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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Hiroshi Watanabe


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As he wandered around the San Lázaro Psychiatric Hospital taking photographs, Hiroshi Watanabe was followed by a woman patient. She nattered on about a toothache and he apparently didn’t pay much attention to her. When he was leaving, she asked him “Do you see the angels? Have you seen the angels?” And then she said the thing that changed the way he saw the hospital. “I see angels every day.”

Hiroshi Watanabe lives the life so many of us wish we could live. He travels the world to fascinating and exotic locales where he photographs whatever intrigues him at that time and place.

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Watanabe was born in Sapporo, Japan. In 1975, after obtaining a degree from Nihon University’s Department of Photography, he moved to Los Angeles, where he was employed in a company that produced Japanese TV commercials. Eventually he started his own successful production company. A quarter of a century later, Watanabe’s interest in still photography was rekindled. In 2000, he sold his production company and began to travel.

Although he is best known for his portraits of kabuki players and his studies of Noh masks, Watanabe has also turned his lens on such diverse topics as a brick factory in India, Holy Week (Santa Semana) ceremonies in South America, bull fighting, and, of course, the San Lázaro Psychiatric Hospital (all the photos shown here were taken at the hospital).

Watanabe is also well-known for the care with which he prints his photographs. His gelatin-silver prints are hand-crafted; he makes every print himself, even for the limited edition books on his work. He uses only fiber-based archival paper. The prints are , lustrous, finely detailed, subtly-toned. And most important for Watanabe, they are meant to last.

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There is a soft, compassionate quality to Watanabe’s images, even when he is photographing the most innocuous subject…even when he is at his most objective. His portraits of psychiatric patients are as beautiful as they are revealing. Watanabe says his photographs "reflect both genuine interest in my subject as well as a respect for the element of serendipity. I strive for both calculation and discovery in my work, studying my subjects in preparation, while at the same time keeping my mind open for the surprises."

Calculation and serendipity, discovery and surprise…I’m not sure if that’s an adult’s approach to a childlike pursuit or a child’s approach to an adult pursuit. Either way, it works.