An extraordinary form of self-portraiture known as Purikura is reviving the practice of amateur print photography and creating a new genre of image-making with it.
Deriving from a truncated Japanese translation of 'Print Club', Purinto Kurabu, the term Purikura refers to the photographic culture surrounding the modified 'Photo-Me'-style photo booths introduced to Japanese malls and amusement arcades by gaming companies ATLUS and SEGA in 1995. As with a standard passport booth, sitters were invited to come inside the booth and pay about 1.5GBP to have their portrait taken. Where the resultant images differed from the classic Polaroid, four image strip was that the Purikura portrait was shot digitally, offering a host of 'post-production' options. After capture, the image was transferred onto a graphic touch screen outside the booth, which the sitter could use to 'customise' their portrait using a pen, before the final artwork was printed out onto a 'seal' or sheet of up to 16-20 stickers. Crucially, the sitter was no longer confined to be the mere paying subject of the image: they could now indulge their fantasies of simultaneously being the professional model, art director, graphic designer and publisher of their self-portrait. They were in full control of the entire creative process.
The scope for innovation now seems obvious, but early Purikura image-making was hampered by its association with kitsch, 'Hello Kitty' girl culture. This was solved by enhanced functionality in the booths brought out in 2000/1, including a better range of themed backgrounds for both genders (Star Wars and Disney are popular as is the facility to look like you are on the cover of your favourite magazine or record), more complex editing and retouching options such as graffiti graphics, clip art, the ability to write or draw freehand, an eraser function and glitter or jelly print papers. Purikura became a highly popular activity to do with friends (some booths can now accommodate up to 15 people) and teenagers now flock to venues like the cult 'Purikura No Mecca!' mall in Tokyo's Shibuya district or the three-story mall in Ximen, China up to three times per week on average. Like nineteenth century Carte de Visite portraits, the stickers and cards are exchanged with friends, stuck on iPods and bags or collected in special albums called 'Purikurachou' or 'Purichou' that are carried around by avid sitters.
Purikura enthusiasts develop signature poses in advance of their 'sessions', often treating their posing as a competitive act. They tend to be loyal to certain booths, believing them to produce 'kinder' portraits that compliment their looks. Both the leisure/shopping context of the booths and the opportunity to dress up and perform in a public space has meant Purikura has become intrinsically linked with firting and dating in countries like Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan. The ubiquity of pornography in many of those countries has led to the emergence of 'Eropuri' among many 15–20 year old girls who collaborate with each other on naked, erotic poses in booths offering full-length portraits. It is a truism that behind every new photographic innovation is some sort of pornographic entrepreneurialism and the fact that some booths allow images to be sent directly to mobile phones for 'sharing' suggests scope for wide distribution for this 'Gonzo-porn'. Videkura (where you can produce short animations to send to friends' phones or post on the Internet) is only starting to emerge.
Capitalising on the massive emphasis on fashion and celebrity as well as the cultural popularity of karaoke and 'Cosplay' performance in South East Asia, the booths began to act as mini-photo studios about five years ago. As well as the host malls offering changing rooms and costume hire, over the last five years, the booths have started offering multiple camera angles, lighting effects, changing 'Colorama-style' backdrops, wind-machines, a pumping Japanese pop soundtrack and even floors that rise and fall to encourage the sitter to vary their poses.
Noting that it is now possible to conduct every aspect of a fashion shoot using a Purikura booth - from the posing and photography of the model and the retouching and layout of the stills to the captioning of the clothes and the printing of the artwork - SHOWstudio has commissioned a Tokyo-based photographer, stylist, model and pair of illustrators to do a collections story based on the Autumn/Winter 2007 collections using Purikura. In partnership with FURYU, Kenji Hirasawa obtained access to a 'Miss DoLL' Purikura machine to use at his leisure to photograph Ayako Hayamizu in a range of poses so that stylist Takumi Iwata could work with illustrators Kai Ohta and Yumiko Suzuki to 'style' her in illustrated clothing representing key looks by Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Chanel, Christian Dior, Christopher Kane, Comme des Garçons, Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci, Maison Martin Margiela, Prada and Yves Saint Laurent. The resultant 'spreads' and films represent an interesting fusion between the charming amateurism of the Purikura genre and the visual ambition of genuinely experimental fashion image-making and illustration, whose power is most potent at street level, after all.