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Portfolio & Interview: Hiroshi Watanabe on The Day the Dam Collapses

photo-eye Gallery Portfolio & Interview: Hiroshi Watanabe on The Day the Dam Collapses We are thrilled to have a selection of images from Hiroshi Watanabe’s series The Day the Dam Collapses currently on exhibit in the Bookstore + Project Space through February 14th. photo-eye's Lucas Shaffer speaks to Hiroshi Watanabe about the series and the book of the same title published by Daylight and selected as one of the Best Books of 2014.
TDTDC 16 (Swallowtail Butterfly), 2009 — Hiroshi Watanabe

We are thrilled to have a selection of images from Hiroshi Watanabe’s series The Day the Dam Collapses currently on exhibit in the Bookstore + Project Space through February 14th. All 21 exhibition images can be viewed online in a new online portfolio on Watanabe’s photo-eye Gallery page.

TDTDC 13, 2008 — Hiroshi Watanabe
The Day the Dam Collapses is the new detailed yet quietly poetic series from the California-based Japanese photographer. Working for the first time with digital capture, Watanabe collected these intimate images detailing life’s ephemeral beauty over a five year period between 2008 and 2013 – spurred by the birth of his first son. These small scale color images do well to highlight the vitality, fragility, and paradox of life. In Watanabe’s own words,”... we are all living like characters in a disaster movie. We know we may some day face a disaster or a terrible event, but we keep living calmly as we do not know what and when that might occur. But a disaster will surely come to us.”

In addition to the exhibition, The Day the Dam Collapses has also recently been released as a book of the same title from Daylight and Tosei-sha and was selected by Anne Kelly and Sarah Bradley as one of the Best Books of 2014. photo-eye’s Lucas Shaffer asked Watanabe about the origin of the series, Watanabe’s change in technology, and the creation of the book.

TDTDC 38 (Magnolia Flower), 2009 — Hiroshi Watanabe

Lucas Shaffer:     I wanted to begin with the basics  how did The Day the Dam Collapses get started?

Hiroshi Watanabe:     In 2008 my son was born. Before that I took photographs with my Hasselblad, the medium format camera, so when we would go out that was the camera I would carry with film. After my son was born I could not carry my clunky big camera anymore because I had to hold the baby and the diapers and so on. So I didn't carry a camera for a long time and then my wife asked me to take pictures of the baby, family pictures, which I didn't really want to do because I'm not very good at taking those kinds of pictures myself. My wife is better at taking those kinds of pictures than I am. So I started carrying a small digital camera and I did not take pictures in a serious way for sometime, but then I started seeing things I wanted to take pictures of. I was living with my family, my son, my baby, but I couldn't just ignore things I see. So I started taking pictures with what I had, which was this small digital camera

TDTDC 48 (Fruit Stand), 2009 — Hiroshi Watanabe

LS:     Is this the first time you've used digital capture as a format?

HW:     Well, yes, in a way. I've had a digital camera before, but this was the first time I've started taking pictures with a digital camera intentionally  to see something, want to photograph it, and then use the digital camera. So I did that for about five years, and of course in between that time I had commissions and projects where I used the Hasselblad and I was separated from my family some of that time, but I was not making pictures on a daily basis except with this digital camera. And, at the same time after my son was born, I start questioning myself because of the birth and I start thinking of my own death, which is strange. I was so happy that my son was born, but at the same time I was thinking of dying  myself dying  so I was in this strange mood for some time. I think that it affected my pictures and is the reason I couldn't resist photographing those small items I find in the daily life. So I photographed like that for about five years and then I was looking through my family pictures one day and started noticing in between these pictures of happy family moments those items I felt compelled to photograph, most of them are something to do with insect or small life, and most of them are dying or dead. So I start pulling those pictures out and putting them into a folder, and then saw that those pictures really matched how I was feeling when I was questioning myself.

LS:     That’s interesting; during the five years you began to accumulate images related to larger life questions. Do you feel like you got any answers looking back at them now?

