Throughout his career, Keiichi Tahara (1951–2017) showed a remarkable ability to exploit the drama and shaping effects of light and shadow, producing not only the moody black-and-white photographs for which he is best known (with subjects ranging from ancient sculptures to artists in their elder years to European fin-de-siècle architecture) but also light sculptures and installations. The Hara Museum’s recent exhibition “Photosynthesis with Min Tanaka” consisted of nearly fifty photographs that Tahara (who died as the show was being finalized) took of the dancer Min Tanaka in several countries between 1978 and 1980.
In these images, Tanaka, who trained in ballet and modern dance and was associated with butoh, appears in both natural and manmade landscapes. He is shown nearly nude (his genitals are wrapped) and either interacting with his environment without reserve, as freely and impulsively as he dances, or filling the frame to become a landscape himself. The close-ups might bring to mind John Coplans’s later photographs of his own body, but while Coplans’s images convey vulnerability and the ravages of time, Tahara’s capture the taut resilience of the human form and the near-cyborg-like perfection of Tanaka’s lean frame (the dancer was in his mid-thirties at the time).
In probably the most memorable work on view, Bordeaux 11 (1980), Tanaka stands in puddles in a wartime fortification as daylight from slots overhead illuminates various contours of his body. Gazing downward, he seems almost pasted onto the composition, but his feet are clearly in the water. His reflection, interrupted by a patch of dry ground, is more shadowed than his body. This is an extreme, harsh setting for a naked being.
And it’s hardly the only one. Island 22 (1980) is as open as Bordeaux 11 is closed. Tanaka, as if ready to lunge into a sprint, poses with his head forward and his hands and feet planted amid sparse tufts of wiry grass in dark Icelandic soil. The flat landscape shows no signs of civilization, only an expanse of water and a treeless plain stretching to distant snowy mountains. Tanaka’s widespread arms reach to the edges of the image, encompassing the vast space to imply that he is a giant, yet, given the print’s uniform graininess, he appears blended in, at one with the natural features. In Island 4, shot in the same landscape, Tanaka lies rigidly on his side, facing the camera but with his face turned to the earth. The grit peppering his upper arm and hip suggests that he rolled into this position from lying on his back. Head to toe he spans the image, with only a sliver of mountains visible at the top left.
Tanaka’s elemental, sculptural presence was an ideal subject for Tahara (which makes it especially surprising that the series had not been shown since just after it
was completed, and never before in Japan). These collaborative images depend on Tahara’s choice of framing and mastery of light and on Tanaka’s concept of dance, which eschews pattern and repetition for expressiveness. In both artists’ work, there is a sense of a human being contending with his surroundings, neither dominating them nor treating them as sublime.