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Artist

Takuma Nakahira

Japanese

1938, Shibuya, Tokyo
2015, Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture

Black and white portrait of artist Takuma Nakahira
Takuma Nakahira; photo: Daido Moriyama, © Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation

Takuma Nakahira (1938–2015) was a radical and critical leader of modern photography, pushing it to its limits. Yet, after losing his speech and his memory toward the end of his life, he can also be said to have returned to the point of origin, or “degree zero,” of the medium.

Nakahira graduated from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies with a degree in Spanish in 1963. After holding a number of different jobs he became an editor for the New Left journal Contemporary View, where he published photographs by Shomei Tomatsu. Tomatsu roused Nakahira’s interest in the medium and invited him to join the editorial board for the seminal 1968 exhibition A Century of Japanese Photography, organized by the Japan Professional Photographers Society. Nakahira struggled to choose between careers in photography or poetry, but the works he discovered while conducting research for the show convinced him to focus on making pictures. The exhibition also led to his collaboration with fellow editor Koji Taki on the independent journal Provoke. With A Century of Japanese Photography, Nakahira and Taki gained an understanding of the language of Japanese photography of the past; with Provoke, they rejected that language and pushed their photography in a more experimental direction. Daido Moriyama became a member of the group associated with the magazine beginning with the second issue, upon Nakahira’s invitation. Though Nakahira and Moriyama’s emphasis on monochrome, on rough grain, and on slanted compositions was ridiculed as bure-boke shashin (blurry, out-of-focus photography), they maintained that in a world in constant flux, their manner of taking pictures best reflected what could be perceived by the naked eye.

After the third issue of Provoke, the group published the book First Abandon the World of Pseudo-Certainty (1970) and discontinued the journal. Nakahira felt that the bure-boke style—meant as a direct rebuttal of conventional aesthetics—was about to gain acceptance and was therefore losing its innovative potential. He had already begun to participate in international exhibitions such as the 1969 Paris Biennale, where he made a series of six bleak photogravure cityscapes titled La nuit (Night, ca. 1969). He also published the first anthology of his own work, For a Language to Come (1970), which captured his distinctive poetic sensibility and the radical criticism of photography being made by photographers themselves. In 1971 he was invited to the Paris Biennale by Takahiko Okada, the commissioner for Japanese entries and a former Provoke member. Nakahira presented his experimental project Circulation: Date, Place, Events, for which he wandered around Paris and photographed anything that caught his eye, adding the resulting prints to the exhibition space each day.

Nakahira became critical of his efforts in the 1973 essay “Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary?,” in which he dismissed his former desire to “shape the world according to his own ideas.” He repudiated the ambiguity of shadow and emotion, advocating instead for juxtapositions of sharp color photographs much like the illustrations in botanical dictionaries. This stance eventually led him to burn many of his prints and negatives. Eager to distance himself from the bure-boke shashin he had helped create and that had been widely adopted even in the commercial realm, Nakahira suffered a creative crisis. His artistic output dwindled, but he continued to write.

In 1973 Nakahira also traveled to Okinawa for the first time, to investigate the case of a young man accused of murdering a police officer during a recent general strike. This experience stirred a lasting interest in the region. From 1974 to 1977 Nakahira journeyed north through the Okinawa island group, probing the cultural demarcation between the Japanese mainland and these southernmost reaches. The resulting series Amami: Waves, Graves, Flowers and Sun (1976) and On the Border: The Tokara Islands, Depopulated (1977) appeared in the journal Asahi Camera and were intended in part as critical responses to Tomatsu’s The Pencil of the Sun: Okinawa, Sea, Sky, Island, People, and Then toward Southeast Asia (1975), which sought to expose a supposed common cultural foundation among the countries of the Pacific Rim.

In 1977 A Duel of Photo-Theory was published, with photographs by Kishin Shinoyama and text by Nakahira. That year, at a party at his home, Nakahira collapsed with acute alcohol poisoning. He survived, but the incident left his speech and memory permanently damaged. After a partial recovery, he spent most of his time making photographs. He published A New Gaze in 1983 and Adieu à X in 1989. Color works would be printed in later books such as Hysteric Six: Nakahira Takuma (2002), Documentary (2011), and the posthumous Okinawa (2017).

