When he snapped the image that later made it into The New York Times and caught the eye of Anne Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Osamu James Nakagawa had no idea that he was beginning a series that he would continue to add to for decades. Primarily known as a digital photographer at the time, Nakagawa was used to thinking of “straight photography” as material for his larger digital compositions, not individual works in their own right. Stuck in the swirling eddies of a personal tragedy—one of those disconcerting periods of life in which your world is collapsing in around you while everyone else keeps moving forward—he picked up his film camera as a channel for relief.
The resulting series, titled Kai, encapsulates a dialogue that Nakagawa has had with himself (and his students) since he first started taking photographs: the relationship between the work and medium. Why should one project be shot on film and another digitally? The heart of this debate first came to the attention of Nakagawa organically, almost two decades ago. Confronted with both burgeoning new life and the blunt finality of death, Nakagawa made photographs as a way to cope with the swift changes around him. Only afterwards did he recognize that the series could only have been shot on film; that the medium is as integral to the project as the subjects themselves.
“The content and medium need to match,” he says. “I don’t shoot either digital or film because I feel like it. That’s not a good enough reason. Once I looked at Kai as a complete body of work, I realized that it could not have been shot on anything besides film. In my current show, I have one or two images that are scanned and printed rather than produced with chemicals. They’re framed the same way. Nobody can tell. So at the core of it, it isn’t that the viewer prefers looking at one or the other—to me, that isn’t relevant.” Likewise, many years later, when Nakagawa’s mother started to fade, he chose to use his digital camera rather than film. “I wanted to use color this time around because for images of my mother aging, black and white seemed to masculine to me. Digital fine printing allows for a lot more control and allowed me to create my own color palette. I subdued the color to make the palette [resemble] film…the gentle pastel tones added a feminine feel to images of my mother and my daughter. Whether you’re a digital artist or a chemical artist, I believe that you should make work with whatever medium makes sense in each particular case. Make work that you can only make powerfully with that medium.”
Beyond Nakagawa, we have witnessed a strong surge of interest in analogue photography in recent years—not only silver gelatin, but tintypes, photograms, vintage view cameras, instant film and so on. These physical processes offer a sorely needed foil to the pervasive digital manipulation that has been built into our lives almost without thought (see: Instagram filters). There seems to be a widespread desire to engage with physical materials and create concrete, tangible products, an impulse that responds to the distance and inherent abstraction built into lives lived increasingly online or on the surface of screens.
Nakagawa put it most succinctly: “The chemical process is unlike anything else we experience in a life filled with quick fixes and instantaneous alterations. You see changes appear slowly in the tray in front of you. It’s alchemy; it’s magic.”
Below, Nakagawa shares the personal story that led him back to analogue photography.
“This all started when I had my daughter in 1998. Just before she was born, while my wife was still pregnant, we found out that my father was dying. I happened to be in Japan for an exhibition, and I noticed that his ankles were swollen, so I convinced him to go to the hospital for a series of tests.
“When I visited him at the hospital after my opening, he said, ‘Don’t tell your mother, but there’s a shadow…and it might be cancer.’”
“Soon after, I flew home. Almost immediately, my father called and said that he wanted to see my newborn daughter, because he knew that once the chemo started he wouldn’t be able to travel. So he delayed chemo for a month and came to Houston in July.
“At that time, I had just been offered my job at Indiana University, so my father went with me to see where I would be working. When we arrived in Bloomington, I said, ‘Can I take a photograph of you?’ and he said yes. I didn’t know at that point that I was going to make a body of work—I only wanted to document what was happening. In fact, I was known primarily as a digital photographer, so analogue was a departure for me. I was thinking a lot about what it means to be a father; I think I was intuitively reacting to losing a father while becoming a father. I just started to question.
“It was a crazy time. I had to be in Indiana on August 1st, our baby was born in May…in order to pack, we drove halfway between Arkansas (where my wife’s family is based) and Houston, and we passed our baby off to my wife’s sister at a McDonald’s. As soon as we arrived in Indiana, my brother called: ‘Our father didn’t respond well to the chemo; you need to come back.’
“When I arrived, I immediately noticed my father’s physical changes. He had lost 20 pounds, he had lost his hair. After taking photographs of him in Indiana, I wanted to take more images.
“Two weeks later, I flew home—and already I found that in that short time, my daughter had changed, too. Another two weeks after that, my father passed away.”
“In such a short timeframe, so much had changed: my wife’s body started transforming when she became pregnant; then my father was diagnosed and he came to see our home and our new baby; following that, my father started chemo and HIS body changed. My dad, my daughter, my wife: transformed, all in different ways, all at the same time. In the middle of this, I responded instinctively—I felt if I didn’t take these photographs, everything would change again before I could pin it all down. I hoped that by capturing these scenes, everything that was moving so fast would slow down or stop. Photographing allowed me to freeze individual moments. Just the act of making images made me feel like I was slowing down.”
“I can tell from looking at the photographs in Kai that I was reacting to the changes around me. Death, birth. That desire to stop time is also in my subject matter: I took a lot of photographs of ice that winter. I had moved from Houston’s tropical climate to Indiana’s cold, grey, icy winter. That winter was devastating for all three of us. I froze some things that used to belong to my father—for example, his jacket—and then photographed them.
“Like I said, photography was my reaction to the upheavals around me; freezing these objects was, in part, about preserving them.”
—Osamu James Nakagawa, as told to Coralie Kraft
Nakagawa’s work is currently on view alongside photography by Emmett Gowin, Elijah Gowin, and Takayuki Ogawa at the Indiana University Grunwald Gallery in collaboration with the IU Eskanazi Museum of Art.
If you’re interested in seeing more work like this, we’d recommend the following series: Shared, a velvety black-and-white series that explores the relationship between siblings; Nobody Important, Nobody Else, a series on youth, growing up, moving on, and grappling with change; and Fairytale, a project featuring a dream-like world created by photographer Marta Berens for her daughter.