The Autobiophotography of Women 01: Tamiko Nishimura

A Miko Dancer Konohamano Sakuya Hime (2016, Zen Foto Gallery) ©Tamiko Nishimura


I attended a talk session by photographer Tamiko Nishimura and former dancer Sugie Sumie (a.k.a. Konohanano Sakuya Hime) at Zen Foto Gallery, Tokyo on October 29, 2016. The talk was organised as the opening event of Nishimura’s photography exhibition ‘A Miko Dancer Konohanano Sakuya Hime.’ After long years of friendship, they united to show and publish their works from the early 80’s under the support of the gallery.

Tamiko Nishimura (1948-) is a Japanese female photographer who began photographing in the 60’s, the time when there were only a few women practicing photography. Back in those days, eyes on female photographers were piercing and harsh. Their photography was seen as scandalous and hardly as works of art. Nishimura recalled such condition in her previous talk session with photographer Kazuo Kitai:

They saw women photographing and the works as some form of entertainment, or low art.

In the early 80’s, Nishimura joined and photographed Sugie’s journey of dedicating her dance to shrines at multiple locations in Japan for a few times. ‘The collection of photographs was, at the first sight, perplexing to me.’ As the gallery manager Amanda Lo remarked, the body of work which was supposed to feature a miko* dancer reveals a multifaceted female subjectivity: a miko a dancer, a person with a gender identity, and a mother.

*Miko is commonly recognised as shrine maidens who perform rituals and operate for a Shinto shrine, but originally  they are known for their shamanic ability of receiving divine messages and role as the mediator for the world between gods and that of human.

Nishimura mentioned that she never intended to criticize the male-dominant photography world of the time or the socio-political condition of the 60’s. Instead of trying to incorporate a feminist point of view into her photography, she tried to capture the aura of someone or something beyond our visible reality throughout her entire photographic career. As we could see something beyond the light and wind she captured in her Shikishima series, we can experience similar sensations in her photographs capturing Sugie’s divinely inspired dance performance.

Still, since the editorial work did not exclude images of the daily lives of a woman on a journey with her two children, there is no doubt that it allowed the work to highlight the living condition of Japanese women and the reality of women who do not fit in with the majority.

It is easy to imagine that Sugie’s life and practice were alienated from the society of the time. Sugie, who once joined a butoh dancers group, recalled that she felt something wrong with involving show business as a dancer and felt comfortable in dedicating her dance to gods and living with donations. She embarked on the journey since she ‘received the name of a female god in Japanese myth Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters) “Konohanano Sakuya Hime” in a dream.’

It was in the early 80’s, when Japanese society was enjoying the rapid economic development and becoming increasingly secular. Salary-men purchased, with their lifting incomes, cars, properties and stocks, and OLs (office ladies) were to catch up with the world’s trends. Sugie’s practice could have be seen as outdated, and, in today’s eyes, as what has been lost.

While the society saw a greater centralisation to the capital Tokyo, two women took on journeys to the periphery. Nishimura’s debut work Shikishima that made her name as a photographer was taken during her journey in the 70’s. Many male photographers also traveled across the country and produced their masterpieces at that time. However, differently from most of these works, Nishimura and Sugie’s practice were not based on ideology, not a form of protest, nor was it a means of recording that could become an anthropological or historical contribution. Such a factor enabled them to be inherently outsiders and therefore, intrinsically rebellious.

Nishimura’s two bodies of works, A Miko Dancer Konohanano Sakuya Hime and Kittenish… are remarkable as both are, firstly, collections of photography of a woman created by a woman which were rarely (and were not supposed to) exposed to the eyes of public in the time; Secondly, both works happened to capture women in, so called, restricted areas: domains of gods, and behind closed-doors in a girl’s room. In passing, Shikishima, too, bears a sense of loneliness of a solo-traveler. Regardless of where Nishimura and Sugie were in this three-dimensional world, they were outsiders, or, hidden too deeply inside themselves.