The first decade of the twenty-first century was a period of growing recognition for Nakahira. His first solo show, Degree Zero—Yokohama, was held in 2003 in Yokohama, where the artist lived at the time. He continued making similar but slightly different photographs near his home—often returning to the same objects or places again and again, in an anti-“Botanical Dictionary” manner—until 2011, when his health began to fail. In his final works he focused on the unique qualities of each of his subjects, rejecting generalizations and classifications and acknowledging a photograph’s radical ability only to point to the world.

— Masashi Kohara

Translated from the Japanese by Jens Bartel

interviews

Essays and Artist Talks

  • Around 1970 a topic of public discourse that drew a great deal of attention was landscape. It fell under the general heading of fukeiron, or “landscape theory.” At the time, I was an elementary school student in the countryside, and the term landscape—as it was used, for example, by the film critic Masao Matsuda or the photographer Takuma Nakahira—was not a word I would have known. It was after I entered college and came into contact with Kiyoji Otsuji that I became familiar with a number of concepts in use in the Japanese photography world of the time. By then “landscape theory” was already roughly ten years in the past, and the interest in landscape among the photographers around me had undergone an essential transformation. Landscape, as used by Matsuda and Nakahira, seems to have referred to what they saw as a lifeless and unmediated “scene” (nagame) created by a conservative power structure to force a desired order on the environment and society in a way unbeknownst to the indolent and unconcerned masses. For both men, such a “landscape” was not something to contemplate or admire but something to be cut up and dissected as much as possible, something to be overcome and to serve as a point of departure. Let’s say, for example, you have a landscape with land or trees, mountains, and sky—landscape such as that described by Kenneth Clark in his Landscapes into Art (1949) or as used in the spatial analysis of the French Annales School. What Matsuda and Nakahira referred to has little to do with this kind of usage. In the “landscape theory” discourse of the late sixties and early seventies, landscape was seen to have been employed to suppress critical vision and was therefore to be censured and rejected. It can be understood as a metaphor with a highly negative nuance, very similar to metaphors that were later frequently employed, such as “order” or “the system.” How is it that landscape, a word that brings to mind beauty and the arts, came to be so negatively charged during one period of time in Japanese history? I suspect it could simply be due to a strong dislike of the word landscape itself, which from the Meiji period up until the end of the war was used by ultranationalists to assert Japan’s unique beauty and cultural identity (Shigetaka Shiga, Nihon Fukeiron, 1894). What troubles me as an individual is how much influence this ultranationalist concept of landscape and lens-based media such as film and photography, which at the time had been completely appropriated by the masses, had come to exert on each other. That is, why was it that such photography and projected media, as interpreted by cultural purists, had come to be accepted as truth by a portion of intellectuals and artists? However, I sense that my thoughts on this topic are not on today’s agenda. I will provide some information about the Japanese word fukei (“landscape”) for the Americans in the audience. The word, of course, was transmitted from China. According to encyclopedias, the term seems to have been first used in the third or fourth century. One point of interest is that this word was created from Chinese characters that are quite beautiful in meaning: “wind” and “light.” The word includes no concept of land or place, as do the Western terms landscape and paysage. In China, earth, water, fire, and wind were considered the four elements that constitute all matter, including human beings. The character for “insect,” 虫, forms part of the character for “wind,” 風. It is said that the character for “bird,” 鳥, was originally used in place of “insect.” Wind, as a divine being, was thought to have the shape of a bird. And the second character, kei, means “light.” In fact, there is another word, fuko, 風光, with the same meaning as fukei. Fuko is said to refer to the glistening of grasses and trees as they are moved by the wind. The word is all-inclusive in its focus and at the same time accompanied by movement. This movement of glittering light allows us to experience “the immediate moment,” that is to say, “nature.” A phenomenological recognition of nature is already incorporated into the word fukei. Unlike words created by Europeans with reference to the “shape of the land,” the word fukei is already latent with aesthetic value and poetry. Yet this word landscape has other usages quite above and beyond the etymological meanings of “wind and light” or “shape of the land.” In English, for example, the expression political landscape uses the word in a way quite removed from its original usage. And Japanese expressions like ikka danran no fukei (“landscape of a happy family gathering”) were commonly used from early on. How does one translate “landscape” in this expression? I would like to ask the interpreter. Some time ago there was an account in the newspaper about an incident when a certain writer accompanied a famous actor to a noodle shop. The actor was very popular and had appeared repeatedly on television and in other media, so when he entered the noodle shop all of the customers immediately recognized him. Those customers nonetheless acted as though they had not noticed anything out of the ordinary, since showing excitement would be behavior unbefitting adults. But there were many people in the street outside the shop who also recognized the