In Conversation: Satoki Nagata

Cynthia Haynes

Satoki Nagata hit the dark, icy streets of Chicago with a slow shutter speed and a flash to create a stunning series of black and white portraits that you can almost feel. Using a flash behind his subjects, the people in his photographs almost appear as reflections or double exposures. The results? Stunning. We asked Satoki about his background and what inspired him to make his Lights in Chicago series.   

What is it about photography that draws you the way it does?

In addition to my father's death, my sister’s death had an impact on my work. When she passed away, I was struggling with documentary photography. For this genre, I believed I needed to have both intimacy as well as objectivity toward my subjects. I tried to understand the meaning behind the circumstances or situations depicted in my photographs and believed that maintaining a certain emotional barrier was necessary to creating quality work. But that approach was completely wrong.

I was so upset when my sister died that I had no room to think about intimacy or objectivity. Nothing. What I had was one camera and two lenses. That was the objectivity. When we have a camera in hand, we become a photographer. The conscious—or often unconscious—decision to become a photographer is the objectivity. 

I continue to be fascinated by the fact that so much truth, beauty, and emotion in the world can be shown aesthetically through photographs.

Who were your early influences? Outside of photography, what are your creative influences? Where do you look for new sources of ideas for your work?

When I decided to pursue photography, I was fortunate to meet an excellent mentor: photojournalist Damaso Reyes. I learned the essential notions of photography as art from him during the four years we worked together. I needed to learn its rudimentary underpinnings and foundational techniques; I knew nothing about photography and could not create good photographs if I didn’t understand the basics of the craft. My photography differs from that of Reyes, but he significantly influenced my philosophical sense of photography.

New sources of ideas are usually based on one’s previous works. I aspire to create images that I've never made before. Searching for new ideas is identical to finding a new vision or new visual voice, which are often present but buried in the artist’s mind or consciousness until the right time and inspiration brings them to the forefront.

I enjoy looking at other creative people’s artwork. Note that this is not limited to photography, but encompasses all kinds of art, including film, music, design, literature, and even electronics. It is wonderful to see other people’s strong visions, to learn the philosophy behind their works and to find inspiration for my own creative acts. It is also exciting to meet creative people in person. There are many talented visual artists living in Chicago, including visual creative Dragana Nestorovic; we discuss ideas and exchange thoughts frequently.

How did you discover street photography? How did you know this was the area of photography that you wanted to pursue?

After moving to the U.S. in 1992, I started taking photographs of the streets of Chicago. When I purchased my first DSLR, I took pictures with more frequency than before, and the act of taking photographs became a part of my daily routine. There are practically no limitations to street photography: environmental portraits, documentary, cityscape, abstract, macro, and so on. This is the reason why I like working on the streets.

If you had to describe your photography to someone who had never seen it, what would you say?

My work comprises a series of trials in search of (and to communicate) the truth, beauty, and emotions in the world that can only be shown through photographs.

These images are from your Lights in Chicago series; what inspired this body of work?

Street photography is difficult to define. If the question is, “What is my street photography,” then the Lights in Chicago series is a good representation of my work.

I began my artistic career in “traditional” street photography. Then I began to concentrate on more intensive documentary projects. The difference between these two concepts lies in the level of intimacy or distance with the subjects. We individual humans are composed of multiple and complex emotional layers.

When I want to make better images of a person, I need to make an intimate connection with them to discover the deeper layers. This is how I work in documentary or portrait photography: the deeper I see, the better images I create.

During a documentary project, I occasionally do street photography as well. This made me think about how to make my street photography different from before. I wanted to make images with a certain intimacy. There is a distance between me and people on the streets. How to minimize that emotional distance without actually forging intimate connections with people? This was challenging.

At one point, I began using flash on documentary projects. Flash can be a powerful tool to make intimate visual connections when used appropriately. So I decided to use flash on the streets. After a two-week trial, I happened to find one image that showed visually interesting layering and a range of tones from highlights to shadows. This made the image look like a reflection or a multi-exposure, but was actually taken by a single shot.

I continued to make images using flash the same way. I liked the results visually and the technical simplicity as well. But most importantly, I felt that these images conveyed each person's subtle, everyday moments of life in the city of Chicago very well. This is how the Lights in Chicago series started.

There is an elegant composition in the images in this series; how did you learn to compositionally frame your photographs for this type of impact?

