Takuma Nakahira, Photographer and “Provoke” Founder, Dies at 77

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Takuma Nakahira, Japanese photographer and a founder of “Provoke” magazine, which ushered in artists like Daido Moriyama’s “are, bure, boke” (rough, blurred, out-of-focus) style of the late 1960s, died on September 1 in Yokohama, Japan. His death from pneumonia-related complications was confirmed by Yossi Milo gallery in Manhattan, which began working with the artist in 2012. He was 77.

“Nakahira must rank as one of the most important photographers and theorists of photography in the postwar period,” Tate Modern photo curator Simon Baker told ARTINFO. “His work, although little-known for many years outside Japan, was both technically audacious and politically charged, realizing the potential of photography as a truly avant-garde medium.”

Baker added: “Although he has been practically absent from the world that he helped define for many years, nonetheless his passing away leaves one less bright light burning.”

Nakahira’s less celebrated status, in part, is due to his missing photographic archive. In 1973, the artist burned his prints and negatives, and in 1997, he suffered the loss of his memory and command of speech. Nevertheless, the photographer continued to produce work, publishing two photo books: “A New Gaze” in 1983, and “Adieu à X” in 1989. In 2003, a Yokohama Museum of Art solo show revitalized interest in Nakahira’s work, earning him a place in the collections of ShugoArts in Tokyo, the Art Gallery of Chukyo University in Nagoya, and the Hachinohe City Museum of Art.

Born in 1938 in Tokyo, Nakahira met the legendary photographer Shomei Tomatsu in 1963, while a young editor at the new-left magazine “Contemporary Eye.” Tomatsu urged Nakahira to pick up the camera — and in 1965, he did, though he refused to separate his visual and critical projects. Nakahira and his “Provoke” cofounders (Kohi Taki, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama) proposed a “new form of thought,” linking language to images that “at times… explosively ignite the world of language and concepts.”

By capturing “pieces of reality cut out by means of the camera,” he said in the first issue of the short-lived magazine, which ran from 1968 to 1970, one could overthrow language as a medium of control and disrupt habits.

For reasons unknown, Nakahira kept some 1,500 black-and-white prints from his photographic trove, made over the course of seven days in 1971, at the seventh Paris Biennale. Nakahira dismissed the invitation to display photos in the “Intervention” section of the exhibition, and instead shot a seven-day diary of Paris, hanging the prints each evening at the show — more a manic performance piece than anything.

In her New York Times review of Nakahira’s debut U.S. exhibition at Yossi Milo gallery in 2013, Roberta Smith said this 1971 body of work, “Circulation: Date, Place, Events,” exudes “a noirish grit,” calling it “revelatory.” Indeed, the style here appears to be guided more by felicitous accidents than assiduous framing.

In his time, Nakahira also weighed in on literature, film, and politics; in recent years, some of these writings have appeared in English. (Franz Prichard translated “For a Language to Come,” and “Circulation: Date, Place, Eventsfor Tokyo house Osiris, with afterwords by critic Akihito Yasumi.)

“[I]t shows him to have been an incisive observer as well as a witty, irreverent prose essayist,” said Art Institute of Chicago curator Matthew S. Witkovsky, who is organizing a major upcoming “Provoke” photography show. “The word ‘brilliant’ should be reserved for only a few cultural commentators in each generation — Nakahira was among those few for the turbulent 1960s and the years that followed.”

“As Jean-Luc Godard did for film, or Robert Morris did for sculpture, Nakahira ‘thought his way’ to the forefront of his chosen domain and never stayed still: he saw photography as a field of pitfalls and challenges, and as soon as he had solved one test he was ready for the next,” Witkovsky added.

The upcoming Art Institute of Chicago show opens at the Albertina in Vienna this coming January, continuing to travel to Winterthur and Paris, and concluding its tour with a stop in Chicago in January 2017. The Chicago exhibition, Witkovsky says, will realize the first-ever reconstruction of a 50-foot photo installation of some 400 photographs from “Circulation” that Nakahira made for the Paris Biennale in 1971.

— Noelle Bodick (@nbodick)

(Photo: Takuma Nakahira, from the series “Circulation: Date, Place, Events,” Untitled, 1971. Gelatin silver print © Takuma Nakahira, Yossi Milo Gallery, New York)