Japanese daguerrotypist Takashi Arai’s first solo exhibition in the UK, Daily D-Type, was held at Stills Centre of Photography in Edinburgh from June to August 2015 during the inaugural ACTINIC Festival, which was dedicated to alternative, historic, and new analogue related photo arts.
In 2010, Arai became interested in nuclear power, and the social, political and economic issues it raises for humanity in general and for Japanese society in particular. For Arai, the daguerreotype began as a means to capture intimate records (6×6) of survivors, and the hull salvaged from the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryūmaru, which was contaminated by fallout from the USA’s Castle Bravo thermonuclear device test on Bikini Atol in 1954.
This project, touching on fragments of a contentious past, led Arai to photograph Fukushima after the nuclear accident at the town’s Daiichi Power Plant, as well as Nagasaki and Hiroshima, exploring the profound interconnections among the three places and their symbolic import in the continuing debate around nuclear technology, its potential and its consequences.
In March 2016, Mariko Takeuchi curated a show of Arai’s work for Photo Dubai, showcased over 700 works from 23 countries in a global exploration of 20th and 21st century photography. Representing Japan, Arai appeared alongside Daido Moriyama, Kiyoji Otsuji, Ishiuchi Miyako, Lieko Shiga, and Ryuichi Ishikawa.
Mariko Takeuchi’s essay, published here to accompany Arai’s work, first appeared in Arai’s monograph Monuments, published in September 2015 by Photo Gallery International and available to purchase from their website.
To Beyond the Darkness by Mariko Takeuchi
Whenever we look at daguerreotype plates, there is always a hanging feeling that runs counter to our senses. It’s a vivid sensation like they are completely frozen in a mirror, giving off an overwhelming presence like an object. However, there is definitely a feeling that something has been lost. Recent photography makes everything look so idealistic, and while you can endow it with the myth of being vivid and alive, in contrast, daguerreotype plates are transparent images like empty shells. They have a distinct mood of being visible and semi-visible, between death and absence. When we look closely at daguerreotypes, we don’t see the warmth of people. We realize they are individual life forms wrapped in a deep loneliness, like when you find small lights in the distance at night. We also realize that no one can escape this solitude.
Takashi Arai has been working with daguerreotypes for about 10 years. He polishes the silver plate until it is like a mirror then gives it a photosensitivity by adding iodine, before putting it into his camera to shoot. After that, it is developed in the steam of mercury, becomes fixed, then washed. It is a process that involves a great deal of patience and vast concentration times as the result can differ greatly due to the small gap between polishing and mixing, as well as the changes in temperature and humidity.
Using the daguerreotype, which is the first photography technique invented in the 19th century, in a time where high-quality images can be so simple— it is the lack of freedom and inefficiency that most likely attracts people all the more with a nostalgia for times long past. Isn’t it enough that these images are impossible to reproduce; a special quality that stirs a fetish-like desire. However, Arai doesn’t stress how daguerreotypes are special, but merely gives them a function in today’s everyday life. For example, he has been setting off to shoot every day, almost without fail, since New Year’s Day, 201 1. Trying to make the act of seeing the world through the special techniques of daguerreotypes something ordinary, the results you can say are acrobatic.
What is fascinating above all is that the practice (of shooting everyday with daguerreotype) is not just aimed to polish his skills, and that it has been continued and developed without denying the errors that occur, despite the accumulation of discipline. Underexposures, stains, specks, not to mention there must have been times when suddenly nothing appears at all. With daguerreotype photography, being able to see the image is not a natural right; the possibility of not being able to see, is the other side of the same coin. Daguerreotypes give us the rare opportunity to be conscious of the act of looking in a time when this act seems so easy and effortless (or at least when one has the feeling that one is seeing something). At the same time, like when you struggle to see in dim light, it reminds us of the vast territory of invisibility surrounding what we see.
Arai, by gazing at the world through daguerreotypes everyday, has refined his techniques, as well as his imagination, for what cannot be seen. For that reason, since the Great East Japan earthquake and accidents at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, it is not surprising that his activities have deepened and picked up speed. That is because this great incident, which cannot be undone, has produced a vast amount of radioactive fallout that cannot be seen or even smelled. There is not a time where the need for intellectual imagination to perceive things we cannot see and concretely consider about them is greater than today.
Of course, what cannot be seen is not just radiation. Memories of the earthquake and nuclear power plant accidents are different according to each individual, and it is exceedingly difficult to accurately measure how much internal and external exposure to radiation people have received. That is why we can’t simply divide people into categories of those who were affected and those who haven’t.
