Photographers quite often pick a genre or two during their careers and stick with it for innumerable reasons. I suppose the general reasoning may be that we tend to gravitate to what interests us most and try to “master” it as best we can. From what I can tell, Hiroshi Watanabe has never heard this or thought it to be an option. Landscape, portraiture, still life….he doesn't just do it all, he does does it all really, really well. With keen sensibilities and a love of light second to none, he tackles everything that interests him with commitment and excellence. Anyone who has ever seen even one of his gelatin silver prints up closed personal knows this…they are simply stunning. A small print of El Arbolito Park, Quito, Ecuador, hangs just outside of my office and I get to look at it every time I enter or leave. It’s like finding treasure over and over again.
Hiroshi is humble, talented, and generous - all things anyone would want to aspire to. He was certainly generous with his time, because he had no reservations about using some of it to answer my questions about his background and his process. Yet again, words and actions that can blueprint a course of action for anyone seeking excellence in their own work.
Born in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, I graduated from the Department of Photography of Nihon University in 1975. I moved to Los Angeles, where I worked as a production coordinator for Japanese television commercials and later co-founded a Japanese coordination services company. I obtained an MBA from the UCLA Anderson Business School in 1993. Two years later, however, my earlier interest in photography revived, and I started to travel worldwide, extensively photographing what I found intriguing at each moment and place. As of 2000, I have worked full time at photography.
After I produced five self-published books, my first collection to be published conventionally was I See Angels Every Day, monochrome portraits of patients and scenes from San Lázaro psychiatric hospital in Quito, Ecuador. This work won Japan’s 2007 Photo City Sagamihara Award for professional photographers.
In 2006, I won a Critical Mass Award from Photolucida, Portland, OR, resulting in publication of my monograph Findings in 2007.
In 2006 and 2007, I traveled to North Korea, and my book documenting the experience, titled Ideology of Paradise, was published in Japan. With that work I won First Prize in the Santa Fe Center Project Competition in 2008.
In 2009 I received a commission from the San Jose (California) Museum of Art to document from an artist’s perspective subjects of my choice relating to the city’s Japantown. I decided to photograph artifacts from the Japanese internment camps established during the Second World War. All images from this project were purchased by the museum and exhibited in 2011.
In 2010 I was chosen as one of fourteen artists invited to photograph Venice, Italy, for a project called Real Venice, a major art initiative to raise funds for Venice. The artists were commissioned to visit the city and create a portfolio of images with total artistic freedom. The result, the Real Venice exhibition, was shown during the 54th Venice Biennale at San Giorgio Maggiore Abbey and later at the Somerset House in London (May 31 to September 30 and October 10 to December 11, 2011, respectively).
In 2013 I was invited to participate in Bull City Summer in Durham, North Carolina, a project inspired by the 25th anniversary of the movie Bull Durham. Ten nationally and internationally acclaimed photographers documented the 2013 season at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the legendary minor league baseball team. The exhibit was shown at the North Carolina Museum of Art (February 23 to August 31, 2014).
From April 4 to July 21, 2014, my photographs of artifacts from the Tule Lake Japanese internment camps were the centerpiece exhibit in The Art of Survival: Enduring the Turmoil of Tule Lake, at the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, Oregon. The exhibition is currently on tour in the US.
In 2016 I received a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.
Michael Kirchoff: You were born and raised in Japan and attended classes at the Department of Photography of Nihon University, however you didn’t pursue photography as a vocation initially. What prompted your career diversion into television production before being led back to photography?
Hiroshi Watanabe: Before I graduated the university, I was looking for a way to go to the US and find a photography job there. I was fascinated by photographers in the US then, like Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, etc. and fancied myself becoming like one. I happened to see a job posting on the campus which said one year in the US. I applied for the job without knowing much about the job itself (I did not plan to stay with the company for long). I was hired and I moved to Los Angeles. The job turned out to be TV production work for the Japanese market. I found out quickly that LA was a film city, not like NY which was the photo city. If I’d have known it, I would have gone to NY. But I began to enjoy the production work and I stayed with the job, got married, and settled down. Later, I started my own production company with a friend. I became financially stable and had responsibilities to support my family and raise children. So, I continued the work for 20 years, until one morning when I was about 45 years old, I decided to go back to photography.
MK: Do you feel that your previous work in production has helped in planning and executing your own projects?
HW: More and more my work is becoming project oriented that requires planning and producing (as opposed to street or landscape photography, which is spontaneous). For instance, I am currently finishing up a book project for which I made photographs based on fictional stories. I also had a portraiture commission of a well-known artist in France. All of those projects need careful planning and considerations for requirements. In that sense, my prior experiences as a producer is becoming handy.
MK: What is it that inspires you to decide upon a particular project?
HW: Life. Unless it is a commissioned work, I don’t look for something particular on purpose for my photography. I just live a life with an open mind. Once in a while, I happen to see, or hear about, something that catches my attention and I get intrigued. Most of them are something I was not aware of, or something I do not understand. I get curious and start looking into them. Many times, my photography is a way of finding out. I do not make photographs to tell others something I already know or believe, or enforce my opinions on others.
MK: I’d like to ask a couple of questions about the technical aspects of working as a photographer. I know firsthand the quality and beauty of your traditional darkroom prints. Is there a standard of excellence you adhere to in their making? Have you encountered any difficulties in continuing to make prints in this way? Any interest in making digital prints?
