Fumi Nagasaka, Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by GOST Books (here). Hardcover (22.5 x 27 cm), 144 pages, with 75 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and Diahmin Hawkins. Design and production by GOST. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Japanese photographer Fumi Nagasaka moved to New York City in the early 2000s. Working in fashion, she traveled to Europe quite a bit, but hadn’t really visited much of the United States. When her then neighbor Tanya learned that Nagasaka hadn’t been around the country more, she invited her to travel together to the small town of Dora, in Alabama, where she grew up. With a population of around 2,300 people, Dora is a genuinely small place. That initial trip kick started a long-running photographic project, as over the next seven years, Nagasaka began traveling to the town regularly, getting to know its residents and their surroundings. Her series was recently published in a photobook titled Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama. “Many people, including those who live there, sometimes associate the South with poverty and rural blight, and while it is undeniable that those things exist, what I found in Walker County was beautiful, charming and full of love,” she wrote in her text accompanying the book. 

As a photobook object, Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama is cleanly elegant, with a straightforward design and layout. It is a hardcover book with a red cloth cover; its title, one word per line, appears embossed in all caps in the center, with the words “Dora” and “country” slightly tabbed to the right. Inside, the photographs generally appear one per spread. Two essays and the captions, organized in a simple list, appear at the very end, closing the book. The book easily lays flat making the interaction even more enjoyable. Overall, the understated but refined design of the book immerses us in its powerful visual narrative.

The book opens with a photograph of a somewhat ordinary place: an empty room, with a table and chairs in the foreground, and a framed portrait of a man in a striped shirt and a red tie hangs on the light green wall; the caption, “Leo and Susie’s Green Top Bar-B-Q, 2018”, locates us, and also signals that the artist likely knows its owners. This image is followed by a portrait of a young man in the driver’s seat looking straight at the camera, while the soft light of the afternoon makes the photograph feel warm and welcoming. The third image in this opening scene-setting sequence is a church facade, shot against a slightly cloudy blue sky. 

In her essay for this book, Diahmin Hawkins (one of the local residents Nagasaka befriended) writes, “I can only describe Alabama in three words: family, God and football. Family is everything.” And Nagasaka’s photographs, mainly intimate and genuine portraits, capture plenty of atmospheric moments of that everyday life. There are portraits of residents, home birthday parties, a cheer-leading team mid-routine, a chicken coop, graduation night, rows of cake with pink icing in plastic wrap, worn-down shops, and homecoming events. These photographs – many filled with Christian symbols and Southern regalia – are a window into rural, small town American life in the South.

Nagasaka’s portraits are particularly striking. In general, she relies on plenty of sunlight, with smiles and touches marking the enduring intimacy between families and friends. A young woman and a boy, Amiyah and Tavean, are photographed outside their house, their heads gently touching as they look straight into the camera. A portrait of a woman in an elegant light pink suit captures her posing outside, smiling for the camera; the caption tells us it was taken right after church. June was photographed in her home, seated on a sofa and surrounded by a collection of dolls she acquired over the decades. The understated humanity of Nagasaka’s eye consistently draws us in.

One of the portraits is of Diahmin and her mother, showing them leaning together and gently touching cheeks. They both wear white outfits and are photographed against a light background, making this portrait feel particularly warm and gentle. Diahmin’s essay closes the book. She now studies at Columbia University; her friends helped to raise money for her move to New York by selling food plates to local community members. “I would be nothing without them”, she writes. She grew up in a single-parent, low-income home, and she’s proud to be the product of her environment, proud to be an Alabamian.

It’s not easy being an outsider to a community and trying to build enough trust to make compelling photographs, and this project places Nagasaka among a notable group of female photographers who created sustained bodies of work documenting the lives of families in America. In her photobook Imperial Courts, 1993-2015, Dana Lixenberg’s powerfully understated portraits from an LA housing project pack a wallop, tracing overlooked community and family connections back more than two decades. And Sheron Rupp spent decades sensitively documenting the rhythms of rural American life in various states, published in her book Taken From Memory (reviewed here).

As a photobook, Dora, Yerkwood, Walker County, Alabama is well conceived and thoughtfully designed. With its elegant presentation and compassionate photographs, this photobook is Nagasaka’s love letter to Dora and its residents. Her photographs tell an engagingly intimate story, providing essential insights on the contours of rural life in the American South.

Collector’s POV: Fumi Nagasaka does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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