By LiAnn Ishizuka
In an age flooded with online self-portraits, a UCLA J-Wave lecture examines an often overlooked Japanese art phenomenon from the 90s: Girl Photography.
Walk into any SoCal Borders or Barnes & Noble and you'll notice an aisle (or even an entire corner) overflowing with books in Hiragana/Katagana markings with bubbly animations staring you down as you pass. Anime, which dates nearly two decades, has journeyed over five thousand miles west, and Southern California is what Adrian Favell, professor of Sociology at UCLA, calls "a gateway to Japanese contemporary creative industries" which feeds our Western obsession of everything J-popular. In a three day program of events at UCLA in March of 2008, "J-Wave USA" shared, absorbed, consumed, and discussed the omnipresent wave that is Japanese contemporary culture. But, they also made sure not to forget the lesser known Japanese phenomena that might not have made it across Pacific, or at least not with such a loud splash. Flash back to the 90s and Japan's art scene. Abroad, everyone recognized the iconic Superflat style of Takashi Murakami and the subtlety of Yoshitomo Nara, but something got overlooked. With just a camera in their hands, Mika Ninagawa and Mikiko Hara spurred the boom of "Girl Photography," art made by and for young women inverting the concept of purikura low-art and infusing in it a high-art sensibility. At the J-Wave conference, Ninagawa and Hara's works were presented in a lecture entitled "Sweet and Bitter: Contemporary 'Girl Photography' from Japan," given by Hiromi Nakamura, curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
Nakamura begins by speaking about the implications and complexities of mirrors: "With a mirror to provide accurate reflections both of the self and the essential nature of things, one can always set off on a journey to any place and at any time." The "Girl Photography" of Ninagawa and Hara are largely self-portraits, and Nakamura suggests the notion that the camera can't really lie. It is a reflection of the self and the "essential nature of things." Translated from the original kanji characters, photography literally means "copies truth."
The trend of girl photographers in Japan is something that found a niche in the 90s, because the work was seen as original and unique, disregarding one's educational and professional background. Artists Mika Ninagawa and Mikiko Hara do not have technical training in photography, and Nakamura suggests that their success reflected the skepticism of that time. Audiences were looking for fresh and surprising narratives. The feminized "Girl Photography" welcomed the rise of "kogyaru power" -- the idea that high school students are the creators of their own fashion trends. These schoolgirls made statements by accessorizing their school outfits with baggy loose socks and carrying high-tech gadgets. Fast forward to the present, and the 'girl photography' of years past has disappeared, just another fad in the fast-changing Japanese art scene. For the most part, the media openly absorbed their photographic travelogues as quickly as they forgot about them. However, Mika Ninagawa and Mikiko Hara, now mothers, transcend these trivialities. Mina Ninagawa recently made her directorial debut with Sakuran, the live-action film adaptation of Moyoco Anno's manga series. Mikiko Hara's collection of works, Hysteric Thirteen of Dashwood Book's Hysteric Glamour series, was published in 2005.
In the end, what made this type of art unique and so easily consumed was the sweetness from the era of Hello Kitty lovers and 'kogyaru' pop culture combined with bitterness of youth, of being a girl. This, Nakamura says in her lecture, "appeals to something else, to the depths of humanness and to a more mature sensibility."
Click here for Mika Ninagawa's official website, and click here to see a sampling of Mikiko Hara's work over the years.