The 1990s saw the rise of what at the time seemed an important generation of Japanese female photographers. This included Junko Takahashi, HIROMIX, Rika Noguchi, Mika Ninagawa and Tomoko Sawada. While much of this new wave — most notably the narcissistic soft-porn of HIROMIX and the cosplay outings of Tomoko Sawada — clearly had a limited shelf life, this photographic breakthrough for women also included some stronger talents, such as Mika Ninagawa, whose lush, sensual color photography soon found its way into glossy magazines and advertising, and Rika Noguchi, whose blurry minimalism didn’t.
Perhaps the most interesting photographer of this generation, however, is the one that got away and made a name for herself overseas. In 1993, after some success and recognition in Japan, Yuki Onodera, then 31, decided that living abroad would be the best inspiration and accordingly set up shop in Paris.
“I’m interested in all the different cultures in Europe and I think that Paris is like a crossroads,” she says in a telephone interview from her Parisian home. “Many people in Europe pass through Paris and we can come into contact with people from many different countries; so I chose Paris. First Europe and second Paris.”
Despite her long residence abroad, which has given her a charming French accent, Onodera still keeps in regular touch with her home country, holding exhibitions here every one or two years.
The latest is a major retrospective at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, which presents approximately 60 works that display a wide range of photographic techniques, from nine series created since 1994. This exhibition is complemented by a smaller show at Zeit Photo Salon, also in Tokyo.
Although Onodera attaches great importance to her foreign residence, the influence of her Parisian milieu is not instantly obvious in her work. Indeed, the first five photographic series she did after her relocation were shot entirely in her apartment, with almost no reference to the outside world.
These included “Portrait of Second-hand Clothes” (1994-97), a series of images showing garments collected from an installation of secondhand clothing by the French artist Christian Boltanski. Supported by hidden metal rods, each garment was shot against cloudscapes visible from her apartment window, giving each item a unique identity.
“When I visited Boltanski’s show in 1993, it was just a big volume of clothes,” she recalls. “Visitors could buy plastic bags and take what they liked. Because his work was emphasizing mass volume, I wanted instead to show each garment’s individuality, one by one, like people with characters and history.”
As this project shows, Onodera’s change of location was less about the aesthetic cliches that we automatically associate with Paris and more about bringing her mind into contact with new ways of thinking and fresh sources of inspiration.
“For me the cultural mix in Paris is interesting, and also the different viewpoints,” she comments. “After moving here I saw things differently, because I had a distance from my country. I’m not a French person. Even if I stay a long time in France, I will never become a real French person; but living here, I’m not too Japanese either. For me, it’s an interesting situation being a permanent foreigner.”
This feeling of being outside a “context” — whether in the sense of national identity or otherwise — finds its corollary in the de-contextualization that is a major characteristic of Onodera’s work. The nature of photography makes it an ideal medium for precise documentation and cataloging. Photographs are usually of specific people and places, and they serve to give us information. But for photography to exist as art, a way has to be found to escape this informational burden and allow the aesthetic and evocative qualities of imagery to emerge.
Onodera uses several techniques to achieve this. In “Eleventh Finger” (2006-present), the faces of people are obscured by pieces of paper perforated with lacy patterns. Immediately, the question of who the people are becomes irrelevant. Instead we find ourselves focusing on their attitudes and gestures. By starving our minds of the most important information — identity, given by the face — Onodera forces us to look around at other elements. The result is that we take more notice of postures and hands. We see every finger and even become aware of the “eleventh finger,” that of the photographer herself.
In “Transvest” (2002-present) and “Annular Eclipse” (2007), Onodera literally removes images from their context by cutting them out of books and magazines. The “liberated” silhouettes — usually animals and people — are put on small stages that are strongly backlit to further obscure detail, and then shot to create poetic images. All that is left is the melody of the silhouette’s line and the mystique of shapes filled with ambiguous hints of light.
So what drives these unique approaches to photographic art?
“I’m very interested in the essence of photography,” Onodera answers. “Not as something clear and lucid but as something very mysterious. I think there is a big difference between the period of the discovery of photography in the 19th century and afterward. When I think about photography, I always consider this point of view: What is photography? If we had not had photos in our lives, if we had never seen ourselves in a portrait, how would we feel seeing them for the first time? I try to recapture that sense of wonder.”
“Onodera Yuki: Into the Labyrinth of Photography,” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, runs till Sept. 26; admission ¥700; open Tue. and Wed. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Thu. and Fri. till 8 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit syabi.com