Momo Okabe, Bible

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Session Press (here). Hardcover, 122 pages, with 95 color photographs. Includes an afterword in Japanese/English by the artist. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Momo Okabe’s Bible is an intimate and often expressively raw inventory of trauma, and one of the most hauntingly mesmerizing photobooks I’ve seen this year. Careening from personal gender transformation to the staggering devastation of the recent tsunami in Japan, it mixes the intensely private and the broadly public into a rich catalog of fragile struggle, where bodies, villages, and psyches are indelibly scarred and broken. And yet in the midst of this parade of wreckage, Okabe finds moments of tenderness, sympathy, quiet determination, and even fleeting joy, giving her story a three dimensional richness that captivatingly draws us into her alienated interior world.

Okabe’s private journal is centered around a small group of lovers and friends (think Nan Goldin), where evolving bodies are seen in comfortable nudity, and surgical scars and bondage ropes allude to an exploratory intermingling of sexual pleasure and pain. Portraits of drag queens, and dense, moody still lifes of dolls, mannequins, and deathly taxidermy symbolically probe the broader concepts of roles, costumes, and bodily ideals further, each one a reflection of a range of deeper psychological layers. These personal pictures are then intermingled with tangled heaps of rubbish left over from the tsunami and angled shots of industrial architecture. Broken concrete, matted nets, twisted ropes and chains, flattened towns and marinas – the scenes of the destruction are both texturally close up and devastatingly wide open, whole villages washed away, leaving behind complete wastelands of discarded trash and debris. Surreal water towers, smoky factories, and water stained apartment blocks feel sinister in comparison, spared and somehow functioning but forbidding in their comparative efficiency.

All of Okabe’s images are bathed in acidic washes of lush filtered color, giving the entire collection of photographs an edge of uneasy desperation. Her colors run the entire spectrum of the rainbow, from greasy yellow and sunbaked orange to bristling red and deep purple, but they never feel fun, or bright, or flashy; instead, these are intense, often surreal colors, melancholy and heavy in tone, creating an exaggerated glow that pervades each scene. Her use of color to set mood is accomplished and subtle, each shadowy image kicked off balance by an intervening veil of emotion-enhancing tint.

Seen together, the photographs in her Bible have the feeling of an against the odds uphill battle, where the personal struggles of gender, identity, and love are placed in the larger context of pervasive societal breakdown and decay. This would be a sad, depressing, and sometimes hard book if it wasn’t so consistently and atmospherically beautiful, the colors softening the rough edges, making the whole experience more warm and expressive, even when horrors linger nearby. What’s altogether unexpected in the sense of uplift I came away with, where tears and trials give way to slowly moving on, making the best of the situation, and finding a way forward. Okabe’s rose-tinted world is often eerie and unsettling, but in the end, not without its tiny silver lining of hope.

Collector’s POV: Gallery representation for Momo Okabe, either in the US or Japan is not at all clear. Given this uncertainty, interested collectors should likely follow up with the publisher (Session Press) for further information on available prints.

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