The Family Photos of Yurie Nagashima

Yurie Nagashima, from the Kazoku series, 1993

In 1993, at the age of 20, Yurie Nagashima received the Urbanart award hosted by the Parco Gallery in Tokyo for a series of photographs which would define her artistic practice until today. In her series Kazoku, or Family, Nagashima photographed herself along with her parents and brother – all of whom are naked. At the time, Nagashima’s family photographs were celebrated for pushing the boundaries of socially and culturally constructed taboos as much as they were derided for being obscene.

A reading of a photograph of Nagashima and her father playing golf on an indoor putting green helps to identify some of the aspects which caused this polarized reception of her work. As her father is concentrating on hitting the ball, Nagashima looks straight into the camera, her legs and body are positioned like a player reading the green on an actual golf course. Instead of concentrating in her father’s game, Nagashima looks at the camera, and by extension, at the viewer in order to underline that this exchange of gazes is one of the main subjects in this photograph. In other words, the image is not about playing golf, but it’s about looking and being looked at. Here I am primarily referring to an exchange of gazes between Nagashima and the spectator of the photograph. Indeed, this is a characteristic that runs throughout most of the photographs in the Kazoku series, Nagashima looks dispassionately at the viewer, almost as if to gage his or her reaction. Yet the golf photograph stands out because a third gaze, the father’s gaze, adds to the complexity of the image. The taboo that Nagashima addresses in this work is not the spectator seeing her naked, but rather, the possibility of her being seen naked by members of her family.

The golf photograph also addresses questions regarding gender and sexuality. While holding the golf club in between her legs, Nagashima not only disguises parts of her body, she also alludes to the golf club as phallic signifier. Here, the golf club as phallus also signifies power: in the photograph, it is the father who actively hits the ball, while Nagashima passively looks to the camera. The complete inversion of the strict dress code required on most golf courses suggests that, even in this very early photographic series, Nagashima targets socially constructed norms in society.

Yurie Nagashima, from the Kazoku series, 1993

In the Kazoku series, Nagashima’s preferred methodology is to insert the unexpected into images that are otherwise stereotypical forms of photographic representation. Apart from the subjects’ nudity, the group photograph of the Nagashima family for instance is strongly reminiscent of a standard family photograph. In what appears to be the living room, the parents are sitting in the front row, while Nagashima and her brother are kneeling in the back, as they all look straight into the camera. The mother sits in the customary seiza-style position as her hands are folded in her lap – a position expected of a woman even while dressed. Another reference to the family photo is the curtain in the background evoking the backdrop of a photo studio. On top of the subjects’ lack of clothing, the photograph also reveals very few objects that might help to situate the family in a social class. The barreness of their surroundings is mirrored by the bare bodies of the family members in the photograph. Instead, what Nagashima wishes the viewer to focus on is the structure of the family, the resemblance of family members, the representation of hierarchies within the family and also, the family being the first place where gender differences and asymmetry are socially defined.

Maki Miyashita, Rooms and Underwear, 1998

In 1993, when Kazoku project was first exhibited, Nagashima was at the forefront of a new generation of women photographers. At the time, Kazoku redefined the parameters of contemporary Japanese photography and Nagashima was heralded as a pioneer in her field. A number of photographers make direct or indirect references to Nagashima early photographic work. In the photographic series ‘Rooms and Underwear’ (1998) for instance, photographer Maki Miyashita borrows from Nagashima’s trope of combining the (partially) naked subject within a representation of domestic surroundings. In his series ‘For I Am the Mother and I Am the Daughter’ (2002), Noritoshi Hirakawa creates a mise-en-scène that is visually extremely similar to Nagashima’s family group photograph. Except in Hirakawa’s case, he asked mothers to switch their role with their daughters, while disavowing the presence of the male subject completely. Indeed, Nagashima herself returned to the subject matter of Kazoku in a series of photographs in which she asked different groupings of unrelated and unacquainted subjects to pose for her like in a family portrait. The result is an assemblage of strangers who, in the format of the studio photograph, convincingly appear like members of the same family.

