How Takuma Nakahira’s “Circulation” Breathed Life into Photography

During the 1971 Paris Biennale, Nakahira photographed, printed, and exhibited his daily images of the city—creating a landmark photo-installation that pushed the bounds of a “living” work.

Takuma Nakahira, Untitled, 1971, from the series Circulation: Date, Place, Events

“Now, as a result of this project, I can feel that the things that I say and the things that I do are beginning to agree with one another for the first time.”
—Takuma Nakahira, Asahi Camera, February 1972

On the afternoon of September 28, 1971, when Japanese critic and photographer Takuma Nakahira set foot (several days late) in the seventh Paris Biennale, he felt nothing so much as “hollowness” and “despair.” Reporting these sensations for the Japanese weekly Asahi Journal that December, Nakahira explained his dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary art and, indeed, with his own activities as a creator and commentator on art. The laudable artworks on view mostly attacked a social system from which their makers pretended to keep some distance; Nakahira observed that, in fact, this art could only be the very face of such a system, which created a sort of play area for artists to vent futile opposition to the forces of capital flow and authoritarian control. Those forces had a vested interest in shoring up authorial ego when, in fact, it was the art goods and their exchange value that really mattered: individuality was a commodity construct. Yet his own contribution to the Paris Biennale, which he described at length for Asahi Journal and again for the photography magazine Asahi Camera the following February, allowed him guarded hope that art and art criticism could still have a purpose in the world. What was it about Circulation: Date, Place, Events, Nakahira’s piece for the 1971 Biennale, that gave grounds for optimism?

As Franz Prichard recounts elsewhere in this issue, Takuma Nakahira, who got his start in photography and criticism only around 1965, had by the end of that decade already become one of the most influential figures in contemporary culture in Japan. Nakahira’s incisive writing cut apart standing views in literature, film, politics, and especially photography, and he published both articles and photographs at a feverish rate. He wanted a relation between these two activities that could come closer than complementarity—a joint force of action, perhaps. The intended effect of that joint action might be “illumination,” to quote a word favored by prewar German critic and theorist Walter Benjamin, whose essays were first anthologized in English as well as in Japanese in the late 1960s: searing, flashbulb-like insights afforded by a photograph or fragmentary phrases. Provoke: Provocative Materials for Thought—the short-lived photography journal that Nakahira helped to found, which blazed its trail across the Tokyo cultural scene in those years—took its name from such intertwined desires. Writing and photography should illuminate the world, explosively, and they should set each other ablaze as well. Nakahira’s epochal photobook, For a Language to Come (1970), pushed even more insistently at an overhaul of word– image relations. Yet Nakahira remained dissatisfied and, worse, fatigued by his efforts to develop a productive analysis of contemporary culture.

“Has Photography Been Able to Provoke Language?” Nakahira asked in March 1970, around eight months before his book appeared. “Only through human use can a language be given life,” he asserted, for without a subjective viewpoint, language exists as mere symbols and generalities. But to shake a language awake, to deploy it, is also to risk damaging one’s psyche: “This kind of ‘exploding language’ is a language that has been fiercely lived here and now by a single person.” Just such “fiercely lived” insights were what Nakahira sought to produce and circulate, operating calculatedly on the verge of madness. (Prichard has translated that essay and others in the recent reprint of For a Language to Come, as well as in Circulation: Date, Place, Events; issued by the Tokyo house Osiris, both books also have keenly written afterwords by cultural critic Akihito Yasumi.)

In the view of many who have encountered it then or since, For a Language to Come eminently fulfilled Nakahira’s hope for pictures that would give concrete meaning to words while threatening language overall as a system of convention and control. The word tree is general, but a photograph of any tree will be specific, Nakahira argued, with catlike stealth, before pouncing on the surprise conclusion: that close comparison of a single tree in image and word “causes the concept and meaning of tree to disintegrate.” How? Through sentences that leap and dart, and pictures that careen between heavy grays and blinding whites; through sequences of haunting images that overtake the reader, as if the setting for Nakahira’s photographs— the city of Tokyo—were a mental space in which one staggered from desire to trauma, a solitary ego shattered by passion and rage.

