On first viewing of Hiroshi Watanabe’s Love Point I find his studio portraits to be beautiful and aesthetically wonderful with a mysterious charm. the underlying subject is a little more socially probing than I find in his earlier works.
Watanabe’s photographic studio portraits are somehow familiar. These black & white photographs are formal and similar to those previously published in the photobook Kabuki Players (actors in costume) and his photographic projects Noh Masks of Naito Clan (masks), Ena Bunraku (puppets) and Suo Sarumawashi (performing monkeys).
His pictorial framing is structured within a square format which in this case seems to lend itself to a meditative viewing. In his previous work the neutral and non-textured back grounds ran the full tonal gamut, but for this series the background is dark and featureless, mysterious and perhaps threatening.
Thematically this current body of work with the exception of the lead-in photograph of the exterior building is portraits of “women”. This portraits have Watanabe’s tight composition placement with the subject filling the frame usually from the waist up and either falling out of the sides of the frame or alternatively with a small amount of surrounding space. He effectively utilizes the composition, lighting, tonal range, subject matter balance, and occasional shallow depth of field to direct your attention to the salient points. Much as a director would influence what and where you need to focus your attention within the frame attempting to control the mood and feelings that are instilled by the photographic images.
In Watanabe’s earlier body of work the subject is the investigation of a fictional illusion, whether as a subtext to a story, play or performance. He uses actors, puppets, masks and performing animals to explore the idea of fiction, fantasy and role-playing as opposed to and in contrast with reality. He is investigating the question can we really differentiate between fiction and reality?
Watanabe’s previously photographed those things which represented the fictional performances or representations of mankind. In this new body of work the boundaries of fiction and reality become increasingly blurred and tangled. He has photographed both life-like Japanese sex-dolls and live Japanese models intermingling the real and fictional images within this photobook. To further blur reality and fiction the dolls are made-up, dressed and posed to appear like live women, while the live models are made-up, similarly dressed with wigs and posed to be appearing doll-like.
In this body of work his usual black and white photographs further abstract the portraits and eliminate additional clues as to which is the live model versus which is the life-like Japanese sex-dolls. It appears that he has taken license and careful consideration to make them indistinguishable. This continues his discourse on fact, fiction and fantasy.
What then is real, fictional, an illusion and maybe even a fantasy? When Jonathan Green was writing about Robert Cumming’s elaborate photographs to present the illusion of reality, he stated about this …”interventions into the observable world makes the viewer constantly question the relationship between fact and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity, the camera as recorder of reality and the camera as the fabricator of new information.”
In Watanabe’s current project in additional to his continuing questions regarding fiction and reality there is an underlying social commentary about the role of women and sexuality fantasy. I also read into this body of photographs a social commentary about those who attempt to be someone other than who they are and the public actor/actress (fiction) and the real person (reality).
Watanabe’s portraits are usually seen frontal and sometimes a three-quarter or side view. He usually photographs his subjects from the waist up with tight framing of the shoulders and head. There are also three photographs in which the model is prone and laying down appearing almost submissive. The clothing of the model’s which is not entirely provocative is symbolic of servitude, e.g. a French Maid. A “French Maid” is also symbolic of a male sexual fantasy such as the “upstairs (bedroom) maid”, or the provocative “Lady in Waiting” the chamber maid as the one always prepared to fulfill your sexual dreams and wishes.
One of Watanabe’s models appearing to be in the process of un-dressing, stripping, and playing a fantasy role. Some of the other images have shallow depth of field with the eyes, mouth and nose in focus, and the hair and clothing slightly out of focus, soft, and sexually alluring. They all have similar expressions with the models eyes wide open, expectant, unblinking, with the mouth slightly closed, with the exception of the one model with the sucker protruding from the puckered lips, an innuendo of oral sex. All of these portraits seem to me to be suggestive, flirtatious, and seductive, conjuring an imaginary and fantasy world.
Similar to the photographs of dummies and dolls by Laurie Simmons, which Nicholas Jenkins has stated that “Simmons photographs are exploring sexual exploitation in that Simmons photographs suggest a perversely fascinating theater of humiliation and a sympathetic imagery of degradation and vulnerability… to a realm of suspended belief and the realm of fantasy and fiction.”
Similarly, when Anne Hoy was writing about Vikky Alexanders photographs, that “repetition reveals the stereotyping of expressions popularly considered sexually alluring and the isolation suggests the use of women as sex objects generically as …tools”.
In the past, a man calling a woman a “doll” was thought to be complementary but it is a degrading way to describe a woman to make her un-real, a fantasy. Indicating it is not necessary to get close and build a personal relationship with a person but a toy to be played with, a tool to be used and perhaps discarded if she becomes soiled and broken, no longer perfect. This series of photographs also conjures the idea of the Barbie Doll fantasy, with elongated legs, “perfect” waist, breasts, head, hair, etc; a fantasy woman that cannot be obtained. Someone who is not a real person but a fantasy that seems to aspire those going to the gym, working out, endless diets, breast & butte cheek implants, fat suctions and other acts of fictitious folly.
A photograph of a sexual fantasy doll is an unreal representation of an unreal person and is no more abstract than the photograph of the women who is pretending to be a sexual fantasy doll. That is if the live model is really a woman and not a man who is pretending to a woman who in turn is pretending to be a sexual fantasy doll. Do you know for sure, which is which is which? I know that I cannot always tell for certain and that disorientation creates intrigue, questions and mystery.
Photographs also get mistaken for reality and raise questions regarding photographic truth. Photographs are abstract representations of reality, two dimensional on a flat plane representations of a three dimension world, capturing a very brief moment in duration sucked out of the time continuum. Photographic framing leaves everything beyond the edges out and includes only a very small space in between. Shapes, tonality, mass, color and line that look like something we think is familiar, e.g. that is my house when I was growing up. Andy Grundberg made the following observation in 1989; (Photography)” is the most stylistically transparent of the visual arts, able to represent things in convincing perspective and seamless detail. Never mind that advertising has taught us that photographic images can be marvelous tricksters: what we see in a photograph is often mistaken for the real thing.”
In the case of the actor playing a role there is a real person who lurks just below a thin layer of make-up paint and costume. But at the moment the actor takes on a role and becomes the character and likewise with a good performance we do not perceive that this is an actor but the character being revealed. For me this brings in a personal question; do people see the real me, or a role that they perceive I play. Likewise, do you see people pretending to be someone other than themselves, a fictional role, and you wonder why don’t they just be themselves? So I wonder, do they know who they really are, or afraid of the truth and that people may not like them if they were their true selves? I think that Watanabe’s metaphors are insightful and that regardless of a (fictional) role we try to play that our real self lurks just below a thin layer that most can see through anyway.
The afterword is a fictional story by Richard “Bulldog” Curtis Hauschild. This hardcover book with dustcover was printed in Japan.
By Douglas Stockdale