Book Review Star of the Stars By Yoichi Nagata Reviewed by Sarah Bradley A month or so ago I wove my way through a massive over-crowded exhibition, at one point unexpectedly wandering with a friend into a room full of photographs. They were bad. Poorly conceived and inexpertly made, but mostly notably over-saturated and digitally abused, any traces of the strength of the original image was lost in enhancement.
Reviewed by Sarah Bradley
Star of the Stars
Photographs by Yoichi Nagata. Text by Kai Iruma & Yoichi Nagata.
SkyEarth, Yokohama, Japan, 2014. In English & Japanese. 76 pp., 65 six-color, High-Res Printing, 8¼x11¾".
A month or so ago I wove my way through a massive over-crowded exhibition, at one point unexpectedly wandering with a friend into a room full of photographs. They were bad. Poorly conceived and inexpertly made, but mostly notably over-saturated and digitally abused, any traces of the strength of the original image was lost in enhancement. All of these features were readable in a quick scan. A look flashed between my friend and me that confirmed a swift and mutual assessment of the work, and we made our way to the exit without a word. I probably would have forgotten about the entire experience had I not been suddenly smacked by a near-shameful realization of the inconsistency of my taste as we walked to the door. If I immediately rejected this work, why the hell do I love Star of the Stars?
On the surface, those photographs weren’t that far from Yoichi Nagata’s portraits of outlandish Tokyo club kids. Both feature a soupy saturation of color and the plasticy residue of digital manipulation – hallmarks of image over-working, over-idealizing, at best an earnest attempt to bleed magic from pictures perceived as too mundane in their initial capture. That’s what those things usually indicate to me, but something is different in Star of the Stars. If there’s such a thing as a right place to use these techniques, it’s here.
Nagata spent eight years visiting night clubs in Tokyo, specifically a series of parties called Tokyo Decadence where he would set up a make-shift portrait studio and produce up to fifty photographs a night. The 64 presented here must represent only a fraction of what he captured, but any more would be too much. The looks are varied, from decora to cyber-punk and Lolita and everything mixed up, kawaii, terrifying and in between, but this book is neither a catalogue of fashions nor especially interested in the specific features of costume. Instead, Nagata focuses on the essence of what is presented: the transformation at the core of ritual adornment.
The book wouldn’t be nearly as successful without the exceptional six-color printing, carrying the vibrancy of color, depth of black and brilliance of white to near glow on the page which seems to be incapable of translation to the internet. The images are bright. Over-saturated to the point of near translucence, forms emerge from a deep liquid black, a shallow gradient resting on the edges of his subjects’ bodies, hair, clothing. Their faces are clear, unenhanced by comparison, grounding the ethereality of their processed ornaments, a ghost-like presence via digital manipulation. Detail is lost, elements of their clothing reduced to incomplete abstraction, color and diaphanous textural luminescence. Somehow they seem not so much removed from their element as placed more firmly into it.
So what is happening here? As the essay from Kai Iruma describes it, these people are channeling something from the dead; desires, dreams, emotions hanging hidden in the night air, manifest in these bodily expressions. His notions are romantic, ethereally beautiful, if at times elusively methodical. “It is as if [Nagata] wants to make us listen to something,” he says. Are we seeing things “invisible to the eye,” as he puts it? The intangible made marginally discernible though the presentation of these images? I can’t say. Surely the urge for fantastic adornment is ancient, though I can’t speak to its origins. But I do understand that it has real power, which seems to be what Nagata is responding to as well. “Perhaps, rather, they’re driven by an unconscious desire for metamorphosis… And that, in turn, might be their way of synchronizing with a realm that lies beyond the mundane rationality of life in a giant city like Tokyo.” Certainly that is enough.
I showed Star of the Stars to the friend I mentioned earlier. I didn’t expect him to like it; he doesn’t. “I shouldn’t like this,” I told him. “No, you shouldn’t,” he interjected. “—But I do.” You’re probably not going to like this book without a standing affinity for Japanese street fashion, likewise, an appreciation of club culture. I won’t pretend that I don’t still cringe a little when looking at it; I can’t help but wonder if these photographs needed the digital assistance. Yet I am transfixed and unexpectedly challenged to release my aesthetic habituation, temporarily at least, to encounter another way of seeing.
Star of the Stars is presented as two separate books, the smaller and thicker of which is saddle stitched and without cover, each page a portrait. The larger book contains two well-written and thoughtful essays, one from writer Kai Iruma and the other from the photographer, short statements describing the lives of some of the people pictured along with their names and ages and a double-page poster-sized portrait. They are presented together in a white cloth sleeve. It’s interesting packaging, making it feel more like series of objects than simply a book. —SARAH BRADLEY
SARAH BRADLEY is a writer, sculptor and costumer, as well as Editor of photo-eye Blog. She is currently working with Meow Wolf on the upcoming exhibition The House of Eternal Return. Some of her work can be found on her website sebradley.com.