Photographing With A Blind Mind

“Jun Masuda as Oyanagi, Matsuo Kabuki” from the series Kabuki Players.

Read through the names Southern California-based photographer Hiroshi Watanabe gives his photographic series—Lotus Dreams, Dunes, Bull City Summer, Ideology in Paradise, I See Angels Every Day—and you’ll find that each one has an almost haiku-like, understated quality. Yet, none of them seem related to each other, as if each series is a one-off.

Upon closer inspection, Watanabe’s extensive body of work, though, reveals a classic Japanese aesthetic and attention to detail as he attempts, he says, “to be a faithful visual recorder of the world around me.” And while this is, he says, “a world in flux,” he believes that “at the very least, in my mind, [it] deserves preservation.”

Born in Sapporo, Japan, on the northern island of Hokkaido, Watanabe graduated from the Department of Photography of Nihon University in 1975 and moved to Los Angeles to work as a production coordinator for Japanese television commercials and later co-founded his own coordination services company. In 1993, he earned an MBA from UCLA, but two years later revived his earlier interest in photography. Since 2000, he has not only survived but also prospered as a professional fine-art photographer, with his images in museums and personal collections around the globe.

Digital Photo Pro: How do you come up with ideas for your various photography series?

Hiroshi Watanabe: Except for a small number of commissioned projects that I have done, such as Artifacts, Bull City Summer, and Comedy of Double Meaning, all of my series have been motivated by personal curiosities. From time to time, I get hooked by certain subjects and start searching for more information and understanding about them. I search by taking photographs. Being a photographer gives me a good reason for being nosy and “snoopy.” Other than that, I have no intention for the stories. There is no purpose or teaching I want to force upon other people. They are purely for myself, and I enjoy the process and the results.

When I get a commission, I try to approach it in the same way. I interpret the task with a very wide scope, and I keep my mind wide open, almost to the point where I blank out my consciousness. I walk around with a blind mind.

DPP: So you’re going into the project with an empty cup, so to speak, allowing it to be filled with whatever comes along?

HW: It might sound contrary to what I just said, but I do a lot of research before I embark on photo projects. I cannot do good work that satisfies me with false information and a false presumption. But research is being done just to the point where I am still intrigued by the topic. If my research ends with knowledge that is common and accepted, I am no longer intrigued by it, and I look for something else.

DPP: What were the concepts behind the Artifacts and Bull City Summer series?

HW: Artifacts was a commissioned work from the San José Museum of Art. The museum asked me to do a project on the city’s Japantown. I struggled to find something there, but I happened to learn about artifacts that were stored in a local museum, the Japanese American Museum of San José. I searched out small artifacts from the many boxes they had in their possession and photographed some of the more intriguing items one by one.

Then, I learned about the Tule Lake War Relocation Center that existed during the second world war and traveled there to photograph more artifacts by digging them out in the field to create a related but separate series. Those photographs are now a part of a traveling exhibition called The Art of Survival: Enduring the Turmoil of Tule Lake.

Bull City Summer was a commission from the North Carolina Museum of Art. I, along with a number of other photographers, chronicled the 2013 season at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, documenting the hometown minor league baseball team. The project was inspired by the 25th anniversary of the movie “Bull Durham.”

“Santa Monica Pier” from the series American Studies.
“Santa Monica Pier” from the series American Studies.

DPP: What was the idea behind your series of portraits of Kabuki actors?

HW: When my passion for photography was rekindled in the 1990s, my first interest was landscape and streetscape photography. But when I traveled to Kenya in 1997, I was taken by the photogenic beauty of the Samburu people there and took several portraits. I was so happy with the results that portraiture became another one of my favorite subjects, as well. Soon afterwards, I traveled to Ecuador and took portraits of patients in a psychiatric hospital in Quito. That series was published in Japan with the title I See Angels Every Day.

I then thought to myself, “Why shouldn’t I do portraits in Japan where I came from?” Before that time, I shied away from Japanese matters, but I decided to force myself to do a very Japanese subject for portraits. Kabuki is the most Japanese thing there is, so I pursued that. I also did a series on maiko, which are geishas in training.

“GE 100 Watt Light Bulb” from the series Artifacts.
“GE 100 Watt Light Bulb” from the series Artifacts.

DPP: Who are your photographic influences?

HW: When I first became interested in photography and studied it in Japan in the early 1970s, my influences were mostly American photographers, such as Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, as well as Edward Weston and Paul Strand. There were several Japanese photographers that inspired me, as well. In those days, regardless of where you were from, if you wanted to be a serious art photographer—as opposed to a commercial or editorial one—black-and-white was the thing to do. I think it was partly because very few photographers processed color by themselves. It was too difficult before the digital age. We could have total control with black-and-white photography. All of my heroes were black-and-white photographers, and I emulated them.

