'Girly photographer' charts her own course

It is has been about a decade since the debut of the onnanoko shashinka, an immensely popular group of young Japanese female photographers whose work was largely characterized by simple subjects reflecting their everyday life, captured with a point-and-shoot aesthetic. Initially, the best known of the lot were the movement’s founder, Yuri Nagashima, and the teenager Hiromix, the latter having since achieved a measure of international recognition to complement the superstar status she enjoys in Japan.

“Cozumel” (2001) by Mika Ninagawa

The onnanoko shashinka (the term, coined by critic Kotaro Iizawa, is often translated into English as “girlie photographers”) quickly realized that the less clothing they wore in their self-portraits, the more support they received from the male-dominated photography establishment. In time, candid snapshots became bra-and-panties pictures, then nudes. Finally, with their own bodies no longer schoolgirl fresh, a number of thirtysomething onnanoko shashinka turned to younger models, effectively becoming the very type of photographers they had originally seemed to be rebelling against.

Mika Ninagawa might be described as a second-generation onnanoko shashinka. In the tradition of the group, she has achieved success by winning a number of key prizes unofficially reserved for emerging female photographers (Canon’s New Cosmos, the 3.3 Tsubo and others). She has been invited to important onnanoko shashinka exhibitions (such as Art Tower Mito’s “Private Room,” curated by Iizawa), while keeping her street credibility with shows at places like the Rocket Gallery in Harajuku.

Ninagawa has a smart management company and has published a handful of well-received books over the last five years. Compared to what remains of the first wave of onnanoko shashinka, Ninagawa, at 27, is already more mature in her approach to art, going to great lengths to find new subjects. She also seems a technically superior photographer, mixing the fun and unfocused style of 10 years ago with a number of careful compositions and good prints. Ninagawa does much of her own darkroom work, something rare among her contemporaries. Further, and this is no small task for a Japanese photographer, she has managed to make it without relying on pictures of pouting schoolgirls in white panties.

Ninagawa’s new show at the Parco Gallery in Shibuya provides an opportunity to see what the artist has been up to for the last few months — which, as it happens, is sailing around the Caribbean on a giant cruise ship. Parco, always the center of what is new and happening, has literally rolled out the red carpet for Ninagawa — guests must remove their shoes before entering the carpeted exhibition area. Red cushions in the center of the room are also a nice touch; at the opening there were people sprawled on the floor looking at the photos cherry blossom-viewing style.

There are some 40 pictures in the show, big, splashy C-Type prints tacked to the wall in a pageant of color. About half of the photographs are from the week Ninagawa spent on the “Voyager of the Seas,” a 142,000-ton luxury liner that is as long as four 747s and features a red-walled concert hall, a giant shopping arcade, swimming pools and so on. All the amenities, as they say, and Ninagawa photographed most of them, along with the thousands of fat, vacationing Americans that filled the floating wonderland on its tour from Miami to St. Thomas to Cozumel and back. In many, if not most of the shots, there is nothing to suggest that the setting is on a ship.

Those who enjoyed the multicultural flavoring of “Pink Rose Suite,” Ninagawa’s hit Editions Treville book shot in dozens of different countries and published earlier this year, will not be disappointed with the Parco show, as when in port the globe-trotting photographer again sought out the sort of Third World images that are becoming her motif. There are ragamuffin kids playing in dirty streets, weird fruits and flowers in Bahamian outdoor markets and Jesus statues in Mexico.

While her treatment of found ethnic exoticism may seem superficial, Ninagawa does not pretend to be a serious documentary photographer. Instead she quite capably shoots what catches her eye — and she has a very good eye.

“I just sort of wander around,” explains Ninagawa at her well-attended opening party, “and things call out, ‘Take a picture of me!’ It doesn’t matter if it’s a flower or a child or whatever, I find my subjects because they just seem to call out to me.”

At a time when the onnanoko shashinka trend has more than played itself out, yet few young Japanese photographers are moving toward new subject matter, Mika Ninagawa may just be this country’s next big thing.

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