Amid tables of barbecue and beer in the Durham Bulls Party Deck, photographer Hiroshi Watanabe organizes his gear. He's oblivious to the tanned families peering from behind their iPhones at his Haselblad single-lens reflex film camera. He loops its strap around his neck, centers the black box on his beltline and nods to me. We shoulder our way down a stairway lurid with patriotic bunting to the immaculate field.
Watanabe isn't a sports photographer. The work of his I know best is his Love Point project, for which he shot portraits of high-end Japanese sex dolls—the kind that cost thousands of dollars and have an uncannily human look and feel—as well as the human models that the manufacturer used. It's so difficult to distinguish Watanabe's almost solarized images of dolls from humans that the project questions the believability of photography itself.
But on Independence Day, Watanabe was finishing up a rainy week of shooting around the Durham Bulls ballpark as part of the Bull City Summer documentary project. Masterminded by Sam Stephenson (see Related Story below), whose Jazz Loft Project drew upon W. Eugene Smith's vast archive to produce a stunning photography exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art as well as a book, a website and a radio series, Bull City Summer focuses on the 72 home games that make up this Bulls baseball season, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the movie Bull Durham.
Watanabe shoos a pack of kids off a low, padded wall to take the field, where the Bulls—in bland blue-and-gray camo uniforms for the holiday—are warming up. Instinctively I can't step over the foul line into right field, but Watanabe doesn't appear to notice such boundaries, striding onto the outfield grass just shy of the toss-and-catch that the right fielder has going with the infielders.
Hands on hips, he takes an intense 360-degree pan of the entire ballpark as advertisements blare through the loudspeakers. Watanabe cuts a weird figure among the muscular, casual ballplayers slinging the pill around the horn and loitering about the bullpen mound.
"I've been more focusing on small objects in the dugout: helmets, protectors, gloves," he tells me once the anthem singers have finished. "I'm trying to find what I can come up with in these events I'm unfamiliar with. Those objects and many other things, including people, make the whole event possible. If I photograph them one by one and focus on these things, I thought maybe that tells some kind of story."
While sitting through several rainout evenings, Watanabe caught the almost opalescent effect of stadium lights on the mesh that protects the crowd behind home plate from foul balls. "It kind of creates a shape, in its folds." It's a great reminder of just how environmental a sport baseball is.
But his favorite subject thus far has been the little booth behind the manually operated scoreboard in the right-field wall. He points out where, in the columns for runs in the ninth and 10th innings, the scorekeeper looks out onto the field. The peephole is like a camera's aperture, in a way.
Watanabe spent a lot of time shooting the Plexiglas number cards that the scorekeeper slides into place to show the runs scored.
"The zeroes are kind of sunburnt and there are a lot of cracks in the back. You see a lot of light coming through. But not the other numbers," he says, pointing out that the zeroes stay up the longest. Every inning starts with a zero.
Once the game begins, we wander around the concourse. Watanabe pauses behind a Japanese-American family leaning against a railing. A grandfather points out the action to a granddaughter, whose eyes instead follow the mascot Wool E. Bull cavorting in a distant section. Crouching down, Watanabe takes several exposures. Polite fans, holding drinks and hot dogs, wait for him to finish, respecting his sight line.
"I was trying to take pictures of fans from the back, but not their portraits. Alex Soth [another participating photographer] already did fan portraits," Watanabe laughs. "What I'm doing is standing in back and focusing on the shapes of the people. So it's a silhouette of the people in the foreground, and sky against the black shapes."
As the Bulls drive in a couple of runs, every pair of eyes in the stadium is trained upon home plate. Every pair but one—Watanabe, fully unaware of the game action, is gazing off past center field. He catches me watching him, smiles sheepishly and strolls off, consumed by the red, white and blue crowd.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The universal language of images."