Upon first glance, the photographs in Rasen Kaigan / Album appear to document a dystopian horror film set. All of the familiar post apocalypse tropes are featured. The claustrophophic darkness creeping in from the edge of every frame, a tribe of zombie-like villagers wandering in the backdrop, close ups of omens and decay, with occasional Gotcha moments of flash. Surprise! There's even an impaling. A surprisingly calm man with a large tree embedded in his chest would put a fright into any casual observer.
Actually, post-apocalypse isn't far from the truth. Lieko Shiga made the photos before, during, and after the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami while embedded as the official photographer for Kitakama prefecture along Japan's coast (Rasen Kaigan = Spiral Coast). A horror set indeed, and she was on the scene with a camera to document events. But the resulting photos do not record history in the traditional way. Instead Shiga uses them as a starting point, mixing, manipulating, filtering, and generally tweaking them to create her own bizarre world. In other words, this ain't FSA and Walker Evans. It's closer in spirit to Sam Falls or Torbjørn Rødland.
Where is the line between reality and representation? It's perhaps the central crux of photography, infatuating Shiga since her early career. From 1998's Piano (created when she was 18) through 2007's Canary to Rasen Kaigan / Album, she has blurred the border and gained an increasing amount of attention in the process. Yet with each step forward, she's allowed more of the real world in. If Canary was clearly a Photoshopped fable, much of Rasen Kaigan / Album reads initially as straight documentation. The light pricks and overt manipulation of past projects have given way to a more traditional tone. Perhaps it's the burden of official recording? We see several images of spiral landscapes which, if printed in the morning paper, would remind any casual reader of the geometry of large weather events. We see blurry fields. And many, many straight on portraits of white rocks. We'll get to those in a moment.
Shiga has described her process in near street terms: "When photographing I create a device to produce chance events, waiting to be shot by the camera at a moment that it is impossible to predict in order to lose any control over the images I may intentionally hold." Among the things tossed overboard are composition, timing, focus, and color fealty. Rising from the wreckage is a book that is half Cinéma vérité, half Adult Swim.
Rasen Kaigan appeared first as a gallery show in the Winter of 2013, and there's a strong whiff of the exhibition in the book. Some parts have translated to the page better than others. The exhibition's spiral layout, for example, can't be shown in book form. And the train of immense white rocks, 5 ft high in the gallery, is squeezed into a long sequence toward the rear. Instead of moving among the images, the effect is more like banging one's head against a rock. Overall Rasen Kaigan / Album possesses the slightly crammed feel typical of many Japanese photobooks. It's large, thick, dense, and busy, with many full-bleed images, several spilling across the gutter, and a brooding sense of quite chaos. Whether it's the storm's aftermath or the ghost of Daido Moriyama is hard to tell. Either way it left this reader reeling a bit.
As if to reinforce the immensity of the project, the open-cut cardboard binding can't quite contain the pages. They reach to the edge. Maybe the text explains some of what's going on, but it's limited to just a few paragraphs, and more importantly it's in Japanese and won't be of much use to nonspeakers. These difficulties haven't slowed the awards. Gerry Badger and David Strettell among others have named it one of the year's top books. I'm not willing to go that far, but it's certainly carved out a unique territory for itself. A mix of fable, dystopian fantasy, and surrealist recording guaranteed to startle.