Mystical Nude Portraits Inspired by an Ancient Japanese Folktale

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Yumi and the Moon Yumi Carter Alexandra Leese
Yumi and the MoonPhotography by Alexandra Leese

Photographer Alexandra Leese tells us the story behind her new zine Yumi and the Moon, which was inspired by an ancient Japanese folktale and her subject Yumi Carter’s personal rebirth

Written in the 10th century, the ancient Japanese folk story The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter tells the story of a baby named Kaguya-hime, who is discovered in a bamboo stalk and grows up to be a beautiful and much-desired woman, who brings luck and fortune to her adoptive parents. After rejecting a series of suitors who want to marry her, Kaguya-hime reveals that she is from the moon and must return to her people. “There are different versions of why she came to Earth and why she left,” explains photographer Alexandra Leese, whose new zine, Yumi and the Moon, is inspired by the story.

Some versions of the story say that Kaguya-hime’s time on Earth was meant as a punishment, knowing that she would be sad upon leaving; others that she was sent down for her own safety during a time of war. “I like the idea that she actually began to understand humans and all their faults,” says Leese, “and felt sad to leave them behind, even though she came from a more divine place.”

Leese, who has previously created a zine about the boys of Hong Kong, teamed up with Yumi Carter for a series of photographs – “Kaguya-hime was a strong and independent girl, full of mystery, divinity and beauty,” says Leese, “and Yumi is similar so I wanted to translate this through the pictures” – that have been printed as a large-format zine, with design by Bruce Usher. “This project started with my obsession with the moon, and a fateful meeting with Yumi at a point in her life when she was experiencing a personal rebirth,” Leese continues. Over the course of a few days in London, Leese captured Carter in a series of nude portraits, which are interspersed with photographs of the moon in the zine.

The moon, and its associations with energy, reinvention and femininity, is something that has long inspired Leese. “I find it very hard to look at the moon and not feel inspired. Maybe it has something to do with being able to see something so clearly that is both out of this world but part of it too,” she says. For Carter, who is Japanese and introduced Leese to the story of Kaguya-hime, making the series came at a time when she was “wanting to leave certain aspects of herself behind” (she writes on Instagram that the project has been “reviving”). Throughout the zine, Carter is depicted with her (ever shortening) hair snaking around her, sometimes in water and surrounded by delicate origami. For Leese, the aim was to communicate a powerful femininity through Carter’s “body language, energy and gaze”. Set alongside Leese’s ethereal photographs of the moon, Carter channels the otherworldly mysticism of the ancient, and much-studied story of Kaguya-hime’s life.

Yumi and the Moon is available for pre-order, published on November 1, 2019.