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The Madonna Dolls 

24 images (2011)


I used to hitchhike along the rocky coastline of northeastern Japan when I was in my twenties. I’d stop at sandy beaches and swim in the cold ocean and explore the trails along pine clad cliffs and discover remote coves where I could meditate in solitude. Before it got dark, I’d lay my sleeping bag on the floor of some rustic shrine and listen to the sound of ocean waves thundering against the rocky shoreline until I fell asleep.


All those important memories were destroyed in 2011 by the great earthquake and tsunami. Most of the places I knew so well in my youth were washed away and then after the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant I was left with a great uncertainty about the future. These were historical moments that brought about a major turning point in my creative life. 


Soon after the earthquake I was reading the National Geographic website and saw some images of the Great Meiji Sanriku Earthquake that destroyed the same coastline I knew so well. The photos were made by a photographer in 1896 who used glass plate images to make a faithful document of the disaster. 


I had been planning to visit the earthquake region and make my own images of the historical disaster. When I saw those 19th century images, I was inspired to create a dialogue with the early photographer who took them. I thought about how our images, taken one hundred years apart, would inspire people in the future to think about the evolution of photography and other things.


While travelling through Fukushima I was acutely aware of the nuclear power plants and the black rain that was poisoning the earth around me. Surrounded by the stench of death I felt a sense of existential uncertainty as I set up my darkroom tent. I worked for seven days to make the landscape images in this photographic series with a determination to use the quirks and qualities of the wet plate chemicals to “paint” my vision of the horrors I was seeing. 


I found an antique hina doll in a massive mound of debris in the fishing port of Kesenuma. The doll seemed to call out to me, so I stopped. I looked into her eyes and felt a particular sense of omokage. It expanded my sense of time and I began to vaguely see the aura of generations of family members who had owned the antique doll. In the dolls eyes were the memories of children who had grown up to become grandmothers. They were all gone now. 


Realizing that everyone who had cherished that doll was now dead, left me with a great feeling of loneliness. That doll too, would soon be gone, and with it, all those memories. I thought of touching the doll, but didn’t. I chose to set up my darkroom tent and make a glass negative. 


As I set up my equipment, I started to become aware of the aura of lingering ghosts around my darkroom tent. The landscape was fecund with death and as I worked I started to feel something break inside of me. Then, when I was developing the doll’s negative, I saw what appeared as dark tears in her eyes. She had the eyes of the goddess of the earth and I could feel those eyes calling me to give vision to her messages. Some dark seed had been planted in my heart.


Before leaving the tsunami inundation region I realized I had avoided going near the ocean. I was determined to make my peace with the dark waters, so on my last day I headed to a local beach to make a few images. There was of an island with pine trees that had survived the tsunami. That became my first image of the sea. The other image was of a quiet coastline where concrete tetrapods looked like tombstones jutting from the water. Those images allowed me to make my peace with the ocean.



Back in Tokyo I was inspired to contact Mari Shimizu, a doll artist friend. She was born in Nagasaki, the site of the WWII bombing, and some of her ancestors had been Christian martyrs. Mari created unusual dolls that were often angelic, or Madonna-like. Some had open wounds like the nuclear bombing victims. Those dolls of hers seemed the ideal subject to photograph as a way to process what I was feeling. 


 These images express the world we are now living in and the tears of the goddess that guides my photographic journey. 


Edition of 09

image size 18" x 24"  (457mm x 610mm),

paper size  24" x 36"  (610mm x914mm)


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