Do not dismiss Mika Ninagawa’s photographs at first glance. The screaming riot of color, the beautiful women, the elaborate set designs, and the unrelenting prettiness of it all could force a viewer to sum it all up in one word: cute. In fact, Ninagawa herself has called her portraits and fashion work “cute,” but she does not want her audience to stop there. Look further, she pleads in an interview. She wants us to know that she is a serious artist.
In Japan, Ninagawa is the pop superstar of photography. Her retrospective at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery opened to record audiences. Coming through the ranks of “girl power” photographers in the 1990s, her audience in Japan has reached critical mass. With several books, solo exhibitions, and prestigious awards under her belt, this star photographer is as dazzling as her colors.
Ninagawa toggles between commerce and art. Her images will soon grace the T-shirts of haute denim fashion house 7 For All Mankind. There’s a Mika Ninagawa iPad cover. Her client list includes Vogue and Marie Claire. But while her fashion work first brought her attention, she has since exhibited at such prestigious venues as Colette in Paris, Arndt & Partner in Berlin, and Art Basel Miami Beach – and it is the more seriously artistic side of Ninagawa that is promoted in Mika Ninagawa (Rizzoli, 352 pp., $75). Think Andy Warhol.
Her dazzling hypersaturated color palette stands out most dramatically because of the ink-black spaces surrounding it. As Ninagawa admits in a conversation with celebrated street photographer Daido Moriyama, “I like dark shadows, along with colors almost too bright and [so] dazzling that I could go blind….” Like pop-art posters from the 1960s, the images scream for attention.
There is purpose behind the garish neon glow. While her imagery is celebrated for its beauty, there is edginess as well. “Girl power” caught on as a push against masculine dominance in Japanese society. Ninagawa’s portraits are mostly of women and about women, self-contained and confident. In a series titled “Princess,” actress and model Chiaki Kuriyama poses with a red bow in her hair, a doe in her arms, and neon pink butterflies sprinkling the background. The image plays on the notion of the Asian woman as delicate flower. Instead Kuriyama meets the viewer’s gaze eye to eye, with a Mona Lisa smile on her lips. Clearly she is “cute” but not passive. Unabashedly feminine and utterly confident, Ninagawa does not see these attributes as mutually exclusive. Her technique is subversive – superficial at first glance, but captivating. On further inspection, articulate and mature.
In her more personal work, she dives into the themes of flowers and goldfish with a surreal touch. Her use of depth of field is masterly, drawing you in or creating a flat gauzelike screen that keeps you on the other side of the aquarium’s glass wall. Her goldfish are suspended in the frame, out of focus, dreamlike. The dark shadows lurk in the background. Her flowers hold the same caution – an affirmation of life made more insistent because of life’s transience. They are beautiful and edgy.
In this first monograph available in the United States, there is a deliberate attempt to give Ninagawa’s work gravitas. The introduction includes a foreword by and conversation with Moriyama. Art critic Midori Matsui contributes an essay that equates her work with baroque sensibilities. Yet the book ends with good-luck messages from famous fashion designers Anna Sui and Antonio Marras. Are we to surmise that Ninagawa is passing from fashion chic to serious artist? Time will tell.
Joanne Ciccarello is a Monitor staff photographer.