A major retrospective at Musée Guimet in Paris delineates 50 years of Nobuyoshi Araki’s career.
With over 400 photographs taken between 1965 and 2016, “Araki” is one of the most important and comprehensive surveys dedicated to the influential Japanese photographer.
Araki: one of Japan’s greatest photographers
Nobuyoshi Araki was born in 1940 in Tokyo and is considered one of the most prolific and greatest living Japanese photographers. From 1959 to 1963, Araki studied photography and filmmaking at Chiba University’s Engineering Department, Tokyo. Among his major influences are Italian Neo-Realist and French Nouvelle Vague films, with his favourite directors being Cari Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson. After graduation, he went on to work for Dentsu, an advertising agency, where he started his career as a commercial photographer and worked there for nine years.
However, Araki would use his free time to go out in the city and shoot his personal work, documenting everyday urban life in Ginza. As quoted in a text by Taka Ishii Gallery for his 2011 exhibition “Theater of Love”, Araki said: “My Dentsu era was my training era.” It was during that time that the artist experimented with photography beyond the parameters of commercial techniques and styles, and began to create handmade photobooks by pasting prints onto sketchbooks. His first series, Xeroxed Photo Albums, comprised 26 volumes made with the facilities and materials available to him at work and which he self-published in 1970.
In 1965, Araki held his first ever solo exhibition at Shinjuku Station Building, with images from what would be later known as his Theater of Love series, comprising photographs of intimate love and sexual as well as citylife scenes.
It was during his time at the agency that he met his future wife, Yoko Aoki, in 1968 and married in 1971. One of his most important photobooks and series of photographs entitled Sentimental Journey, published in 1971 in a limited edition of 1000, documented the couple’s honeymoon from a very intimate perspective.
In 1974, he helped found the Workshop School of Photography in collaboration with Shōmei Tōmatsu and Daido Moriyama, and in 1976 he opened Araki Private Photo School with about ten students.
In 1980, Araki published Photo Diary, an important book that veered away from the sincere and honest portrayal of the reality of life seen in his documentation of his honeymoon. In a 2011 interview with TransAsia Photography Review, Araki said about the series:
For me, taking photographs can be just like keeping a diary. During the 1980s, everyone was taking pictures like a diary. In that cultural climate, the first cameras with a date function were introduced to the public. Such a camera allowed you to date all your photographs. It could be manipulated so easily. I took photographs, one after another, with different dates since I could switch the past with the future by manipulating the dates on an automatic camera. Photography is lying, and I am a liar by nature. Anything in front of you, except a real object, is fake. Photographers might consider how to express their love through photography, but those photographs are “fake love.” That is how I make the future and past.
His wife’s passing from ovarian cancer in 1990 marked an important moment in his life and artistic production. The following year, Araki published Winter Journey, comprising photos taken during Yoko’s hospitalisation and her funeral. Araki’s lens turned from a focus on the passions of life and sensual pleasures to the haunting presence of thanatos – death. In an interview with Nan Goldin in 1995, Araki said:
Photography was destined to be involved with death. Reality is in color, but at its beginnings photography always discolored reality and turned it into black and white. Color is life, black and white is death. A ghost was hiding in the invention of photography.
During his entire life and career, Araki photographed for magazines and films, shot intimate portraits of famous cinema and music stars, as well as models for famous fashion labels. He is considered a provocative genius, whose photography is profoundly erotic and sensual, and has been at times called pornographic. He is well known internationally for his photographs of women bound according to the ancestral rules of kinbaku – the Japanese art of bondage, a practice originating in the 15th century.
Araki: the exclusivity of analogue photography
Araki exclusively shoots in film and never intends to approach the now ubiquitous digital medium. He is convinced that analogue is more ‘true’ than digital, as it carries physical and sentimental traces of the photographer himself, as he tells TransAsia:
Pictures taken by a digital camera only show the instant moment. A digital camera copies the presence of reality. What you see is what you get. However, there may be something added to the frame during the process of developing or printing when it comes to gelatin silver print. There could be sentimental feelings in those photographs. This kind of “mysterious secret” goes into the process of using a film camera. It is humane, so it is appropriate for photographic expression. I do not feel the body temperature of the subject in digital image. There is no physicality. A digital camera turns a photographer into a robot, with no feeling.
In an interview with honeyee in 2009 on the occasion of his 69th birthday and exhibition, Araki said:
There is no room for putting your own feelings or affection in a digital project. I can say a digital is a bright darkroom. If you start your career with a digital camera from the beginning than you may not care, but photographs should come out of darkness. If you start from a bright place, then you can’t see the darkness.
