in his beautiful darkroom which I featured on a post in Singular Images.

As an iPad app more content can be provided that traditional found in a photobook and one that Watanabe is very interested is a photo-site linkage best described in his words  “There are also links in each photograph to specific locations (where the photographs were taken) in Google Map. In some case, you will see the actual view of the landscape and surroundings by the Street View in the Google Map.”

This iPad app should be very interesting. I have not seen any of the post-production edits yet and this app just might be the reason I finally break down and purchase an iPad. I hope that I make a good “talking head” but thankfully all eyes will be on Watanabe and his delightful and open-ended photographs.

He has published a photobook before Findings as well as couple more since, including his first color photobook Ideology in Paradise  and most recently Love Point, published by Toesisha Publishing and subsequently a One Book by Nazareli Press.

by Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

December 29, 2011

Hiroshi Watanabe – Ideology in Paradise

Filed under: Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Tags: , — Doug Stockdale @ 11:18 pm

Copyright Hiroshi Watanabe 2008 published by Mado-sha Co. Ltd

With the recent the passing of Kim Jong II and the changes to the family leadership in North Korea I am motivated by an opportunity to review an earlier photobook by Hiroshi Watanabe who was allowed “access” to travel and photograph within North Korea in 2007.

Hiroshi states, “What I heard about North Korea were all terrible stories – stories of people starving and dying on the streets, stories of people being abused and brutalized by the police and stories of the ignorance of the North Korean people resulting from the strict government media control….and I felt uncomfortable and unsettled about our views and perceptions of North Korea. I was puzzled and intrigued, and I wanted to take a personal journey and see the country and the lives of the North Korean people with my own eyes.”

Thus Watanabe seems set out to investigate the North Korean culture as a reality versus the political propaganda that is promulgated by many interested parties; North Korea, South Korea, Japan as well as U.S. depictions. In retrospect I do not sense that we are provided any “information” that defines North Korea as much as this place provides a foil for Watanabe’s photographic interest and vision.

I found his photographic project to have similarities in composition and framing to his other projects but dissimilar in that this was photographed in color and not in his signature black & white medium. The addition of color does little to improve the overall drabness of the built locations of North Korea.

Many of the photographs contain a sense of dullness, lacking a feeling of sparkle or shine which might equally be a result of environmental conditions of the time of year that this project was photographed. The light seems to have a pervasive overcast feeling seemingly to add to an undercurrent of gloom. The photographs which contain bare trees convey a supporting narrative of empty space and a lack of content. Even with the inclusion of blooming trees that should provide a sense of life and hope there still is sense of flatness to the surrounding surfaces.

Watanabe has previously expressed his interest in collaborative photobooks where there is an editorial and design team to play off of. As I understand Watanabe still maintains a veto vote thus I think the first book spread below is characteristic of his humor and subtle dialog. We see a photograph of a smiling young man who is caught in mid-salute while looking to the facing page and the photograph of painting of the Kim Jong II among is smiling constitutes as though this is a little smirk and a node as to might be really true versus fiction. With most of Watanabe’s paired photographs those that face each other do so for a reason in which one plus one creates a multitude. Nevertheless, and probably unsurprising I also observe similarities in the layering of the subject’s content which appear to be color versions of the photographs featured in his subsequent photobook Findings.

His portraits are also very similar in style to his later work usually framed tight and varying between three-quarters to an isolation of just the head and shoulders. Watanabe utilizes a longer lens at maximum aperture to further isolate and draw the viewer’s attention to the facial features of his subjects. The shallow depth of field paired with his careful compositions provides soft pastel backgrounds that seem to engulf his subjects and provides a series of wonderful and sensitive portraits. It appears to me that Watanabe celebrates his subjects as real individuals who exist irrespective of the swirling political culture.

What we see is potential evidence of what life and society may be like in North Korea but also evident that this is mostly a result of an organized façade,as with any kind of overly supervised photography; the limitations to delve below the surface are substantial.

Lesley A. Martin summarizes this photobook very nicely; “The results, engaging, yet still mysterious, bring us one side of this closed-off place, introducing us to a vibrant, compelling set of individuals but still leave us to wonder.”

The book object; this is a hardcover book with dust jacket, with the square color photographs bordered by an ample white margin usually a single photographs per page is paired through the book. The book has pagination but lacks captions to provide any additional external contextual meaning.

A brief Afterword is provided by Watanabe with the text provided in English and Japanese. This photobook was recognized by Aperture and subsequently an introduction by Lesley A. Martin is provided on the inside of the illustrated dust jacket.

Cheers, Douglas Stockdale

February 15, 2010

Hiroshi Watanabe – Love Point

Copyright Hiroshi Watanabe 2010, courtesy Hiroshi Watanabe and Toesisha Publishing

On first viewing of Hiroshi Watanabe’s Love Point I find his studio portraits to be beautiful and aesthetically wonderful with a mysterious charm. the underlying subject is a little more socially probing than I find in his earlier works.

