Arai Takashi: a Daguerreotypical Man

by Ry Beville

Arai Takashi carefully removes a silver-plated copper slide from some tissue. He secures it in a small wooden frame that snaps into place over another wooden box. The hollow box is elevated over a small glass lamp that he lights, producing a thin blue flame to heat mercury. As the dangerous fumes lift up into the box, he closes the glass door to his hand-made machine, steps back and waits, his mind, it seems, in another world.

His studio is a cross between an alchemist’s cluttered medieval lab and some swank office like you might see in San Francisco, New York or Berlin. Across the long wall is a shelf with the expensive tomes of photography greats. Janis Joplin is playing in the background.

“Do you often listen to Janis when you work?”

“No, just today. Sometimes it’s rock. Sometimes it’s punk.”

Arai’s all-black wardrobe of well-worn clothes hints at his taste in music and there are streaks of green in his hair from what looks like dye highlights having worn off after some occasion where he had to fit the role. But if Arai is punk—if he is anti-establishment—it’s certainly not where his photography has taken him: to its very origins.

The daguerreotype, named after its French inventor Louis Daguerre, was not the first photographic process. Daguerre’s colleague Joseph Niépce had used asphaltum on copper plates rubbed with lavender oil to produce images in a camera obscura with a multi-hour exposure in the 1820s. Photosensitive materials, like silver nitrate, had been realized, in fact, as early as the 13th century. But when Daguerre accidentally broke a mercury thermometer in 1835, thus discovering a way to develop images exposed for much shorter times, he unlocked its commercial potential. He made it available to the everyman, which accounts in large part for its legacy today.

Daguerreotypes fell out of favor fairly quickly, in part because of their toxicity, and because of technological advances leading to simpler methods—like tintypes and eventually print photography. But before turning its back on mainstream needs and making its long march to relative obscurity, the daguerreotype process left behind a wealth of stunning images highly valued by historians and collectors.

Today, there are probably fewer than a hundred people still practicing the process and Arai reckons he is the only one in Japan. With digital photography’s ascendancy assured, at least until hologram makers become commercial, Arai’s pursuit of daguerreotypes does seem kind of punk. And nostalgic. And, when you see the process and the resulting images, rather inspiring, too.

“An old love interest in college had a camera and that sparked my interest in photography. It was more than ten years ago, before digital had really taken off, and I was using a film camera to take black and white shots. I started buying all kinds of old cameras. A Contax with a Zeiss lens was my first. I was studying biology but decided to enroll in trade school to learn photography. They taught us all the basics and practical things about photography but I believed you really had to go to the beginnings to understand the tradition. I started studying daguerreotypes in private at home in my kitchen.”

Arai bought “A Step by Step Guide to Alternative Photographic Printing Processes,” a book available in English. Luckily he had attended the International Christian University, where classes where all in English; otherwise, he admits, he would have hit a wall. No literature on the subject was available in Japanese. Arai notes that he also relied heavily on the internet, where all the information was in English.

“The very first time I made a daguerreotype, I was utterly impressed by its beauty. I thought, this must be a lie. It’s too simple a process to capture an image so wonderfully. The resolution is quite high, close to high-tech digital, actually. Old photographs turn brown, but if you look at dagerreotypes, they are still very sharp. The sharpness of the image depends on the plate, not necessarily the lens of the grain of the paper.”

The silver plates used in the process need to be buffed, and that can take as long as an hour for each 8×10 plate Arai uses in his Speed Graphic camera. He describes it as a zen-like activity that he gives his full concentration while using a special, hand-made polishing brush. The 6×6 plates for his Hasselblad take less time of course, and are also a little more affordable– at ¥18,000 a plate.

“When I was a student, I didn’t really have much money for them, but it’s not as if you’re taking lots of shots all the time. Maybe one picture a day, and you can re-use the plates if you mess up.”

Arai shows me a mess-up, a portrait of an elderly woman in a park, “Her face is too dark.”

The successful plates are magical to look at. You have to tilt them back and forth in light for the proper angle to view them, but when it’s right, the image suddenly appears: some cherry trees, city rooflines, portraits. Tsunami wreckage.

Since 3/11 Arai has been traveling to the Tohoku region monthly to record the devastation there. Rubble tourism has become an industry and there is hardly any dearth of photography of the wrecked coastline. It’s hard to know Arai’s motivations. It seems to be an unarticulated recognition of the connection between such a monumental tragedy and the importance of capturing the world in its passing.

As tearful survivors combed the destroyed remains of their homes and towns for mementos, photographs were among the most precious things recovered for many. Volunteer teams set up make-shift recovery centers in gyms, where countless photographs were brought to be restored or repaired. Thousands of people buried or cremated photographs instead of bodies.

Daguerreotypes are fragile. A casual finger swipe can destroy the image. And yet, they’ve managed to survive. Thanks to Arai, a little more of this passing world will survive with them. Ghostly silver, they are perhaps the real color of memory.

Arai Takashi’s images will be on display at the Kawasaki City Museum until October 10th.










新井は”A Step by Step Guide to Alternative Photographic Printing Processes”という洋書を購入した。幸いなことに彼は国際基督教大学に通った経験があり、そこではすべての講義が英語で行われていたので英語には強かったが、そうでもなければ洋書を買っても理解できず行き詰っていただろうと言う。ダゲレオタイプについて日本語で書かれた専門書は当時無かった。また、インターネット上の英語の専門サイトも大変役立ったという。









新井卓の作品を展示した「ダゲレオタイプ 修復と表現 展」が川崎市市民ミュージアムにて10月10日まで開催中。

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