In a recent email, Hiroshi kindly answered some questions regarding his work and series from his show at CEG. Here are a few to start with and we will continue to post more from our correspondence throughout the show.
Jen Leutner: In Kabuki, why do you think the actors hide behind their heavy make-up and costumes and present themselves as quiet, emotionless, and reserved?
Hiroshi Watanabe: Those Kabuki players are hidden in heavy make-up and wardrobes in a made-up world. When they sit in front of my camera between plays, they are actually so much saturated in their roles (and worried), that they pay very little attention to my existence. They are struck with stage fright and they repeat their lines over and over as I photograph. On the other hand, they are not afraid of my camera, as their faces are shielded by the heavy make-ups. They can be themselves without worrying about other people as if they were in the masquerade. They feel that no one knows who he or she really is, or at least people know that they were in a fictional world.
About the Kabuki series I did in Japan: As a child, I had little interest in traditional Japanese culture such as kabuki. But after living in America for many years and traveling to different countries, I began to question why I wasn’t taking photographs in my homeland. That’s when I traveled back to Japan and do a series of portraits. After I decided to focus on the kabuki culture first, I selected two small theater companies in rural towns, rather than photographing a well-known company in Tokyo. Kabuki actors are considered celebrities in Japan and I wanted the portraits to be about the individuals rather than portraits of famous celebrities striking poses. The first company I photographed is located in a small, rural town and the members include men, women and children of various ages. This company performs a few times a year as a means of community involvement. The other company I photographed, Matsuo Kabuki, is made up entirely of children. The company was founded by a successful actor/producer whose daughter started a foundation to fund the Kabuki school for children.
JL: Additionally, can you discuss the similarities between Kabuki and Suo Sarumawashi?
HK: I meant to do Suo Sarumawashi project as another step of my FACES series which are various collections of portrait photographs. I started the series with portraits of psychiatric hospital patients and moved on to the traditional theatrical performers in Japan. I am interested in human emotions and how the emotions are conveyed (expressed) as expressions on human faces. That includes those expressions that are expressed through different forms of art. That is why I included non-human subjects such as Bunraku puppets and Noh masks (which are nonetheless depiction of human emotions). I have been capturing all of them as formal individual portraits. I approached Sarumawashi monkeys the same way. The monkeys are trained to mimic human expressions and movements on stage and that is what intrigued me. (I believe they actually have similar, if not deeper and subtle, feelings as humans).
JL: I understand that you were born in Japan. Do you currently live in California and Japan, or only in California? How does traveling back and forth contribute to your work?
HW: I am based in Los Angeles where I maintain a studio/darkroom. I spend 2/3 of time in LA during a year and the rest (1/3) of time in Japan where I have a place to stay but don’t have a darkroom and other countries where I travel and photograph. While in Japan, I mainly socialize, photograph, work with publishers, and do shows. While in LA, I go to my studio every day and make prints and organize for shows and publications. I am glad that I can rotate my life in different cultures regularly. That gives me opportunity to look at the world from various angles and keep my eyes focused and fresh.