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In the late 1950s, after having studied law and while pursuing a masters degree in art history, Ikko Narahara took two series of images that depicted groups of people at the extreme edges of society. One was of a woman’s prison in Wakayama Prefecture and the other a Trappist monastery in Hokkaido. These images have become canonical in the history of Japanese photography, and the donation by the Nikon Corp. of their collection of images by Narahara to the National Museum of Modern Art may mean yet greater recognition of the photographer’s work.

Lovers of black-and-white photography will be drawn to the elegiac and melancholy quality of “Domains,” while Japanophiles and old-school Orientalists will probably assume that they are exercises in contemplative spirituality. However, while they may be studies of silence — voluntary and enforced — they are pregnant with communicative and interrogatory power.

The visual theorist WJT Mitchell provocatively asked once, “what do pictures want?” and the work in “Domains” is a pertinent series of images with which to pursue this question.

They exist not merely as the intersection of Narahara’s gaze and what has been gazed upon. In part, this is because of the strong disconnect between the photographer and the monks and prisoners in the series. There is hardly a face to be seen, and either through shame or discretion, the human subjects of “Domains” are elusive and unidentifiable as individuals. As a result the images themselves have their own domain, outside the control of both the artist and the subject.

The other issue is that, for the most part, one can imagine these images stored away in the dark, unseen until their next exposure through exhibition. Without anthropomorphizing them, the implicit depiction of internalized mental wrangling, and the fact that these communities are posited on stasis, mean that whenever the photographs resurface they seem to question us, rather than the other way round.

That is to say, if we do not merely consign them to points along a timeline of art as valuable artifacts of historical note, but consider them as continuingly relevant today, some nagging problems arise. What do the inside of monasteries and prisons look like now? If they have not changed, why not? How do our current notions of guilt and redemption differ from those of over 50 years ago? If these grainy, black-and-white, out-of-focus images, taken in less than perfect conditions still have power (and they do), where is the drive toward endlessly manipulable color and ultrahigh-definition contemporary digital photography taking us?

Other viewers will have different questions, but that is not the point. There is something besides “testimony,” “documentation” or the pleasure of artful composition to be seen in this work. They want something of us.

“Narahara Ikko: Domains” at the National Museum of Modern Art runs till March 1; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥430, though it will be free to view on Jan. 2, 4, Feb. 1 and March 1. Closed Mon., Dec. 28 — Jan. 1 and Jan. 13 (except Jan. 12). www.momat.go.jp

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