An odyssey from brain scientist to creative mind

by Sergio Burns

Contributing Writer

There is something weirdly beautiful about photographer Satoki Nagata’s series “Lights In Chicago.” Haunting, black-and-white flash-lit images of humans who seem to be transitioning from people to ghosts. Transitory shapes flitting through their own lives within the artificial confines of the city — in this case Nagata’s adopted home of Chicago.

A woman, head down, spears through the air as she moves past a window full of sewing machines on Michigan Avenue. In another shot, a woman in a check coat turns toward the photographer. She looks serene, almost angelic, as she merges with the structure behind her.

Nagata has intimated his “Lights In Chicago” project is an attempt to show the feelings of people and their lives in the city through photographic medium. Sounds good, but I feel he also hints at something a bit deeper in our souls. The cycle of human development and decline, life and death, chiming with the organic sprawl, growth and decay of cities.

Born and raised in Nagoya, Japan’s third-largest incorporated city, Satoki is the son of Kimio Nagata, a former accountantof a textile spinning company, and Yuko Nagata, once employed by Vidro-ya, a glass-art gallery in the city. Academically gifted, the young Satoki studied at Nagoya University, completing his Bachelors, Masters and Ph.D in Neuroscience.

With his university studies finished Nagata had planned to work abroad, but by the time he had completed his doctorate, his father was dying of cancer.

“My mother wanted me to stay,” he remembers. “But my father was insistent, he told me not to let his illness stop me from this opportunity.”

In 1992, the same year his 56-year-old father died, he took a job at Northwestern University, Chicago, and migrated to the United States.

“In the early days everything was so exciting, everything,” Nagata says. “As a research-level scientist it was better than I had experienced in Japan. It was exciting to work with top-class scientists at a top-class laboratory.”

After the grief of his father’s demise, the United States, and more specifically, Chicago, presented the scientist with a new beginning and he quickly settled into his surroundings.

“The transition was not difficult, because I wanted to go abroad,” he explains. “Generally, life in the U.S. is not that different compared with Japan. One of the good things about changing countries was that there were people from different countries in the laboratory, so we discussed various themes, including philosophies, politics and the like.”

Not unlike the fleeting restlessness of his “Lights In Chicago” series of photographs, Nagata’s subsequent career path has taken many turns.

He returned to Japan after an initial period of four years in the U.S., spending three years at the University of Tsukuba, before toiling at Japan’s Riken Brain Science Institute in Saitama Prefecture for another two. In 2001, he returned once more to Chicago and has remained there ever since.

“I published about 50 scientific papers when I was a scientist,” Nagata says thoughtfully. “Which means that I was very active in the field.”

After returning to the U.S. and working in the field of neuroscience for 10 years, Nagata shifted his career focus to photography. On his website it states: “Satoki recognized the connective limitations of science. He soon thereafter reallocated his professional focus on visual creatives.”

“I can concentrate on what I want to do without noise or interference from customs compared with in Japan,” he says, describing his experience as a photographer in the U.S.

“Japan is a more closed society, at least it was when I was over there,” he continues. “Though that is not a bad thing. I realized that Japan is an isolated country with a very complex communication system that’s not limited to language, and this has allowed it to develop and facilitate various characteristic arts, including literature like haiku, painting and film. But I could not have realized my art if I had been in Japan.”

In Oct. 2009, tragedy struck the Nagata family once more. Satoki’s sister Sakoto died and he took off to Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture (about eight miles from Nagoya) for the funeral.

In a documentary-style series of photographs, Nagata decided to record and reference his sister’s death starting with a stark image of flowers in Chicago shot in black and white. The next shot is of luggage on the doorstep of the family home in Japan. He tells the story of arriving at the family house but not being able to bring himself to go inside. Instead he wandered around for an hour with his suitcase before returning. As he was about to ring the bell and enter he laid his luggage on the doorstep and first took a shot of it.

On his website Nagata writes a tribute to his sister: “Our minds were connected even when we were physically separated, she lived in Japan and I in the US. When she died I could no nothing for her except take photographs. Images are my memory and myself.”

What does his body of photographic work say about the man?

The clues are to be found in the details. A restless academic with an enquiring, analytical mind, a tragic familial history, migrations. All these experiences have thrown shapes at him and impaled him on a trajectory that has taken him to and from America twice. He is, in fact and in many ways, like the fleeting, transitory souls of his photographs of his successful “Lights In Chicago” project. Transitory, restless, ghost-like.

Nagata took 2,000 photographs in four years, from which 40 were selected for the completed series, his most successful project to date. The images brought him extensive media coverage and critical acclaim, but it also presented him new difficulties. How does he follow such a success?

“Well I am satisfied with ‘Lights In Chicago,'” he says. “Probably the restlessness comes from the fact that we photographers are, as artists, searching for the perfect image, which may never exist.”

He falls into silence, his words hanging in the air like water droplets clinging to a drainpipe.

“I still haven’t found a new project as exciting as ‘Lights In Chicago,” He starts up again. “The idea of ‘color of nature’ has potential.”


Name: Satoki Nagata

Profession: Photographer, visual creative (

Hometown: Kasugai, Aichi Prefecture

Age: 53

Key moments in career:

1991 — Graduates Nagoya University (Japan), Graduate School, in neuroscience, with a Ph.D.

1992 — 2012 — Works as a scientist at Northwestern University Medical School, University of Tsukuba and the Brain Science Institute

2009 — Studied photography with photojournalist Damaso Reyes

2013 — “Lights in The City: Chicago photographs by Satoki Nagata” exhibition at Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Things or moments you miss about Japan: “Family.”