Hiroshi Watanabe's digital camera quietly probes mortality in The Day the Dam Collapses | Reading | Indy Week
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Hiroshi Watanabe's digital camera quietly probes mortality in The Day the Dam Collapses 

Hiroshi Watanabe

Photo by Mayumi Watanabe

Hiroshi Watanabe

Hiroshi Watanabe's THE DAY THE DAM COLLAPSES is a disaster waiting to happen.

The title of the 63-year-old photographer's new book of pictures deliberately evokes a disaster movie, though it's a more subdued meditation on death and loss than that suggests.

The images are beautiful but also unsettling and mysterious: lots of insects, backs of heads and shadows. The digital color photos are a change of pace for someone who prefers traditional tools and methods: black and white film, contact sheets, darkroom printing.

click to enlarge The cover image of 'The Day the Dam - Collapses' - PHOTO BY HIROSHI WATANABE
  • Photo by Hiroshi Watanabe
  • The cover image of 'The Day the DamCollapses'

"This work is a departure for Hiroshi," says Michael Itkoff, co-founder of Hillsborough's Daylight Books, the volume's publisher. "It touches on issues of mortality and potential loss, but in sort of a lighthearted way."

Watanabe is recognizable to many in the Triangle, as his photographs at Durham Bulls Athletic Park are part of the Bull City Summer art show and book. He'll attend the opening of this exhibition of photos from his new book at Daylight Project Space, which will stay up through Oct. 27.

The INDY called Watanabe at his West Hollywood studio and learned how the project was shaped, practically and thematically, by the birth of his son, now 6.

INDY: Did the photographs come first, or the concept?

HIROSHI WATANABE: I photograph what I have to photograph, the things I couldn't ignore.I began to notice, in my photo library, these images of things dying. They were in between the regular family pictures, the happy pictures with my children. And that's how I got the concept.

I didn't mean to start this project. First I used a medium format camera, which is kind of clunky to carry around. When my son was born, I was not able to do that anymore because I had to carry him. My wife asked me to take pictures of the children, so I started carrying a small digital camera. I was living like that and I was happy.

But I started noticing small things, mainly insects. I don't know why. For instance, the cover picture with the butterfly. That butterfly just flew into my backyard. And it died right in front of me. And there's a picture of a grasshopper. I was in the studio and this grasshopper just came in, and I noticed he was missing a leg.

You write that we're all living like characters in a disaster movie. What do you mean by that?

The simple fact is that there isn't much time. Me included, of course. My life is so calm. It's peaceful and happy with the children. And everything seems to be so normal. But then I have to face the fact that that's not going to last for a long time. And I felt that everyone's life seems to be like in a movie where something terrible happens in the future but nobody knows it in the beginning.

You don't have titles for your photos. Is that intentional?

Yes, it is. I don't like putting words into someone's brain. If I say something in a sentence or a word, that kind of goes in front of the image. So when I do a show, I try not to put a title on the wall. I might have it on the piece of paper. But I think the image should tell something.

You were born in Japan and studied photography. You moved to Los Angeles where you became a producer of TV commercials. Then you became a photographer again. Is photography more satisfying?

I really liked working for the TV commercial productions. I was young and it was a very exciting job. The money is good. But I was a producer, not a director. I think that's what bothered me, because after all those years, there was nothing I could call my own work. When I reached about age 45, it hit me that I wanted to go back to photography.

Now that your son is a little older, have you switched back to traditional photography?

Yes, I'm taking pictures again with film. The pictures in this book are the only digital work that I've done. I like the traditional way of making photographs. Because digital is very quick. You can see the result right away. There's no more creativity or struggling. With film, you don't know what you got. I make a contact sheet, then go through picture by picture. And that's a second enjoyment of photography for me, because I find there are images I didn't know that I had. So there's another discovery in that part of the process.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ghost in the machine"

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