Fire And Water – Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come

How to fill the gap between politics and art? This is both an old and a new problem. . . . . My belief is to accept the contradiction between political matters and the act of creating something, and try to live with the tension between them. This is my personal position, and I would like to operate whilst considering the two things separately – to participate actively in the political struggle, and to take photographs, in a dualistic way.’

                                                                                                                                          Takuma Nakahira, (Afterword to Provoke No. 1)

                 The short-lived, legendary Japanese magazine, Provoke, lasted for only three issues, but had a profound effect upon Japanese photography in the 1970s and 80s. Not the least of the achievements emanating from those connected directly with the magazine was the publication of three photobooks in the early 1970s by the three main Provoke photographers – Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira, and Yutaka Takanashi. They remain not only three of the best Japanese photobooks ever published, but three of the best photobooks ever published anywhere. Inevitably, the first editions have become highly sought after by collectors, and consequently beyond the reach of most pockets. But now all three have been republished, and hopefully will remain in print, just like the classics of written literature.

                In order of publication, the three books are Takuma Nakahira’s Kitanubeki Kotoba no Tamenu (For a Language to Come) (1970), Daido Moriyama’s Sashin yo Sayonara (Bye Bye Photography) (1972), and Yutaka Takanashi’s  Toshi-e (Towards the City) (1974). The best-known, partly because he is the best-known name in the West, is Moriyama’s Bye Bye Photography, but it is the first book of this trio that I want to consider here, partly because it has been republished in a splendid new edition by Osiris in Tokyo, and partly because, of the trio, it is probably my personal favorite – although by the smallest of margins.

                Similar concerns to Bye Bye Photography are shared by For a Language To Come. Like By Bye, Nakahira’s masterpiece is an abstruse work. Language is at once more lyrical in tone than Bye Bye, yet at the same time more political in intent. Nakahira was both Provoke’s political commissar and the magazine’s primary theorist. Indeed, he was a prolific essay writer and critic from the 60s onwards.

                And it was this dual role which both seemed to trouble and stimulate Nakahira, generating a dichotomy, at least in his mind, between the aesthetic and political goals of his work. Form seemed to fight, and hamper content. For him, the aesthetic never seemed to catch up with the political message. The means of expression always seemed to hinder what he was trying to say in all its full complexity. While good politics produced bad art, good art would result in bad politics.

                One of the most fascinating things about this reissue of For a Language To Come is that Yoko Sawada of Osiris, Nakahira’s publisher and photographic agent, commissioned English translations of three of his essays of the time, which reveal both his aims and his dilemma. These include Nakahira’s text to the first edition of  Language, an essay entitled  Fūkei (Landscape), which had first appeared in the magazine, Gratification, in June 1970, with the longer title, Rebellion Against the Landscape: Fire at the Limits of my Perpetual Gazing. The piece, and indeed all of Nakahira’s essays are heavy going – he had imbibed freely from the fountain of French Structuralism – but remain essential reading, not just in order to understand the work and some of the thinking of the 60s photographic avant-garde in Japan, but the severe dilemma the photographer himself had with regard to his practice.

The essay declares first of all that For a Language to Come is essentially a ‘landscape’ book, but the term ‘Fūkei’, while it meant landscape, had a particular connotation in 1960s Japanese photography and film, in much the same way that the term ‘Social Landscape’ had a specific meaning in 60s American photography, when America’s young guns, like Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, were referred to as ‘photographers of the social landscape’. However, in the Japanese and American photography of the period, the meanings each culture ascribed to the terms were quite different.