After the disaster, instead of shoving all the various experiences and memories in one box under the name of “bonding,” Arai has pursued to connect these separate entities just as they are by an invisible thread, putting in countless number of hours to travel and shoot.
When he saw at the current state of the severe radioactive contamination, his interests expand to the nuclear policies of Japan that created such incredible circumstances, the post-war Japanese society that preserved it, as well as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that mark one of their origins. Fukushima, Tokyo, Daigo Fukuryu Maru, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, New Mexico— more and more, he has gone beyond the framework of Japan and stepped into the history of nuclear development. Events and places that seemed scattered in history begin to be tied to together by some invisible thread gradually forming something that looks like a constellation. Thus, the series such as “Mirrors in our Nights,” “Here and There,” and “EXPOSED IN A HUNDRED SUNS” were born.
Up to then, what motivated Arai was probably an anger towards people who pretended not to see inconvenient truths, and who behaved like what was invisible didn’t exist. Or maybe he knew the incredible weight of the invisible truth, and giving himself the power to see, he had no choice but to step across the existing boundary as a photographer. Whatever the case, what we cannot forget is that no matter where he is headed, the “Daily D-type Project,” shooting daguerreotypes as a part of his daily life, lies as a foundation. Not even a single incident can happen by itself.
His works show us that everything is connected at the base with our daily lives.
Arai himself calls the photographs he’s taken “monuments,” to convey our individual memories and feelings, struggling not to be forgotten or vanished. They are to help evoke individual memories rather than the collective memory of a community or group. However, as long as memories and feelings have essentially individual qualities, is such a monument really possible?
Indeed, no matter how hard to try, the memories of others will always be outside of our own imagination. Therefore what’s important is not to give up, but to use your imagination to the limit and know that boundary; to release your imagination. So a monument never goes well with a loud voice. This is something that may save someone, or, at the same time, it may deceive and hurt. Inactuality, if memory can save people then so can the loss of memory.
When we try to relate to the memory and feelings of others, we end up in a place that is not so straightforward and take up a contradiction.
Arai’s work always comes together with distress. Daguerreotypes have a strong presence as object d’art, so they could be mistaken as beautiful monuments using the memories of others. There, errors like scars and stains even function as aesthetic elements. So he has no choice but to live with the contradiction of pursuing technical training but accepting unexpected errors at same time. However, living in real life means that you have to go with uncontrollable circumstances, and it would be foolish to say reality itself can be controlled. Daguerreotypes reject that kind of conceit.
Furthermore, Arai takes on the paradox of printing daguerreotypes. This means giving up the characteristics unique to daguerreotype, of not being able to reproduce, and as object d’art that shines like a mirror. But in that case, just what is left behind in the end?
This is particularly evident in this collection of images. Staring at what’s around in confirmation with so much respect that it almost appears clumsy he extends his hands as well trying to see some invisible connection ahead. During that repetition, the path has led the photographer to an unexpected place. His personal effort may catch the eye of someone faraway someday, and the memories and feelings that have never been expressed may be quietly resurrected. Arai’s monument lies in a vast darkness among the surrounding hustle and bustle, quietly continuing to wait to be discovered.
Mariko Takeuchi, Japan, is a photography critic, an independent curator and associate professor of Kyoto University of Art and Design. She is also visiting researcher of the National Museum of Art, Osaka, previously of the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Takeuchi was guest curator for the Spotlight on Japan, of Paris Photo 2008 and received a Fulbright Grant for her research on photography education in the US. She was responsible for the Japanese edition of the book and touring exhibition Intended Consequences: Rwandan Children Born of Rape by Jonathan Torgovnik. She has also frequently worked as a portfolio reviewer and lecturer at photography festivals. Takeuchi has contributed to The Oxford Companion to the Photograph, Ryuichiro Suzuki’s Odyssey, Ryudai Takano: 1936-1996 and Nihon No Shashinka 101 (101 Japanese photographers), among many other catalogues, books and magazines.
Takashi Arai (b.1978-) first encountered photography while he was a university student of biology. In an effort to trace photography to its origins, he encountered daguerreotype, and after much trial and error mastered the complex technique. Arai does not see daguerreotype as a nostalgic reproduction of a classical method; instead, he has made it his own personal medium, finding it a reliable device for storing memory that is far better for recording and transmitting interactions with his subjects than modern photography.
Arai’s work has appeared in numerous exhibitions, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Mori Art Museum and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, among other international venues. In 2014, he received the Source-Cord Prize, sponsored by a contemporary photography magazine in England.
His works are held in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, and Musée Guimet, among others. His first monograph ‘MONUMENTS’ was published in September, 2015 by Photo Gallery International.