Joel Pulliam on Ikko Narahara

Ikko Narahara – Where Time has Vanished by Joel Pulliam

It has been on my mind for a while to write about something that I am provisionally calling “New Orientalism.” It is the phenomenon of highly regarded photographers dropping into Tokyo for a few weeks or months, taking pictures, and then publishing a book. I can’t think of any other city that, in this decade, is treated this way. But I’m also aware that the lure of the exotic runs both ways, and it is not uncommon for Japanese photographers to visit the United States and come back with a book of photos of that exotic country. A classic book that would seem to fit this pattern, but does not, is Where Time Has Vanished by Ikko Narahara, published originally in 1975, and then again as a revised version in 1997 with additional photos. I found my copy of the first edition in a second-hand book shop in Tokyo that specializes in old comics. They must not have been aware that, online, used copies can sell for around 500 euros; mine cost less than a tenth of that. It is a large book, about 33 centimeters square and weighing nearly four kilograms with the slipcase. The paper is of the highest quality, and, nearly fifty years later, shows very little signs of aging. 

Ikko is one of two Japanese photographers to be generally known on a first name basis (indeed, his first name is blazoned across the cover of the book), and by many Japanese photographers he is more highly regarded than Daido. His 1956 debut exhibition, Human Land, is among the most important in Japanese photo history. Along with Kikuji Kawada, Eikoh Hosoe, Shomei Tomatsu, and others, he founded the VIVO collective in 1959. In the 1970s, he was at the height of his powers and living in the United States. He had had some nine one-man exhibitions in Japan, published five books, and won numerous major awards, including Photographer of the Year from the Japan Photo Critics Association.

Many of the photos in this book were taken while Ikko was driving from the East coast of America to the West in 1972, camping along the way. (A few others, taken while in New York, provide a lighter touch and some breathing room.) Despite the classic road trip, Ikko has only a little to say about America—but quite a lot to say about his own inner world and his relationship to the universe. His photos have a surreal, end-of-the-world quality, a feeling this book shares with Trent Parke’s Monument. (Kikuji Kawada’s Los Caprichos also come to mind.) Humans are largely absent, but when they appear, they are often ethereal: a girl peering out of a camper window, the reflected ghost of a bus driver on the Wyoming plains. Almost everywhere, the skies are dark and menacing. 



Ikko was a boy during World War II. Though this is not a book of social criticism, when looking at his image of lightning strikes over White Sands, one cannot help but thinking of America’s testing of the nuclear bomb. A balloon being launched at Cape Kennedy, Florida, closely resembles the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki. In the long essay which closes the book, Ikko meditates on his childhood, World War II, American Indians, the communication of trees, hippies, the Apollo mission, and much else. 



It is often noted that in 1970, Ikko took a class with Diane Arbus. I have a hard time feeling any of her influence in this book. Both photographers share a psychological intensity, but by this time, Ikko seemed uninterested in portraiture or humanity, instead searching out the mythic. “While we were driving across there flat Arizona desert, we felt as though we had been thrown out from the earth and thrust into another planet…. The landscape surrounding us there in the desert was ancient, but to be so informed of the age of something in geological terms is somewhat meaningless. For when one personally experiences the image, it is something altogether different and new as though it were just born. And so it was for us.” 

To capture the sensation, Ikko uses flash, filters, wide lenses, and slow shutter speed. While the photos are often grainy, the careful compositions bear little resemblance to the snapshot aesthetic that is often associated with Japanese photographers of the era. The tinge of surrealism, and indeed, the pacing of the book, remind me more of Koudelka’s Exiles, though these are frequently colder, harder photos. 



Then, after exactly 100 black and white images, the book suddenly ends with a singular color photograph, of the Apollo 17 launch in Florida. About seeing that launch, Ikko concludes: “on that historic occasion, I had a feeling about myself, that all my life and my effort heretofore had brought me to this point where my personal world and the world of the universe met and joined hands.” 


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