I almost wrote about a different book today. I thought about it, but decided not to. The putative subject was an area in Central Asia dominated by countries that end in “stan.” Flipping through the pages, I was taken by the generic-ness of it all.
People don’t like it when I use this space to be critical. For book reviews, I’ve learned to keep the gloves on. (And take the brass knuckles off.) So I chose not to write about that book, even though it was interesting, in the manner in which it looked like so many other projects I’ve seen before.
If you look at photo books (partly) for a living, eventually you’ll see just about every place on Earth. That I’m doing this in one of the more remote locations in the US is at least a little bit ironic. I look out my window, and I see horses, hills and mountains. I look down into the illusionistic space of a book, and I can tell that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are more than a little similar.
So when I opened up “Semicircle Law,” a new book by Tomoki Imai, (published by M.27,) that was my state of mind. The desire to suss out a locale, as quickly as I can, is something of a game these days. Given the artist’s name, my first thought, obviously, was Japan.
But there was no way to know for sure. The mountainscapes were as generic as landscapes can be. No Himalayas, these. The scrubby jutting land could be anywhere. Keep turning the pages, and no real hints emerge. When the snow comes, I feel better about the obvious guess: Japan. I close my eyes and see the snow monkeys sitting in their natural hot springs.
Are we in Hokkaido? That is my guess, now. And then I wonder if people ever get into the springs with the monkeys. Can’t you just imagine some dumb tourist getting his willy torn off by a savage monkey? That would be horrible.
Eventually, the pictures stop. Your guess is as good as mine. And then the text starts. The very first page, post-photos, shows a map of the area surrounding the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. BOOM. We’re going there.
Yes, this is one of those books that doesn’t tell you what the f-ck is going on until the end. An essay by Charlotte Cotton divulges the details. The photographer repeatedly penetrated the 20km forbidden zone set up around the disaster site. Not unlike the better known Trevor Paglen, he skulked into the hills to bring back secret photos for the rest of us. (And likely braved some serious radiation. Crazy bastard.)
So this book becomes a bit like a new-fangled version of “The Usual Suspects.” You can’t know what’s going on until you do. And then it changes everything about your perceptions of what you just saw. The two written pieces focus on the brilliance of the post-post-post modern, post-human nature of the project. It’s genius, they imply.
I’m not sure I agree. The pictures are graceful, but boring, in a way, and meant to be. It’s a smart project, and perhaps an important one. But to me, it says more about our own expectations of the drama linked to disaster. Banality is probably a better way to go about telling these stories. Because those of us who live in safe places would likely be shocked at how commonplace horror can become.
Bottom Line: A very smart, brave, and probably dangerous project
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