Takumi Nakahira, from For a Language to Come (Tokyo: Fudosha, 1970)

The effort of making For a Language to Come left Nakahira spent and temporarily uninterested in further photographic projects. One year later, the commissioner for Japanese entries in the Paris Biennale, fellow Provoke veteran Takahiko Okada, convinced him to travel there only after much debate, “at least to do some sightseeing,” as Nakahira disarmingly recalled upon his return. Yet the very fact of Nakahira’s repeated and extensive commentary on his Paris piece suggests the sense of renewal it brought him. Circulation was not only the title of this piece but also its ambition and modus operandi. More literally than did For a Language to Come, the fleeting work raced with an illuminating flash of brilliance through the early 1970s art scene.

Circulation was, in essence, a performance piece in which photographs were the engine of the performance rather than a record of it. This quality is the greatest guarantor of the work’s uniqueness in photographic terms, but there are other reasons to reassess its meanings today. (New prints from the original negatives were shown in New York in 2012 and feature currently in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.) Rather than send existing pictures to Paris, Nakahira wished to create something “live” during the run of the exhibition. He would hang only pictures taken and printed that very day, making a photo-diary of his Parisian experiences that would cover his Biennale wall in stages. By circulation Nakahira meant his own movements around Paris, the movement of his pictures from darkroom to display, and the perambulation past his evolving piece by visitors to the Biennale, whom Nakahira photographed for this installation as well.

The prints themselves would be “mere remnants” of these circulatory patterns. Nakahira’s description of his procedure, from the February 1972 article in Asahi Camera, suggests a determined resistance to fixity: “To put it concretely, I set myself to photograph, develop, and exhibit nothing but the Paris that I was living and experiencing. My project … was born from this motivation. Every day I would go out into the streets of Paris from my hotel. I would watch television, read newspapers and magazines, watch the people passing by, look at other artists’ works at the Biennale venue, and watch the people there looking at these works. I would capture all of these things on film, develop them the same day, make enlargements, and put them up for display that evening, often with the photographic prints still wet from the washing process.”

Curator Yuri Mitsuda points out, in an essay for the Houston exhibition catalog, that Nakahira was evidently attracted to the wet Parisian streets, for he included many images of them in Circulation, both at the Biennale and in a special section in the January 1972 issue of the Tokyo magazine Design, which stands as the one visual record of the Paris work made at the time. Mitsuda nicely analogizes the washing of city streets with Nakahira’s marathon darkroom sessions to make Circulation, for which he printed, by his own account, some two hundred images each day for a week: the photographer must have spent hours with his hands in chemical baths or running water over his prints to clean them. To focus on wetness is also a way to suggest flow—the process rather than the product. As another hint at Nakahira’s preferences, the few surviving prints are yellow, faded, or blotchy, and one can see that, paradoxically, not enough liquid was on hand to make them; the developer was probably heavily reused, losing its strength, and other sources report that the darkroom apparatus consisted of a bathroom sink and an ordinary wash bucket.

Of course, the Biennale display space became a bigger, brighter, and populated extension of the artist’s cramped and makeshift quarters. This was one of the radical moves Nakahira made with Circulation: evoking at exhibition not an artist’s studio but a photographer’s normally closed and lightproof darkroom, turning that monastic space into a carnival atmosphere. The rows of drying prints that ordinarily hang on a darkroom clothesline, or lie in trays, were here spread out as if at a yard sale, covering the wall and spilling onto other surfaces as Nakahira outgrew his allotted area. This method could also be likened to making public the draft of an essay, showing sheets of jottings for all to read. A quick glance over the shoulder of a Biennale visitor confirms that Nakahira had an eye for written and printed words: “Viva La Muerte!” (Long live death!), “Explosion,” and excerpts from a street poster punctuate the whirl of faces, friends, and street scenes. The first entries for October 12, 1971, meanwhile, include a photograph of the word Paris glued directly after the artist’s handwritten spelling of the city name, inviting a comparison between manual and photographic representations of language; a photograph of a cartoon page below it continues this theme. Here was the visual equivalent for the harmony of critical thought between taking photographs and writing essays that Nakahira would emphasize in explaining the work.

