Comments/Context: There is something altogether astonishing about an important early 1970s project by a major Japanese photographer making its US debut in 2013. Beyond these sense that collectively we have been asleep at the historical wheel to some extent, it certainly reminds us that the history of photography is more serendipitous and incomplete that we might assume, especially for artists working outside our normal purview.
Takuma Nakahira is a clearly photographer that we should be more familiar with here in the US. He was a founding member of the late 1960s Provoke magazine, whose rough, grainy, blurred style marked a radical shift in both aesthetics and conceptual underpinnings from what had come before, and whose influence remains durably important some four decades later. This show recreates a project Nakahira did for the Seventh Paris Biennale in 1971, where he took pictures on the streets of Paris during the day, developed them at night, and displayed them all in an ever changing wall and floor exhibit that ran for several days. Stylistically, think of it as the dark, brash, moodiness of Provoke as applied to classic Parisian subject matter: Metro stations, street corner cafes, parked cars, vernacular signage, and pedestrian life. His images are full of shadows and eerie, feral glows, marked by haunting advertising fragments, the glare of fluorescent lights, and the dirty elegance of smashed taillights in watery gutters.
In addition to the many single images on view, the show also contains a handful of multi-image sequences that stop time down to fractions of a second. A man walks behind the trunk of a parked car, a woman looks at her wallet on a bright street corner, a dog sniffs the subway grates, and pedestrians gingerly step through the dark fingers of spilled water on the sidewalk. In each mini vignette, there is a cinematic sense of something happening, but a breakdown in the ability of the pictures to convey the entire narrative; the ordinariness of the everyday action is left to speak for itself. The parallels to Paul Graham's recent fragment of time street scenes are unmistakable, so much so that I wonder about whether Graham was aware of Nakahira or not.
The other fascinating thing about this particular project is how it prefigures many of the conceptual threads that would infiltrate photography in the coming years. Nakahira's effort is a mix of three distinctly separate parts: street photography with an eye for direct observation and reuse of media images, process-centrism in terms of his hand crafted approach to making and displaying the images, and an almost performance-like quality to the whole endeavor, as though the physical photographs were just part of the larger visual interaction he was having with the city around him. With the benefit of hindsight, the project looks remarkably innovative, its power and originality for the most part undiluted by the passing of time.
When an important talent like Nakahira is rediscovered (or reintroduced to a previously oblivious audience), I can't help but think of it as a jamming of a new puzzle piece into a previously completed scene, an action that forces all the other pieces to readjust and reconsider their own relationships and interconnections. Whether causality and influence can be traced through such a network is ultimately unknowable, but it certainly sets my mind on flights of fancy, weaving an artist like Nakahira back into brocades that hadn't previously included him.
Collector's POV: All of the prints in this show are priced at $3500. Aside from a few photobooks, Nakahira's photographs have been largely absent from the secondary markets, so gallery retail is likely the best/only option for those collectors interested in following up.
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Yossi Milo Gallery