For composition, I have some simple rules for the visual and content aspects of my photographs. Visually, I consider the shape, line, curve, alignment and position of highlight and shadow areas, negative spaces, and layer in my images. As far as content, I am extremely conscious to make sure that every single element has meaning once it is included in the frame. I consider composition carefully before I execute the shot. I often make more than five different versions and fine adjustments for a single image over several days or even months. I do not have formal training in composition, but I have experimented with various methods, identified some rules, and developed a workflow of my own through intuition and experiences.

How would you describe your style or vision? Do you consider yourself to be a photographic storyteller, or do you think you are a more technical shooter?

Photography is about communication. A photographer displays his or her experiences aesthetically through images without analysis or explanation and simultaneously asks a question. An image needs to be open. That is, the image needs to inspire multiple dialogues to arise between the viewer and the subject, between the subject and the viewer, and between the viewer and the photographer. That is how I think about photography and how I make images, leading me to consider myself a storyteller rather than a technical shooter.

Other than the challenges of light and weather when photographing Lights in Chicago, do you ever operate under any other self-imposed constraints to help you grow?

There are no constraints particularly applied in this series. However, I do not want to make images similar to those I have made before. The Lights in Chicago series has changed periodically, although it has not changed linearly. Since technical limitation is much greater in standard street or documentary photography, I could challenge myself in different ways. It might help me to grow.

Street photography is admittedly hard to define; what do you want people feel when they see your work?

I feel that most viewers do not pay much attention about how images are labeled or categorized. They just see photographs as photographs, and that is how I want viewers to see my work. I hope that viewers feel a connection with my subjects and with me as the photographer, speculating on what I saw, why and how I made the images and to begin a conversation with themselves, with other viewers, with subjects, or with photographers.

For you, what makes a good photograph? What is your biggest challenge creatively in working toward making a good photograph?

I am always thinking about what defines a good photograph. For me, an image must be aesthetically intriguing and fascinating to the viewer in various visual and content levels. Otherwise, we cannot retain a viewer’s interest in the image and cannot communicate with the viewer. These aspects are related to each other in a complex way. Each image is a fraction of time, which, in turn, is a part of the life of the photographer as well as a moment of the subject’s life—and later, a moment of the viewer’s life. Thus, I need to be conscious that I have a responsibility to be honest in creating these moments with integrity. I believe that the significance of the creative act extends beyond self-expression.

I try to create my images in accordance with these notions. That is a challenge.

You worked as a scientist in your past professional life; do you find that there is anything from that discipline that works for—or against—you in your photography career?

Since photography is all about the vision of photographer, every experience in life—regardless of whether joyful or painful—becomes the basis of one’s vision or point of view. So the experience of being a scientist has positively affected my photography.

When I think about my vision or my visual voice, I initially try to understand it logically and then to find something that is beyond logic. That is something only photography can do. My scientific background played a significant role in my ability to initiate and pursue this process of finding my own voice.

Who are the photographers who have inspired you the most, and how has their work affected your photography?

As mentioned earlier, my mentor, Damaso Reyes, taught me all aspects of photography, with a particular focus on what makes photography as art. Without him, I could not have found and developed my own vision, or if I had, it would have taken much more time to reach that certain point. What Reyes taught me was the philosophical aspect of photography. There are other photographers I respect and admire, more in terms of their philosophy of the craft than their processes. My favourite photographers are Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Bruce Davidson, and Eugene Smith.

About your gear: on an average photo shoot (day or night), what’s in your bag? Any items you’d never be without?

Leica M digitals (M8, M9, M240) with 50mm f/2.0 and 35mm f/1.4, and 75mm f/2.5 lenses. For flash work, a radio transmitter, receiver, flash, light stand, light meter (and some candy).

Satoki Nagata was born and raised in Japan and began to take photographs while in high school. After graduating Nagoya University with BS, MS and Ph.D. degrees in Neuroscience, he moved to the U.S. in 1992 and started using a SLR camera to photograph Chicago and its citizens. Satoki’s study of Zen Buddhism taught him that our existence is composed of various relationships. This notion inspired him to use photography to create relationships with the world to find himself. For more about Satoki, visit his website or

Interview Satoki Nagata

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  • These are completely beautiful and wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

    David Adam Edelstein on
  • Wow ! Gorgeous and inspirational !
    I really had recently a similar project in mind !
    You know Trent Parke and Saul Leiter ?
    They are playing wonderfully with light and layers.

    (By the way: We have a Zen Center here in LA.
    These Zen people believe in „so-called“ mutual dependence.
    They say, your mind is dependent on your enviroment and vice versa.
    Crazy shit !

    John B. on

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