Kittenish… was produced for Camera Mainichi magazine as it was to feature four girls (not women) photographers in 1970. Nishimura decided to take pictures of her friend and the work was completed in a single night. In Kittenish… the images inevitably challenged—although she would deny for having such an intention—a conception of portrait and nude photography that objectified and mystified women, and closely connected the photographer and the woman being photographed together. The intimate images are far from erotic, and even too realistic for women to face up to.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-17-29-45Kittenish… (Zen Foto Gallery, 2015) ©Tamiko Nishimura

If I took photographs, having abandoned my identity as a woman, I think this would leave me with no sense of reality. This doesn’t mean that I take photographs with a conscious sense of being a woman; just as from birth a man is a man, without being simply a woman, for me there is no beginning. (Tamiko Nishimura, excerpt from Kittenish…)

In A Miko Dancer Konohanano Sakuya Hime, Nishimura’s photography gained a wider scope, addressing a more complicated, matured woman’s life wherein viewers see a female subjectivity with feelings of alienation, yet also desires to relate to the society (or ‘universe’ in a transcendental sense) in her own right. Women are more likely to be isolated in the society for maternal roles then and now, which partly formed the common misconception that women’s work are mostly domestic rather than creative or lofty. Yet as we look at the mother and her children through Nishimura’s eyes, we start questioning if there was a door between the secular and the sacred and between artistic work and the mundane life, as children could flip the door so lightly and change the scene entirely to the point of being subversive.

It is easy to imagine that such kind of artistic practice of Nishimura and Sugie was intrinsically incompatible with the movement of the photography world of the time. While Sugie and Nishimura were on their journey, led by Sugie’s fate and Nishimura’s curiosity, there was a movement dedicating photography to critique and provocation going on in Tokyo. In light of the new consciousness of photography, its validity and social significance reflecting the rise of leftist ideology and Marxism which require self-criticism, Nishimura’s stance of purely following her curiosity and Sugie following her fate of a divinely inspired life could become a subject of criticism, even though it connected the two artists together.

However, Nishimura has been faithful to her philosophy and beliefs. In response to my question asking if her work really did not contain even a slightest sense of protest against the patriarchal society, such as the male-dominant photography field, as well as anpo and zenkyoto protests (Japanese May 1968 equivalent) which were in reality the fights of men in the eyes of women, she answered:

I never wanted to fight against something insubstantial.

Indeed, the zenkyoto protest came to many miserable and devastating ends. Provoke, the photographers’ movement with dadaist orientation dissolved, leaving numbers of followers merely employing the arebureboke grainy, blurred, and out-of-focus style. Still, ideologies have united people and worked as a catalyst of social changes.

I still need to question, based on the enduring, inner conflict between two opposite positions; on one hand with a sympathy towards typical Japanese women who are likely to dismiss their rage at inequality and prejudice for the sake of their, often beautiful, pacifist nature; on the other hand with a rationale, which is perhaps more westernised and feminist, that having a solid societal consciousness and solidarity is the only way to change their condition: if a photographer does not seeks for influence and power, but intimacy and friendship, or something which is incompatible with power in the conventional sense, do they still need to be consciously critical?

As the opening of this series, I leave this question open, which would repeatedly come back when we review Japanese postwar photography, specifically of those produced by women.

About The Autobiophotography of Women
For me, as a woman and Japanese, looking at Japanese postwar photography is to witness women who fascinated photographers and being portrayed as objects. They attract viewers’ eyes and reject them at once, as if they are forever ungraspable. As a wife, a prostitute, an old woman, an unfamiliar woman; a being that accepts and represents irrationality; one with plump legs, one wearing red rouge, and one with shiny, long black hair; a secondary character who brings a conflict or mystery in a narrative or an “I” novel; A tough rebel in a personal territory. We have seen an abundance of such images of women.

The essay series, ‘The Autobiophotography of Women’ is my project to observe women from the post-war period as creators.


2016年10月29日、禅フォトギャラリーで開催された西村多美子とすぎえすみえ(木花咲耶姫)のトークセッションに参加した。トークは西村の写真展 「舞人木花咲耶姫」のオープニング記念として企画されたものだ。西村とすぎえは、禅フォトの支援により、80年代に共に取り組んだ作品を作品集としてまとめることとなった。





















エッセイ・シリーズ「The Autobiophotography of Women」の始まりとして、私はこの疑問を未解決のまま残しておこうと思う。この問いは、日本の戦後写真を見る時——それが女性のものならば特に——何度も問いかけられるものであることは明らかだからだ。


About The Autobiophotography of Women

エッセイシリーズ「The Autobiophotography of Women」は戦後と呼ばれる時代の日本の女性を「つくり手」としてみるための試みである。

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