‘Social Landscape’ in American photography certainly referred to the urban and suburban landscape, the constructed or non-natural landscape. So does ‘Fūkei’ in Japanese photography. But in the States, there was an aesthetic connotation to the term, and in Japan a much more political one. The ‘landscape’ that the American social landscape photographers were exploring, with their interest in the so-called ‘snapshot mode’, could also be construed as the landscape of photography. Indeed, at the time, this was seen as more important than the actual landscape, which was regarded as simply the motif for aesthetic invention. In Japan, the socio-political context was paramount. ‘Landscape’ was a largely derogatory term, referring to the massive, and rapid changes in the Japanese urban landscape, especially in Tokyo. The city, as a result of both post-War reconstruction and the economic boom, came to like much more like an international, that is to say, an American metropolis – a subject for disapprobation. So the idea of ‘rebellion against the landscape’ denotes not just the widespread Japanese protests of the time against ‘Americanization’, but ultimately, a call for revolution.

                Nakahira was also consumed in his writings by the difference between image and language. Language’s meaning is precise and complex, whereas an image can only evoke language. He was also somewhat contemptuous of many photographers’ desire to ‘express’ themselves in photography – going so far as to state that, despite their much vaunted claims to be objective, photojournalists also cultivated the false god of expressiveness, by, for example, regurgitating vague anti-war clichés in their work that served rather than critiqued the aims of the industrial-military complex.               

                In the third essay, Looking at the City or, the Look from the City, Nakahira posits his ideal photographer, not quite anonymous, but willing to surrender himself to the direction of the camera and the subject, as it were, and make photographs that are apparently as transparent as they can be. This ideal, for Nakahira, was Eugène Atget, although it is perhaps ironic that when he held him up as the epitome of non-style, at almost exactly the same time John Szarkowski, nearly 7,000 miles away in New York, was proposing a heavily formalist reading of the Frenchman’s work, lauding him as a kind of Cézanne of modern art photography, the progenitor of the ‘straight’ aesthetic in modernist photography. These were almost diametrically opposed views, the artist versus the ‘photographer of the masses’, as Nakahira put it. Unlike Szarkowski, he argued that, far from being a self-conscious artist, Atget’s greatness lay in his artlessness, in how he blocked, or denied his ego in the picture-making process, thus making it free of any aesthetic pre-conception:

                Because he lacked any a priori images, Atget laid bare the world as the world. But for us, who already fully ‘know’ the world, can we still nakedly manifest reality like this or not? If we suppose it is possible, then there is no other way than to start out by first discarding one’s self?’

                That is to say, by discarding the artistic ego. The self-conscious aestheticising of art photography, then, was inherently subjective, conservative, blinkered, and on the side of privilege:

                Photography ‘as art’ will be placed in the hands of the privileged few. And at the same time, this sort of art-photography will become increasingly divorced from reality and history, and in proportion, acquire an increasingly ‘sacred’ character. However, these few will not be able to obtain the potentiality that photography has by its very nature, to expand our perceptions, and to lay the world bare. . . . .’ 

                He was equally hard on himself. The grain-and-blur offhandedness of the Provoke style was an attempt to get close to Atget, to produce a kind of automatic photography, drained of individual expression. But for many the Provoke ‘aesthetic’ was quite the opposite. It was a naturally expressive style, and furthermore, one redolent of the frenetic pace of contemporary Japanese metropolitan – that is, Tokyo life. Nakahira was chagrined when grain-and-blur became synonymous with the Provoke ‘style’, the house-style, even, of 70s Japanese photography as a whole. He was even more dismayed when Provoke’s radical, iconoclastic, politically charged ‘language’ was happily adopted by Tokyo’s advertising agencies and pressed into the service of the enemy – consumer capitalism.

                Clearly, in these stringently self-critical terms, Nakahira felt he had failed. He had not made an objective exposé of Japanese society, nor had he created a new ‘language’ to challenge the spoken word. He became depressed after the publication of For a Language to Come, and issues with prescription medicines and alcohol abuse hardly helped him to view matters in a calm and objective light, and, ‘probably around 1973’, according to Yoko Sawada, he burned his most of his negatives and prints.

