I/Eye: On Photography

Vanishing Act: Gary Nakamoto

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on September 2, 2012
Spykids 3D, Orinda Theater, 90 minutes © Gary Nakamoto

Spykids 3D, Orinda Theater, 90 minutes © Gary Nakamoto

I first saw one of Gary Nakamoto’s pictures a few years ago at the Berkeley Art Center; it was a large, arresting print: an interior scene carefully composed, rendered with dramatic clarity from a large format negative, the human subjects in the image looking a bit like ghosts caught in the act of vanishing at dawn. My interest was piqued.

I took note of his name and later found out that his work focuses almost exclusively on the practice of time exposure — longish ones. Nakamoto is one of a number of photographers who’ve worked with time exposures in more than just an experimental way: one thinks of Hiroshi Sugimoto (the seascapes and theater screenings); Michael Weseley‘s photographs of urban transformation; Matthew Pillsbury‘s sumptuous, monochrome tableaux; and Chris McCaw‘s prints — burned, literally, by the sun.

Nakamoto’s work is as concentrated in intent as these, yet different for his focus on specific events that occur (by calculation) within the span of the shutter’s opening, whether these be hospital operations, religious services, movie screenings, or the intimacies of sex and birth.  While it is a commonplace to think of the camera as arresting points in time — from which we, the viewer, are always distanced and traveling inexorably onward, Nakamoto’s work synthesizes and collapses these points, so that people are rendered, inevitably, as smudges or shimmerings of fleshy transparency.

Orchidectomy, 29 minutes © Gary Nakamoto

Orchidectomy, 29 minutes © Gary Nakamoto

In contrast to an artist like Pillsbury, say, who sometimes makes of his blurred masses of people a quasi-natural force (like wind or water) that swirls around and through majestic architectural interiors, Nakamoto is uninterested in pitting our evanescence against grand constructs.  Rather, he sets up his camera in ordinary spaces — the kind we must all pass through at one time or another — and photographs during the span of events we all experience. He is not interested in the spaces merely, though he represents them in exacting detail; he’s motivated by the fact that someone is in them, something happens, and then that something is over. As the camera renders it, this sequence of events becomes a  synthetic vision in which the person or persons are simultaneously there and not there; the ‘moment’ the camera records is a past-in-present — one of the still camera’s native ‘tenses’, we might say.  Despite photography’s uniquely powerful ability to inscribe images of  instantaneity in our collective memory, then, Nakamoto has been devoted to this deliberate mode of visual articulation—a kind of seeing through people and events. What does it add up to exactly?

One way to think of his work might be to see in it an arc of return to photography’s origins, when an entire streetful of people might vanish into the voracious lens (Daguerre in 1838), leaving only a man who stands long enough to have his boots blacked. What was once a technological necessity — the long exposure — is now revisited precisely for its capacity to dissolve. Certainly this idea isn’t irrelevant if we respond to Nakamoto’s images as photographic explorations of time and memory: his premeditated insistence on leaving the shutter open until the end, forewarns us of the absences that await in his prints. The resulting ‘ghosts’ connect us (pictorially) to the synthetic, backward-reaching motion of memory. Too, the way he situates his photographs in relation to collective or universal experiences indicates a fundamental commitment: his pictures are devoid of the comforting fictions of transcendence — there aren’t even any recognizable individuals: his is an art of compression, inevitability.

Nakamoto’s photographs don’t root into our mind’s eye the way photographs with clearly delineated emotional states will often do. They are too disciplined in intent: too taken up with the problem of simultaneous raveling and unraveling of perception, too patiently observing of an unseeable thing: the irreducible inertia of time. We grasp this even from the titles: Orchidectomy, 29 minutes; Spy Kids 3D, Orinda Theater, 90 minutes.

Viewed in this light, the interiors of these photographs, which seem substantial by comparison to their disappearing occupants, and which ensconce the fleeting insubstantiality of all that happens within, begin to look themselves a little less solid, a little more likely to disappear — if we stick around long enough.

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