actor and began to gather there, gradually increasing in number. The actor’s seat was just below the window where a number of fans were peering in, but despite this he simply began eating his noodles. The writer, who now and then looked up at the excited group of people outside the window, asked out of concern for the actor, “What shall we do?” The actor replied, “Don’t worry, it’s just ‘landscape,’ only ‘landscape.’” For me, the actor’s use of the word landscape fit the situation perfectly. I suspect that “landscape” is used in a similar way in French and English. For example, you are in a college classroom giving your all to teaching art history, yet the students display no interest in what you are saying. Some are dozing off, some are staring out the window, some are absorbed in their iPhones. I may be the only one to think so, but would it be altogether strange if an expression like “What a landscape!” or “Quel paysage!” floated through one’s mind at the time? If the word landscape indeed fits such situations perfectly, then I think I understand the special characteristics of the word. Landscape, in such situations, has moved from the original etymology of “land” or “pays” and “wind and light,” and has become psychologically quite a different expression. I think that it might be correct to say that “landscape” here refers to a “scene” (nagame), something psychologically estranged, psychologically distant, that no longer bears any direct relationship to oneself. It is said that before the word fukei came to be used in China, “nature” (shizen) was metaphorically linked to man, that man and nature were one. In other words, nature was given anthropomorphic identity. But after fukei entered the lexicon, nature became an objective existence independent of man, something one could look upon. When was it that the natural environment became a “scene” independent of God and man in Europe? It may be that this occurred in modern times during the course of the establishment of a scientific worldview. The development of “landscape” art began very early in China and did not place great emphasis on actual representation, whereas in Europe the development was late and the emphasis was on representation. While there were indeed differences in recognizing that the meaning and usage of “landscape” had changed from what they had originally been, acceptance of this “distance” was also greatly affected by the times and regional characteristics. Whether through painting, poetry, or photography, as one repeats the representation of reality/perception, one cannot but consider the difference that emerges between perception and reality. Understanding that difference, if one again projects an image within real space, the environment that the viewer sees is revealed to be an aesthetic environment accompanied by psychological distance, that is to say, “landscape.” When one has journeyed thus far it is only another step to where nature copies art (life imitates art). In other words, it is not that landscape” gives birth to art, but on the contrary, art produces the “landscape” before our eyes. A critical understanding emerges that “landscape” is the natural environment as human beings aesthetically shape and nurture it. This clearly contains the possibility of a political debate that encompasses power and ideology, and when we arrive at this point landscape has become a very contemporary word. I sense that the chief focus of “landscape” today, whether in the East or in the West, can probably be boiled down entirely to this psychological distance and the political agenda that creates the aesthetic environment.I enjoy talking about the word landscape, but when it comes to speaking about my own work as it deals with “landscape,” I run into difficulty. That is because the shape of my work is constantly changing as chance events occur during the course of my life. If I could give my work some general conceptual unity as a whole, I would probably seem to be an outstanding artist, but things do not go that smoothly. To begin with, let me show you a few examples of photographs that I took when I was a student (see fig. 1). I think you will recognize something of an inclination on the compositional side. For example, there is a clear differentiation between figure and ground. The ratio between the frame and the size of the subject is relatively uniform. I remember how fascinated I was at the time that just by taking a photograph, the subject I was trying to capture would transform into something of a puzzle.
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related exhibition

  • Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now
    related exhibition

    Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now

    October 15, 2016–March 12, 2017

    One of the most significant contributions to the art of photography comes from postwar Japan. After World War II, the country began to produce film and camera equipment, supporting a large amateur photography culture and sponsoring native photographers as important artistic producers. This exhibition highlights SFMOMA’s considerable collection of Japanese photography, focusing on generous gifts from our community and the important donation of the Kurenboh Collection, Tokyo. Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now includes photographs from the 1960s, when major figures such as Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama investigated Americanization and industrial growth; the more personal and performative work of Nobuyoshi Araki and Eikoh Hosoe; and photography addressing the present culture and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Organized thematically, the show explores topics such as Japan’s relationship with America, changes in the city and countryside, and the emergence of women, especially Miyako Ishiuchi, Rinko Kawauchi, and Lieko Shiga, as significant contributors to contemporary Japanese photography.

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