                And yet his achievement with Provoke and in For a Language to Come was considerable and long lasting. Language is one of the greatest of photobooks, and the use of the word ‘language’ in the title is entirely apposite. He has made a major contribution to what is now regarded as a ‘literary’ genre, and one that talks a particular language, the language, not so much of the photograph, but of the photobook. And importantly, if we regard it as a ‘language’, it is a universal language. I can’t read Nakahira’s essays in the original Japanese, but I certainly can ‘read’ his photobooks. I may miss some of the personal, or more nuanced Japanese references, yet the book speaks to me, and moves me at a certain level. And I would contend that this level is a not a superficial one. As with most photobooks, the universality of the ‘language of images’ is more important arguably than the specificity of the volume’s strictly local meaning. For a Language to Come talks about Tokyo and Japan, but it also talks much more widely about the modern urban experience.

                Language also derives from, and marks a zeitgeist, a set of cultural conditions with worldwide significance at the time – containing their local particulars, certainly – but with implications across the globe. The issues of that period included rapid modernization, especially in terms of consumerism and communications technology, a fear of nuclear annihilation, and a – diminishing but still persistent – collective hangover from the War.

                In Nakahira’s imagery, all this is couched in terms that are difficult to comprehend visually, never mind to describe in words. For a Language to Come is essentially about the night – the dark night of the soul, one might say. It describes a largely nocturnal journey, or perhaps a dream. The narrative is not quite as fragmented as Moriyama’s would be two years later in Bye Bye Photography, but it remains determinedly elliptical. Like Bye Bye, like many photobooks, Language is a mood piece, all dark accents with flashes of dazzling light, but to say that is not to denigrate it, merely to emphasize its somewhat abstract, abstruse nature, despite its lurking, nagging political undertone.

                The frenetic pace of the book (again, not quite as frenetic as that of Bye Bye), lends it both the forward motion, and the delicious unease of a film noir. It is clearly cinematic in both tone and structure, and yet it is not so much film that I think of when perusing the book, but music. What kind of music, however? Music of course is such a personal thing – some may hear the ragged anarchy of Punk Rock, others the spiky lines of a Bartok string quartet. For me, it is the even more anarchic sound of free jazz and someone like Ornette Coleman. The jumpy, stop-and-start feeling of Coleman for me echoes the leaps between each image in Nakahira’s sequence. They are by no means straightforward.

                We begin, inevitably, with the metropolis, generally at night, or, if during the day, a gloomy, brooding city. Nakahira never worried about slow shutters speeds, nor using the camera lens wide open, so there is a lot of blur and camera shake, all the technical ‘faults’ we associate with the Provoke aesthetic. It is not easy sometimes to make out exactly what we are looking at, but bars, night clubs, and the Tokyo metro figure in the iconography, which is dominated, above all, by the bright lights of the city – the neon jungle. These lights, frequently whited out by lens flare, are symptomatic of the modern Tokyo, and the post-War Japanese consumerist boom, about which so many Japanese were ambivalent.

                They were ambivalent because the ‘economic miracle’ was accompanied by Westernisation and the all pervading influence of the United States – the country that many Japanese saw as not only defeating them, but humiliating them.

                The repeated flare gives the buildings, indeed the whole city, the appearance of being on fire, and one might suppose that, in doing this, Nakahira, like some Japanese photographers of the late 1960s and early ’70s, was referencing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his work. Near the beginning of Language is an image of a airplane flying low over the sea. Whilst he was careful not to encourage readings of his pictures that were too specific, the ominous quality of the picture might reflect this, or his general concern as a left-wing activist over America’s activities in the region, especially in Vietnam. The widespread protests around the time against the building of Tokyo’s Narita Airport were partly because it was thought the airport would be used by the American military as a staging post for Vietnam.

