Jesse’s book review, Venice-Nightscapes by Ikko Narahara
Jesse has another sublime book review for us. this time the incomparable shadow work of Ikko Narahara. Check it out.
It was the novelist Tanazaki Junichiro who put forth the perverse idea that beauty could be found in darkness and more specifically the shadows that just a bit of light can create. He related this to traditional Japanese architecture drawing first from an example of the cavemen who lived in dark caves around a single light source observing the shadows around them.
This is all detailed in his book In Praise of Shadows that I had discussed with a Japanese architect who owns a dimly lit sado (tea ceremony) gallery in Kyoto that I exhibited some ikebana at last winter. I observed down to his dark lacquered bowls his appreciation of this aesthetic and we begin to discuss other mediums in which this could be related. I pointed out the Japanese photographer Ikko Narahara and his preoccupation with darkness and the shadows created by a single light source and the fact that I found interesting as it is almost an innate sensibility here in Japan.
Venice-Nightscapes is a meditation on a city in darkness shot in the 70s. The thing with darkness is that details become erased and people for obvious reasons become scarcer. It is like time itself has stopped. For not only do the photos carry a tranquil frozen quality but because of the darkness these photos refuse any attempt at dating them to the 70s due to the lack of detail. This resulting minimalism incidentally then becomes relevant.
But ultimately it’s the beauty of the darkness and resulting shadows from what is often a single light source that makes this series come to life. Another intrinsic quality of darkness is its suggesting of more that plays to the imagination as it does in enlarging what is often a small tatami room in a Japanese house.
The book works in a few different themes that form a loose narrative of a single night in Venice. The first photos are titled sunset and serve as a nice interlude for the night that is to come. The next set is titled Line of Luminance and features streaked long exposure shots of the Venice skyline. While the description seems straightforward the light streaks are often from an indiscernible source making them a bit surreal as oppose to cars in traffic that people would typical streak in a long exposed shot. More often that not that indiscernible light source is coming from a single light that works back to Tanazaki’s theme.
The next three titles all feature photos of the alleyways, canals, and stairwells that Venice has to offer. Often lit a by single light source these photos make up the bulk of the book and are among the best. Looking at the photo below, there is the single light source created by a three-bulb lamp (let’s just call it single lol) that makes up the photo’s only light source and serves as a visual starting point upon first observation. The light casts down on a statue with its back turned to us creating a bit of ambiguity. Leading to the foreground light is fragmented off gentle waves in the water. Darkness swallows the rest of the photos frame playing on our imaginations in suggesting to us a much larger space as Tanazaki dictates.
The next title is Tempest and leads our eye to the sky capturing lightening over Venice, which then explodes in the final section that still keeps our gaze upward chronicling fireworks. This sudden burst of light breaks up much of the subtlety offering a fitting end. Perhaps it was too easy to finish in circular form with a sunrise so we welcome the unexpectedness that the fireworks offer. An interesting note on Tanazaki, after he finished In Praise of Shadows he was asked about his home and if his house observed the aesthetics he describes in his book to which he responded, ”No I could never live in a house life that.”
I really like this form of photography outside of the HDR, especially when done on film. Because I am from Baltimore and like to rep my city whenever I can there is one photographer whose work I do enjoy that is similar to this in Patrick Joust who captures cityscapes often from a low Ozu like angle with TLR. Because his preoccupation is with cars and older building facades that like Narahara’s take on the similar timeless quality. This Ikko Narahara book is quite difficult to find. Originally sold for about 65 USD, nowadays if you can find it will go in the hundreds. And because essentially photography is mediation on light I can’t recommend enough Tanazaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows that could be had for under 10 USD. It all is quite relative…
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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