Composition "Ikko Narahara"

Mika Kobayashi

From a Trappist monastery in Hokkaido to a female prison in Wakayama, the images in Ikko Narahara’s photo series ‘Oukoku’ (Kingdom), released in 1958, peer into a world where people live in isolated places, away from the world we know. The photograph I am going to introduce to you is an image taken in a cemetery of a Trappist monastery. The image has been used as the cover image for Narahara’s photobook ‘Garden of Silence – Within the Walls’ (1978).

The monk has taken a vow of silence; to communicate, he puts the fingers of his right hand above his eyelids and signs the word: “night”. Corresponding themes can be found throughout the image — the monk and the cemetery (“dead” and “living”), also express the concepts night and day. Based on this juxtaposition, I believe the whole composition rests in the elaborate combination of the monk’s hidden face and the hand in front of it.

The parts of the image that guide your eyes are the dominating, white outlines and shapes — the sleeves of the monk’s robe, his hand, and the cross in the background. If we draw a diagonal line from the top right corner to the bottom left corner of the image, the line overlaps almost perfectly with his wrist and his arm. Adding another diagonal line for the opposite corners, we can see it runs parallel to the cuff of his sleeve.
Now let’s add a diagonal line (in blue), running parallel to the line that follows his arm, but along the bottom of his wrist, and a second one opposite it, at the same distance to the yellow diagonal. Two short additional lines to connect the edges of both lines, and we’ve created a rhombus that is cut in half by the other yellow diagonal. The head and the hand of the monk sit inside the top of the rhombus, his shoulder and wrist are settled in the bottom part. His elbow and the top of his head are positioned, symmetrically, in their respective half’s centers.
When we draw lines connecting each of the corners in the rhombus’ top half, we create a cross on the monk’s face — a cross that overlaps perfectly with his eyebrows and his nose, and with his fingers pressing down on his eyelids.

Analyzing the composition in this way, being conscious of the cross in the background and the cross on the monk’s face, we can feel the depth of the whole image and the dynamic, rhythmic distribution of black and white more vividly, and the ’night’, signed by the monk despite his silence, takes on a deeper nuance.

Thanks to his excellent sense for composition, Ikko Narahara created images that resonated deeply with their respective subjects, images that leave an unforgettable impression. In the postscript of his photobook “Garden of Silence – Within the Walls”, Narahara said the following:
“The world reflected in photographs is, in the end, shows us scenes in which the reality outside connects with the realm of the soul inside, that’s the only way I can explain it.”

Mika Kobayashi

Photography researcher / Visiting research scholar at Tokyo Museum of Modern Art

Active in many fields including conducting lectures and workshops on Japanese and international photography, planning exhibitions and contributing to magazines.

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