A figure stood on Zushi Beach in Kanagawa Prefecture one night in 1973, silhouetted against a fire as he fed piles of prints and negatives — the bulk of his photographic work so far — into the flames.

Okinawa, by Takuma Nakahira.
58 pages

This solitary figure was the late Takuma Nakahira, then at the height of his influence as both a photographer and radical cultural critic, and now revered together with Daido Moriyama as an originator of the are-bure-boke (rough, blurry, out-of-focus) style of black-and-white photography associated with the turbulent urbanization and political activism of late 1960s Japan.

Nakahira’s act on the beach was a vehement disavowal of this highly expressionistic mode that was synonymous with seminal underground magazine Provoke, which he co-founded in 1968. Are-bure-boke is emulated still today, but by the start of the ’70s this progenitor was wholly disillusioned by it.

Photography, the left-leaning and relentlessly questioning Nakahira argued, could only mount a challenge to the status quo once it abandoned artistic aspirations and instead presented “things as they truly are,” devoid of a creative expression that would only end up being co-opted and commoditized by the establishment. The photographer should become, essentially, an impassive “human camera.”

Tragic circumstances saw Nakahira come to embody this notion in a way he could never have anticipated, and his recent, posthumously published photo book “Okinawa” represents the apogee of this singular story.

In 1977, Nakahira fell into a coma as a result of acute alcohol poisoning, coming close to losing his life. Although he regained consciousness, he had lost most of his memory and also been struck by aphasia, a brain disorder that severely affects an individual’s ability to communicate linguistically while leaving their intelligence unharmed.

Nakahira began taking photos again the following year while convalescing in Okinawa. The region had been a key subject for him as U.S. Occupation reverted to mainland rule several years previously, but now it took on a more personal significance: Here the photographer realized anew that he was a father, as he photographed his son on the beach.

Relocated to the family home in Yokohama, where he remained until his death aged 77 in 2015, Nakahira observed a strict routine of setting out at the same time twice each day to repeatedly photograph seemingly mundane scenes he encountered around his riverside neighborhood: napping homeless men, trees, stray cats, vehicles, ducks and, most significantly, a nearby electricity pylon. Unable initially to remember his way home from each peregrination, Nakahira adopted the tower as his navigational aid.

These outings continued for decades, until the last years of Nakahira’s life, as he seemingly attempted to make sense of surroundings that were forever “new” due to his acute memory loss. Critic Minoru Shimizu believes the photographer was also striving to “refill” his memory in order to reconstruct his lost identity of “photographer Takuma Nakahira,” and to affirm his very existence amid a state of consciousness in which things remembered would slip away by the day, even the hour.

“I have returned to being a naive photographer,” is about as much explication of this period as Nakahira gave. But work created on his daily expeditions began to reach the eyes of the Japanese art world in the early years of this millennium via new agent Yoko Sawada, whose efforts helped bring about a major re-evaluation of Nakahira and ended his long absence from public view.

The general consensus was that, having struggled pre-illness to eliminate any trace of expressionism from his work, Nakahira had finally achieved this goal while engaged in a very different battle. This is made explicit by the title of Masashi Kohara’s 2003 documentary film “Kamera ni Natta Otoko” (“The Man Who Became a Camera”).

Nakahira’s post-collapse images take photography back to its essence of being simply a means of using light to record objects. Shot in vivid color, under direct sunlight that heightens contrast, the images intensify the viewer’s attention on the subject, which is largely approached head-on with none of the leading lines or pleasing perspectives of compositional theory. Devoid of perspective, a sense of scale is lost and Nakahira (and viewer too) is in danger of being “swallowed up by pure photography,” Shimizu once wrote in ART iT magazine.

“Okinawa,” containing work that Nakahira shot when revisiting the island between 2009 and 2011, shows that when the photographer’s “human camera” approach meets the intense sunlight of the region, the results are even more vividly luminous than the images he created back home.

The work of the “self-reconstructed” Nakahira is not without detractors. Some have raised the question of authorship, asking whether this can even be acknowledged as the same man who built that ocean-side fire almost 45 years ago.

Sawada, meanwhile, tells me that, despite the photographer’s early work now finding international acclaim as the rest of the world catches on to the Provoke generation, some Western curators in particular dismiss Nakahira’s post-illness images as mere snapshots. In an art world where success increasingly depends upon an ability to articulate concept, the latter-day Nakahira’s enforced incoherence as to his intentions may put his work at a disadvantage.

At the same time, however, it gives his “second act” an intrigue that can never be fully understood: A question mark hangs over Nakahira’s last four decades, there to remain forever.

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