Noritoshi Hirakawa, from ‘For I Am the Mother and I Am the Daughter’, 2002

Yurie Nagashima, Family Portraits, 2002

Yurie Nagashima’s Kazoku instigated a shift in photographic discourse in Japan: away from the male dominated field of street photography associated with Daido Moriyama, or the quasi-pornographic representation of women associated with Nobuyoshi Araki, to a more internally oriented narratives of private moments. While it may not have been Nagashima herself who single-handedly caused this shift in Japanese visual culture, she nevertheless represents part of a dramatic change that allowed women photographers to become active participants in a sign economy. Nagashima set the tone for a new generation of photographers, many of them women, emerging throughout the 1990s in Japan.

Please also read my post The Many Bodies of Yurie Nagashima.

If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.

Become a supporter of this blog.

Like this Article? Subscribe to Our Feed!

3 thoughts on “The Family Photos of Yurie Nagashima

  1. Dear Marco,
    Thank you for this interesting post, which I would think is deeply related to your PhD research. I would like, however, to add everal points of reference and contextualise it in a slightly different manner:
    In the later part of your post, you place Nagashima against the generation of Moriyama and Araki, but you deliberately ignore the significant work of Fukase Nasahisa (深瀬 昌久) (b. 1934) who published his book “Family” in 1991, documenting longterm presence and death of his family memebers over two decades. To me, it seems that Fukase’s book that was very strong and influential at the time, was the first trigger to Nagashima’s series, and of course, his book and attitude occupies the in-between position –between the Moriyama/Arki vs. Nagashima/Miyashita/Hiromix dichotomy you attempt to establish here, actually revealing that this sort of “revolution” is not quite “revolutionary” but rather, evolutionary (from Fukase’s work).
    On another note, I would like to mention a more 21st. c. style of family photography that involves another master of Japanese photography, namely, Morimura Yasumasa. Asada Masashi, 浅田政志 in his project “The Asadas” 『浅田家』 presents the fiction of the institute called “family” and its mythological structure. If Fukase and Nagashima wanted their family members undressed, stripped of pretention, bare to their flesh and bones with the hope that the spectator can see through their skins into the souls of the complex relationship within one’s family (can it be otherwise?), Asada’s embarking point is quite the opposite: giving up on “truth” and visibility, he decided to stage and dress his family members in numerous small setups and situation. The result is quite provoking, and gives the viewer a humourous, tantalising experience of that thing called “family”, possibly, part of Asada’s broader message on our fictional belief in social institutes.
    And finally, just wanted to mention Yanagi Miwa’s [やなぎみわ」 outstanding project “Grandmothers” which is also a celebration of family relations, motherhood, grandmotherhood, aging, feminine beauty, fantasy and fictionality – all such strong attributes of family life!

    Thank you again, and always happy to read your posts.


    • Dear Ayelet,
      Thank you very much for your very extensive and insightful feedback. Thank you also for alerting me to the photographs of Masahisa Fukase. I know his photographs of ravens, but his more recent works on the family I was unaware of. Do you have a link for this work? I couldn’t find anything online. Masashi Asada’s project on his family is another great reference. I bought the beautifully designed book a few years ago, and I believe that Asada also received the Kimura Ihei award for ‘The Asadas’. I agree that a strict lineage from Nagashima to Miyashita and Noritoshi is too ambitious. I do think however that Nagashima’s project in itself had an impact on Japanese visual culture. You are right to say that this is indeed a major part of my thesis. It’s difficult to trace the actual causality of this emerging discourse of private/intimate photography, but I would still say that Nagashima had a big part in it. It’s not only her images of family members, but also, the media hype that celebrated this work. Studio Voice, Esquire, H Magazine all wrote about Nagashima in her emerging years. Nagashima deserves recognition for raising questions about the family as ideological apparatus and social construct.


      P.S.: Good luck with the CAA conference. Unfortunately, I won’t be there but I am looking forward to read the proceedings.

  2. Marco、
    Fukase’s is not a minor or neglected project. It is one of the most significant and influential projects of family life in Japan, quoted all over the place. He documented his family, in nude and in dress, dead or alive for a period of just over 20 years, including his divorce. The publication of the book was a ground breaking news, and indeed, influenced a whole generation (Nagashima included). Many of the images you present in your post, are actually repetitions or hommage to Fukase’s project, which every Japanese photographer is acquainted with. Here is a reference for the book, which is now too dear…

    Kazoku (家族 / Family). Tokyo: IBC, 1991. ISBN 4871988325.

    I will post some images on my facebook page for your reference.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *