Keiko Nomura at the Parco Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

They were known as the "girlie photographers," dozens of young female photographers who elbowed their way through the society of cameramen to rise to prominence in Japan during the early 1990s. And as the media loves an underdog, critics loved their "onnanoko shashinka," from which the mistranslated English-language label was adopted. Part of the charm of the "girlie photographers" work was the way their low-tech, often out-of-focus pictures peeked into the everyday lives of the photographers themselves – a sort of snapshot aesthetic. This approach has evolved as many of the girls have entered their late twenties and early thirties, and an indication of where the trend will go from here is provided by a new exhibition of work by Keiko Nomura, now up at the Parco Gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

In "Deep South," Nomura, 29, turns her lenses on Okinawa and comes up with a lush and evocative look at Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Many of the color photographs focus on the daily lives of the residents of the string of islands, whom Kobe-born Nomura describes as easy to approach, friendly and cooperative. Two of her favorites are a young, recently-married couple, both hair stylists. When the creatively-coifed Uemas tied the knot last year, Nomura was there with her camera. The pictures of the sharp-looking pair are complimented in "Deep South" by a selection of the "in the moment" style of pictures that characterize the work of Japan’s young female photographers: food on a plate in a restaurant; glistening gutted fish laid out on a bed of crushed ice in an open-air market; weather-beaten wooden buildings with their faded and peeling paint; a proud old Seeburg jukebox in a bar, sitting window side in a wash of diffused light.

Among the 50 or so photographs one can also find various references to the influence on Okinawa contemporary culture that has been effected by the presence of American bases and service personnel there, such as in a photograph of a woman’s plump rump stretching a stars and stripes bikini, or the sign outside a roadside bar which advertises "Happy Hour – Mixed Drink: $3.00" The natural beauty of the sub-tropical region is showcased in a number of still lifes of lizards and vegetation, and a couple of landscapes.

"What attracts me most to Okinawa is the air, it is the humidity that makes the buildings look the way they do, and makes the colors so deep," Nomura explains. "It even gives the people there a different presence, for example in the way the smell of a human being lingers in the air."

"Deep South" is a nice challenge to an enduring critical tendency to stereotype all young female Japanese photographers into the "girlie photographer" genre. In any case, given their ages, the group are now more suitably described as "Jopan shashinka," or Japanese woman photographers.

"I think the ‘girlie photographer’ classification was a convenient way for the media to group us all together," says Nomura, even though we didn’t all actually share a single style." Indeed, Nomura has for years been one of the more unique of the gang, most of whose subjects were friends photographed in their apartments or neighborhoods. In search of new perspectives, Nomura traveled to Vietnam in 1995 and came home with the breakthrough show "The Light in Vietnam," which went up in Osaka and Tokyo in ‘96 and ‘97. She is also one of few among her peers who has exhibited overseas, and says she intends to travel and shoot more in Asia in the future. She has been photographing in Okinawa for three years.

Another indication that Nomura wants to be taken more seriously is the attention she and exhibition curators gave to dressing up the Parco Gallery for this show. The walls have been painted a distinguished deep red, and halogen spots light each picture, lending a museum-like atmosphere to the space.

Nomura’s photographs are well-composed, sharp and well-printed, but above all it is her choice of subjects and the inspired coverage of Okinawa which make "Deep South" work. Nomura has a good eye, but more importantly, she knows what she is looking for.


Notes: Keiko Nomura’s "Deep South" is at the Parco Gallery (3477-5873) until Dec 6,1999.
Private Room, more Onnanoko shashinka work
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