Photographer Hiroshi Watanabe describes our state of being in his new monograph — The Day the Dam Collapses — as like “characters in a disaster movie.” We know that some doom is always on the way, yet we live calmly. “And the largest disaster must be our death, which we all have to face sometime in the future,” the California-based Japanese artist writes.
When his son was born, this idea of the cycle of life and mortality was only distilled. As he traded his hefty Hasselblad camera with which he’s taken the black and white photographs that have defined much of his work, for a smaller, family friendly digital, the details of this existence popped out. “In this frame of mind I look at my own daily life and I see many signs, as if someone is trying to give me hints,” he writes.
Those hints, both ominous and touching, populate The Day the Dam Collapses, published last month by Daylight Books. Prints from the book are also currently on view through December 20 at Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. A lot of design care was obviously put into the book, which Daylight printed in collaboration with Tose-sha in Japan, with its lightly rippled paper cover printed with a dead butterfly on the ground.
The square photographs are each given their own, generous page, just a number with no caption indicating where or when it was taken. A child with a balloon is caught under a wave; a dead bird rests on the snow beneath a tangle of branches. Bushes are in rampant overgrowth before the entrance to a home. In the most unsettling two pages, at one far corner used condoms cluster on the sidewalk, while on the facing page, pushed to the most opposite corner, four beetles gnaw on a glistening worm.
Some of it can feel a little heavy-handed — the photograph of a dam echoing the title taken from the poem by Kirsten Rian that proceeds the images has its own two pages — and a few feel a bit too much like the family album photographs Watanabe originally set out to take, the personal nature of the work making it sentimental. However, it’s that giving the everyday a weight to it, where even a shadow silhouetted on a wall can transform into a reminder of the quickness of life, that makes the arc of photographs have a broader meaning beyond the purely personal. Over the five years of the photographs, Watanabe gleaned these fleeting scenes, the stillness in them still suggesting the rapid movement of life.
The Day the Dam Collapses by Hiroshi Watanabe is available from Daylight Books.