My last posting on the sweep of awards for Japanese books in Arles leads me to mention the new edition of Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come just published by Osiris.
Originally appearing in 1970, Kitarubeki Kotoba no Tameni is Nakahira’s jarring description of a dark world – a landscape where the natural order of light and shadow, distinctions of space and time, is upset. From the opening image, the descriptive qualities of Nakahira’s approach set a tone of brooding, where even the brightest burst of light can’t seem to penetrate the shadows. His staggering vantage points seem envisioned by someone wounded or intoxicated by their surroundings. The apocalypse is nearing or has passed, that is unclear, but the physical impact of the environment on this wanderer couldn’t be clearer.
The stifling claustrophobia of space in this world is extreme. Nakahira purposely condenses his tones and contrast to foreshorten space leaving little opportunity to breathe in the landscape. At night, spotlights and fluorescents offer little depth as if the speed of light was dragged to a standstill. When in natural light, we are often oppressed by a weighty haze of grey sky pushing down on the horizon line. The few pedestrians we encounter seem like sluggish sleepwalkers aimlessly going through the motions of life. This is not the dark but invigorated vision of Moriyama but a slowed pulse, the occasional images of lolling waves setting the pace.
This reprint follows the same edit and sequencing of the original. The original jacketed softcover wraps have been changed to a hardcover with a new design by Hattori Kazunari (a new interpretation of the idiosyncratic original by Tsunehisa Kimura). The original rich gravure printing, since now an extinct process, has given way to a finely handled offset. The paper is slightly glossier than the original.
In questioning how photography functions as either a language or something that exists “on the reverse side of language,” Nakahira would ultimately re-examine his work in 1973, find it shackled by “expression” and shifted towards the attitude that photography must be like “an illustrated dictionary…[which]… consists only in clarifying the fact that material things are things.” This would lead to his burning much of his past work on a beach near his home.
Now that this new edition is presented to us after so much has been written about it – essentially confirming its status as one of the masterpieces of Japanese photography – it is interesting to question how it will be seen, apart from scholarship, within a contemporary viewpoint. Considering Nakahira’s initial attempt to reject and destroy it, a level of historical value has won out. 40 years has passed since Nakahira revealed this world and questioned what is photography and what is language, now it can be tested again and see how his “thoughts” stand against time.