Watanabe’s photographic studio portraits are somehow familiar. These black & white photographs are formal and similar to those previously published in the photobook Kabuki Players (actors in costume) and his photographic projects Noh Masks of Naito Clan (masks), Ena Bunraku (puppets) and Suo Sarumawashi (performing monkeys).

His pictorial framing is structured within a square format which in this case seems to lend itself to a meditative viewing. In his previous work the neutral and non-textured back grounds ran the full tonal gamut, but for this series the background is dark and featureless, mysterious and perhaps threatening.

Thematically this current body of work with the exception of the lead-in photograph of the exterior building is portraits of “women”. This portraits have Watanabe’s tight composition placement with the subject filling the frame usually from the waist up and either falling out of the sides of the frame or alternatively with a small amount of surrounding space. He effectively utilizes the composition, lighting, tonal range, subject matter balance, and occasional shallow depth of field to direct your attention to the salient points. Much as a director would influence what and where you need to focus your attention within the frame attempting to control the mood and feelings that are instilled by the photographic images.

In Watanabe’s earlier body of work the subject is the investigation of a fictional illusion, whether as a subtext to a story, play or performance. He uses actors, puppets, masks and performing animals to explore the idea of fiction, fantasy and role-playing as opposed to and in contrast with reality. He is investigating the question can we really differentiate between fiction and reality?

Watanabe’s previously photographed those things which represented the fictional performances or representations of mankind. In this new body of work the boundaries of fiction and reality become increasingly blurred and tangled. He has photographed both life-like Japanese sex-dolls and live Japanese models intermingling the real and fictional images within this photobook. To further blur reality and fiction the dolls are made-up, dressed and posed to appear like live women, while the live models are made-up, similarly dressed with wigs and posed to be appearing doll-like.

In this body of work his usual black and white photographs further abstract the portraits and eliminate additional clues as to which is the live model versus which is the life-like Japanese sex-dolls. It appears that he has taken license and careful consideration to make them indistinguishable. This continues his discourse on fact, fiction and fantasy.

What then is real, fictional, an illusion and maybe even a fantasy? When Jonathan Green was writing about Robert Cumming’s elaborate photographs to present the illusion of reality, he stated about this …”interventions into the observable world makes the viewer constantly question the relationship between fact and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity, the camera as recorder of reality and the camera as the fabricator of new information.”

In Watanabe’s current project in additional to his continuing questions regarding fiction and reality there is an underlying social commentary about the role of women and sexuality fantasy. I also read into this body of photographs a social commentary about those who attempt to be someone other than who they are and the public actor/actress (fiction) and the real person (reality).

Watanabe’s portraits are usually seen frontal and sometimes a three-quarter or side view. He usually photographs his subjects from the waist up with tight framing of the shoulders and head. There are also three photographs in which the model is prone and laying down appearing almost submissive. The clothing of the model’s which is not entirely provocative is symbolic of servitude, e.g. a French Maid. A “French Maid” is also symbolic of a male sexual fantasy such as the “upstairs (bedroom) maid”, or the provocative “Lady in Waiting” the chamber maid as the one always prepared to fulfill your sexual dreams and wishes.

One of Watanabe’s models appearing to be in the process of un-dressing, stripping, and playing a fantasy role. Some of the other images have shallow depth of field with the eyes, mouth and nose in focus, and the hair and clothing slightly out of focus, soft, and sexually alluring. They all have similar expressions with the models eyes wide open, expectant, unblinking, with the mouth slightly closed, with the exception of the one model with the sucker protruding from the puckered lips, an innuendo of oral sex. All of these portraits seem to me to be suggestive, flirtatious, and seductive, conjuring an imaginary and fantasy world.

Similar to the photographs of dummies and dolls by Laurie Simmons, which Nicholas Jenkins has stated that “Simmons photographs are exploring sexual exploitation in that Simmons photographs suggest a perversely fascinating theater of humiliation and a sympathetic imagery of degradation and vulnerability… to a realm of suspended belief and the realm of fantasy and fiction.”

Similarly, when Anne Hoy was writing about Vikky Alexanders photographs, that “repetition reveals the stereotyping of expressions popularly considered sexually alluring and the isolation suggests the use of women as sex objects generically as …tools”.

In the past, a man calling a woman a “doll” was thought to be complementary but it is a degrading way to describe a woman to make her un-real, a fantasy. Indicating it is not necessary to get close and build a personal relationship with a person but a toy to be played with, a tool to be used and perhaps discarded if she becomes soiled and broken, no longer perfect. This series of photographs also conjures the idea of the Barbie Doll fantasy, with elongated legs, “perfect” waist, breasts, head, hair, etc; a fantasy woman that cannot be obtained. Someone who is not a real person but a fantasy that seems to aspire those going to the gym, working out, endless diets, breast & butte cheek implants, fat suctions and other acts of fictitious folly.

