The evolution of an artist’s practice is a fascinating thing. Where do the first glimmers of ideas come from? How do they develop? And how do they feed into one another, propagating between themselves like the intertwining of roots? Sometimes it’s not easy to unearth the conceptual progression of an oeuvre, but at other times an artist’s growth is clear and trackable. Japanese artist Haruhiko Kawaguchi, who goes by the moniker Photographer Hal, is one such artist. In his ongoing Flesh Love series, Hal has explored the act of vacuum-sealing people in front of his lens in a variety of ways. Beginning small, his vision has gradually swelled across the years to include larger and larger subjects.
The latest chapter, entitled Flesh Love All, is Hal’s most ambitious one to date. With each new part of this series, he has expanded what he puts both inside of the plastic wrap, and inside the frame of his photographs. In the first iteration of the project it was just couples in abstraction, closely cropped against brightly coloured backgrounds. In the second part, it was plastic-wrapped couples in unwrapped private, domestic scenes. And now, in this latest chapter whole families are wrapped, along with their houses too.
In image after image, homes and trees, cars and fences are draped with great swathes of plastic, while their owners stand outside in the driveways, shrink-wrapped and contorted together. “The Flesh Love series focuses only on the body of the subject, and Flesh Love Returns adds information about the subject’s personality to the work by shooting somewhere that is important to the subject, contrasting the couple with the outside world,” Hal explains. Now, he continues, “the Flesh Love All series tells the story of a couple starting to turn their love to the outside by integrating the outside world as well.”
Hal was born in Japan in 1971, into a family of automotive mechanical design engineers. As the eldest son, he was raised believing he would follow that tradition, but his creative impulses and his love for art led him down a different path, towards photography.
The idea to vacuum-pack couples came to him when he was shooting more traditional portraits, and racking his brain for ways to stick two bodies together. “I also tried taking photos of couples hugging each other, or putting a couple in a bathtub, but vacuum packing was the method with the highest adhesion.” Adhesion is such an interesting word for him to use—it really shows us how he wanted to find ways of visualizing the intensity of love, the physical bonds of attraction, and the ways we become inextricably entangled in each other. He was seeking an image of oneness, or wholeness, that bodies alone couldn’t adequately describe—however close they were pressed together.
Hal recruits most of the people he shoots through social media and word of mouth, with mutual acquaintances often recommending people who might be interested in taking part. For the Flesh Love All project, he scouted subjects and locations and then meticulously measured everything he would need to know material-wise. Then he would get the right amount of plastic to cover everything and head to the site. “When I climb the roof of a house, I wear a harness and rope on my body, and then finally, I shoot,” he explains. “It may take several months to shoot one work. Then the used plastic pack will be recycled for the next shooting.”
Once everything is vacuum-packed and the air is constricted, he has only a matter of a minutes before it becomes dangerous for his subjects. This means there’s a pressure to get the shot, but it’s a productive pressure for him—one that helps to embody the atmosphere and feelings he is trying to create. Alongside the idea of a uniting, all-encompassing love, there’s something extreme and controlled, constricting and stifling about his pictures too, which is just as important. “I think love is crippled, stuffy and dense,” he says, and so he wants his photographs to encompass that too. Hal refers to the spaces he captures in his photographs as “confined, crucible-like” ones, and whenever we think of the word crucible we think of heat and pressure, test and challenge.
When we shrink-wrap, plastic-wrap, or vacuum-seal things in our day to day lives, it’s often for the purposes of protection (when we post products in the mail, for instance), or preservation (for perishables like food). These reasons find their ways into the impulses behind Hal’s work too. “The act of taking a picture is the act of leaving a momentary sight forever. By making the scene itself a preserved image, the reason, urge, and desire to take the picture are emphasized again,” he says.
On the subject of preservation, Hal also speaks about these pictures of people in plastic being like a “memorial photo” for the families involved, and there’s something futuristic or science fiction about that—like people being cryogenically frozen. I ask Hal—whose artist name, incidentally, comes from the sentient AI character in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, arguably one of the most famous sci-fi films of all time—if fantasy or sci-fi has ever been an influence on his work. He tells me that while he sees himself mostly as a “realistic person” who believes there is more to discover in the everyday than anywhere else, he does believe in the connecting power of imagination too.
Hal has spoken previously about his mission to seek “new dimensions in portrait photography” but he’s careful to point out that he’s also not forgetting where he came from, and that the history of photography is just as important as the future of it. “Camera technologies are advancing day by day, and it is now possible to take pictures that could not be taken in the past. I don’t think we can afford to take advantage of that though. I want to discover new expressions while still valuing what our predecessors have created,” he says. In other ways, his ethos as an artist relies on exploring the possibilities of innovation while still respecting tradition, and not forgetting where he came from.
The central theme of all of Photographer Hal’s work is love. And it’s love, he says, that is the invisible connection that binds us all. But there are many different types of love, and this is something he is starting to explore more and more in his pictures. Where his previous projects were exclusively about the love between couples, Flesh Love All encompasses types of love other than romantic—the platonic love between families, for instance. He wants to continue exploring his vacuum-packing method and the sky’s the limit for him, in terms of how big he’ll go. Unfolding now from the archetypal, intertwined figures of ‘the lovers’ alone, “the love vector is shifting from love between lovers to love between families and then towards the outside community,” he says. That’s a step onwards in the way he is thinking about visualizing love, in all of its wonderful, messy and intoxicating forms.
Editor’s note: Flesh Love All was a Juror’s Pick in the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2021. To discover more inspiring projects, check out the rest of the winners!