Giles Price, Restricted Residence

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Loose Joints (here). Sewn softcover booklet with embossed buckram band, 80 pages, with 42 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Fred Pearce (in English/Japanese.) (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the first few years after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan in 2011, there was a flurry of photographic response to the tragedy, ranging from straight photojournalism to more expressive artistic reactions to the destruction. Some of these efforts (made by Japanese photographers) were gathered together in a poignant museum exhibition entitled In the Wake, which traveled to the Japan Society in New York in 2016 (review here).

In his recent photobook Restricted Residence, Giles Price returns to the affected areas some half a dozen years later, and what he finds are contaminated villages that remain eerily haunted. His visits center on two towns, Namie and Iitate, which had been exposed to extreme radioactivity after the leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but as of 2017, with little conclusive evidence concerning the long-term effects of the radiation in the immediate area, had been reopened by the Japanese government – the originally tight exclusion zones were reduced and residents were financially incentivized to return, even though the reactor itself remains isolated and unrepaired. Price’s photographs document the lives of those who have come back to rebuild amid the invisible spectre of potential contamination lingering in the air.

Making photographs that show us the horrors of an invisible enemy is a particularly difficult challenge. Many esteemed artists have tackled the subject of the Chernobyl disaster site near the town of Pripyat in Ukraine, most who received access making images of the eerily empty town that has been left behind. Alice Miceli took an unconventional approach to the subject, placing unexposed film around the site and using gamma-ray radiography to document the wispy clouds of radiation still present (here). In Japan, right after the Fukushima site contamination, Shinpei Takeda made images of the irradiated dirt (now filled by spots of light), and Masato Seto took inverted scenes of the nuclear plant itself, the reversal of tonality giving the pictures a grim ghostliness. In other places, Thomas Ruff has used night vision technology to capture otherwise hidden movements, and Richard Mosse has employed a military-grade thermal imaging camera to document refugee camps. In each case, the photographer has taken advantage of an alternate vantage point or process to show us what we couldn’t see with our normal eyes.

Giles Price’s images of Namie and Iitate fit right into this artistic cluster. Price used a thermal imaging camera typically used for medicine or industrial surveying to capture life in the two irradiated towns, and what separates his works from those that have come before is their brash use of color. While the other artists operated in inversions of black and white (with a green tint in Ruff’s case), Price’s images turn the photographs into ranges of electric yellow, lime green, and deep blue, with concentrated areas of heat (meaning people or animals) colored in vibrant orange and red. The resulting colors pop with surreal, almost psychedelic intensity, making the everyday feel wildly alien.

Compositionally, Price’s photographs are straightforward. He documents the anti-erosion barriers on the shoreline, the gravestones at the cemetery, the empty city streets, a precariously leaning and damaged temple, and various sites of construction or rebuilding (some abandoned), ultimately finishing with piles of bagged contamination arranged in neat rows. All of these images are devoid of people, and so stay in the yellow/green/blue zone, their hollowed out quiet echoing through the sickly gloom.

These works essentially bookend the project, with the introduction of life in the middle pages of the photobook. In a telescoping fashion, Price starts small, with contaminated cows grazing in a wide meadow and a pair of construction workers on scaffolding, their spots of red standing out from the surrounding color palette. He then moves in closer and closer, through more construction workers, taxi drivers, coffee shop staff, and train conductors, eventually getting right up close to the faces of ordinary citizens; this process then reverses itself back through more portraits, and then through families, office workers, factory employees, doctors, and even baseball players. The intensity of the red waxes and wanes as the pages turn, with the head shot portraits the most striking, their redness throbbing and turning the faces into scary dissolving approximations. Price’s technique seems to turn the heat of their bodies into a kind of disease or danger zone, each person soaking up the unseen radiation.

The design of Restricted Residence houses the photographs in a sewn booklet with a cloth belly band that recalls caution tape or a “do not enter” barrier. The image reproductions have a color saturation and density that feels unmatched by anything produced in the photobook universe of late – these pictures explode off the page, in colors that alternately seethe, simmer, and burn with vitality. The photographs fill the pages, surrounded by only the thinnest of white borders, overwhelming the viewer with the boldness of their colors. This is a photobook that visually kicks you back, so you can recalibrate your eyes to strength and potency of the color; the content of the images is rather subdued, so this mismatch further enhances the dissonance of the whole world Price is documenting.

Had Price not used this specialized technique, his images of these towns might have been less memorable, or perhaps more understated and subtle in the ways they document the sparsely populated rhythms of life in these places. But instead, the photographs in Restricted Residence feel a bit overwhelming, their colors so effervescent that they exaggerate and amplify our emotional reactions. They shout “danger” in a world that looks altogether safe and ordinary, upending our trust instinct and asking pointed questions about our easy acceptance of what surfaces and appearances mean.

Collector’s POV: Giles Price does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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