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Art / Photography
Everyday life, reality, and future captured by a 19th century technique, “Daguerreotype.” Photographer, Takashi Arai.

Be determined to gain your position.

―― What is the Daguerreotype photography process?

First step is polishing the sliver plate. After that, it is chemically treated to give photosensitivity, then an image is captured, developed, and set. This whole process takes about 3-4 hours for an 8×10 image.

Polishing takes at least 1.5 hours, and up to 3 hours. Shooting takes as short as a few seconds, but when it takes a long time, I stay still with the subject because the subject needs to stay still. It is up to the subject and the environment, and not for me to intervene, so I just have to wait.

Video: Tomoe Otsu / Music: Takeyasu Ando / Support: Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall
Takashi Arai/”The Making of: a Multiple Monument for Lucky Dragon 5” from Takashi Arai on Vimeo.

―― You are still trying to improve your skill?

I have essentially mastered the polishing process, but there are a few things I still don’t know. I am still having some problems with the timing in the subsequent iodine fume treatment to make the plates light sensitive. I have a rough idea, based on trial and error, but I am still experimenting.

Being off even a few seconds causes images to not be captured, but the reaction speed of the photo-sensitivity treatment varies by day, due to variations in humidity and temperature. The variability is not necessarily proportional to the temperature, so the difficult thing is that I have to make adjustments according to how it feels, based on the conditions at the time.

―― If it involves so many time-consuming steps, why do you use Daguerreotypy?

Immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I was asked by a foreign magazine to take pictures of the affected areas. I took a digital camera, but was unable to capture good images. I took a variety of jobs as a professional photographer, but for the first time, I quit a job in the middle and experienced failure, or at least felt that I couldn’t do it. However, I somehow managed to take pictures with Daguerreotype process. That was the only way.

《Multiple monuments for Lucky Dragon 5 (Daigo Fukuryu Maru)》2013
《Multiple monuments for Lucky Dragon 5 (Daigo Fukuryu Maru)》2013

In particular, the first thing I felt when I held up my digital camera in Fukushima was that I couldn’t figure out exactly where I should stand. I felt that I was further taking away from a place that had already sustained damage. I felt like I was taking pictures and running away. On the other hand, Daguerreotype process requires me to set up a darkroom tent on site, and the camera itself is very large too, so I can’t run away. Once I decide to take a picture, I had to stay in that spot all day to accomplish it. It was like I was being tested in that regard, and once I was determined, my position became clear and I began to believe that it was OK for me to shoot there.

“Nuclear power” as a “reality” within everyday life

―― You began to work on pieces about “nuclear power” after you encountered Daigo Fukuryu Maru (exposed to radiation due to a hydrogen bomb testing conducted by the United States)?

People say that I often use nuclear power as a theme, but I personally don’t set a theme at all, and take pictures of everything. The most influential thing in my life happened to be issues with nuclear power, so I had to take it in. In actuality, I have never thought about using nuclear power as a theme for my work. When I visited Fukushima, I thought about how Japan as a country came to rely heavily on nuclear power. After doing some research, I learned that it was related to the atomic bombs, and the secret arrangements between Japan and the United States. Rather than adopting it as a theme, the topic was a reality in my life.

《“Daily D-type Project” series》2011-2017
《“Daily D-type Project” series》2011-2017

―― In your “Daily D-type Project” series, you are taking pictures of everyday life.

This is a very important framework, a foundation, for me, and in retrospect, the pieces in this series are my best work. I mainly take pictures of meaningless things. Sometimes, however, like during the natural disasters, reality is captured unexpectedly. Since you cannot capture something like that after the fact, you have to get in the habit of doing it everyday, and it is also important as a preparatory work.

―― What is reality that you speak of?

For example, it was right before the earthquake, when I was thinking about taking a picture of the petri dish containing “death ash (radioactive fallout)” that I borrowed from Daigo Fukuryu Maru, the ground shook. I waited to take the picture until the shaking was over, but didn’t think much about it because I had no idea at the time that Fukushima would end up the way it did. When I later saw the images of explosions at the nuclear power plant, it was a great shock to me, even though the events were purely coincidental. Since I believed that pictures are taken after the fact, this was a unique experience where the time caught up to the picture.

Influencing the “future” with pictures.

《”Tomorrow’s History” series》 2016
《”Tomorrow’s History” series》 2016

―― In the new series, “Tomorrow’s History,” you chose teenagers in Hiroshima and Minamisoma as your subjects.

While the nuclear power plant accident happened to occur in Fukushima, it could easily happen tomorrow in Ikata or Hamaoka. No one can know for sure. We just know that the risk of it happening is extremely high. The world we live in now is in between “before” and “after” an incident. I feel very limited by the fact that while I can take a picture after an incident, I cannot take a picture of the future. Photographers can only observe, but if we don’t do more things to influence the future, same thing that happened in Fukushima will just happen again elsewhere. When I decided to take pictures of things for the future, I thought it had to be young people.

Additionally, with the lowering of the voting age to 18 last year, I was looking into how the youngest generation voted. Compared to other generations, it has the greatest proportion of people voting for the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, and female voters outnumbered male voters by over 10%. I found this interesting, even odd actually, that they were completely different from other generations, and I decided to read up on it. I could not, however, come to a clear understanding of the phenomenon. Rather than characterizing it as a phenomenon, I thought I would actually meet the people in this generation, and ask what they are thinking.

