Takuma Nakahira revolutionized post-war Japanese photography with his dark, expressionistic photographs that captured the uncertainty, exhilaration, and tumult of life in the decades following World War II. As well as a critically acclaimed photographer, Nakahira is a writer, critic, and political activist, whose groundbreaking ideas and essays about visual expression led to the publication of Provoke: Provocative Materials for Thought (first published 1968), a radical, short-lived journal that nevertheless had a profound impact on visual culture in Japan.
Nakahira introduced what became known as the are, bure, boke (rough, blurred, out-of-focus) style of photography, pushing the camera well beyond its previous use as a documentary or propaganda tool. Stark and suggestive, his photographs show fragmented scenes of urban life as he experienced it – imbued with pathos, grit, and potential.

Translated by Franz K. Prichard

I previously wrote the following about image and language: “At one time it was declared that images had an independent meaning in themselves opposed to language, and a ‘language of images’ was spoken about as though it were real. Yet, these notions are surely mistaken.

Images haunt language like a shadow, they line language and give it substance, and in some cases, they bring about the expansion of language.” 1

This overzealous manner of speech may amounts to pretentiousness however; my thinking basically remains unchanged even today. In fact, at the time I wrote that essay, I had just published the coterie magazine Provoke that my four associates and I presumptuously subtitled “Provocative Materials for Thought.” I was overly concerned that the word “thought ” had too much of a political or philosophical resonance and argued that it should be replaced by the more precise phrase “language as thought.”

In nearly two years, have the photographs presented in Provoke been able to revive language in the end? Regrettably, my answer to this question would have to be rather negative. However, first I must clarify precisely what I meant by the language and image I argued should be revived. This question has returned to confront me once again.

What exactly are these hordes of words packed together like sardines and tightly lined up inside dictionaries? While it is clear that this is a language culled and recognized by history as the minimum level of universal symbol s, we cannot naturally accept it as a lived language right off the bat. I don’t know when, but a strange delusion has taken up residence in some corner of my brain that I cannot shake free. I imagine that once the dictionary has been left closed up on my desk, among these carefully arranged, properly straightened-up swarms of printed words which so ordered, afford no deep feeling-each letter and each word assert its own legitimacy one by one, and a massive brawl ensues.

It is then, in these energetically clandestine maneuvers, that the word s regains their innate impact as a language.  But once I reach out for the dictionary, the word s, having perceived me, swiftly return to their ordered state, that is to say, their dead, “constricted” state. Of course, this is clearly a childish demented fantasy.

To the extent that it cannot live without people, language consists of mere symbols that vaguely indicate that a tree is a tree; only through human use can a language be given life. Thus, the words in a dictionary which are extracted from mere relational concepts, are things that transform themselves into what Roland Barthes calls “exploding words,” and “a vertically rising up language.”

Barthes writes, “The bursting upon us of the poetic word then institutes an absolute object; Nature becomes a succession of verticality, of objects, suddenly standing erect, and filled with all their possibilities.”2 Although what he is describing directly here is the nature of language in contemporary poetry, we can still say that this demonstrates exactly what lived language is within the history of the present.

No matter how much it may have been ingeniously assembled and developed a universal language , which from the start is embedded within relational concepts, is now unable to grasp the world today. This kind of language is deeply rooted in the arrogance of modern rationalism that says it can be linked within the organic relationships of the world.

On the contrary, lived language is absolutely not a universal language, a language that presupposes such relationships. It would be a discourse “full of terror” (Barthes) that towers before us in the here and now, discarding relationships with a totality. By merely existing or just by being able to be uttered, they are words, like isolated “objects” filled with madness that can shake a person. They cannot be the continuous, accessible language that presupposes communication with others. This kind of “exploding language” is a language that has been fiercely lived here and now by a single person.

Images are always images about something; an image fixed to film that refers to something existing here and now. It is not reality itself but at most emerges from a veritable relation of correspondence with reality. Thus, no matter how much an image “does not resemble” reality, the relation with “it” is always narrowly retained.

