Archive for the ‘Fine Art Photography’ tag
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.
A consistent theme running through Hellen van Meene’s photographs is gravity, or, as it appears, its lack thereof. In one particular image by the Dutch art photographer, a young girl appears to levitate as it leans against a wall. The harsh sunlight coming through the windows falls on the girl’s white gown, resulting in the photograph being overexposed at her feet touching the ground. The visual effect of levitation is caused by the lack of visual information in the overexposure, but also, because the girl appears taller than her childish facial features might first suggest. Yet van Meene quickly debunks the perception that this is a girl in a woman’s body by also depicting the edge of a door frame to the side of the image as a reference point. It is within this framework that the viewer gets an understanding of the child in relation to the rather decrepit surroundings of an attic. In the photograph van Meene appears to tap into the visual iconography of the classic horror film ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), where, in a key scene, a girl possessed by the devil is floating above her bed. The levitating body in the attic, despite the bright warm light shining through the window, ads a haunted aura to van Meene’s photograph.
The seemingly dated and unkept interiors in many of van Meene’s photographs of the body also establishes a binary opposition between the ‘old’ surroundings and the ‘young’ age of her female models. It is in relation to the surroundings that the juvenility of the subjects is further emphasized. The raw interiors and the dramatic light falling through the windows also creates a form of visual realism similar to that by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Many photographers make use of such a visual device: the British photographer Tom Hunter amongst others uses a Vermeeresque style of lighting in his photographs. It appears, that van Meene is alluding to a type of ‘Dutchness’ established in art and visual culture.
The lighting in van Meene’s photographs, also with a reference to the double meaning of the word ‘light’, further underlines the central trope of levitation and defiance of gravity. Here, gravity and the lack of gravity helps to situate the young models in the context of teenage identification and a coming-of-age. Levitation in van Meene’s work further signifies the condition of the bodies that she photographs: developing, awkward, growing, not yet complete.
An inevitable comparison can be made with the American photographer Anna Gaskell who also appears to play with gravity as a visual allegory for the ambiguous stages of growing up. While Gaskell’s photographs are situated in the dreamlike condition of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’, van Meene’s photographs are situated in a more realistic circumstance of the everyday. A number of van Meene’s photographs thus allude to (real) bodily sensations: a girl holds her head under a hand dryer, another girl lets her hair float in a bucket of water.
These photographs of the body and of a corporeal experience have the uncanny effect of grounding van Meene’s levitating bodies in the realm of the real. This relationship between a humanly impossible condition of floating in midair, and, at the same time, bodily sensations of the everyday, creates a tension that runs throughout van Meene’s body of work. On one hand, her subjects appear to defy the logics of gravity, and on the other, they are engulfed in the seemingly most banal earthly sensations – sensations that equally tap into our very own childhood memories.
Hellen Van Meene: Tout Va Disparaitre is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
In Nadav Kander’s photographic series ‘Yangtze, The Long River’, depicting China’s largest and culturally most important river, bridges are a re-occurring theme. In above photograph the huge but yet unfinished structure of a bridge represents China’s economic emergence. The two sides of the bridge also signifies two ideologies, communist and capitalist, the meeting point of which is yet to be discovered. And while the state is seeking for an agreeable convergence for such paradoxical ideologies, it is the people, throughout Kander’s work, that appear overwhelmed by the (state) structures they are surrounded by. Here, Kander also appears to focus on an encounter between ‘new’ and ‘old’ China: the wires hanging off the giant bridge are mirrored by the fishing lines held by the people below.
The structure of the bridge also evokes the proscenium arch located above a theatre stage. Following this visual allegory, the people standing below become performers to Kander’s camera further underlining the dominant trope of grandeur explored in the photographs. The Long River, as the Yangtze is called, requires structures that can cope with the unpredictability of nature. The bridge thus appears to represent the desire of the state to control nature, but also, to control its people. The most extreme form of such control can be seen in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest electricity producing dam in the world. The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky already photographed the surroundings of the Yangtze in his photographic series ‘Three Gorges Dam Project’ in 2002. While Burtynksy concentrated on the destruction of communities and the subsequent displacement of people caused by the building of the dam, Kander, on the other hand, chooses to depict a landscape that is yet to be completed.
Despite Kander’s fascination with the built environment which, in turn, vigorously expresses China’s economic might and aspirations, the photographs represent a fragile world. In above photograph, a bridge segment appears to balance precariously on a single pillar at a few hundred meters altitude. The scaffolding similarly suggests that these structures, as enormous they might be, are built on fragile ground. The folkloristic powers ascribed to the Long River threaten the very structures built by the state. It is perhaps a pessimistic interpretation of Kander’s Yangtze, that the bridging of ideologies will require more than concrete and steel.
Nadav Kander: Yangtze, The Long River is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.