November 3: Can we determine what constitutes ‘subjectivity’ in the ‘objective’ medium of photography? With a little perspective, yes, by looking at it in another culture.
Today let’s test that through the work of Ikko Narahara who was born on this date in 1931 in Fukuoka, Japan, though to do it, we must understand the cultural context in that country.
Narahara, who came to be known as ‘Ikko’, was amongst the post-war generation of Japanese photographers who saw their country become a leader in the camera industry as the products became more competitive during the ‘economic miracle’ of the period, driven by the investment of the USA who wished to protect the area from the ‘domino effect’ of Communism, and the protectionism and organised industrial cooperation of Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Newspapers and magazines thrived, released from the strictures of military propaganda.
Alongside this came a rapid expansion of tertiary education inspired by that in the United States. The few dozen universities in 1945 at end of the war in the Pacific grew to several hundred by the 1960s, all based on the Western model. Narahara, taking advantage of their offerings, studied law at Chuo University, and then swapped to an MA in art history at Waseda University in 1959.
His first solo exhibition Ningen no Tochi (Human land) at the Matsushima Gallery in 1956 combined two documentaries of people living in extreme conditions: One is of a coal mining village on an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki called ‘Warship Island (Gunkan-jima) 480 metres long and 160 meters wide and home to almost 5,000 miners and their families (now a world heritage site and uninhabited for more than 40 years). The population density was more than nine times higher than Tokyo’s.
The other essay covers the community of Kurokami village, living beneath an active volcano without any access to ground-water. The show brought him instant recognition, and helped him decide to launch a professional career in photography.
30 years after the series had first been exhibited a photobook of the show appeared in 1987, and this year, another 30 years later, the book is back in print.
In 1958 Narahara continued his focus on people living in isolation, such as monks in a Trappist monastery and the inmates of a women’s prison. He was working in accord with the new realism typical of this period.
After censorship had been lifted (launching a number of influential photography magazines), the prevalent form of photographic expression in 1950s Japan was Riarizumu Sashin Undo (Realism Photography Movement) led by Ken Domon who advocated that a photograph must be purely objective without containing any subjective idea or feeling of the photographer, or be staged.
His philosophy was reflective of the Japanese word for photography, settled upon in the 1800s, sashin (a copy of the truth, or 写真).
However, another philosophy was a greater influence on Narahara. The opposing notion of subjective photography espoused by the German photographer Otto Steinert in 1952, rallied photographers in 1956 under the banner of the Nihon Shukanshugi Renmei (Japanese Subjectivism Photography Foundation).
They held a major exhibition sponsored by Sankei Camera, featuring 130 works from 29 modernist photographers in a special issue of the magazine Atelier devoted to works of the new subjective movement. Included amongst these was Ikko Narahara whose imagery expressed personal experience.
Narahara in his graphic self-portrait, above, from 1954, can be seen to incorporate the descriptive profile view with the abstraction of his shadow which looms larger, thus overriding objectivity with his personal narrative.
He thus transcends the journalistic documentary ‘Realist’ photography movement with his facility for abstraction and the framing of everyday scenes in flat, rectilinear graphic compositions as in, for example, the series Tokyo, the 50s, below, later published in book form.
Nahara was a founding member in 1959, with Eikoh Hosoe, Kikuji Kawada, Akira Satō, Akira Tanno, and Shōmei Tōmatsu, of Vivo photographers agency (the name means life in Esperanto). They were six of the participants of the celebrated 1957 exhibition Jūnin no me (10人の眼, or Eyes of ten) organised by the influential photography critic Fukushima Tatsuo who incorporated a statement by Robert Doisneau in the catalogue and exhorting audiences and photographers to sever ties with the past and start a ‘new photography’. Operating from an office and darkroom in Higashi Ginza in Tokyo until 1961 Vivo was the epitome of a hip ‘image generation’ then riding a tsunami of transformation and westernisation then sweeping through Japanese society.
Around this time Nahara published an essay About My Method in which he stated that to him the pursuit of realism was
a process of laying bare the inner form by thoroughly depicting the exterior. [My work] went beyond the meaning of simply reporting a reality. It was inevitable that I would aim for a method that might be called a personal document.
Subsequently, the expressionist Western photographers William Klein (who was invited to Tokyo in 1961, where he shot more than 1000 pictures for Tokyo, published 1964), and the Swiss Robert Frank (whose The Americans was admired there) and Ed van der Elsken (who visited Vivo in 1959) confirmed the validity of the subjective approach.
Narahara started to receive commissions for fashion photographs, for which he identified himself with the shorter moniker ‘Ikko’, and from 1962 to 1965, lived in Paris, traveling in his Sunbeam sports car through France, Spain and Italy, where he responded especially to Venice. From these images, and some made later, came a book Where Time Has Stopped.
The colour image below from his European trip represents the extent to which Narahara takes his subjectivity, using his own spectacles to pull two dreamlike vignettes from the environment in which he finds himself.
Following his return to Japan, Narahara showed an increased interest in traditional Japanese culture, which is especially evident in his photographic series “Zen.”
At the beginning of the 1970s Narahara went to the USA. This was the location of his best-known series ‘Where Time Has Vanished’. During extensive trips across the country he photographed the mythic sites of the American Dream, vast landscapes, Indian reservations, automobiles, motels, communes and casinos. In contrast to other ‘road trip’ photographers Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank, Ikko didn’t take a critical approach to the American scene, but reflected his disorientation in poetic, surreal imagery.
As I drove across the land in Arizona and Utah and New Mexico, I began to have hallucinations that this was not the earth at all and that I had been thrown onto some other planet…
In 1974, Narahara took part in the first exhibition of ‘New Japanese Photography’ curated by John Szarkowski (1925–2007), who had been interested in Japanese photography since 1965, and who mentioned Narahara as among those who piqued his interest in Japanese photography.
The Museum of Modern Art devoted the main gallery space for special exhibitions on the first floor to the show which ran from March 27 to May 19. The photographers were given their own discrete space for between four and forty-two images each. It toured eight venues in the United States and Canada. Fifteen male photographers, ranging in age from late twenties to mid-sixties were featured: Ken Domon (1909–1990), Yasuhiro Ishimoto (1921–2012), Shômei Tomatsu (1930–2012), Kikuji Kawada (1933–), Masatoshi Naito (1938–), Tetsuya Ichimura (1930–), Hiromi Tsuchida (1939–), Masahisa Fukase (1934–2012), Ikko Narahara (1931–), Eikoh Hosoe (1933–), Daido Moriyama (1938–), Ryoji Akiyama (1942–), Ken Ohara (1942–), Shigeru (later renamed Akihide) Tamura (1947–), and Bishin Jumonji (1947–). Not the first show on Japanese contemporary art that MoMA organized, it followed the 1966 The New Japanese Painting and Sculpture, and solo exhibitions of printmaking by Masuo Ikeda and Tadanori Yokoo, in 1965 and 1972, respectively.
From 1999 to 2005, Narahara, who is now 86, taught at the Graduate School of Kyushu Sangyo University in his home town of Fukuoka. His work has achieved some well-deserved international recognition, though not to the extent of Eikoh Hosoe beside whom he had worked at Vivo, or Daido Moriyama, but it does serve to distinguish subjectivity in photography. His latest exhibition was Ikko Narahara/Venice, Feb 16 – May 15, 2017 at Shimane Art Museum, Shimane, Japan.