Thursday, October 8, 2009

Featured Photographer: Toru Nakanishi


First of all, please introduce yourself to our readers that might not be familiar with you and your photography.

Toru Nakanishi, the photographer. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

I was born in Japan and grew up there until high school. I came over to Boston as a student when I was 17, and have been living here ever since. I have lived here longer than I lived in Japan at this point. Aside from regular school work, I studied and practiced Japanese (Chinese) calligraphy since I was six. I earned the certificate of master in calligraphy before I left Japan.

I never thought calligraphy as art training at the time, but later in my life it became clear to me that it was one of my greatest influences technically speaking.

I went to University of Massachusetts, Boston first as a Physics major in 1987, then switched over to art after two years. The school did not have a large art department, but I chose to stay and study with my photography teacher Melissa Shook. I graduated in 1992. I would not say I received considerable art training at UMass, except for photography and some installation art. I took one semester of installation art class and I became good friends with Bart Uchida. Bart later became my studio mate, and also gave me the opportunity to work on some installations.

After working on a bunch of part time jobs I got into translation in the IT area. I was away from art for a while, but I kept my interest in art and continued to produce artwork. Ironically, as soon as I got laid off in 2003, I was notified that I was selected for the DeCordova Museum's Annual Show. It was great merit to be included in the DeCordova Show. I was getting a little tired of the translation work and the IT industry, and decided to pursue art in full force.

Lesley and Aska. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

Toru and Aska. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

I now live in Braintree, Massachusetts with my wife Lesley and our daughter Aska. I work as a preparator at the Institute of Contemporary Art ICA in Boston - installing other rather famous artists artwork.

What type of job(s) have you had in the past?

I worked as a studio assistant for a sculptor (mason jobs, casting, mold making) for about two years. When this job started to look a little sketchy, I started looking for translation jobs. So these two careers overlap a little.

After I quit the studio assistant job, I worked as a translator for an IT company. I was working as translator for total of about ten years. In the beginning, I was just taking care of small jobs, then I was translating for a Taiwanese company. This is where I gained my experience. I ended up in an Irish IT company where I stayed for about two years until the IT industry had it's crash in 2003.

I was working for an art transportation company that specialized in packing and other art handling needs. It was very interesting job. I drove a 24 foot box truck as well as handling some masterworks from museums. It was great job, but I could not continue with the erratic schedule. I have my family.

I also had worked as an official photographer for DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln MA, and an exhibition installer for local museums.

When/How did you get interested in photography?

I took photography classes in college, and I was in deep after the first semester. Portraiture was one of my assignments, which I failed miserably.

"Ohshima-Kun (Martian)", 50 x 40", Inkjet Printout, 2007.
Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

"Shih-Tzu", 50 x 40", Inkjet Printout, 2008. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

I got really into photography after struggling with that assignment. Portraiture ended up as my biggest success while I was undergraduate, and it still is the subject I enjoy shooting the most.

"K", 50 x 40", Inkjet Printout, 2007. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

Then I saw an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe at the ICA Boston.

Could you talk a little bit on what inspired you after you saw the Robert Mapplethorpe show?

Robert Mapplethorpe photographed people, and focused on some of the deepest desires of us. Many of these images may not be so provocative today, but it was then. I was shown that these emotions can be treated as a subject of art, and these emotions can be expressed in such classical manner.

What do you do for fun besides photography?

I very much enjoy cooking, and I hope to do more fishing. In order to achieve better Japanese cooking in this country, one would have to go out fishing.
(This is because of inadequate fish distribution system.) Because I cannot find/buy fresh enough fish so I decided to catch them myself. I also can't get many local fish that taste good in the supermarket.

I visit Japan as often as I can. I find something new there, and I immerse myself in my familiar old things at same time.

What are the thoughts and inspirations behind the creation of your latest series “Meet Me At Green Eyes”?

Untitled, Digital Printout, 18 x 16", 2006. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

I had an opportunity to photograph these young women, and I had a similar background that I was able to understand at least one aspect of them. I felt I had to photograph them. Also, it was at a time where I felt I needed to depict people as my subject.

Could you tell our readers who "these women" are that you photographed for this series? What was the "one aspect" in your subjects (these women) you were able to identified with?

Untitled, Digital Printout, 18 x 16", 2006. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

They are "Hostess" who came from a foreign country working in the night-time entertainment industry in Japan for short duration of time. The one aspect I could identified with them is that they are aliens, and I was an alien myself. I was threatened by many immigration workers, and had many bad experiences.

Untitled, Digital Printout, 16 x 16", 2005. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

As I started to work on this series, I realized that this was a very important work to do. The series involves so many different aspects of world society; poverty, women's rights, politics, immigration, world economy, culture, racial and sexual discrimination, etc.. Right in front of my eyes, this whole industry has vanished because of some politician's ignorance and for their convenience. And I still do not know if that was good or bad. The fact remains that these "Hostesses" still exist, and they may be doing something worse than what they were doing when I photographed them.

I usually have a pretty good plan by the time I start shooting, but this was just different. The opportunity came, and I just took a bite.

Untitled, Digital Printout, 18 x 16", 2006. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi
"My subjects entered Japan with so-called “entertainment visas” to work as “hostesses”. Their local economies often provide no work for the men in the family, leaving the young women to be exported to the wealthiest countries of the world."

