DESPITE A PERVASIVE LACK of familiarity with his work, Takuma Nakahira has long been regarded as an icon of Japanese photography. His legendary role in defining an are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, and out of focus) photography as cofounder of Provoke, the influential Japanese photography magazine synonymous with this style, seemingly outweighed the critical significance of Nakahira’s writings and post-Provoke photography. Fortunately, the contours of his work have been made gradually more clear after a decade of important exhibitions and publications in Japan, paving the way for a deeper appreciation of the scope of Nakahira’s oeuvre worldwide.
At the time of his death at the age of seventy-seven this September, we were just experiencing an invigorating re-encounter with Nakahira’s work. In this year’s groundbreaking exhibitions—“For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography 1968–1979,” curated by Yasufumi Nakamori at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and “Things: Rethinking Japanese Photography and Art in the 1970s,” curated by Rei Masuda at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo—we have discovered firsthand how Nakahira’s work emerged from the expanding horizons of exchange among art, cinema, photography, architecture, and critical discourse in and after 1970. It seems we are somehow better prepared now to grasp the profound concerns driving the perpetual evolution of Nakahira’s thought and practice, including his desire to question what even constitutes photography, and the ways in which photography can be made to contest the workings of power.
Nakahira started out as an editor for a left-wing journal in the mid-’60s, but left this post to help organize a major historical survey of Japanese photography at the invitation of photographer Shōmei Tōmatsu. As he transitioned into being a full-time photographer in the late ’60s, often collaborating with Daidō Moriyama and the poet-playwright Shuji Terayama, Nakahira sought to test photography’s capacity to engage with and incite critical thought. Nakahira’s singular role as a prolific photographer and thinker was forged with his work in publishing Provoke, cofounded with critic Kōji Taki, photographer Yutaka Takanashi, and poet Takahiko Okada.
That his photographs for Provoke were at times are-bure-boke was not simply an attempt to forge a new photographic style. Nakahira’s work should instead be understood as the photochemical residue of his provocations between the camera and the flux of urban materiality—as the remnants of a relentless interrogation of the shifting terrain of power. With his 1970 photobook For a Language to Come, he sought a critical vocabulary to contend with the reactionary violence of capitalist state power that emerged in the wake of the worldwide upheavals of 1968, documenting the molten forces unleashed as Japan’s urban landscape underwent the simultaneous construction and destruction of Cold War–fueled growth. It is a significant—but often ignored—fact that Nakahira would immediately abandon the Provoke look by 1971, for it had already been seamlessly subsumed within the workings of the very image economy that Nakahira vigorously critiqued.
In response, Nakahira’s work underwent a decisive change between 1971 and ’74, as he turned to investigate the flows of things, bodies, and information that inundated the urban experience, in works such as his process-based installation Circulation: Date, Place, Events, for the 1971 Paris Biennale. An outpouring of color photography followed, with images that traversed the sprawling Tokyo metropolitan area and extended to the islands of Okinawa, occupied to this day by the Japanese and US military. These interrogations of Japan’s changing urban and political environments were the basis of both Nakahira’s first collections of trenchant media criticism, Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary?, published in 1973, and his large-scale photography installation Overflow in 1974. Nakahira would produce his most refined thinking on photography in 1977 through a stunning collaboration with photographer Kishin Shinoyama in Duel on Photography. This collection of Nakahira’s writings and Shinoyama’s photographs was published just after Nakahira was tragically stricken with memory loss and aphasia at the age of thirty-nine. While Nakahira ceased writing, he continued to push his photography into uncharted terrain throughout his subsequent photobooks (A New Gaze, 1983, Adieu à X, 1989, and Documentary, 2011) and in recent gallery and museum exhibitions.
Nakahira’s life reveals the traces of a remarkable struggle to pursue the provocative questions disclosed in his writings and photography, questions that afforded a means of perpetually reinventing himself through what he described as the camera’s capacity for “dismantling and regenerating one’s consciousness.” Today, Japanese photography is gaining new international attention, while the country is entering a new phase of urban reconstruction and remilitarization, both of which betray a much larger shift in the workings of the nation-state and capital in the present. Perhaps now, more than ever, we have much to learn from Nakahira and the questions raised through his work.
“For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979” is up through Jan. 10 at Japan Society, New York.
Franz Prichard is an assistant professor in the department of East Asian studies at Princeton University and is currently completing a manuscript on the rapid transformation of Japanese cultural practice in the 1960s and ’70s.