Preliminary Analysis of Nakahira Takuma For a Language to Come (Kitarubeki Kotoba no Tameni)
There are several things that I love about Nakahira’s book. The idea that he does not make formal considerations such as vertical vs. horizontal page layout a huge deal. He switched to verticality with horizontal imagery seldomly, and it is not random, but it suggests that he was flexible. The full bleed of the work also lends to the atmosphere, which is nearly claustrophobic in the book. The way he shoots walls and gates interests me as well, but mainly for the pure photography of it. In some ways, the way he gets close in but shoots at a slight angle to ban glare and luminosity is unique. The camera’s point of view reminds me of how Gossage shots on occasion, but the significance of pointing toward luminous reflection is almost unique for the time. Though many details are blown out, he also dips into the world of William Klein on occasion and gets close to people. I would very much suggest that he was aware of Klein’s work. However, I often think of that as an overplayed Western comparison of how Japanese photographers got to the high contrast and grainy motivations that they employed.
There are other things that I love about the work. I will outline some of it below. Please note that this is only a tiny amount of the book that chose to illustrate this article.
A couple of sidenotes.
First and foremost, you can find Nakahira here
Second, here is the Aperture article
At the end of the article is one of three Nakahira texts translated for your convenience by Franz Prichard. I have the other two texts, so feel free to message me if you want them.
Finally, I was under the impression that a lot was written on the book. To my surprise, at least from scouring the Internet, there is not as much as I had hoped. The best texts are from the Aperture Tokyo Issue from the Summer of 2015. Then there is the tired Parr & Badger critique, which defers, as most of their writings do, to a very loose interpretation of the work with lots of loose conjecture, the same broad brush they paint everything with for the period about yada yada post-war condition without much extra nuance. I do beat up on them a bit. I think their work was important, but as with all surveys from theirs to Manfred Heiting’s, it’s not a deep analysis of any specific book. I also think it’s good to keep questioning the breadth of the criticism. I have placed their words here, and some others penned when applicable. Much of the writing on the book is probably in Japanese. Then on top of that, fragments from the book found in other Asahi Camera spreads, etc., make for the ultimate dissertation of the work beyond my own experience and ability, not unlike Parr & Badger in fairness.
“Through his photographs and writings, Takuma Nakahira was both the chief polemicist for the Provoke group and its political conscience. Along with Moriyama’s Sashin yo Sayonara (Bye Bye Photography), his book Kitarubeki Kotoba no Tameni (For a language to come) marks the apogee of the Provoke period. It exhibits all the characteristics of the Provoke style – an unabashed reveling in “bad” photographic technique, the mannerisms of the New York School pushed to the edge of coherence.
These qualities would tend to make the casual reader bracket it with Moriyama’s masterpiece, yet a closer look at Nakahira’s book reveals that Nakahira’s sensibility is quite different. Although the more political of the two, Nakahira did not photograph “political” subjects directly but utilized a troubled lyricism to express his disaffection with the colonization of Japan by American consumerism. Whereas Moriyama is jumpy and frenetic in tone, Nakahira displays a brooding calm. For a language to come closes with several shots of the sea, and the book’s narrative is punctured at intervals with marine images. Far from suggesting boundless space, this is a dark, bleak, and menacing sea, with the consistency of soup, a metaphor for claustrophobia and a narrowing of horizons.
The other overwhelming metaphor in the book is fire, an apocalyptic, post-Hiroshima conflagration, often expressed indirectly in Nakahira’s night pictures with swathes of burned-out lens flare. These “natural” metaphors – water and fire – remind us that this is essentially a “landscape” book, though a landscape of the mind. The two, however, are inextricably related (…). These are sad, beautiful pictures of half-light – and half-life. They are quintessential Provoke images, and stand for much postwar Japanese photography prior to the 1980s.”
Martin Parr & Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, vol.I
What is in a title is essential as it relates to the flow of a relative idea to be understood according to the single interpretation of each end user. As a title, For a Language to Come suggests cohesion, an agreement born from present chaos that cannot be attained but must be sought during an interim waiting period. It reflects a desire or an apprehension depending on how you read the title.
Though I believe Parr & Badger have barely scraped at the surface of Nakahira’s opus, other academics such as Matthew S Witkowski and the translator of Nakahira’s text have done more to unravel the profound significance of the book and Japanese photography of the era. Much of what the Provoke circle of Japanese photographers was seemingly concerned with was the colossal failure of images and language to convey existence.
This is not new in terms of thinking. Post-structuralism was a philosophical tool at the height of its formation when these images were made. Post-Structuralism suggests that instead of relying on universal truths and the exalted position of an author or thinker, we must deconstruct, destabilize, and relativize our position toward the singular and understand, mete out, and dictate meaning in terms of opposition to the status quo or blank acceptance of the pre-ordained, or indoctrinated views of the world. These are my words; indeed, I am no philosopher, so there are many more layers one can add and, by extension, many more layers one can adjust toward photography.
In short, the thought process regarding Nakahira’s title retains current relevancy as we wade through the post-truth era, and we learn to accept images as almost imaginative products that reflect only a tiny space of understanding, culture, and mutual agreement. One must decide if universal language or understanding is possible for a language to function and whether or not we wish to participate. One thing is clear: photography is not universal enough through its shared symbolic use to drive a universal understanding, let alone a language in its analysis. I see photography as an expression, not a document. However, I understand the audience’s tendency toward interpretation and discussion. Still, I have to forgo agreement in as much as language fails us while trying to adequately disseminate the messages implied within an image or a string of images found in a book.
Nakahira was a vital photographer working during the 60s and 70s. His involvement with Provoke, a short-lived 3 issue magazine, was influential in changing the tempo of photography from socially-aligned reportage (however loose and grainy) toward the ultimate acknowledgment that photography is likely not an incubator for change and it is very messy to be used as a political tool. There is a feeling of cynicism in most of the three issues of Provoke. You can see the sequence of the three magazines becoming fuzzier, less outlined, and messier with a movement toward pure subjectivity and the dropping of implied meaning by the final issue. This period birthed several significant players and coalesced their works under a 3-act play (magazine) in which we find ourselves exploring tragedy. In the end, no answers are provided, and fundamentally, the effort worked extensively to reduce the reliance on the oft-cited but never substantiated language of photography.
Witkowski citing Nakahira’s pivotal role as critic and image-maker, had this to say in Tokyo – Aperture 219 – Summer 2015
“In the view of many who have encountered it then or since, For a Language to Come eminently fulfilled Nakahira’s hope for pictures that would give concrete meaning to words while threatening language overall as a system of convention and control. The word tree is general, but a photograph of any tree will be specific, Nakahira argued, with catlike stealth, before pouncing on the surprise conclusion: that close comparison of a single tree in image and word “causes the concept and meaning of tree to disintegrate.” How? Through sentences that leap and dart, and pictures that careen between heavy grays and blinding whites; through sequences of haunting images that overtake the reader, as if the setting for Nakahira’s photographs— the city of Tokyo—were a mental space in which one staggered from desire to trauma, a solitary ego shattered by passion and rage.”
…In the book, there is something that I can only refer to as a type of phantasmagoric architecture. It is ghostly, ephemeral, and feels incongruent. Something is pulsing about it due in considerable measure to the lighting and the angles and how it abstracts any solidity on the streets of Tokyo. It appears and morphs, then rearranges itself and reappears elsewhere. It creates a condition of luminosity that is neither illuminating nor detailing. It subverts the scenes as much as the darkness of night that surrounds it all. Something is interesting in this liminal territory between complete darkness and complete illumination. It creates uncertainty, a vaporous condition that the viewer has to manage through de-detailing…