HW:     Those questions, "the meaning of life"  when we were young, high school or college age, we'd talk about it with friends, trying to figure it all out. Then you start living, become adults, you are consumed with a life  living, working, things like that. Some people are consumed by those things entirely and don’t question those things again. Somehow the birth of my son lead me back to these questions. Maybe silly questions. But my mood, then, matched exactly these images. So I started putting them together, printing them larger and on nicer paper and kind of started playing.

TDTDC 73 (School of Fish), 2012 — Hiroshi Watanabe

LS:     Do you mean "playing" like sequencing or editing the pictures?

HW:     Yes exactly  seeing what I had. I pulled out images from the folder, arranged the best ones, and put them in a binder. When I started taking pictures, I didn't have a project in mind, I wasn't planning on a book, I was just doing it, I just had these pictures.

LS:     Sounds like truly personal work.

HW:     Yes, I just had to take the pictures. Then two years ago I had a project with Daylight, my publisher, to photograph minor league baseball teams, and they asked me what else I was doing, so I showed them the binder. After seeing the images they told me they would like to make a book. So that’s how it happened. Unintentionally to begin with, but it really represents what I was thinking, what I was feeling, during those five years. So I am very happy it came out as a book.

TDTDC 28 (Swimmer), 2013 — Hiroshi Watanabe
LS:     The word poetic has been used to describe your images, and I think that sentiment extends to the title The Day the Dam Collapses as well. Can you tell us a little about the title and how it relates to the project?

HW:     Well, that relates to the mood I was in during those five years. As I was editing I was kind of looking at the images from above, separate from the actual events, separate from my life, and reading the pictures objectively. Like another person looking at my life. I started seeing that the images predict my own death in a way, because they are the mundane things that happen all the time. To be honest, I don't have the answer to all the questions I asked myself, I don't even know if that is possible, but the work started to seem like outtakes from a disaster movie. The images deal with death, the fragility of life, I started to feel like this "movie" I was presenting was a disaster movie. It started looking like they are these unseen moments of someone's life, my life, and because it’s a book I wanted the title to reflect the mood of the pictures. There is a text in the book that goes more in depth about it, but I wanted the book title to carry the drama of a movie title, to give the audience a chance to predict the ending. So if anyone can tell me what will happen to me in 10 years I hope they'll reach out [laughs].

The Day the Dam Collapses. By Hiroshi WatanabeDaylight Books, 2014.
LS:     I think you touched on this a bit already, but I want to ask you about how the book is edited. The image pairings on the page spreads are beautifully related, and so subtle at times. How were those decisions made?

HW:     Well I made the initial edit when I sent Daylight the binder, but I think the real credit for the sequencing goes to Michael Itkoff. He's the one who asked me what else I was doing, and I sent him the binder. He edited the book. We made a few changes after he first got back to me, but basically almost all of the sequences are made by him, which I was very happy with. I like doing that because a lot of times as an artist I try to control everything and sometimes I feel like I have to do everything by myself, but I like input from other people because they teach me about my work. To see it in a different way. If I do it myself, I do not learn about myself. I can always go back and make changes. The credit should really go to Michael.

LS:     You talk about The Day the Dam Collapses in a five-year context, between 2008 and 2013, and that is what the book represents. Will you continue to make new images for the series or does the publication of the book put a period on the project for you?

HW:     I'm not actually thinking of continuing this method. Number one is that I don't have to carry babies around anymore, so that’s one thing. They are older, and I can go back to my old way. The other is I still like working in the darkroom for some reason. I really enjoy the process of analog film photography. The digital camera is very fast, but it doesn't have as many surprises. When another project presents itself, I'd like to use my film camera, my Hasselblad.

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

LS:     Finally do you have a favorite image, or image pairing from the book?

HW:     Well yes, if I have to choose just one I like the pairing of my son under the waves and the vine. It's how I felt. I also like the T-Rex and the shadow of my son.

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

View The Day the Dam Collapses portfolio

Purchase a signed copy of the book The Day the Dam Collapses

Read the review by Blake Andrews

For more information or to purchase a print, please contact Melanie McWhorter at 505.988.5152 x112 / or Anne Kelly at 505.988.5152 x121 /