Hiromix Frames a for-the-Moment Japan

Hiromi Toshikawa shoots what is in front of her face. She photographs her friends, her cat, her room, her food, herself - a young woman who set down the paintbrush she used in art school and picked up an inexpensive autofocus camera called a Big Mini. "I take photos of what I like," she says.

The Big Mini has paid off. Hiromix - a name Ms. Toshikawa uses as a combination nom-de-photo and trademark - is riding a wave of praise and popularity in Japan.

She has become the most talked-about figure in a small circle of young women photographers who have used their cameras to chronicle the lives of young people and particularly teenage girls.

"She can really record their lifestyle," observes critic Kohtaro Iizawa. "She's a participant and an observer."

That anyone at all is publishing or exhibiting the work of Hiromix and other young women is noteworthy, Mr. Iizawa says, since photography in Japan is a "men's-men's-men's world."

The sympathetic, nuanced approach of the photographers toward their subjects is also remarkable, since high-school-age girls here are a stereotyped bunch. They are endlessly idealized as "cute," a word that for Japanese signifies naivet and innocence as well as attractiveness. Some adults take them more seriously as shoppers, since many high-school-age girls faithfully consume the products and emulate the pop stars promoted by scores of style magazines.

In the early 1990s, a young woman named Yurie Nagashima began to challenge these conceptions with her photography. A 1993 exhibition of Ms. Nagashima's work inaugurated a period of heightened interest in young women photographers, fueled by critics and editors who decided the newcomers were hot.

In 1995, after she graduated from high school, Hiromix won top honors in a contest of new photography. An art and pop culture magazine called Studio Voice put her on the cover in March 1996 and devoted 50 pages to her work, critics' assessments of it, and portraits of her by established photographers.

Last September, she published a book of her photography, "Hiromix: girls blue" (Rockin' On Inc., Tokyo), and now divides her time between fashion assignments, her own photography, and promoting her work.

The word that critics use most readily to explain Hiromix's success is "freshness." Her pictures have an impromptu, intimate atmosphere: They seem more like exceptionally well-done amateur snapshots than the work of someone setting out to create art. In the brief introduction to "girls blue," Hiromix writes (in Japanese and less-than-perfect English) that photography is "the place where I can express all what I feel and think in my everyday life."

There are pictures of her friends playing at the beach, going out on the town, napping on the couch. She captures spilled potato chips, a half-eaten watermelon, and a glass chandelier.

Hiromix and some of her friends appreciate the style established by young Britons in the 1960s - the mods - so the subjects of "girls blue" wear a lot of vintage clothing and retro sunglasses.

The young people Hiromix chronicles appear devoted to fashion, to having fun, to the moment. "They don't expect anything at all from the future," Hiromix said in an interview. They seem emphatically uninterested in doing much to contribute to Japan's gross national product other than paying restaurant bills.

There is nothing to suggest any connection between Hiromix's subjects and what this society expects of almost every young person: Study hard, join a company, raise a family.

Beyond one or two vague statements, Hiromix's approach to discussing her work is at once haughty and naive - she claims to have been influenced by no one, rejects comparisons to other photographers, and says there is no message in her pictures. The idea that her work might offer some commentary on how her generation looks at the world doesn't impress her. "I don't have any particular theme," she shrugs.

But Koji Yoshida, a freelance critic and editor who helped her get the Studio Voice coverage and appointed himself as her manager for several months, says that Hiromix is documenting "the real life of teenagers." The day-to-day existence of young people - particularly those in the working-class neighborhood where Hiromix still lives - provides a subject matter that earlier photographers had rarely touched.

Mr. Yoshida notes that Hiromix doesn't fit stereotypes of acquisitive, herd-minded teenage girls. Instead, he says, she represents young women who are "more individualistic and more articulate about what they want to do" than previous generations. She exhibits few of the apprentice-like qualities expected of up-and-coming artists and artisans in Japan: "Nobody else is any good," Hiromix says.

Critics find merit in her work, although Iizawa remains more impressed by Nagashima, the pioneer in the genre. "I think these girl photographers are part of the 'cute' culture," he says, observing that they simultaneously fit and twist the Japanese idea of "cute."

"They know how to appeal to people," he adds. At the same time, "they are engaged in a tug of war with society" and its impressions and stereotypes of them.

"I'm not sure who'll win in the end," Iizawa says. "They're using cuteness as a tool, but [cuteness] is short-lived."

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