Untitled, Digital Printout, 16 x 16", 2005. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi
"To me, these straight portraits of young women from economically depressed countries symbolize the vice of our global economy. These women are, perhaps, the most valuable and vulnerable commodity that their country brings to the world market. In 2006, Japan’s borders were closed to these people, the blind and ignorant good intentions of the fortunate driving them into a gray market ruled by politicians and other criminal organizations."

Are you currently showing “Meet Me At Green Eyes” series ? If yes, when/where?

Yes, I am currently showing “Meet Me At Green Eyes” in the Elizabeth A. Beland Gallery at Essex Art Center in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This show is up thru October 16. Please visit website for more info

How do you plan for your shooting sessions for this series? What production equipment do you use?

I did not have much control over the technical aspect of it. I only wish I had. I visit Japan for a few weeks at a time, so I do not have much time to begin with. These shooting sessions did not get scheduled until I was in Japan already, which means I was usually given a day or two notice before the shoot, and whatever I can gather during two days are the available material for me to shoot them with. Therefore, some of the images were taken with point and shoot cameras held upside-down, and wrinkled aluminum foil as reflectors. I had some sessions where I was able to have decent DSLR and minimum, but much better quality lighting. In general, most of them were shot close to candid style.

Would you like to tell us about your close-up series using flatbed scanner instead of a conventional style camera? How does it all start? What is the specific message you strive to convey to your viewers? Also, could you discuss your process in general, such as the planning of your shooting sessions, what equipment do you use?

At the time I had been looking for a decent DSLR, but they were all too expensive- I had to spend at least $10,000 or so, and it didn't make sense to spend that kind of money, nor did I want to. I also was trying to figure out how to shoot noodles as a subject. I was able to buy flatbed scanner, and started playing with it.

Ramen noodles, Inkjet Printout, 2004. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

Sunlight LongLife Noodle, Image #1, 22 x 22", Inkjet Printout, 2004.
Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

I started shooting my series after a period of time of just thinking and researching. Whatever idea I come up with, I first run some research, and see if any other photographer has done it before, and if it's worthwhile to re-do what the predecessor has done already. If the idea still seems worthy, I'll start making a plan. I choose equipment that is most suitable to the subject/series.

Neogri, Red. 40 x 40", Inkjet Printout, 2004. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

For instance, the flatbed scanner was the best equipment for the noodles. I made up my own fixed lens large format camera in order to shoot residential projects in Japan. I use anything from DSLR to large format film cameras to flatbed scanners. Unlike famous artists, I have strict limitation on money and other resources, so equipment has to be something that will suite these restrictions.

Hairloom Tomato, Image 7, 22 x 22", Inkjet Printout, 2004.
Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

"Warabi, #1", Inkjet Printout. 2004. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

Tako, Portugese, Frozen, 22 x 22", Inkjet Printout, 2004.
Image courtesy of
Toru Nakanishi

Tako, Japanese, 22 x 22", Inkjet Printout, 2004. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

What is the most interesting comment you have heard from a viewer on this close-up series you have created using flatbed scanner?

A critic said that he (she?) wished I would pick more meaningful subjects. This comment made me re-think my subject again. It made me think about what I was trying to do with my art, and what a "meaningful subject" is. Though "Meet Me At Green Eyes" is not a direct product of it, it was created after hearing that comment. I would not have produced that series without having heard that comment. Any comment is interesting. I like to have feedback.

How have you handled the business side of being a photographer?

Bad, very bad. Nowadays I don't even think of it as business. I just create what I want to, and see what they do. Even with that, I do not think I put enough effort in promotion.

Tell us about the awards and recognitions you received in the past years.

My work entitled "Ration for the Generation" from the "Noodle Series" was selected for the DeCordova Annual Show in 2004.

I was selected as one of the "Boston Globe Ten Artists to Watch" in 2006.

Any advice or tips would you give to a photographer who has just starting out in photography?

Do not be a photographer, be an artist.

Could you elaborate a bit on what you have just said?

Calling oneself a photographer might make yourself restricted in the medium. I feel that today's photography is growing more and more toward conceptual, literal, and other areas. Though you may end up producing photography as a result, at least at the beginning, you may want to approach your artwork with an open mind.

Would you provide links to articles and reviews about your work?

Dragon Tattoo, Digital Printout. Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

Are you available for commissioned works? Representing gallery if any?

I am open to any proposals. Currently I am represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston.

Would you like to share your contact info with our readers?

I am on Facebook. I can accept e-mails

Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your photography?

Here is the newest arrival - just a few images. I would like to photograph more people.

Housei-Danchi, Exterior, Inkjet Printout, 40 x 50", 2006.
Image courtesy of Toru Nakanishi

Housei-Danchi, Interior, Inkjet Printout, 40 x 50", 2006.
Image courtesy of
Toru Nakanishi

Kiba-Danchi, Red Brick Exterior, Inkjet Printout, 40 x 50", 2007.
Image courtesy of
Toru Nakanishi

Isshiki-Sou, Public Hallway, Inkjet Printout, 40 x 50", 2007.
Image courtesy of Toru. Nakanishi