However, this is not saying that the image is merely for the self-­ evident and trivial proof of the pointless fact that a tree is a tree. On the contrary, when we say the word “tree,” which is not a particular tree in reality, we only see the meaning of trees in general. Yet, by meticulously looking at a single tree here before us “now,” the word tree we had, together with the concept and meaning it held, is slowly forced to disintegrate.  Thus, I am describing a kind of image that as a result of this process expands the truth that the word tree has for the individual viewer.

The camera undoubtedly fixes the tree as a tree upon the film according to optical laws. For this reason, the image is occasionally confused with actual reality. Photographs like those used as proofs of identity are just one example of this. Yet this is the point at which the “when, where and who” of the encounter with the tree is completely forgotten. This is true not just for identification photographs but for those in photojournalism and documentary film who espouse this or that realism. But ultimately, can there be a universal, objective tree?

Certainly, there may be such a tree, but to the extent that I cannot by chance be there, the tree would have no meaning, and when all is said and done, would have no relation to human existence. That single tree comes into being only according to the person who sees it. ln the same way. what is real is what materializes as something real for me, right here and right now.

Once Godard defined the films he makes as “chanced reality,” which hits the mark in describing this relation. It is not reality itself but a second reality that has been transformed and made subjective by my confrontation with it. That is what an image is.

To repeat myself, a photographer photographing a single tree cannot live without relation to the word tree. While obsessing over the word tree like a compulsive thought, as the photographer fixes his gaze on the tree in the real world within the camera’s finder, that word suddenly crumbles away, and he becomes a part of its rebirth as a new tree (it is in the true sense of the word, “real“).

That said, how about someone looking at an image of a single tree? They cannot expect to have the same experience as the photographer’s encounter, of course. For, that kind of influence, (the very word is rooted in continuity), cannot be sought in a single photograph.

Just as for the photographer who cited that tree from reality and amplified that word within himself, a single photograph of a tree merely opens up to each individual looking at it for their own re-quotation. In the end, whether the words of each person looking at the tree within a single photograph are amplified or not depend s on the depth of its connection with the language of the person looking. Indeed, the level of the image is tightly connected to the level of language.

It seems Provoke has carried out one of its missions.  Provoke has reversed the image as the self-evident and pointless proof that a tree is a tree, and on the contrary, has presented images that raise uncertainty about the fixed meanings of verisimilitude, albeit rather slowly. Yet, even this has fallen into a kind of minor fashion now. By fashion here I do not mean merely that it has become customary, but rather I am referring to the bodies and minds of each one of us who have become satisfied with this. Extremely grainy images and intentionally unfocused photographs in particular, have already become mere decoration.

Today, we must return to our point of departure. I cannot say clearly what form my response to these doubt s will ultimately take. Yet perhaps by having made clear a tree is a tree, it must be something that expands the amplitude of the word tree that has been produced by nothing more than my confrontation with it here and now.

However, it is time to be tested again to see how far this can go.



Translator’s notes:

1. Nakahira Takum a, “Shashin wa kotoba o sosei shiuruka” [Can Photography Revive Lang u age?] Nihon Dokusho Shimbun, September 30th, 1968. Nihon Dokusho Shimbun [Japanese Reader’s Newspaper] was a weekly newspaper that played a significant role in fostering critical discussions of radical thought and practice during the height of the 1960s within the Japanese New Left and beyond.
2. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang , 1968), 50.
First published as “Shashin wa gengo o chohatsu shietaka ” [“Has Photography Been Able to  Provoke Language?”] in  Nihon Dokusho Shimbun  [Japanese Reader s Newspaper] , March 30, 1970. It later appeared in Kitarubeki kotoba no tame ni [For a Language to Come] as “Eizo/Kotoba ” [“Image, Language”], and also in Naze, shokubutsu zukan ka [Why an illustrated Botanical Dictionary] with minor revisions by the author. This translation is based upon the version appearing in Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary?
This essay is the first part of ‘Three Essays by Takuma Nakahira’ – Translated by: Franz K. Prichard