Transformations of photography in Japan (1990-1999)

Bohr, M. 2011. Transformations of photography in Japan (1990-1999). PhD thesis University of Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design

TitleTransformations of photography in Japan (1990-1999)
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsBohr, M.

This dissertation examines photography in Japan via the new generation of

young female photographers who emerged during the social, economic and

political shifts of the post-bubble era (1990–1999). This new generation of

photographers initiated a paradigmatic shift in photographic discourses

within Japanese culture by becoming the subject of their own photographs,

performing to the camera and deconstructing gender identities.

The thesis holds a particular focus on the institutional setting where the

work of female photographers first emerged and shows that most of the

photographers discussed benefited from a system of corporate patronage. In

turn, the emergence of female photographers is intimately linked with

corporate interests such as the camera manufacturers. The legacy of this

system of corporate patronage still greatly effects photographic discourse in

Japan today.

By focusing on the representation of the body, the thesis demonstrates that

photographers interrogated public perceptions of obscenity defined in a

specific cultural and historical context. While the sale and distribution of

obscene images is prohibited by law, photographers tested the boundaries of

permissible and non-permissible forms of representation. The thesis

establishes that public perceptions of obscenity dramatically transformed

throughout the 1990s, and that female photographers not only emerged on

the back of this transformation, but also the fact that they were an integral

part of it.

The thesis demonstrates that both, the new generation of photographers and

their photographs experienced a sharp rise in popularity in the Japanese

media. Magazines and newspapers specifically called for and disseminated

so-called ‘private photographs’ associated with the practice of female

photographers. The increased media attention had the effect that some

photographers themselves, in addition to their photographs, became valuable cultural signifiers in an image economy. The thesis describes a split in perception occurring between the ‘real’ female photographer, and

the female photographer as a ‘sign’ characteristic for the social conditions

this sign is produced and consumed in.

In this context, the thesis defines the prominent notion kawaii, or cute, with

reference to the practice of female photographers and how its ambiguous

and paradoxical meanings constitute a floating signifier. Rather than

concentrating on a photographic representation of cute, the thesis explores

the potential of cuteness also bearing clues to opposition against a dominant

social order.

The thesis argues that both the accounts of the rise of the female

photographers and an analysis of their photographs have to be inextricably

linked to the social, economic and political conditions in which their

photographs emerged.

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