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Book Review: The Day the Dam Collapses


Book Review The Day the Dam Collapses By Hiroshi Watanabe Reviewed by Blake Andrews Judging by his photographs Hiroshi Watanabe has always had a deep contemplative streak. But in recent years it has become outsized. Maybe he feels the rush of late middle age as he approaches his mid-sixties. Or perhaps it's inspired by the birth of his son 5 years ago. Whatever the cause, he's been doing some extra deep thinking lately about, you know, the big stuff.

The Day the Dam Collapses. By Hiroshi Watanabe.
Daylight Books, 2014.
 
The Day the Dam Collapses
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

The Day the Dam Collapses
By Hiroshi Watanabe
Daylight Books, 2014. 88 pp., 66 color illustrations, 7½x9½".


Judging by his photographs Hiroshi Watanabe has always had a deep contemplative streak. But in recent years it has become outsized. Maybe he feels the rush of late middle age as he approaches his mid-sixties. Or perhaps it's inspired by the birth of his son 5 years ago. Whatever the cause, he's been doing some extra deep thinking lately about, you know, the big stuff. The cycle of humanity and the universe. The end of time. Death. God. Birth. It's all that mysterious crap you used to debate back in college drunk at 3 am. You never settled it then and you never will because there've never been any final answers. But the issues become harder to ignore in later years, in particular the central one: What does it all mean?

According to Watanabe, not much. "My life has no meaning," he writes in the afterword to his recent book The Day The Dam Collapses. No answers. No God. No point to all. Major bummer. But wait, it gets worse: "A disaster will surely come to us… and the largest disaster must be our death." Yeah, he does have a point there. No sooner have we settled into the wonderful world — with Ferlinghetti poems even! — then along comes the smiling mortician.

The Day the Dam Collapses. By Hiroshi WatanabeDaylight Books, 2014.

Oh well. If the dam bursting on our heads is inevitable, we might as well make some photographs while waiting for it. Watanabe's been busy as usual doing just that, and The Day The Dam Collapses collects some of his recent work. Watanabe has switched in recent years from black and white to color, and he's given up film for digital, at least for this book. But the photographic style he developed in the mid 1990s has remained consistently his own. That's the contemplative streak I mentioned earlier. It's always been in his photos, and it's in this project too.

The book's somber title might imbue a grand purpose, but as far as I can tell the visual material doesn't stray much from his earlier work. Watanabe has always glorified the quotidian. His visual approach is probably best described by the title of his first book Findings. That's his raison d'être. He finds visual snippets and puts them in squares. Perhaps with this book he's moved one notch away from Michael Kenna and toward Rinko Kawauchi. But he's still firmly in the orbit of both. He's a visual scavenger, hunting around with a camera here and there for small scenes and moments. An insect or a wave or an old poster, modified by screens, soft light, or deliberate obfuscation. It's mundane stuff, but spiced with clear vision, and also in this case with babies, landscapes, and a healthy dose of flood imagery.

The Day the Dam Collapses. By Hiroshi WatanabeDaylight Books, 2014.

The moral of the book seems circumscribed by everyday wonder. If the end is coming — breaking news from Daylight's press release: "Life is devastatingly ephemeral!"— our burden is to pause now to notice the small stuff. Smell the flowers. Enjoy good food, rivers, children, and other beautiful imponderables. This book represents one photographer's pre-doomsday enjoyment, and will probably lead to the enjoyment of many end-time readers, including me. That's all fine and good, but I must point out that aesthetic appreciation doesn't require fatalism. A rose is a rose is a rose. That's true for mortals and immortals alike. Or at least that's what I decided once a long time ago in college drunk at 3 am. I could be wrong.


The Day the Dam Collapses. By Hiroshi WatanabeDaylight Books, 2014.

My one criticism of Watanabe is that he can sometimes be overly sentimental. Shawn Records once described his photos as "maybe a little too pretty; safe and traditional in their heavy use of birds, bubbles, balloons, and beauty." That was true for Findings and I think it still holds for some of the current work. A few of these images could be on a Hallmark card; perhaps one commemorating the end of the world? That said, many photos in this book are spectacular — for example, the dam, the baptism, and the body surfer. So you can put doom on the back burner for a while as you lose yourself in them. Don't worry, it'll be there waiting when you put the book down.

The Day the Dam Collapses. By Hiroshi WatanabeDaylight Books, 2014.

Although he's lived in the US for decades, Watanabe is a Japanese native, and the book honors that heritage in a few ways. The text is accompanied by Japanese translation, and the textured cover and endpapers give the book a traditional Japanese feel. The layout is simple and uncluttered, leaning toward Wabi-Sabi. Photos are reproduced mostly at a uniform size, but presented on varying parts of the page, sometimes cross corner, sometimes centered. This seems partially related to their content (e.g., lower perspectives shown at page bottom), but not always. A handful of photos are shown larger and by themselves. Production-wise, this is one of the nicest books I've seen from Daylight. All in all there is enough variety to keep the reader slightly off-balance and alert. Watanabe's afterword flirts with outright nihilism before ultimately finishing on an upbeat note.—BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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