For a Language to Come: Takuma Nakahira’s Photographs for the 1971 Paris Biennial
We live in a world of unedited images. Pictures are present in our most private chambers and on the most public social-media platforms. Photography is without question the lingua franca of our time, even if the nature and ubiquity of photographs have been marked by a turn toward digital means of capturing and storing images. The poet, critic, activist, and photographer Takuma Nakahira has been deeply invested in photography’s ability to expand a new language of ideas, and provided much of the discursive foundation for ideas in photography in Japan in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Japan’s most influential image makers were questioning and expanding the possibilities of the medium. While Nakahira’s pictures of the sixties and seventies speak a different dialect than many images made today, his investigation into the continuous capture of everyday moments foreshadowed how we understand picture-making today.
In 1968 Nakahira co-founded Provoke, the short-lived but influential photography journal that revolutionized photography in Japan. Nakahira, who had been mentored by the master Shōmei Tōmatsu, deviated from the reigning social realism popular in Japan and, with his Provoke colleagues, advocated an expressionistic style known in Japan as are, bure, boke (rough, blurry, and out of focus). Nakahira and his colleagues were interested in the intersection of photography and language—in the first issue of Provoke in November 1968 they declared: “The image itself is not an idea . . . we as photographers must capture with our own eyes fragments of reality that can no longer be grasped through existing language.” This interest was further developed in Nakahira’s first book, For a Language to Come, published in 1970 and a landmark publication of postwar Japanese photography.
Nakahira’s career as a photographer is fractured and somewhat difficult to assess, as most of his negatives and prints have been destroyed. His controversial project for the 7th Paris Biennale in 1971 is among his best work, and, luckily, a large portion of it still exists today. This piece consists of more than 1,500 photographs, which he shot, developed, and then exhibited without omission over the course of seven consecutive days. These gritty chiaroscuro pictures offer glimpses of his daily wanderings around Paris, including strangers passing on the street, displays in shop windows, close-ups of movie posters and signs, Metro platforms, and his own breakfasts. As the walls of the exhibition space became filled with photographs, the artist began to spread prints onto the floor. Unfortunately, a disagreement with the exhibition organizers forced Nakahira to cut short his project, and a few years later he destroyed most of his earlier negatives and prints. For unknown reasons, most of the negatives from the 1971 Paris Biennial project were preserved. The gelatin silver prints available today were printed in 2013 in Tokyo, overseen by master printer and photographer Osamu Kanemura, from the original 35mm black-and-white negatives. MoMA recently acquired a selection of new prints, which evoke the spirit of the 1971 biennial exhibition—they are reproduced here.
Nakahira‘s project for the biennial reveled in chaos—he presented a world of unedited images, in which the accumulation of images was perhaps more important than any single picture. Viewers found themselves stepping into his world, and within the cacophony of the installation, they caught glimpses of its maker’s quotidian rituals. While certainly Nakahira’s project is a far cry from today’s obsessive documentation of minutia on social media, his unedited approach to image making and his investment in questioning the role of photography were signals of things to come.