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Book Review: Otsuchi

Book Review Otsuchi By Alejandro Chaskielberg Reviewed by George Slade Can you tell the difference between a face screaming in pleasure and a face screaming in pain? How about a child held in an adult’s arms or sprawled across a mass of detritus on the deck of a boat — sleeping or dead? What is most helpful in making these determinations?

OtsuchiBy Alejandro Chaskielberg
Editorial RM, 2016.
Reviewed by George Slade

Otsuchi: Future Memories
Photographs by Alejandro Chaskielberg. Essay by Daido Moriyama.
Editorial RM, Mexico City, Mexico, 2016. 112 pp., 8x10x½".

Can you tell the difference between a face screaming in pleasure and a face screaming in pain? How about a child held in an adult’s arms or sprawled across a mass of detritus on the deck of a boat — sleeping or dead? What is most helpful in making these determinations? Context, and time, right? Maybe just time. What comes before and after the mouth distends and the eyes close? Does that child’s chest expand and contract?

These two examples from Otsuchi remind us that photography is chronologically stingy. The single photograph so often leaves us suspended in some denotative limbo. Context can help resolve the problem. It can also deepen inherent mysteries.

OtsuchiBy Alejandro Chaskielberg. Editorial RM, 2016.

By themselves, as demonstrated in the past as well as in this new book, Alejandro Chaskielberg’s photographs stage time and context in unsettling ways. His use of selective focus and directed illumination, drawing life from shadows, has a way of simultaneously grounding our vision and disturbing it. Rationalism is not the core goal of his work. His images generate more uncertainty than comprehension, even when seen in quantity.

Otsuchi is wisely billed as an essay by Chaskielberg (with a brief, insightful foreword by Daido Moriyama). The adjectives ‘visual’ or ‘photographic’ could accurately be inserted before ‘essay,’ though a tantalizing openness and ambiguity would be lost. The book’s emotional punch derives from the irrational spaces created by staged photographs and disordered artifacts.

OtsuchiBy Alejandro ChaskielbergEditorial RM, 2016.

The essay considers the aftereffects of the 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami that devastated the Japanese coastal town of Otsuchi. As evidenced in post-September 11, post-Katrina — post Battle of Gettysburg, for that matter — photo-bibliography, the effects of catastrophe draw the attention of image-makers like light does to moths.

Chaskielberg’s essay is not disaster porn. His images are too open-ended, too connotative to sit easily in the role of vicarious transport. You are definitely NOT there in these photographs. The opening seven spreads, close up views of a wild profusion of stuff, incredibly detailed and tactile, printed on pages that are so glossy they feel oily, draw in your eyes, but the succeeding pages undermine your sense of context. Chaskielberg situates his signature tableaux amidst ruins and backgrounds that provoke unease, as though the chaos has barely receded and in fact may rise again. This truth haunts most of these faces.

OtsuchiBy Alejandro ChaskielbergEditorial RM, 2016.

A newly apparent vulnerability rides the coattails of the terrifying inundation. What happened feels fresh and raw. What was unthinkable before 2011 has become real. Chaskielberg’s images evoke and amplify this awareness of disaster. The symbolic crux of the essay, and the success of the book, derives from the artist’s inclusion of a parallel phenomenon — the decontextualizing effects of water upon printed images, resulting in a hands full of decaying imagery. Again, this is not novel camera fodder, particularly in the era of the inkjet print. Chaskielberg ups the ante for found, fugitive imagery by weaving its literal and metaphoric contents into his essay.

OtsuchiBy Alejandro ChaskielbergEditorial RM, 2016.

The spectral ambiguity that characterizes his staged portraits collaborates with the tragedies implied in the flood’s visual detritus, all to strengthen the book. A deteriorated contact sheet of a young pitcher follows an evanescent, staged team photo of what appears to be a youth baseball club. Expressionless individuals occupy rooms in what may have been a house, may have been their house, but is now only the house’s floor plan; everything above the concrete foundation has been obliterated. A team of what might be firemen, squatting on what may have been a firehouse, share a spread with a ghostly, nearly effaced image of firemen awash in the pictorial space of another nearly disappeared photograph. Costumed tigers appear on both broken concrete stages and in semi-legible prints.

OtsuchiBy Alejandro ChaskielbergEditorial RM, 2016.

And there are those inkjet-rendered faces. Agonized or ecstatic? They have survived the flood’s effects, and are animated in Chaskielberg’s evocative narrative. But are their objective correlatives — the people themselves — still among the living? Like so much of this intricate essay sans closure, their status remains an open question.—GEORGE SLADE

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GEORGE SLADE, a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is a photography writer, curator, historian and consultant. He can be found online at

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