Meet Nagi Sakai & Cop His Celebrated Prints at the Milk Store
Finding inspiration in the diversity of the arts, and fueled by his passion for showcasing strength in beauty and sophisticated realism, Nagi Sakai‘s passion has rapidly morphed into an incredibly successful career. Born in Tokyo and raised in Cairo, the photographer was exposed to several cultures at a very young age—but it wasn’t until he met famed Japanese photographer, Naoki Ishizaka, when he was only 16 years old, that he knew photography was his calling.
Sakai spent the subsequent years perfecting his craft while assisting Ishizaka, whose clients included Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Comme des Garçons, to name a few. Eventually, his unrelenting drive paid off, and in 2000 he moved to New York and signed with his first agency. Since then, reams of illustrious publications have championed his images including (but not limited to) Vogue Paris Travel In France, The Edit, Harper’s Bazaar Spain, Marie Claire Italia, Dazed & Confused Korea, Vanity Fair, GQ Germany, GQ Japan, Vogue UK, Vogue Latin America, V Magazine, and V Man.
And now, the Milk Gallery is pleased to announce that they’ll soon be carrying Sakai’s most recent images in the Milk Store. To celebrate, the Milk Gallery team sat down with Sakai to talk film vs. digital, and how he goes about developing a concept for a shoot.
Can you tell us about your work and how you got started?
Fashion is what I do. You find a lot of photographers who say, “This is my personal work and this is my commissioned work,” but really what I’m passionate about is fashion. My ultimate expression is in the editorials where I have full creative control. I am very collaborative with my team, especially the stylist; I can’t do it on my own. The way the images are presented is where I really put in my two cents and make sure it is exactly how I see it.
I have a background in shooting film, and the photographer I assisted for five years (1995 – 2000) while I was starting out was extremely technical. He gave me material to study and experiment with—I practiced developing different kinds of film with different chemicals and printing, I studied lighting and color. It was great experience because knowing the technical aspects of photography becomes a weapon. At the same time, you can also become so perfect technically that you lose your connection with your subject. So that was challenging for me—becoming so technical, but learning to dismiss it in order to engage more with the subject and try to achieve something more than just a pretty, nicely lit or stylized photo. Something a little bit more from the gut. That balance is the most important element to capturing a good photograph.
One of the aspects of your photography that we noticed is that it’s technically beautiful, but still has soul.
Thank you. And casting—especially—is so important; you have to handpick them. For me, I like strength in the subjects I’m shooting, whether it’s men or women. There has to be a level of confidence, and I feel like you see it in all my work.
How do you engage with your subjects to inspire that confidence in them?
I think it’s really case-by-case depending on whom you’re photographing and what you are trying to achieve. Lately I’ve been shooting a lot of celebrities for Vanity Fair. I really think it depends on the personality that I’m focusing on and if it’s someone new that I’ve never met before—whether a model or a subject—I engage with them in the morning to try to understand how they are feeling. I’ll ask them regular questions, and try to make them feel, to a certain extent, comfortable—to let them know that I’m here for them and to gain their trust. Once we actually begin shooting, I start to converse with them and direct them; I try to get them to drop their guard by having a dialogue while on set.
Some people want to be photographed in a certain way; that’s where it becomes more challenging. I do believe in the Richard Avedon school of thought—that, in the end, the subject should really submit to the photographer’s direction. They should look at your work prior to the shoot and know what they’re getting into.
How do you typically prepare for shoots?
My discussions start with the stylist to see what has inspired us this season in terms of concept, movies, paintings, or anything in life. It could be from a moment that I saw while crossing the street. Then we talk about the collection of the season and what works for our concept. Styling is huge factor for me; it really shows whom this person is and where he or she is from. Where are they going and what’s their story? Then you have the casting. He or she has to play and fit that role of the person you envision. It has to come to life.
It sounds like you’re really involved in every aspect of the process.
It’s all about collaboration.
Coming from shooting film… I used to be super anti-digital, to tell you the truth. I was one of the latecomers to digital until my studio team was like, “Try one shoot with digital Nagi!” and so I did. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it very much. It was instantaneous, to be able to see it happen right there; whereas with film, you see it after you get the contact sheets and go through the roll. Very often when shooting film, the Polaroid that you shoot before moving into a roll is THE SHOT. You try to recreate the Polaroid and it’s never quite the same. With digital, every shot—even the first test shot—can be the final select. I think they are just different approaches… But I do feel that understanding and learning film can help you with digital.
All images by Nagi Sakai.
Photo of Sakai in his apartment by Devin Blaskovich.
To purchase Nagi Sakai’s work, visit the Milk Gallery store here.
Follow Nagi Sakai on instagram: @nagi_sakai
Stay tuned to Milk for more from our favorite artists.