Interview: Hajime Sawatari | amana art photo | Explore and Collect Japanese Photography

Interview: Hajime Sawatari

Girls and Women in My Photography

Aug 10, 2016
Interviewed by Mika Kobayashi on April 6th, 2016.
Text: Mika Kobayashi
Photos: Sakiko Nomura
Translation: Yuka Katagiri

Hajime Sawatari had a profound effect on Japanese photography in the 1970s. He is known for his nudes of girls and women, with masterful works including Nadia (1973) and Alice (1973). In this interview, the veteran photographer takes us through his professional career since the 1960s and shares some stories from the past.

“The frustration of not being able to do what I wanted to do resulted in an explosion of creativity.”

When did you first get into photography?
I lived in Yamagata Prefecture from the age of four to fifteen years old. I started using a camera when I was about fourteen. I took photographs during a school trip and then of screens in movie theatres. I used to sit in the front row and take pictures of movie stars like Marilyn Monroe with my 6×6 camera. I remember some photographs I took of grand sumo tournaments and singers, including Peggy Hayama. Eventually I moved to Tokyo and studied at the Department of Photography at Nihon University College of Art. 
What was your subject matter while you were at the university and when you were in your twenties?
I dearly loved modern jazz back then and I photographed black jazz musicians. There was this lady, Barbara, who lived in the Yokota Air Base and she invited me there to take photographs of her and her children. I went to Washington Heights (a United States Armed Forces housing complex located in Shibuya) with Gasho Yamamura who was my senior at the university to photograph children in Halloween costumes. We also went on a shooting trip to Tappi, a village in the north of Aomori Prefecture. Later, I published a book of photographs from that time, titled Showa 35, Japan (2014).
When I was a student, I took snapshots of everything and anything that captured my interest. I was influenced by various movements at that time, such as Nouvelle Vague films, modern jazz, Nouveau Roman novels, and the Beat Generation. It was then that I began to concentrate on children and women as my subject matter.
 
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Showa 35 Hajime Sawatari (1961)

After graduating in 1963, I started working at Nippon Design Center, Inc. At that time, the company provided photographic services mostly for corporate clients such as Toyota, Nikon and Toshiba. I wanted to take photographs of women and the job was not something I aspired to, so I decided to quit after three years. Nevertheless, I was absolutely fortunate to have got to connect with amazing people through my work, including the photographers Yutaka Takanashi, Masahisa Fukase and Taiji Arita, the illustrators Akira Uno and Tadanori Yokoo, and the writer Mutsuo Takahashi to name a few. Yoshihiro Tatsuki, who was working for Ad Center, used to give me work to shoot for fashion magazines such as So-en and Dressmaking.
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Hajime Sawatari (1971)

You started taking a number of photographs of children around that time.
A Girl at Play (original title: Tonde goran, Prune) (1964) is a series of photographs of a mixed-race girl. Back then, it was very rare to see a Japanese girl who looked like a white girl and she looked just like a fairy. When I found her, I was completely taken by her beauty, so I asked her to let me photograph her. I also did the stills for a film, Nanami: The Inferno of First Love (original title: Hatsukoi Jigokuhen, directed by Susumu Hani and co-scripted with Shūji Terayama, 1968) and took photographs of naked children wearing tengu (a type of legendary creature) masks.
For a fashion magazine, an-an, which was established around that time, I created experimental work focusing on children and unusual situations. For example, I shot pictures of naked children on a bus. I was able to publish this kind of work in magazines because photographers were allowed more freedom than we have today.
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A Girl at Play Hajime Sawatari (1964)

The 1970s was the golden age of Japanese advertising, with lots of new magazines coming out and Japanese National Railways launching its phenomenally successful Discover Japan advertising campaign. What was your experience at that time?
By then I was already fed up with advertising. I got tired of having to conform to all sorts of specifications by designers. Fashion photography did leave a little more room for freedom of expression than advertising photography, but there were always detailed instructions to follow, such as how to style and pose models. I was inspired by and wanted to take photographs like the ones I had seen in Western fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, but they didn’t let me do that. The frustration of not being able to do what I wanted to do resulted in an explosion of creativity. It was through my desire to take photographs of women in the way I wanted without any restrictions that I started taking portraits of Nadia.
 

