For all my claims to being a fan of 1990s Japanese photography, it was 2017 before I ever heard of Yurie Nagashima, and 2020 before I ever bought a book. Now, after spending quite some time with Self-Portraits, her new-ish book from Dashwood, now in its second printing, I need to get on bookfinder and find some more…
Apologies, and if you want to watch the unboxing, you’ll have to go to YouTube and log in… There is quite a bit of nudity in Self-Portraits. None of it is particularly prurient, imo, but Google have their rules and all.
Self-Portraits began as a 600-image slideshow, presented as part of “And a Pinch of Irony with a Hint of Love,” Nagashima’s 2017 exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. The book doesn’t have near that many, and I haven’t counted them, but what’s there is great.
Insofar as the self portraits appear chronologically, it’s obvious and meaningless to say that we see Nagashima “grow up.” But, and still, there she is: from a young backpacker on the way to a trip somewhere, to an established artist chilling in the bath. She goes through phases, changes hairstyles, tries on personas and modes. Overall, it’s a mostly autobiographic book, but, again, to make such a claim is trivial, meaningless. And to look at the pictures, individually or in short series, reveals that, for Nagashima, the selfie was never about vanity.
Nagashima came to photography sort of accidentally, and I’m reminded of my own path to the camera.* She wanted to study film, but ended up in the graphic design department. Of her time at school, she says
In art school, I was a bad student because I never followed the directions given by teachers. I just wanted to make something “cooler” than assignments, and that’s not quite the right attitude that a designer should have. One day, in class, my teacher looked at my assignment and said, “maybe you should be an artist” instead of scolding me. I was so happy to hear that, and he became my favorite teacher. I also took painting and sculpture classes. I really liked the teachers in the painting department. They were very interesting and free in mind.Colberg, Jörg, and Nagashima Yurie. “A Conversation with Yurie Nagashima.” retrieved from https://cphmag.com/conv-yurie-nagashima/ 5 July 2021.
I didn’t know what to do then, but I really wanted to make something to express myself. I thought I wasn’t that good at painting or drawing, so I guess I started using the camera instead.
A photo assignment to make portraits of “only Japanese people,” undertaken during a backpacking trip in Europe, led to the first self portrait in the book, and there are many images of Nagashima out in the world, several with a sort of “where’s Waldo” character. The main thrust though, if number of photos is any indication, came from her experience as a young woman. It’s about this time that the “hair nude” trend was really coming into its own, and Nagashima’s male art school colleagues asked her to model for them. She quickly realized that this “modeling” was more about the male photographer’s fantasy than the Yurie standing or lying there, and decided she could do a better job.
Obscenity laws in Japan limit the publication and display of pubic hair, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shinoyama Kishin made a name for himself with obviously pornographic works featuring—clutch the pearls—pubic hair. In the west, writing in 2021, but remembering the early 1990s when I had a subscription to Playboy, I can’t quite imagine what the big deal is; as a practicing Muslim, and someone with an understanding of the harms of pornography, on the one hand, and with some training in feminist theory, on the other, I understand the need to go further, perhaps further than Instagram’s rather silly and ineffectual nipple ban. At the same time, I understand, as fully as I possibly can, Nagashima’s deployment of the hair nude as a sort of radical feminist gesture, and this gesture, reclaiming the gaze and turning it back on itself, forms another, long running thread in the book.**
Mostly, though, the book shows a Japanese woman, living her life or, rather, pretending to live her life. As Nagashima says, “…when you are actually just living your life, you don’t just pull out the camera and stop the situation….”*** And it’s these pictures from life that really knock me out. I mean, I know about self timers and cable releases and all (Nagashima is much more prone to self-timers, with only the occasional cable release in view), but still: if this doesn’t look like I’m having dinner with friends at the local Mickey D’s, then I don’t know what I’m looking at.
And, sure, Nagashima is there, munching—munching what? maybe a Quarter Pounder (or whatever they call it in Japan)?—with a couple of friends, but at the same time, she set up the shot, focused, set the timer, rushed into frame in plenty of time to look relaxed, intimate, like I just asked her a question or said something and she’s about to respond just as soon as she takes this bite and finishes chewing, maybe wiping her mouth as she speaks.
I tried something like this a few times—thinking of this one—and Nagashima both makes me want to try again (and now that we’re starting to venture out a bit, now that we’re vaccinated, maybe I can?) and also give up, as this is about the best there is, really.
Sure, it’s just a picture of a meal with friends. Nothing more and nothing less.
And it’s an absolute masterpiece.
And that’s Nagashima’s whole project, sorta, really, from her hair nude parodies to her Tank Girl phase, to her pregnancy and motherhood, to the quiet moments now that her son has started school. As she says,
…it’s very important for my work to be seen by women who have also struggled with the idea that they might be nobody, no matter how talented or capable, or having achieved so much. Even if she were a genius, nobody is going to come and do all the housework for this genius. Genius still has to be a domestic servant just because she is a “woman.” I hope my work empowers those people and makes them understand that they are not alone.Nagashima, Yurie. “Leslie A. Martin in conversation with Yurie Nagashima,” in Self-Portraits. Dashwood Books, New York. 2020. p. 9-11 (unpaged, counting from the first full page of text).
That’s one of the reasons why I’ve stuck to my methods and the subject matter. It’s not what supposed to be the subjects or techniques of “great art.” All of those criteria were created by men. So of course they didn’t care for my work. I feel like I have to build whole new criteria for women in the art field. When they look at my work, the consider it “female work” based on their own criteria. Because they don’t have the words to understand what I’m doing. And they don’t have a clue about how to look at those works and what I am—they don’t now what we are doing.
As a middle-aged white man in the United States, I’m 100% implicated in this. And looking at Nagashima’s 23 years worth of self portraits, I sorta get it, as much as I can, I think.
In my personal life, in my home life with my darling, adorable wife, there is much housework to do. There have been periods where we more or less shared the labor, periods where she did much more than me, (admittedly fewer) periods where I did more of it than she did. These days, we’re privileged enough to afford a cleaner to come a couple of times a month, and I’m happy to free my wife from a large portion of her domestic labor. And, still, patriarchy persists.
I’d like to think things are changing, and maybe things are, maybe, slowly, and if only in individual households. But, then, everything starts at home.
If I have one complaint about Self-Portraits, it’s the design of the book itself. I love that it’s a small paperback, and it’s well put-together and all, but it feels a bit fragile, and the spine of my copy already has a deep bend in it from repeated viewings. And, yes, James, life’s rough all over.
Overall, Self-Portraits rates a strongly recommended, go-buy-a-copy-now!, 4.5 stars.
Dashwood have smartly and thankfully reprinted Self-Portraits, and the second printing is available (at time of writing). Do yourself a favor and go buy one. Really. If you have any interest in Japanese photography, feminist photography, selfies, or just good photobooks, Yurie Nagashima’s Self-Portraits is a DO NOT MISS.
Nagashima’s website is a bit limited, with only a biography (in Japanese and English) and a sort of news blog. Hopefully, the under construction portions will be finished at some point. In the mean time, check out her interview with Jörg Colberg, and reviews of Self-Portraits at Collector Daily, the BJP (sadly behind a paywall), and Conscientious. As usual, other reviewers do a much better job than I.
*Virtually all biographic detail is paraphrased from an interview with Jörg Colberg.
**There is much more to say on this, but it will have to wait for another opportunity.
***Nagashima, Yurie. “Leslie A. Martin in conversation with Yurie Nagashima,” in Self-Portraits. Dashwood Books, New York. 2020. p. 10 (unpaged, counting from the first full page of text).