Stuck in the Picture Special Issue ABOUT NAKAHIRA With Jamél Van De Pas

We have a great passion in common, Takuma Nakahira. I would like to address some aspects of his photography, especially in these times, when a certain kind of aesthetics, once linked to tensions and a sense of rebellion, has become in a way, an unwitting stylistic exercise for the mass. Takuma is a photographer who shocked me, underrated and misunderstood in my opinion, with less appeal than figures like Daido Moriyama, but extremely profound and far-sighted, the true soul and essence of Provoke.  If they asked me the classic question, you know “what book of photography would you take to a desert island, just one book” I would answer without thinking” For a language to come.” Now I ask you, how much of the thought behind Takuma Nakahira’s photography has really been understood, beyond mere aesthetics? Takuma was more than a photographer, but there’s not much talk about that…

Well first of all, Takuma Nakahira was extremely well read in the fields of linguistics, Marxist theory and existential philosophy (the Sartrean take on it, at least). In his earlier works, such as For A Language To Come, he mainly focused on the phenomenology of experience. He distrusted the claim of realist photographers that shooting something ‘as it is’ would truly capture something accurately, instead opting that shooting something in a more subjective way could produce results that are more truthful in nature. The “Language” he refers to in the title of his book is that new photographic language, of visual subjectivity being applied in order to create more objective results. An important detail to note was that his desire to create a new visual language came out of the conviction that the traditional visual language (as seen in mainstream media at the time) was part of a capitalist apparatus, contributing to injustice and oppression. In his later works, he attempted to transform the photographer into an entity called ‘the human camera. During this period his goal was to create an illustrated dictionary of objects and scenes around him, going as far as to try and limit his own influence on the result as much as possible. He stated that his previous claims regarding subjectivity were wrong, but still persisted the traditional way of taking pictures had to be opposed. Thus, he went in the opposite direction of his earlier work, but with the same goal in mind. Because of the very nature of photography itself (being a product of the photographer), he obviously failed to take away his own influence on the work. The images that resulted were in fact incredibly moody, subjective and ultimately a perfect postmodernist deconstruction of his environments (the very thing he was trying to avoid.) The main issue for his work being misinterpreted as an extension of ‘protest zines’, or misinterpreted as ‘a result of the atom bomb’ and reduced to aesthetics today, lies fully in the total incompetence of the Western photography bubble. His work was brought over to the West by the exact kind of people he attempted to oppose throughout his career and they turned it into an ‘aesthetic’. That is not to say that a gallery owner wouldn’t be able to be versed in Marxist theory or the notion of deterritorialization, but to attach those labels to his work would surely impact how easily his work can be presented and sold. 

In hindsight, I think Nakahira deserves to be seen as a theorist first, one that explored his ideas through photography in such a revolutionary way that he pushed the boundaries of the medium for every photographer that came after him.  Furthermore, I think it is up to the photographers of the present day to do their own homework, read his essays themselves and further build on what he has laid the groundwork for. Simply building on the aesthetic he laid the groundwork for only contributes to diminishing his legacy as one of the most important minds to ever pick up a camera.

Talking about Takuma Nakahira is not easy, you have to come to terms with contradictions, questioning coherence and satire. Satire? “An illustrated botanical dictionary” is open to multiple interpretations, it could be the essence of his thought, formalized in the purest and most uncompromising way, but at the same time a provocation, a farce staged. How did you perceive it?

