Originally appeared on Open Eye Gallery blog, 07.04.2015
When Canon launched its New Cosmos of Photography award to the Japanese public in 1991, it asked, “What can we do through photography?” It’s a question we’re still considering today and perhaps are no closer to any real answer. Yet one thing we agree on is, more than just a representation of what is, a photograph is an intrepid insight into what was at a precise moment for that certain person. The lens always follows the eye, and the eye is selective, manipulative even, of the world before it. It’s a capsule of experience rather than any real document of the world we share.
Before the 1990s, Japanese photography was very much a male dominated arena. Although women had long posed for male photographers, from the geisha images popular in the early 20thcentury to the masochistic-infused pursuits of Nobuyoshi Araki, the real female experience had scarcely been represented. This new access to the medium, in particular the rise of the Print Club or “purikura” trend, offered a way for young women to explore such issues for themselves. Kitschy photo booths popped up across cities, allowing any girl with a handful of coins access to almost divine powers of self-creation. With its range of quirky characters and editing options, visitors could act out new identities behind the curtains, forming an entirely imagined self and capturing it as a physical document to share with others.
The New Cosmos award arose from this popular surge in amateur photography. With its criteria focussed more on originality than formal training or professional technique, it helped launch many self-taught female photographers into the public eye, HIROMIX,Yurie Nagashima and Mika Nakashima among them. Their images were provocative and seductive as they utilised the camera to play with their own image, similar to the ways girls were using purikura in the city. By 1996, critic Kōtarō Iizawa had coined the term “onna no ko shashinka” or “girlie photography” to describe their playful, snapshot aesthetic. It served as recognition of a distinctly female photographic language through which the experience of young women in the metropolis was at last being documented.
The importance of their work may indeed be overlooked by some. With all the seductive glances, laced bras and hints of nudity they contain, their images might appear as an extension of gender stereotypes. They might even recall the works of numerous Japanese male photographers who indulged in erotic studies of the female body. Yet in spite of any overlap in subject matter, these young photographers took some of the first steps in transgressing traditional perceptions of women.
Turning their gaze inward, they astutely and unabashedly documented their own lives, their mundane observations and everyday realities. Through the camera’s lens, they affirmed their right to viewing and appreciating the world they inhabited, examining their bodies and sexuality for themselves, and exploring their place within the physical space around them. Regardless of any male audience approval that followed, their works are a venture into self-exploration, a languid indulgence in their own youth and physical beauty. They sent the act of objectification into dubious territory, if only by drawing attention to it. Covering her breast with an onion, Yurie Nagashima confronts this with a degree of humour, inviting yet prohibiting the customary voyeuristic response.
The era of onna no ko shashinka may have reached its peak at the turn of the millennium, yet the influences of its photographic pursuits have stood the test of time. Its acceptance and critical reception helped open up the way for more female photographers. Their everyday experiences were deemed valid and worthy of artistic pursuit, turning others towards photography as a means of understanding the world around them. When we ask ourselves what we can do through photography, it’s worth remembering the onna no ko shashinka artists. They reminded us that when the camera ventures off into unexplored walks of life, our visual repertoire widens, revealing more clearly the multitude of perspectives, and ultimately realities, that make up our world.
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