HW: When I studied photography in Japan in the 1970s, it was all black and white photography. (Daido Moriyama was my hero). When I started again many years later in the 1990s, it was the beginning of the end of analogue photography, but the process was still analogue nonetheless. Techniques were basically the same. That was why I never got into digital. Maybe it would have been different if it was five years later. From the beginning, I loved and enjoyed darkroom work. I still do, and that is the only reason I still make prints in the darkroom. For me, digital work process is boring and I cannot take my mind into it. The biggest challenge I face is the fact that the materials I use are becoming more and more scarce. For instance, the film I use, Kodak Tri-X 220, was discontinued in 2010. When it happened, I bought all that I could find in the US…750 rolls of 220. I still have about 200 rolls left in my freezer, and I take out and use them when I work. I don’t think anyone will make 220 film anymore in the future.
MK: With the release of your latest book, The Day the Dam Collapses, you had started photographing digitally. What sparked this change, and is it something we will see more of in the future?
HW: I started using a digital camera in 2008. It was not a creative choice but was a practical necessity. In that year, my son was born and I had to hold him as well as diapers and bottles when we went out. I could no longer carry my favorite, but bulky and heavy Hasselblad. I also needed to take family pictures. So I started to carry a small digital camera. After five years, I began organizing all these digital photos on the computer and noticed some images that are scattered among many typical happy family photos. These are things I happened to see and had to photograph. I used what was available - the digital camera. I put together these images and they became the basis of the book.
MK: How much time are you actively shooting for yourself? What about time spent in the darkroom?
HW: Actual time I spend photographing is quite little. I would say about 20 days in a year. I spend more days researching and preparing. About the same amount of time is spent working in the darkroom. The rest of my time is spent for life—my family, my children, my life.
MK: You are clearly comfortable photographing everything from landscape, to still life, to portraits. Do you have a preference, or do you feel that it is important as a photographer to approach each of them equally?
HW: Genre, style, even methods, are not important for me. I work with whatever I am intrigued with at that time. I do not have a preference in any matters, except to say that being honest to oneself is most important, I think.
MK: You had created several self-published books before then working with different publishers over the years. How has working with these publishers shaped how your books are made? Do you keep all creative control or is it more of a collaboration?
HW: I like getting myself heavily involved in the book making, and I enjoy the process until the end when pages are printed by a noisy large printing machine. But, I also like working with editors and designers. I usually let them first do their work without my influences. They always bring something interesting—aspects, angles, and ideas—that I did not know. If I try to control too much, I would not learn from them. I like finding and learning. I am not a good teacher. I want to be a good student.
MK: Your life, as well as your education, has taken place in societies as diverse as Japan and California. It appears that Japan is a land steeped in tradition, yet California is ever changing and seems to be quite the opposite of traditional. How do you think that this has affected your artistic sensibilities, and do you feel that your work is more informed from one over the other?
HW: I don’t think necessarily ‘Japan is old and traditional vs. California (US) is new and changing’. Recent social and political events in the US show how the US can be stubbornly conservative, and even backward. In general, people in Japan follow traditions in all aspect of life, but I think they do so pragmatically, and they adopt new and old ways of life when they are convenient to do so. I do believe having lived in two different cultures can help create unique sensibilities and it can be an advantage. I love both countries and I hate some different aspects of both.
MK: Thinking back to your time in television production, have you ever had an interest in working on film or motion based projects?
HW: No, not at all. Moving images do not interest me, although I am interested in the stories that they convey. When I worked on TV commercials, I enjoyed the work. I liked solving problems and combatting challenges. But, I was disappointed afterwards when I saw the commercials that I worked on. I could not understand why commercials became uninteresting after so many hardworking and talented people spent many days and so much money.
MK: With regard to creativity and the projects you take on. Do you feel it is better to create work that fits a particular style for yourself, branch out and try new things, or better to simply leave yourself open to possibilities that happen organically?
HW: Simply leave myself open to possibilities that happen organically—definitely.
MK: Do you have any other creative pursuits, or is photography always at the forefront?
HW: Besides life in general and photography, I have no other pursuits. I have no other talent nor interest in any other forms of art. I cannot draw, sing, play instruments, dance, or write better than anyone else can. So, I stick with photography.
MK: How do you see your work progressing into the future? Do you have anything new you are currently working on that we should be on the lookout for?
HW: I recently leaned that light can reflect and bend in water and it can create visually interesting figures. I am experimenting with tank/water photography—to be seen.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
HW: Honestly speaking, I don’t feel like I am being matured. I am not technically better than before, and I am not particularly wiser than before. I don’t have a new trick that I use. There are many giants that I can never catch up to. All I know is that I am getting old and I have less and less time left to do what I want to achieve. Yes, art is long, life is short.
MK: Thank you so much for your time, Hiroshi. You have had a successful and distinguished career, and I wonder if you have any final words of wisdom for those starting out in visual pursuits?
HW: Just like anything else, making a living by doing what you really like is not easy (as all others are competing to do just the same), but it will be rewarding at the end (if you succeed). Unless you are one of few who are both exceptionally talented and lucky, it will be an uphill battle for a very long time. Find a way to sustain yourself and keep going. Eventually, many others will give up and drop out, and you will eventually become one of the select few.
You can find more of Hiroshi's work at his website here.