“White Terns, Midway Atoll” from the series American Studies.
“White Terns, Midway Atoll” from the series American Studies.

DPP: Is there such a thing as a Japanese aesthetic approach when it comes to photography?

HW: I cannot say what a “Japanese aesthetic” is, but I think there is a somewhat unique aspect or look to Japanese art photography, in general. One thing that comes to my mind is “vagueness.” If I may vastly stereotype, Japanese, especially men, are not good vocal/logical communicators. It is enforced by a “Zen” attitude on every topic. You are not supposed to explain things when you know it—as you think deeper, you are more likely not to speak—and that kind of thing.

On the contrary, I am always surprised how well photographers/artists in the U.S. can speak about their work in detail, for a long time, regardless of the qualities of their work. They talk about concepts, historical and social meanings, their beliefs, how their work may influence others and so on. I know some well-known Japanese photographers, and I have never heard them explain their work.When they speak, it is only about trivial circumstances, jokingly. Men are more respected when quiet—that is what I was taught when I was a child in Japan.

Maybe this aesthetic has something to do with their quiet “Japanese vagueness.”

“End of Inning” from the series Bull City Summer.
“End of Inning” from the series Bull City Summer.

DPP: And through that quietness, they produce some of the most important books in the history of photography. Why are Japanese photography books so collectible?

HW: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. The only thing I can say is that the most highly collected Japanese photo books are by photographers who burst onto the Japanese photo scene in the early 1970s, like Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Eikoh Hosoe and Shomei Tomatsu. Many people were influenced by them and became interested in becoming photographers themselves—I was one of them. It was something cool to do—artistic and fashionable.

Back then, they used to say that if you threw a stone in any direction in Harajuku, it would hit a cameraman. Those giants are still giants today, and not many if any have surpassed their status. Japan was the major camera maker already by that time, but photography was not yet a means of self-expression until those giants came to the scene.

“Sunset, Durham Bulls Athletic Park” from the series Bull City Summer.
“Sunset, Durham Bulls Athletic Park” from the series Bull City Summer.

DPP: What equipment are you shooting with?

HW: For over two decades, I have almost exclusively been using the Hasselblad 203F with a 110mm f/2 lens. The 203F, as part of the 200 series, is one of the few focal-plane shutter cameras that Hasselblad made, but they ended production of it. Because the shutter is not in the lens, the lenses can have a bigger aperture, thus the f/2. I believe this is Hasselblad’s brightest lens, and it is a beautiful lens for portraits and landscapes. Occasionally, I’ll use the standard 80mm f/2.8 for landscapes. I have other lenses, but they remain in the camera case almost all the time.

I’m now using digital cameras, as well, like the Fujifilm X-Pro1, the Sony a7R II and the Sony RX100 VI. They are all good cameras, but I prefer working with the Hasselblad with black-and-white film for monochrome work. I love the process of film photography, especially working in the darkroom. I can get lost working in the darkroom, and time goes by quickly. [And I still feel a lot of] satisfaction looking at the shiny gelatin-silver prints in the washing tray.

“Supreme Court, Washington DC” from the series American Studies.
“Supreme Court, Washington DC” from the series American Studies.

DPP: What are your favorite papers and film?

HW: I used to use Kodak Polymax Fine-Art paper, but it was discontinued many years ago. That was my favorite paper. Now, I use Ilford Multigrade FB Classic paper; it has the closest characteristics to the Kodak paper I loved, especially when toned.

For film, I use Tri-X 220 processed, with a Jobo Autolab ATL 2200. That film was discontinued in 2010. When that happened, I bought all the 220 that was available in the United States, which was 750 rolls. I still have about 200 left in my freezer and take some rolls out when I work on black-and-white projects.

“Marina Ema and Kazusa Ito, Matsuo Kabuki” from the series Kabuki Players.
“Marina Ema and Kazusa Ito, Matsuo Kabuki” from the series Kabuki Players.

DPP: What are the pros and cons of doing open editions vs. limited editions? What do you do?  

HW: I do limited editions mainly because galleries like it that way. I think it is a demand-and-price issue. If people know that an unlimited number of prints can be made from a negative, it is hard to demand higher prices.

When I started selling my work in galleries, my prints were limited editions of 30. It was the number that many other photographers were doing. Then, I noticed prints of other artists became bigger in size, and edition numbers were getting smaller, both of which led to higher prices for galleries.

One aspect of doing limited editions that I do not like is that it is a lot of work to keep track and keep control of limited-edition prints and their prices, especially when working with multiple galleries and with step-up pricing where the prices go up as the edition sells. Personally, as an artist, I do not mind having my work sold as limited or open editions. I will be happy if more people have my work regardless of the price that I get. Art is meant to be seen.

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