A photograph of a sexual fantasy doll is an unreal representation of an unreal person and is no more abstract than the photograph of the women who is pretending to be a sexual fantasy doll. That is if the live model is really a woman and not a man who is pretending to a woman who in turn is pretending to be a sexual fantasy doll. Do you know for sure, which is which is which? I know that I cannot always tell for certain and that disorientation creates intrigue, questions and mystery.

Photographs also get mistaken for reality and raise questions regarding photographic truth. Photographs are abstract representations of reality, two dimensional on a flat plane representations of a three dimension world, capturing a very brief moment in duration sucked out of the time continuum. Photographic framing leaves everything beyond the edges out and includes only a very small space in between. Shapes, tonality, mass, color and line that look like something we think is familiar, e.g. that is my house when I was growing up. Andy Grundberg made the following observation in 1989; (Photography)” is the most stylistically transparent of the visual arts, able to represent things in convincing perspective and seamless detail. Never mind that advertising has taught us that photographic images can be marvelous tricksters: what we see in a photograph is often mistaken for the real thing.”

In the case of the actor playing a role there is a real person who lurks just below a thin layer of make-up paint and costume. But at the moment the actor takes on a role and becomes the character and likewise with a good performance we do not perceive that this is an actor but the character being revealed. For me this brings in a personal question; do people see the real me, or a role that they perceive I play. Likewise, do you see people pretending to be someone other than themselves, a fictional role, and you wonder why don’t they just be themselves? So I wonder, do they know who they really are, or afraid of the truth and that people may not like them if they were their true selves? I think that Watanabe’s metaphors are insightful and that regardless of a (fictional) role we try to play that our real self lurks just below a thin layer that most can see through anyway.

The afterword is a fictional story by Richard “Bulldog” Curtis Hauschild. This hardcover book with dustcover was printed in Japan.

By Douglas Stockdale


May 14, 2009

Hiroshi Watanabe – Findings

Filed under: Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Tags: , — Doug Stockdale @ 8:24 pm


Photographs copyright of Hiroshi Watanabe courtesy of Photolucida

In Hiroshi Watanabe’s book Finding published by Photolucida is the grand prize winner of the 2006 Critical Mass. While reading this book I find that I am always looking at life through a veil. There always seems to be something between me and what I think the subject is.  Which may be overlooking one the underlying theme of this book; the many layers of reality that exists in our lives and many of which we are not fully conscious of.

The potential subject of his photographs often appears to be just beyond my reach whether that is on the other side of a window screen or curtain, or a glass window, or some netting. There is a hand slightly concealed within a sheer glove, birds resting on a porch sunscreen, industrial plants or bridge lurking in the mist, and birds behind semi-transparent cage doors. The subjects are obscured by a hard metal scrim, a lacy transparent spider web, a wall of bubbles or a semi-transparent wall created of blooming tree limbs. Perhaps I think that the subject is finally revealed such as the fish laying on a wooden top but then take note that it is enclosed within a transparent bag almost within touch but still just beyond my grasp.

Finally there is a wooden fence that entirely blocks our view as an opaque barrier between us and what might be just beyond. The early visual subtitles giving way to a final hard statement of fact that we are limited in our perception of reality. We can not see through this fence; it is there and obscures everything beyond. We have a hint of what might be there as we can only view the sky and clouds above it.

Frequently Watanabe includes within his photograph shadows and silhouettes of either someone or something. The details are obscured, hinted at, and what we can see exists as a shadow metaphor for someone or something which is just beyond our reach and comprehension. Their presence is a shadow projected on a semi-translucent door, behind a hanging gauze, on fences or on a window.

There is his photograph of the missing person using a cut-out of an historical Japanese person with an opening for a someones face to complete the picture. Anyone can stand behind and place their face in the opening and for a moment this can become a symbolic person in history. Are there not many people who wold like to step into an important role and play an significant part in life? Part total fantasy and with a hint of alter-ego that we wish were true? This photograph of the cut-out is also similar to his  shadows and silhouettes as a representation of the real thing and a symbol that implies a presence but lacking tangible substance.

I like the multitude of layers that hint at complexity in even of the simplest of things. These thoughtful photographs are dreamlike but not with a watery or soft appearance that fully evoke my imagination.

The hardcover book is in a size that is becoming consistent for Photolucida at 8 3/4 x 10 1/4″ with a tipped-in cover photograph on the black linen boards encompassing 64 pages and nicely printed and bound in Hong Kong. The design and layout of the photographs is very classic with nice white margins that make the book a pleasure to read and complements the 57 duotone photographs very well.  The two nicely written afterwords are by Anthony Bannon and Kirsten Rian with a summation of the photograph’s captions. The book, photographs and texts are copyright 2007.

Due to the books publication date this book will not be on my list of best books for 2009 but it is a book that I enjoy and recommend and one of the better books that I have reviewed in 2009.

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale

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