When I first met Mika Nakanishi a few years ago, I had only been a few months into purchasing my first ever DSLR camera. As I recall, it was perhaps around the beginning of 2009 or thereabouts. I was just a hobbyist and a complete beginner without a visual identity. She invited me to her friend’s exhibition, fetish photographer Yasuji Watanabe in Ginza. On the way there, we did a photoshoot with Ilford Delta 3200, raw and gritty and that was when she first introduced me to the beauty of grain on black and white film and the concept of push and pull.
I can say that not only is Mika one of the most important friends that I’ve had during my stay in Japan, but I credit her along with Tommy Oshima for inspiring me to try out film photography again (I had shot film in my youth but that was on simple P&S cameras). I admire her work; every piece has a story and you can get to know her thoughtfulness and sensitivity by simply looking through her images. Mika, I really appreciate you and I want to publicly thank you for your friendship.
Having been in the industry for over 10 years, Mika has some great advice and interesting thoughts on photography. I wanted to pick her brains and she was kind enough to allow me to share her thoughts with everyone.
1) How did you get into photography?
I’ve always been into photography… ever since I was a child. I used to like those P&S. I always had those around, taking photos of friends and parties. I really got into it when I was studying in New York and I took some night courses, black and white printing courses and thats when I first learnt how to process film and make my own prints and I think the whole process of making a photograph, processing and printing, that whole process is what got me into it. It’s not just about snapping a photo, taking a moment …you actually have control in the darkroom and you can make an image doing whatever u want in a darkroom and I think that’s what really pulled me into the whole interest.
2) After that you studied at ICP in NYC. Tell us about that experience.
It was very intense; a one year full-time program. Very intense. Great fun, met a lot of fun people who were all into photography we were all doing the same thing…(they were) very passionate. I think the year I spent at ICP, literally photography was on my mind 24-7. It was a great experience, because you are forced into the photography corner; you’re cornered into it. I learnt a lot, not really technically but I learnt to critique myself as well as other (people’s) work ..which is a great learning experience. Being able to talk about your work which has always been hard for me actually, and I still can’t.. but hearing others talk about your work and then talking about other (people’s) work you can really learn so much from that. It’s extremely hard (to analyze your own work) and the thing is, even after I started working professionally , the question I hated the most when I showed my portfolio to an editor or art director…(is) they will say “Ok , so what is your style?” I hated that question.
3) Tell us what you like to shoot
I like to shoot people…(but) I started shooting non-people. I started shooting what I like to call cityscapes. I’ve always lived in big cities so I was always drawn to weird everyday things but then gradually I started shooting people… and then friends that I hung out with in New York at the time, a lot of them were in the fashion industry ..so thats what pulled me into the fashion world of photography and some of us started doing test shoots and putting together fashion shoots… and basically what we did was we submitted them to magazines; you can do that in NY but I guess you can do it here too. So my first published work was on an online magazine called HINT magazine I don’t know if it’s still around but back then it was a well-known fashion online mag. We pitched our work, they published it and thats how I started. So now, I shoot portraits, fashion, I still shoot landscapes..I like to shoot , I think i prefer people. I like color, I love black and white as well..I’m started to get back into it.
4) Honestly, I definitely think that you have a certain style.
I guess so… I just don’t know it. It’s hard to explain. What are your colors, whats your style. I can’t really put into words. I know what I see, I have an image of what I want; the end result. I have the image but its hard to explain using words.
Models, portraits, I shot a lot of friends, everyone around me, whoever is interesting.
5) Do you recommend going to a school?
Not necessarily. There are a lot of great photographers who never went to school ; who are self-taught. I don’t know what I actually learnt at ICP… it was a learning experience because I was able to interact with fellow photographers ,artists but as far as going to school to learn techniques, I don’t know..yeah, it’s great if you have the time and money but I don’t think its necessary. It’s definitely for networking.
6) You split your time between NY, Tokyo and HK. Compare life, business and photography in these three places.
The business aspect is different but I don’t think it’s necessarily to do with the photo industry… any industry , the working environment in these three cities are different because it’s each culture is very different. I think New York and Hong Kong too, allows you more freedom to explore and challenge and try new things whereas Tokyo is a bit more conventional, you don’t have much freedom but that goes with any industry here.
7) How long has you been shooting professionally? How has your photography evolved through the years?
10 years. I think I’m quicker in seeing what I like. Definitely speed because I know what I like. I know what I’m looking for. Maybe I’m better now as opposed to 10 years ago directing models. I think it’s more about alertness, the speed of seeing the image I’m going for and being able to find that faster.
Who are your influences and inspirations?
I have so many inspirations. David Bowie, Beethoven. Bill Brandt is my all-time favorite master photographer… Francesca Woodman. They are both surrealists, black and white photographers ; beautiful. I love for color, William Eggleston. I had a great experience meeting him at one of his openings in New York at one of his galleries in Chelsea. He was someone who I was extremely starstruck and I’m usually not starstruck seeing people.
9) Favourite places to shoot or hangout around Tokyo?
I don’t have a favorite spot to shoot. I do like shooting on trains. Ive some staged shoots and some random shots. I just like the streets because I feel like, if I’m shooting a person , yes it’s about the person but i think the person can make the environment.
10) What’s been your biggest achievement?
I don’t feel I’ve achieved it yet. I’m still looking for it. I definitely haven’t done anything big enough that I could call a life project. I think once I find the topic or subject, I’ll start shooting. The hardest part for me is finding what I want to work on ; as far as personal work.
11) Do you have any favorite images?
Yeah, I do have favorites. Its funny you ask. All this time, Ive been saying I love shooting people but some of my favorites are not people photos. One of them is, titled “house on the street”. It’s basically, a 6×6 image, and I love 6×6 format or a house in NYC with a bus stop. It’s kind of red with light trails , I’ve always liked it and it’s on my wall. There isn’t really a story behind it except it was freezing cold when I shot it and I used a pretty long exposure with a tripod and it was 3am in March.
When I shoot, I’m the type of photographer who likes to conceptualize , even if its a location. I’ll location hunt first and then I’ll take my tripod out and go shoot. Rarely… the photos I tend to like are candid shots . They’re pretty well planned out, meaning I look for the place first and then I go back to shoot it ; not so much these days but I always used to use a tripod.
Leave your comments and visit Mika’s website at www.mikanakanishi.com
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II
** I apologize for camerashake as it probably made you very dizzy. + my voice was a bit nasal because I had terrible sinus and hay fever.