“I prefer to see how the subject interacts with the surroundings.”

How did you meet each other and how did you come to work together?
Nadia loved Japanese culture and decided to visit the country to learn its history in 1970 when she was 21 or so. We met at work that year and we started working together in 1971. There was a high demand for mixed race models at that time and the Japanese had great admiration for white people. I was no exception and wanted to work with foreign models. Today, most models are represented by agents and it’s a challenge to work within their restrictions. But back then it was much easier to be a model if you were a pretty white girl. I showed photographs of Nadia in Karuizawa to Shoji Yamagishi, who was the editor in chief of Camera Mainichi. He liked them and asked me to continue with the project. He gave me four pages every month for a year. I put everything I had into it, not because I became a regular contributor to the magazine, but I thought that was the only time I could capture those images. One time Nadia and I went to Italy, her home country, for photo shoots.
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Nadia Hajime Sawatari (1971)

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Nadia Hajime Sawatari (1971)

Going through the pages of your book, Nadia, the range of emotions on her face is incredible. She looks innocent like a young girl or a pixy in some photographs and absolutely gorgeous and glamorous in others. There are ones in which she looks washed out. They seem to reflect her changing mood and her feelings towards you.  
She loved being photographed, and I tried everything that might work. She had no hesitation in showing her emotions, and that was what made her so special and very different from Japanese models. We travelled in Italy for two months, on buses and trains with heavy luggage. It was very difficult to be with her and her mood swings 24/7. We were together for about a year, but I took photographs of her several times after we broke up.
In 1973, I published Nadia: Mori no Ningyokan and then Alice. The latter was shot in the U.K. and it was the fruit of years of working with children. Young girls have been the primary subject matter of my work and I see them as women, not children. I worked intensively through 1971 to 1973, when I was in my early thirties. And then the 1980s arrived. During my forties, I found myself in a slump. I wasn’t sure how to go on from there.
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Alice Hajime Sawatari (1973)

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Alice Hajime Sawatari (1973)

You came out of that period with Showa (1994), a photobook on the actress, Hiroko Isayama.
When I turned 50, I was finally able to pull myself together. I thought I should just allow myself free rein to do what I wanted to do because I might have only about ten years left as a photographer. And I felt like shooting erotic nudes. During the 1990s, things loosened up and the pubic hair ban was lifted for books and magazines, so nude photographs of actresses and pop idols were flooding the market. We met in the same way I had met Nadia. We went to places where a cinematic story might take place with her as the heroine for the book. I was amazed by how she could tune into the atmosphere of a place. She was a real actress.
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Showa Hajime Sawatari (1993)

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Showa Hajime Sawatari (1993)

As in your early days, you don’t seem to control your subject, rather, you let them be themselves and wait for the right opportunity. One thing that really stands out to me is that you dig deep to uncover the real person behind the facade. The inclusion of hand-written letters from Nadia in Nadia and words by Isayama in Showa has the same expressive quality. They allow us to view the images with fresh eyes.
I do have images of what I want to shoot, but rather than providing specific instructions, I prefer to see how the subject interacts with the surroundings. This helps me to listen to what they have to say and bring their inner world to life. I’m 76 years old, but taking photographs of women remains my biggest passion. I love the fact that I never know who I will meet.
Mika Kobayashi
Kobayashi is a photography critic and curator who is currently Guest Researcher at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo.
Sakiko Nomura
After graduating from the Department of Fine Art at Kyushu Sangyo University, Nomura became a pupil of Nobuyoshi Araki. Her works are now part of the collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Major publications include Black Darkness (Akio Nagasawa Publishing), nude/a room/flowers (Match and Company) and Flower (Libro Arte).

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Interview: Hajime Sawatari / Girls and Women in My Photography
Posted on Aug 10, 2016