For me, “An Illustrated Botanical Dictionary” is perhaps the most important work ever produced by Nakahira, but everything that makes it such a perfect example of what photography can be (in modern terms and in the context of the 70s) is the result of him failing his own mission. In setting out to find a way to eliminate the photographer from the process of photography entirely, he instead managed to silence the conscious mind of the photographer and produced a body of work that takes the viewer on a ‘stream of subconsciousness’-style journey through his environments. The images, especially when combined, are in a way the proof that photography’s potential goes beyond capturing the present and in fact reaches out into the sphere of capturing the present as experienced by a part of our minds that is free from language and associations. The thing that I can’t figure out retrospectively is why Takuma pushed ahead with these results and still attempted to present them as the most ‘free of influence’ kind of photography. Perhaps he was so obsessed with his mission that he did not realize what he had actually discovered. However, having read many of his essays myself as well as the writings that influenced him, a part of me can’t accept that he didn’t realize what he had achieved. A small part of me therefore likes to imagine that he secretly knew what he had done, but was afraid it would be re-appropriated by others in the same way that his Provoke-era work was. And thus, almost ‘satirically’, publishing it as ‘objective photography’. In all honesty I really am afraid that he never realized his achievement, though. You can compare Takuma’s thesis and results to Einstein’s theory of general relativity; in his calculations he predicted black holes, but he himself was persistent that they did not exist.  

Okay, let’s talk about the last Nakahira, it seems like the circle closes with a disarming naturalness. As we know, the last times have been hard for the photographer, his memory has crumbled, there are poignant video testimonies of his regression, of his starting from the beginning to see the world around him with new eyes. In the tragedy, the epilogue really seems the apotheosis of his theory. The human eye gives us Documentary, photos taken near home or in familiar places, usually following the same paths, like a child randomly photographing the world around him. Without memories there is no language. Has the tree become something else again?

It’s a very tragic tale indeed, one in which he eventually succeeded to materialize his ambitions but only through the lingering effects of his alcohol poisoning and subsequent coma. The story hits me especially hard as I’ve been hospitalized with alcohol poisoning myself as well, but I thankfully managed to get through the experience without any lasting consequences. What is essential to point out though is that his problems with speech and memory did not cause him to ‘think more freely, unchained from words’, but that they came as a result from intense trauma that surely impacted his perception of the world as a whole. If anything, his mission to achieve the results he was looking for was only completed when the ‘human’ in the ‘human camera’ was physically and mentally limited. In the same way that he inadvertently showed in “An Illustrated Botanical Dictionary” that the human itself is dominant over the camera (even subconsciously), in his last works he showed that the camera only becomes the master when the human mind is caged.

The most important thing to take away from his life and works is that he sacrificed a lot to show us that as fully unimpaired humans ‘objective photography’ is not a feasible goal, but that we can make gravely impactful work by tapping into the parts of our minds that mostly remain dormant when we shoot with goals. To make the most human work, we have to take in the world as if we are just the camera itself. Then, only by silencing our conscious mind, our subconscious mind is allowed to speak; a paradox in which an attempt at objectivity allows for the most subjectivity. Retrospectively we can conclude that the real ‘human camera’ had already always been Nakahira himself, although he did not realize it before it was too late.

If Takuma Nakahira, with his paradoxes, was a revolutionary, can we say, that Daido Moriyama had a reactionary, or at least conservative approach? 

Most definitely! Moriyama is more concerned with the act of taking pictures rather than the possibilities of photography itself or any philosophical connotations attached to it. Where Nakahira was groundbreaking through is fascination with what photography can be, Daido simply said ‘I take pictures and I like this aesthetic because it’s visually strong and gives me what I need’. Nowadays we tend to treat Daido as an innovator, but although his images are visually incredibly strong he didn’t introduce any new ideas. He mostly popularized instinctive photography and the ‘Provoke aesthetic’, whilst also making it acceptable for photographers to shoot without ideas and still value the images. This is also why he’s more popular: his work is easier to sell (explain) on one hand and easier to mimic on the other hand. In a way Daido’s nonchalance even played in a role in the misinterpretation of Provoke, as many Westerners turned to him for answers about the project.

If it wasn’t for Daido I wouldn’t have had the balls to start photography without knowing what the hell I was doing, thus learning about photography by doing it. Being introduced to photography through Daido is a common thing for many photographers, but it is very dangerous to get stuck in that vision. Even Daido himself couldn’t really built on his own work, so people shouldn’t expect themselves to be able to do it. Embrace Daido’s nonchalance when practicing and finding your own language, but if you want to know what photography can be and contribute to photography, it’s important to pay more attention to people like Nakahira.

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