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Yurie Nagashima on self-portraits, and writing her own history

Reductively labelled a “girl photographer” in the 90s, Nagashima is now a leading voice in feminist photographic discourse. Here, the Japanese photographer discusses her new book of self-portraits, and why she took it upon herself to rewrite history

“I couldn’t believe such a ridiculous name could exist,” says Yurie Nagashima, half-laughing over video-call from her home in Tokyo, Japan. In the early 1990s, the work of a group of young Japanese artists, including herself, Rinko Kawauchi, and Hiromix, was reductively labelled ‘onnanoko shashin’: ‘girl photography’. At the time, then-20-year-old Nagashima was a student at Musashino Art University, and had just won the prestigious Urban Art Award for her radical series of nude family portraits. Her place to study photography at CalArts was confirmed, and Nagashima left for America baffled by the ignorance of the male photo critic who coined the term. When she returned four years later, she was astonished to find that ‘onnanoko shashin’ had become an actual photographic genre.

Nagashima was seen as the leading figure of the group — a cohort of young women challenging the status quo of a male-dominated industry, reclaiming the gaze in provocative self-portraits, and intimately documenting their personal lives. Many of the photographers identified as part of the “genre” are now some of Japan’s most respected contemporary practitioners: Mika Ninagawa, Lieko Shiga, and Tomoko Sawada, for example. In 2000, at the age of 27, Nagashima won Japan’s most prestigious photography prize, the Kimura Ihei Award, and went on to publish multiple photobooks, alongside writing critical essays and newspaper columns on subjects including family, gender, and feminism.

In 2010, photo critic Kotaro Iizawa published a book titled The Age of ‘Onnanoko Shashin’. In it, he asserts distinctions between “female principles” and “male principles”. According to Iizawa, the former is characterised by the use of compact cameras, with “less than a five metre proximity to the lens”, as well as an “impulsive” and “technically immature” style. In contrast, male photography can be defined by “intellect” and “skill”. Guided by misogynistic assumptions, Iizawa clearly missed the mark. Many of the female photographers used SLRs, and their aesthetic styles were diverse — Iizawa not only wrote about them into history as being subordinate to their male counterparts, but as amateurs.

“Iizawa is one of the only Japanese critics writing about women photographers from the 1990s. We have largely been ignored,” says Nagashima. With few critical books to reference, the photographer spent a decade hoping someone would rewrite the history of her movement, but they didn’t — “so I wrote it myself,” she says. Based on a thesis she completed in 2015 for her MA in Sociology at Musashi University, Nagashima published her first critical book in March 2020: From their onnanoko shashin to our girly photo. In it, she unpicks the hidden discrimination in Japanese photographic discourse, and redefines the movement through the analysis of work made by women between 1990 and 2014. “If I didn’t write a book about our work, future academics would base their research on the opinions of a few old men. And if they’re referencing these men, there is no way we are ever going to reach any form of feminist understanding,” she says.

“I had a problem with the way women were being photographed. It made me think that men were probably looking at me in the same way”

In her own photography, Nagashima has explored subjects including sexuality, body-image, and the female experience, often photographing her own family and the meditative moments that surround them. However, her most ubiquitous subject has been herself, and now, 140 of her self-portraits are presented in a photobook, Self-portraits.

Published by Dashwood Books, the publication includes a conversation with Aperture Foundation’s Lesley A. Martin, in which the curator and photographer engage in a discussion about the power of self-portraiture as a radical feminist gesture, and the shifting nature of photography and its aesthetic critereon. Spanning 25 years, from 1991 to 2016, Self-portraits charts Nagashima’s life — from a brazen young artist travelling alone through Europe, to a tender portrayal of pregnancy and motherhood.

Raw, playful, and politically charged, Nagashima’s images fall into two categories: Myself or Self Portrait. The former is based on her “real life”, and the latter is acted — but both are performative, she says. Many of the images are a parody of the Hair Nude boom — soft-core photographs of young women popularised in the 90s. “I had a problem with the way women were being photographed, and I despised images like this. It made me think that men were probably looking at me in the same way,” says Nagashima. “When I started making images, I was thinking about how women could escape this male gaze. I could have taken nude photographs of other women, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are being subjected to a gaze. So I decided to make self-portraits.”

There were many more reasons why Nagashima took these images, “and I haven’t always been open about them,” she says. As a young woman, the photographer suffered from an eating disorder. “Part of me wanted to confront why I felt so resentful towards my own body,” she says, explaining how photography was a way to challenge the way she saw herself. “If I said I had an eating disorder, or that I was bisexual, I felt that all my work would be understood only in those terms,” Nagashima explains. “Art was a way to express myself, while keeping those things hidden.” Photography became part of her healing, and she now speaks openly about it. After lectures, students will often approach her to talk about their own experience with eating disorders, or for advice on how to address their sexuality in their work. “I started speaking out for people like them. To show that I suffered from these things too, and now, I’m okay.”

When speaking about this body of work, Nagashima is aware of the generational differences between now and the 90s. “I don’t think of what I was doing as ‘correct’ in the feminist sense. I probably took photographs that wouldn’t be acceptable to take now, and I may not have taken them if I was living in a time where images are so rapidly spread across the internet,” she says. Published in the US, Nagashima hopes her book and story will reach new audiences. “I would like for women to see this book. And I would be happy if they could use it as a backdrop to consider what was happening back then,” she says.

Self-Portraits by Yurie Nagashima is published by Dashwood Books, available to pre-order.

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