What is iconic photography?

by Christopher Robinson

Staff Writer

Osamu Wataya is a photographer, but only in the dictionary sense of the word. Most artistic photographers use their subjects to make a work of art, “I want to be able to serve my subjects,” he says, “I want my subjects to be able to use me.” When the shutter snaps, he isn’t so much freezing a moment in time, as he is giving it reason to exist, “I don’t believe in photography for photography’s sake, but for the potential of an image, the potential of photography.”

His images thus raise questions about life and social issues, but only as much as each individual viewer allows. To do more would violate his personal philosophy. For his series “Juvenile,” he spent three summers with a group of Chechen children he befriended in the Ukraine, “Nothing would change if I did something that hurt or betrayed these children. A good photograph would not come out of that.” In other words Wataya puts image philosophy before all else, and as a result his pictures are stunning.

Wataya’s latest series of images, “Icon,” was inspired by his experience with “Juvenile.”

“The first time I went to the U.S. was over 20 years ago. In Texas I went to a carnival and saw children all dressed like cowboys,” he says. “After photographing the children in Ukraine, that memory came back to me and I decided to go to Texas.”

On the surface, the photos appear overtly symbolic: the cowboy is a famous American icon. However, in a style so characteristic of Wataya’s work, he presents a line between the explicit and implicit and leaves it up to the viewer to decide how, or if, they are linked.

Everyone has seen the all-American Marlboro Man, and Wataya might have emulated this when he photographed the rodeos, but he chose a different approach, to the subject.

“I was more interested in the idea of an image being instantaneous and also blurred, which, as a Japanese photographer, I thought was closer to the ideal image of a cowboy,” he points out. It is a unique method that serves his end goal: “I don’t want to be compared (to other photographers). That isn’t what I’m trying to do.”

What he has created is a strangely quiet set of photos. A rodeo is a loud experience of bright lights, noises, and strong smells. All of these seem to disappear and we are left with brilliant flashes of light and color. With faces blurred, our only hints of the all-American man are glimpses of a U.S. flag and an ad for Budweiser beer.

“Osamu Wataya: Icon” at the Taka Ishii Gallery Photography/Film runs till July 21; open 11 a.m.- 7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun. and Mon.