Other stretches of the installation show series of closely related views, like contact sheets turned into exhibition displays. The first step in printing, especially in the news-photographer paradigm that dominated the twentieth century, was contact-printing a roll of film negatives on a sheet of proofing paper to determine which “shots” had the most promise, before enlarging them into final prints. Nakahira did not make contact sheets but instead put that procedure on view, printing up runs of negatives just as they appeared on the film roll. Among these sequential groupings are a street scene with a car and more spilt liquid, and another with a VeloSolex moped rider maneuvering through traffic, both of which look a bit like stop-action cinema. Another sequence shows screenshots from television, intercut with a single photograph of the word hyperreal. There was something hyperreal in this steady accumulation of repetitive and overlapping images, each flowing into the next, doubling back, overlapping, then gushing onward as if from a faucet left running.

There was one precedent for Nakahira’s work in the realm of photography— William Klein—but that precedent gains full meaning only in Nakahira’s highly perceptive and unusual reading of Klein’s work. The “look” of Klein’s photographs— grainy, up close, heated yet acerbic—has been taken by critics since the 1960s as a touchstone for the photographs in Provoke. In a terrifically cogent review from 1967, however, Nakahira argued that it was not really the look but the method that mattered. Graininess and wide-angle lenses did not automatically signify urban anomie; there was no one-to-one correspondence in photographs between appearance and meaning, no key to decoding, indeed no code. What mattered was that Klein had brought forth a particular process of taking photographs in the contemporary city. Viewing it as a dreamscape, even a nightmare, Klein had placed himself in the middle of that mental geography, exposing himself to multiple and colliding vantages with no set idea of his expressive voice. In short, he let his creative identity drift while keeping his critical faculties intact. Nakahira took that approach for a model, as Yasumi points out, and he put into practice his reading of Klein as an authorial cipher passing lucidly yet violently through an unfixed landscape: “The world is not a static, completed universe but rather something which flows and changes its appearance, transforming like a nebula with a movement in viewpoint.”

The trouble was what to do with the photographs, which for all the talk of ceaseless motion would end up having a static form. Photography is hard to think of as a performance medium. Also in the late 1960s, Truman Capote recalled in a breathless sentence seeing Henri Cartier-Bresson at work two decades earlier, “dancing along the pavement like an agitated dragonfly, three Leicas swinging from straps around his neck, a fourth one hugged to his eye: click-click-click (the camera seems a part of his own body) clicking away with joyous intensity.” This comparison, though beautiful in itself, encapsulates all that Nakahira opposed. In the Vietnam era, dead or dying bodies were shown daily in the news media to no apparent effect, and nothing could seem more suspect than a photojournalist sashaying his way through carnage with cameras as breastplates.

Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by Takuma Nakahira, Untitled, 1971, from the series Circulation: Date, Place, Events
© 1971 Takuma Nakahira and courtesy Osiris, Tokyo, and Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Circulation made the city into an extended space of performance, forsaking the projection of a stable authorial ego for the representation of collective and mercurial states of mind: hilarity, terror, alienation, ooze, hyperreality. These changing and changeable pictures came from the city and went back into it, albeit via a public exhibition space. The camera that took them was run through the streets as on a great dérive, a “drifting,” as French philosopher Guy Debord phrased it in his classic book of the era, Society of the Spectacle (another one of his terms, psychogeography, is equally relevant). The perishability of the prints in Circulation marks a singular attempt to analyze reality through its traces without memorializing it. Apparently aimless, this daily circulation in fact summed up the city and the moment in a way that no fixing of photographs in a book or in frames could possibly have done.

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 219, “Tokyo,” under the title “Nakahira’s Circulation.”