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I’ve been looking at a bit of panoramic work recently, as I look over the shoulder of my ladyfriend who’s been constructing them for a class that she’s doing. There are two main ways of making a panoramic photograph. You can use a camera that projects a large image area onto a strip of film, or you can shoot multiple frames and assemble them into a long rectangle. This article from The New Yorker talks about recent exhibitions by two photographers, Sylvia Plachy and Jeff Liao; they each employ one of these techniques.

This reminded me of one of the highlights for me of last year’s Ballarat Fotofest (which I’ve touched on briefly before), Banta, a series of large vertical panoramas by Osamu James Nakagawa. They were on display at the Post Office Gallery off one of the main streets of Ballarat, in a room that was a bit too cluttered, I thought, with a piled-on display in the middle of books printed by Blurb.
Despite the less-than-ideal setting, the pictures were evocative in their detail and immersive in their scale. Yes, they were vertical rather than horizontal panoramas, and so did not fill my field of vision left-to-right as a horizontal one might, but this meant that I had to look up and down the images, much as I’d probably look up and down the cliffs they represented.

The images themselves are full of detail of the texture of the cliff faces. Some of them show a sliver of sky, the negative space providing a sharp and vivid pattern that makes the vastness of the cliffs dominate the frame. Others show a bit of the surf below. The layering of elements is like the partial view one would get from being on the cliff face itself, viscerally aware of its size and unable to see the whole thing from a wider perspective. This is part of the cleverness of the images that Nakagawa constructs. Normally a panorama aims to provide a wide and encompassing view of the landscape; in this case, by limiting the scope of the frame and giving us an almost close-up level of detail, the panoramas take us closer in rather than further out. When I learn that Nakagawa has constructed the images as composites from a number of different frames, this makes sense too. There is a kind of hyper-reality about them.

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[from the series Banta, 2008, © Osamu James Nakagawa]

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When I learn of the history of these cliffs that Nakagawa is responding to, the images become even more weighty. The cliffs (’banta’) are in Okinawa, and they are the site of mass suicides in 1945, where many of the residents of the island threw themselves off (or were forced off by Japanese troops) as the invading US forces closed in. The vivid silence of the cliffs in the pictures becomes even more significant. Perhaps the pictures themselves speak to how we know the past: “History is what hurts”, Fredric Jameson tells us, yet we construct our understanding and representations of it from a multitude of sources and viewpoints. In this case, Nakagawa has chosen to give us images that are legible and don’t at first seem contradictory on the surface, but the partial view and the knowledge of their constructedness go hand in hand with the mix of horror in the past and beauty in the present landscape, enough to make us aware of the ambiguities inherent in how we know something, how we see something. This mix of present beauty and past horror is is akin to what Simon Norfolk does with his landscapes of genocide, where the bucolic scene is a layer over the terrible history that’s happened there. At their core, the pictures point us to a specific place and time and event.

In the image on the left there is a detail of man fishing right on the edge of a cliff, in the bottom right of frame. He’s incongrous standing there with his bright plastic buckets and his nonchalance. But in the picture, presented as a vertical scroll, he’s not oriented quite right, he’s standing almost upside down. It’s a detail you can only really see in print, but it’s an example of the way that these pictures open up inquiry, both visual and historical, if you give them time. You can’t see him until you look,then he looks normal, until you look.