Fumiko Imano, We Oui!

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Little Big Man Books (here). Diecut hardcover, unpaginated, with 81 color reproductions. Aside from one childhood portrait, the images were made between 2002 and 2012. Includes an essay by James Casey. In an edition of 500. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When an artist repeatedly uses herself as the subject of self portraits, one of the first questions that typically gets asked is whether she is photographing “herself” or playing different female roles, and the answer is never as straightforward as anyone would like. Some five decades into her artistic career, Cindy Sherman still gets asked this question, even though she has answered it in the negative (her pictures are not autobiographical) too many times to even remember. The same might be said for Nikki Lee, Laurel Nakadate, and Tomoko Sawada – while there is clear and undeniable playacting going on in their work, we’re never quite sure where the artistic license begins and ends. And in our selfie saturated contemporary world, this distinction has gotten even muddier – everyone is crafting an image at all times, so what’s real and what’s a pose has become harder and harder to separate.

In the case of the Japanese photographer Fumiko Imano, all the visible signs point to her self-portraits documenting something approximating the “truth” of her life, but then again, her artistic project spans more than a decade, so at some level, at least a portion of her work must reflect an awareness that she was adding to a particular narrative arc. The backstory to her pictures is relevant in this case – although she is Japanese, Imano spent some of her childhood in Brazil and another part of her adult life in London and Paris, intermittently moving back and forth to various cities in Japan. As a result, at both home and abroad, she has apparently felt the loneliness, self-consciousness, and dislocation of an outsider. Perhaps with few friends to distract her, she seems to have turned inward, using photography as an ever present companion.

Imano’s works are charmingly low-tech, each scene created by scissoring together two snapshots taken moments apart. Her collaged images capture her twice in each picture, as if she had an imaginary twin sister who was always around and dressed in the same clothes. But she doesn’t cover her tracks with tricky digital retouching, instead allowing the cut edges of the prints and subtle mismatches in color or camera angle to reveal her process – she openly shows us the illusions she has created, and that humble authenticity becomes part of the story. We all know what we’re seeing isn’t true, which is part of where the quiet sadness in this project resides.

Unlike the nuanced connections and subtleties of desire that inhabit Kelli Connell’s carefully controlled dopplegangers, Imano’s works are much more roughly personal. She seems to open up when her imaginary friend comes around, the companion breaking the solitude and making everything more fun. Some scenes find the two regressing to the cuteness of childhood, playing with teddy bears, plastic blocks, and play houses, or going outside to climb on the jungle gym, swing on the swings, or ride in the kiddie cars. In others, they appear more like BFFs, eating pizza, trying on makeup, posing in fashions, and giggling. They seem to do almost everything together – they eat together, they sleep in the same bed, they share a bath – and as the pages of this photobook flip, this all consuming intimacy starts to get a bit unnerving. They work in the garden, do craft projects, play with the cats, drink coffee, ride on the train, and sit in cafes, and this aggregation of experiences moves from being a taxonomy of silly fun to something filled with more dark melancholy.

Hints of this undercurrent of personal uncertainty can be found here and there in the pictures. Hairstyles change, weight is alluded to (via images of eating, weigh-ins on the scale, and big underwear), and Imano’s sunny smile falls away now and then, leaving warier, more troubled looks that can’t be overcome by the presence of a splashy overbig floral barrette. When we then remember that all these “good times” actually took place alone, a persistent mood of despair creeps in – it’s hard not to have a heavy heart watching some of these scenes play out.

Since it is this unvarnished emotional landscape (and our unfolding engagement with and sympathy for what is occurring in her life) that gives Imano’s work its power, the design choices that try to make this photobook feel upbeat and snappy seem truly misguided. Between the bright, cutout covers, the saucy We Oui! title, and the peppy endpapers, we are led to expect something lighter and less agonizingly honest than what lies inside. At best, this is overreach and mispositioning, but at worst the design trivializes Imano’s work in a way that I found disrespectful. Even in their snapshot simplicity, these pictures feel deceptively bare and raw, and a more sober design would have forced us to take them more seriously – the more time you spend with this book, the less jokey the work appears and the more mystifying the surrounding design seems.

In many ways, these photographs are a decade long study in subtle individual heartbreak, about the feeling of being alone and disconnected from wherever you are and being forced to make your own fun, even if that means imagining it. If this was all a role playing act, than Imano deserves credit for convincing me so fully – what I see in these scenes feels painfully honest, and if it is manufactured art, then congratulations are in order for the masterful craftsmanship of the simulation. But if, on the other hand, these composite pictures are a plausibly real slice of Imano’s actual interior life, then what she has revealed to us is something complex and emotionally wrenching masquerading as something frivolous. In the end, it is this subtle investigation of layered surfaces and appearances that makes this intriguing photobook worth discovering.

Collector’s POV: Fumiko Imano is represented by Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles (here). Imano’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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