How does one photograph a memory? How does one document a relationship with the deceased? How does one photograph an adored daughter with objectivity? Osamu James Nakagawa asked himself these questions a few years ago after experiencing the death of his father and the birth of his daughter, both within a short period of time. He turned to family photographs and shadows as devices with rich expressive possibilities.
The title of the series is Kai, which translated means 'cycle.' Among the images in the series is Kai, Ninomiya, Japan, Autumn 1998, which depicts a large framed portrait of his father leaning against his wife's legs as she stands in an empty, watery landscape holding their daughter. Three generations are portrayed, but his father is present only in the frozen memory of the formal portrait, chosen by his family to be shown at his funeral. He similarly addresses generations in an image of his daughter playing, while his shadow is on the wall to her left and his wife's profile is projected on the wall to her right. In Morning Light, Bloomington, Indiana, Spring 1999, his daughter plays happily in the confines of this protective bracket. For the moment, she prefers a camera to the zoo of stuffed animals at her feet. Eventually, he and his wife will fade away, becoming shadows themselves. One hopes that the family cycle will continue to evolve with his children's children. Facing the mortality of a parent forces one to consider their own mortality.
Born in New York City in 1962, Nakagawa was seven months old when his Japanese-born parents took him and his older brother back to Japan. Fifteen years later, the family returned to the United States where he attended high school in Houston. His parents subsequently returned to Japan while he stayed in the United States to continue his undergraduate studies at the University of St. Thomas and graduate studies at the University of Houston. He returns to Japan periodically, some visits lasting up to a year.
Having been first exposed to photography through the esteemed work of his uncle, Takayuki Ogawa, Nakagawa has, from the beginning of his education, blended interests in cameras, computers, and the disparities of his dual cultural upbringing. As a recent press release stated, 'The cross-cultural experience of being neither a stranger, nor a native, of either Japan or America informs the content of his artwork to a large extent.'
Nakagawa's earlier work, the Billboard series, imposes images of minority cultures in the United States on billboards and drive-in movie screens. In the most widely reproduced image from the series, a face in a gas mask looms over an urban roadside. This image brings a chilling relevance as threats of war and terrorism are woven more tightly into the fabric of American life.
Using materials and images inherited from his father, Nakagawa is shifting toward the exploration of his Japanese roots, as well as to the variances in documented and remembered pasts. In light of the cross-cultural tensions that are constant in his life, he reconsiders his past, as well as the past of the two nations of his heritage. Ever since U.S. Navy Commodore Perry's black ships sailed into Nagasaki's harbor in 1853, forcing Japan to open itself to foreigners after over 200 years of isolation, U.S.-Japanese relations have coexisted in a blend of conflict and productivity.
Nakagawa's new series is titled Ma-between the past. The translated meaning of Ma is 'that which is between, in the gap.' In this series, photographs taken by his father and maternal and paternal grandfathers, trigger Nakagawa's memories of the past. He then combines their images with photographs he took in Japan and the United States. With the aid of computer manipulation they collapse time and place, much as our memories often unite people and places that never coexisted in the real world. The images are between cultures, between generations, and between time.
A glance at Nakagawa's work may suggest that the images are documentary in nature. But whether an image is 'straight' or computer enhanced, on more careful study, the straight narrative approach shifts to a less easily explained layered meaning. He combines people, objects, and landscapes more like a poet than an essayist. Just as he straddles two cultures, his images are neither clear nor certain in fecund ways.
Anne Wilkes Tucker (c)2003
Osamu James Nakagawa lives in Bloomington, IN, and participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program in June 2002. His images can be viewed at http://osamujamesnakagawa.com/.
Anne Wilkes Tucker lives in Texas, and is the Gus and Lydall Wortham Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
In organizing the exhibition "Un/Common Threads: Selections from the Light Work Collection," curator Kaylen Williams went beyond a superficial perception of diversity that has become pervasive in the United States. As a 2007 study by the sociology department at University of Minnesota revealed, many Americans happily endorse diversity as a nebulous concept; however, many are still at a loss to discuss the specifics of diversity and its related sub-topics, such as gender, race, ethnicity, economic status, and sexual orientation. (1) "Un/Common Threads" harnessed the power of photographs, using a visual language to voice these all-important specifics of diversity. Williams used the visual language that coalesced among the various images to stimulate dialogue about the complex challenges of a pluralist culture in ways that addressed both broad and personal implications.
Exhibiting together the work of artists such as Myra Greene, Dawoud Bey, Clarissa Sligh, Yuri Marder, Hank Willis Thomas, and Binh Danh, among others, certainly highlighted the individuality of their concerns and aesthetic choices. Yet this varied grouping also served a common goal by giving voice to specific, possibly contentious topics surrounding diversity. To emphasize this unity of purpose, Williams combined the “Un/” in the exhibition title with “Common Threads,” acknowledging the connections that can occur between diverse artists and the viewers of their work.
