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Portraits of the Dead
Kōtarō Iizawa (Photography Critic)
All portraits are studies of the dead. This is true, of course, for photographs that capture the guise or appearance of people who have already died, but even photographs of the living are inexorably charged with the shadow of death. After all, it is unclear when those who are pictured will die. You may be convinced that the person in the photograph you hold still lives, but this may no longer true.
In this respect, photographs and death are like twin siblings, even though we are rarely conscious of it. Indeed, the scenes we capture in photographs are often full of life and vitality, and people don’t go out of their way to look within them for the ominous shadow of death. Occasionally, however, photographs emerge where death seems built in from the outset. Such is the case with Makotu Nakagawa’s Afterbirth of Emptiness.
Nakagawa was born when his father was 50 years old. As a result, he says, even from a young age he grew up feeling anxious that his father might die in the near future. Perhaps seeking to dispel this anxiety, he began shooting portraits of his father during his studies at the Tokyo College of Photography. Recording the figure of his father in great detail, his images also seem motivated by a desire to etch it in memory for eternity.
Despite knowing the day would come, the shock was enormous for Nakagawa when his father passed away in 2013. He tried to begin photographing his father’s cremated remains a week after the funeral, but it would be four years before he could bring himself to follow through. In 2017, he says, he was filled with a powerful urge to get the job done and shot the images all at once over a period of about three months. The collection Afterbirth of Emptiness contains two series of photographs arranged symmetrically: portraits and nudes of Nakagawa’s father taken between 2003 and 2013, and photographs of his remains taken in 2017.
Looking at these photographs I am struck anew by a powerful sense of life and death standing side by side, or representing two sides of the same coin. The living flesh of Nakagawa’s father connotes his remains/death, while his remains after death come to seem like strange living things floating in the light. Nakagawa’s choice of Afterbirth of Emptiness as a title, too, seems to splendidly reveal the principle that people are born pregnant with emptiness(death) and, after death, leave behind their afterbirths(remains) and are reborn in emptiness.
In closing, I would like to remark upon the 8 x 10-inch large-format camera that Nakagawa used. His decision to go out of his way to use an unrefined, profoundly limited camera that can safely be called behind-the-times was surely driven by more than simply the desire to capture high-resolution images. Operating such a camera takes time and effort, and accidents happen when developing and printing the film. At the same time, it may be the optimal machine for looking carefully at one’s subject and thinking deeply about the meaning of its existence. In these photographs I hope you may experience for yourself the depth and weight of the time that Nakagawa spent, with the naked body or cremated remains of his father before him, as he settled on their composition and pressed the shutter.