Mika Ninagawa: Self-image

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Match and Company (here). Clothbound (in three different covers), with 34 black and white and 11 color photographs, made between 1995 and 2013. Includes an essay by Yukio Ninagawa. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When asked to name contemporary photographers who are doing something innovative with color, Japanese photographer Mika Ninagawa is nearly always on my short list. Originally categorized as part of a group of young female artists labeled onnanoko shashinka (loosely translated as girlie photographers), Ninagawa’s vivid, saturated colors have become her own signature, mixing fashion and still life subjects in bright, often nearly overwhelming candy colored hues. So it was a huge surprise to find her new book of self portraits executed in grainy, atmospheric black and white. While the gestural rainbow tail of a goldfish and the surreal glow of blue roses make intermittent appearances, for the most part, this is a pared down, moody Ninagawa, up close and personal, in a less prepackaged, stylized manner than we are accustomed to.

A quick look at the titles of the images reveals that Ninagawa has been on the road quite a bit over the past few years. Her travels have taken her from Tokyo to Paris, and back through Los Angeles, Rome, Hawaii, Shanghai, and Cambodia, and her settings seem to be an endless stream of interchangeable hotel rooms and apartments with mirrored bathrooms and open balconies. Her pictures run the gamut from confident and self assertive to more vulnerable and intimate, combining blurry self nudes with tighter details of her face, hair, and sparkly fingernails. Dark shadows and bright glares wash out the pictures into high contrast experiments, a wisp of hair across an eye a subject of its own. Interleaved color still lifes of a pinned tarantula, a faun, impossibly red lips (shattered just like a subsequent self portrait in a mirror), and orange butterflies break up the flow and add a layer of personal allusion to the sequencing. Seen together, the raw ambience of the project is quietly seductive, the skewed angles keeping us on edge and off balance.

I like the controlled openness of this project, seeming to let the viewer in, but only so far. In the age of the ubiquitous tossed off selfie, Ninagawa’s Self-image is a carefully constructed expression, rough, energetic, gritty, and vital, while still feeling private and off the record. While I was already captivated by her consistently unexpected use of color, I came away from this book thinking that her talents are more likely rooted in a broader eye for the atmospheric, where fleeting moments can be just as powerful in black and white.

Collector’s POV: Mika Ninagawa is represented in Tokyo by Tomio Koyama Gallery (here). Her work has not yet reached the secondary markets with regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Void Publishing (here). Open spine softcover (16,8 x 24 cm), 168 pages, with 106 color photographs. In an edition of 350 copies. ... Read on.

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