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.