―― How were they gathered?

Initially, I had the gallerists from “Interchange 611” in Hiroshima get 2-3 people. Inevitably, however, I only got good students. I wanted to shoot a variety of people, so I started asking people on the street, or went to live music venues.

《”Tomorrow’s History” series》 2016
《”Tomorrow’s History” series》 2016

―― The audio from the interviews are also playing, right?

Prior to the shoot, they were interviewed for 1-1.5 hours. Many of them were very nervous at first, which made me wonder why, but I eventually realized that they are not used to doing what they want on their own, because they normally just spend time either at home or school. I’m in my late 30’s, but in the presence of an adult, or someone of higher status, I tend to act maturely. I didn’t want the interviews to be like that, but rather than speaking to them at their level, I spoke deliberately and politely, and made sure I didn’t express my own opinion. This worked pretty well.

After speaking for 30 minutes or so, their facial expressions changed. I did the photo shoot after that. I asked them to close their eyes, and open them when they are calm. I took the picture right when they opened them. Most of them look serious, but I think they still look differently than how they normally look when they are talking to adults.

―― It must have been a valuable experience for the young people as well. Did you get reactions from them after the shoot?

After the shoot, they started coming to the studio, just to visit. I was not expecting this at all. They don’t really do anything; they just chat among friends in the corner. Gradually, more people started coming, and I would take pictures of new comers. In Minamisoma, however, this didn’t happen as often because it was during the busiest time of the school year, and people were being dropped off at the studio by their parents. It was prominent in Hiroshima.

They would come to me looking very desperate, but this kind of place doesn’t really exist in this world. Though I didn’t hear this directly, I felt like I got a sense of the current state of Japan through this experience.


They told me that they have a very busy routine. They leave home at 8am, and come home from school around 9pm. At home, they have their parents. At school, they have the teachers. At after school activities, they have coaches and other students from various grade levels. In that sense, they spend nearly 100% of their life within a hierarchical structure, and because they are constantly near the bottom, they don’t have a place to escape, or that the structure doesn’t offer them one. I was slightly frightened, when I thought about the possibility of never being able to get out of a hierarchical structure as they move from high school to college and eventually to a job.

I remember when I was in high school, people were more freely skipping classes or finding ways to get away from the system. When I think there is a really unique person, everyone has dropped out from school.

This goes beyond the scope of photography, and perhaps a little excessive, but if the society can create that kind of place (like a studio), I think we might see some new possibilities.

Demonstrate appreciation as a “private act.”

―― You are creative with the ways you show your work, using light and sound.

Daguerreotype is made with a mirror, so it is inherently difficult to see. The images will be obscured in a standard white, cubic space, so I had to think about the space outside of the pieces in technical terms like, what to do with the lights and what color the walls should be. One of the ideas was to have individual lights for each piece.

Right after the earthquake disaster, I had an exhibit at the Kawasaki City Museum featuring the first apparatus. During this time, there was a movement to conserve electricity. People, including my family, were using small lights and spending time in dimly lit rooms, and we all realized the importance of light, which we all were taking for granted until then. I wanted to make the lighting apparatus to relive this experience, so I hung the light bulbs and rather than making them turn on and off, I made them light up based on the distance of the person looking at the picture. I thought that in this way, I can make the act of enjoying the pictures a very private one. Subsequently, I created a variety of apparatus, and most of them are being used this time.

《“Here and There – Ashita no Shima (Tomorrow’s Islands)” series》 2011-2016
《“Here and There – Ashita no Shima (Tomorrow’s Islands)” series》 2011-2016

―― The video pieces give different impressions.

Video is interesting because you can depict things fictionally or as a caricature. Jokes are difficult to convey in photography.

―― What is your plan for the future?

The series that are currently on exhibit are all “work-in-progress,” so they will be continued simultaneously. For “Tomorrow’s History,” I hope to shoot in familiar spots like Tokyo and Okinawa. Additionally, if we work with the same framework in Eastern Asia like Korea, China, and Taiwan, I think I can find out what each of us are thinking.

Takashi Arai(あらい・たかし)

Takashi Arai(あらい・たかし)
Born in 1978, and works from Kawasaki, Kanagawa.
In an effort to trace photography to its origins, he encounters Daguerreotype, and masters its techniques through trial and error. He has adopted “a small monument” as his personal medium to realistically convey the experience of encountering the subject, beyond time and space. Since 2010, when he started developing interest in the history of nuclear power, he has naturally encountered the subjects he was meant to shoot including Daigo Fukuryu Maru and its former crew, and those in Fukushima, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima.
So far, he has shown his work at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mori Art Museum, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and numerous other locations in and out of the country. In 2014, he received UK’s Source Cord Price, and in 2016, he received the 41st Kimura Ihei Award, The Photographic Society of Japan Shinjin-sho (New Comer award), and Kanagawa Bunka-sho Mirai-sho. His works can be found in numerous museums including Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Erice Museum, and Guimet Museum. His written pieces include『MONUMENTS』(PGI、2015).