                On a more personal note, one of Nakahira’s most vivid memories as a child was the fire bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, an action that killed over 100,000, and which many Japanese remember with as much anger as the atomic bombings. Yoko Sawada recounts that, upon looking at this picture, Nakahira would say: ‘This is a B29. This taught me the meaning of fear.’A non-literal, metaphorical reference that indicated the depth of his left-wing opposition to Uncle Sam, but one dredged from deep within.

                There is a manic energy in the rhythms of the book, but it is not accompanied, unlike Bye Bye Photography, by a corresponding sense of exhilaration, and this makes For a Language to Come much darker in a psychological sense. The angst of Bye Bye is redeemed by its delirium; there seems little redemption in Language, except perhaps for the fact that the fire is accompanied by water. Throughout, the burned out images of city lights are punctuated by images of water, generally the sea. The first is that B29, but other water images interrupt, or change the narrative flow, and the book ends with five photographs of the sea.

                Some kind of redemption my be intended here. Nakahira, as an intellectual, probably knew the story of Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas, which ends with the Gods’ home, Valhalla, being destroyed by fire. As the final opera, Götterdämmerung, ends, the waters of the Rhine rise and cover what is in effect the ruins of civilization, the corrupted remnants of so-called culture. From the water, new life and culture will gradually emerge, and the destruction and corruption will be renewed and redeemed, as the Japanese economy was renewed following the destruction of the War.

                And yet, given Nakahira’s anti-American stance, that might be an unlikely reading (He once offered his services as a freedom fighter to Fidel Castro, an offer that was politely declined). These sea pictures are amongst the unloveliest, but most compelling photographs of the sea ever made – dark, brooding, water washing against coastal roads or over concrete foreshores. So although nature may be reclaiming culture here, the pictures’ tone says that might be merely forlorn hope than realistic expectation.

                Just before the sea pictures comes a diptych of images that I feel represents the book’s climax – a pair of almost identical images showing tyre tracks in sand leading towards several mysterious structures (concrete bunkers perhaps?), above which there seems to be a firework display. The ‘fireworks’ seem to be the result of manipulation of the negative, but it doesn’t mater. They are strange, terrible, powerful images, with an unequivocal meaning – conflagration.

                The fire will engulf the entire surface of the city. There, people will run amok. Fire and darkness. Barefoot people running around recklessly. In ancient times, people must have scrambled around in the midst of fire and darkness barefoot. It’s an old fashioned image but when I envision rebellion, this is the scene I always imagine.’

                From Nakahira’s point of view, therefore, For a Language to Come is clearly a work about rebellion. He was completely involved in the issues that produced the great Japanese protest books of the 1960s and early 70s, books by such photographers as Shomei Tomatsu, Kazuo Kitai, Toshiayaki Kanayama, and Tadeo Mifome. Nakhira, like the other Provoke photographers, was somewhat ‘anti-Tomatsu’ in his outlook. Indeed, in some ways Provoke was a reaction against the aesthetic of Tomatsu, although it must be said that for outsiders it can sometimes seem difficult to tell them all apart. Like Tomatsu, Nakahira attended the Shinjuku Antiwar Day riots of October 1968. Like Tomatsu, he was particularly incensed at the continuation of the huge American military base at Yokohama. Yet unlike Tomatsu, he never made work directly documenting these issues, nor recorded the protests themselves, but made his protest in his own highly individualistic way.

He may have regretted doing it in this particular manner. Clearly, the destruction of his negatives and prints reflected his unease. Indeed, this may be said to be the most prominent case of too much theory stifling a photographer’s practice. Nevertheless, Language remains a cornerstone of expressive Japanese photography, the Provoke era, and inventive photobookmaking. In its abstruse, highly elliptical way, it can also be regarded as one of the most idiosyncratic of Japanese protest books.

Ultimately, Nakahira’s pessimism wins out in this superb book, a masterpiece not only of Japanese photo-culture, but of photographic literature generally. Its worldwide reputation is entirely fitting, for Nakahira was concerned that For a Language to Come should be understood not only in Japanese, but in universal terms.