Japanese ‘Girly Photo’ Artist Mika Ninagawa on Taking Baths When She’s Creatively Blocked

The photographer and filmmaker recently debuted a new show of floral-focused imagery with Van Cleef & Arpels.

Mika Ninagawa. Courtesy the artist.

Japanese photographer and filmmaker Mika Ninagawa’s dazzling images—many of which feature prismatic shots of flora and fauna exploding forth during springtime—has made the 49-year-old artist one of the few female photographers to achieve cult status in Japan.

Ninagawa, who is the daughter of the acclaimed theater director Yukio Ninagawa, began gaining notice in the late 1990s as one of the primary contributors to Japan’s “Girly Photo” movement, through which a group of pioneering young female photographers tried to break into the male-dominated field by taking straightforward, point-and-shoot-style self-portraits and pictures of scenes from their everyday life.

Ninagawa’s work was exhibited at the French concept store Colette in 1997the first time she showed outside of Japan—and in 2001, she won her native country’s most prestigious photography prize, the Ihei Kimura award. Since then, her photography has appeared in shows around the world, from a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei to a solo exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, and her works have been acquired by the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam and UBS for its art collection. In recent years, Ninagawa has received praise for her film and television work as well, including the 2020 Netflix J-drama Followers

This season, the French jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels has tapped Ninagawa for its latest exhibition, “Florae,” on view through November 14 at the Hôtel d’Évreux on the Place Vendôme in Paris. The darkened display offers more than 100 glittering, jeweled fleurs—all culled from the house’s historic and contemporary collections—alongside the artist’s vivid, larger-than-life photographs of acid blooms. The result is a conversation between the fleeting, ethereal beauty of real flowers and that of the gem-encrusted counterparts crafted in their image.

Ninagawa noted in an interview with Prestige, “Like me, Van Cleef & Arpels is fascinated by nature’s transformations. Seeing how the Maison seeks to replicate the movement of flowers in its jewelry inspires me greatly. These pieces and my photographs echo each other in the exhibition. Together, they spark a new fascination for flora.”

To discuss the exhibition, her studio habits, and more, we recently quizzed Ninagawa on her creative process.

Work by Mika Ninagawa at Van Cleef & Arpels's Florae exhibition in Paris. Photo courtesy Takuji Shimmura and Van Cleef & Arpels.

Work by Mika Ninagawa in Van Cleef & Arpels’s “Florae” exhibition in Paris. Courtesy of Takuji Shimmura and Van Cleef & Arpels.

What item do you need most for your studio?

My laptop!

What are you most looking forward to doing in the studio tomorrow?

I went to another prefecture by bullet train yesterday and took a lot of photos. Tomorrow I’m going to do final selects. I’m looking forward to it…but I’m also feeling overwhelmed.

Photo courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels.

Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels.

What can we expect to see at the exhibition of photographs you have on at the moment with Van Cleef & Arpels?

For this collaboration, we adopted a method of displaying a combination of my photographs of flowers alongside jewelry selected from and inspired by Van Cleef’s collections. Architect Tsuyoshi Tane designed the exhibition, and the installation, which makes use of lights and mirrors, is based on the concepts of kaleidoscopes and mazes. It’s reminiscent of a fantastical garden.

When I thought about the brilliance of Van Cleef & Arpels’s jewelry, which so values nature, the choice of fresh flowers was quite organic. The brand has made the flowers’ short-lived beauty everlasting through their exquisite creations. I thought that the different senses of charm conveyed by each—the jeweled flowers, and the real, photographed ones—would play off each other nicely.

What kind of atmosphere do you like when you work? Do you listen to music, or do you prefer to work in silence?

In my office, I listen to music and work in a relaxed atmosphere. When I’m in the studio shooting, I work with a sense of excitement and adrenaline.


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What features do you most admire in a work of art, and what features do you most despise?

For myself, I like works that are so full of passion that I couldn’t help but create them. Beyond that, I don’t care for works that are too logical, or that lack in emotion.

What is the one snack you can’t live without in the studio?

Sweets, because I use my brain a lot!

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get out of it?

Take a relaxing bath.

Photo courtesy Takuji Shimmura and Van Cleef & Arpels.

Courtesy Takuji Shimmura and Van Cleef & Arpels.

What was the last exhibition you saw that left a lasting impression on you (even virtually)?

I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo the other day to see the Tadanori Yokoo exhibition. I was inspired by the sheer volume of works and Yokoo’s almost obsessive creative drive.

If you were to create a mood board, what would be on it now?

I’m collecting images for the next movie I’m going to shoot, and it has all kinds of visuals!

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