Many of the photographs in "Un/Common Threads" manage to evoke the idea of connections and also simultaneously turn it on its head by asking viewers to re-examine preconceptions that they may bring with them into the gallery. Ellen M. Blalock’s photograph, "Jermane," a portrait of a black teenage father pictured full-frame in an intimate embrace with his baby daughter, may provide a good example of this phenomenon. Those who find themselves jarred by the tender presence of emotion displayed by the young African American father must question and explore the sources of any biases regarding age, race, and gender. This is the inherent power of such photographs—when a viewer accepts involvement in questioning such preconceived connections, he or she is more inclined to get involved in talk of answers that can lead to a deeper understanding of identity and diversity.
Many of the artists whose work curator Kaylen Williams, a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, selected for "Un/Common Threads" engaged the topic of diversity from a personal perspective. Regarding her impetus for organizing the exhibition, Williams explains, “This project was of particular interest to me because of my own ethnic background of Japanese and Western European ancestors. Many students on campus are, like me, a mix of diverse cultural backgrounds. My Japanese mother was adopted by Americans and never had an opportunity or the encouragement to explore her racial identity.” In culling this selection of images from the Light Work Collection, Williams invited viewers of Un/Common Threads to explore the diversity of identity and to participate in the critical mass that follows an expansion of consciousness.
Laura A. Guth (c)2008
1. Joyce M. Bell and Douglas Hartmann, “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of ‘Happy Talk.’” American Sociological Association: American Sociological Review 72, no. 6 (December 2007): 895–914.
The exhibition was on view in the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery from January 16 to April 19, 2007. It was curated by Kaylen Williams. The exhibition included work by the following artists: Don Gregorio Antón, Dawoud Bey, Ellen M. Blalock, Binh Dahn, Sylvia de Swaan, Lonnie Graham, Myra Greene, Saiman Li, Yuri Marder, Nzingah Muhammad, Osamu James Nakagawa, Suzanne Opton, Kanako Sasaki, Clarissa Sligh, Tone Stockenström, Lida Suchý, Hank Willis Thomas, Linn Underhill, and Carrie Mae Weems.
When she curated the exhibition, Kaylen Williams was a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University. She graduated in 2007.
Laura A. Guth is an artist and educator. She lives in Manlius, NY.
A Just Image
As it plays out in the headlines, justice means equality, fairness, and the rule of law. Yet beyond the events broadcast on television and the news alerts flashed instantly to laptops and PDAs, there is a large realm of justice that eludes reporters. Throughout daily life - at home, in school, doing errands, tending children,m making dinner, playing sports - perceptions of justice often float just below the radar.
The Light Work Collection offered plentiful proof that photographers frequently make images of routine daily life and its relationship to a sense of justice. However, as members of the Fine Arts 395 "Art and Identity"class noticed, scholars seldom extend the concept of justice into aspects of living that are legal, but sometimes ethically questionable. Counselors, social workers, and therapists seem to take over where the justice system stops. Nevertheless, the line between the legal system's purview and personal life is not fixed. Class members were careful to insist that the law is often less subtle in its grasp of situations and unaware of complexities than are the images included in this show. Nowhere in the law is it written that by embracing a stereotype one can sometimes achieve influence skin to contesting the mold. Thoughts and feelings such as these coalesced as the subject of this exhibition.
Work and family emerged as sites where what is fair is not always what is equal. , and what is equal is not always fair. However fair or unfair, the triumphs and annoyances one experiences at work mostly fall below the threshold of the law. It is conventional wisdom, not the IRS, which suggests that wealth carries no guarantee of happiness. Creating this nuanced exhibition about justice in everyday life led the class into hearty and un-nuanced discussions about the slights, snubs, and rebuffs of an ordinary day.
The students chose the title A Just Image for this exhibition before they read about the expression in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. With the phrase, he and they recognize that art coaxes the world of appearances to create symbols signifying ideas for which there are no words. Just an image becomes A Just Image.
Mary Warner Marien
A Just Image: Selections from the Light Work Collection is the result of a collaborative effort by thirty-one Syracuse University students enrolled in Professor Mary Warner Marien's "Art and Identity" course. The exhibition examines the Fall 2007 Syracuse Symposium theme of justice. The students chose images from the Light Work Collection, considering the personal and societal meanings of justice. They have created an interactive exhibition, where, as the students write in the exhibition catalogue, "ironically... the viewer is still judging."
A Just Image invites viewers to explore the photographs and rethink their definition of justice. As the students of the "Art and Identity" course discovered, though justice is a universal concept, it does not necessarily carry the same meaning for everyone. This can be seen in the different perceptions of stereotypes, families, occupations, and leisure activities, which are some of the topics examined by the class. According to the students, " The Pictures we have chosen require more than just superficial judgment; they require the viewer to acknowledge their own stereotyped projections."