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.
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.
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.
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.