In his preface to the MNAAG exhibition catalogue entitled The Conviction of Nobuyoshi Araki, Tadao Ando writes:
In our era when the digital camera is in full bloom, [Araki] clings to the exclusive use of film. He already has bought the quantity necessary for his entire life. Effectively he imprints each instant on film by exhausting his life and his soul. In the same way as Araki’s photos transmit this determination, they also attract people and don’t let go. As long as he lives, he will never stop running with his camera in hand. It is through Yoko, my love (1978) that I had my first ever encounter with the photos of Nobuyoshi Araki. There was a confrontation between the soul of the photographed body and that of the photographer. I felt a very vivid shock, as if I had seen the light of the Pantheon for the first time.
Araki at the Guimet: a thematic journey
The exhibition at the Musée Guimet is organised thematically, starting from a collection of photobooks comprising a great number of Araki’s publications in an arrangement called the “Library”. In his essay “Araki the writer” for the exhibition catalogue, Philippe Forest writes:
I doubt that there is a photographer to whom we can attribute more books than to Araki. His Complete Works – if we imagine that they could ever be collected – would form a collection that would make the most productive of novelists, the most prolific of poets, and the most fertile of philosophers pale with envy. […] Ten years ago, it was estimated that his books comprised more than 300 titles. […] The editorial output of the artist knows a quasi-exponential progression – which is only the faithful reflection of the artist’s formidable activity. The more time passes, the more Araki publishes. And the hypothetic library that will collate his entire oeuvre takes such dimensions that defy our imagination.
Progressing through the exhibition display, the photographic career and output of Araki’s unfold through thematic presentations, including flowers, photography as autobiography, his relation with his wife Yoko, eroticism, desire, passing through Araki’s studio, but also the evocation of death in his latest commission.
“Flowers” is a collection of vivid close-ups of flowers, both sensually evocative and charged with a colourful realism that links Araki’s oeuvre to his cultural roots, recalling ikebana, the meditative art of Japanese flower arrangement, as curator Jérôme Ghesquière mentions in his accompanying essay.
MNAAG’s Director Sophie Makariou writes in her catalogue essay “Madame Bovary chained or the martial art of Araki”:
The photographic medium, reputed as cold, passes from incarnation to incandescence through the grace of Araki’s eye and his engagement with his life. Living image, image of the living, the hyperrealism of simulation according to Jean Baudrillard. […] We could, without effort, use some simple guidelines for reading: flowers have sexual organs, they wait […] to be fertilised, sometimes by […] insects […]. But finally Araki’s flowers cannot be reduced to a capture of the female sex, just metaphorised, as a large close-up. […] And then there are almost modest flower compositions, which we could call memorial […]. These images touch us, simply.
And memorial they were: the first flowers that Araki ever photographed were higan bana or cemetery flowers. He asked the graveyard guardian to save flowers for him and he would photograph them against a plain white background.
The next section presents Araki’s sentimental voyages. Araki maintains that photography is a form of lying, as he tells TransAsia:
Photography is a secondary thing, because actual objects are true and photography is a lie and merely a copy of reality. Existence comes first.
At the same time, photography is also a way of existing. In his catalogue text, curator Jérôme Neutres writes that Araki considers photography as a comic illusion and he quotes him as saying that “photography cannot accomplish the past and reality”. The artist writes:
Photography is nothing other than a game with myself. All photography is a private landscape.
Araki uses photography as we breathe, he shoots everywhere, all the time. In the “Kinbaku” section, this aspect of his practice is epitomised. Staging a fictitious reality, Araki makes of his subjects the expression of his fantasy, testimony of historical practice – Japanese bondage began in the 15th century – and reflection of a reality that is embarrassing to most. Bondage in ancient Japan was not used as a sexual practice, but rather as a form of punishment.
The practice made use of a profound knowledge of pressure points in the human body and was a discipline that followed a strict martial code, from the length of the ropes to their colour and the strength of the bonds according to the gravity of the punishable acts.
Araki transforms this historical method of torture into an extremely sensual and erotic act that functions as a sort of stop-motion, capturing the image of a body framed through the suspension of movement, much in the same guise as in miiye in nô theatre, where the actor stops in a particular position to emphasise the intensity and beauty of a particular moment. As quoted in Neutres’ essay, Araki says about kinbaku and photography:
Capturing people or objects in a photo is an act that consists of framing reality, putting it in a box. It is because of this that photography perpetuates itself. It has affinities with kinbaku, in the act of tying up things and events. […] I tie the models myself, and after the photography session, it is still me that unties the nots […].
2THESKY, My Ender (2009) constitutes another section of the exhibition, with images of the sky with the occasional passing clouds. The series refers to life and death, and their seamless connection. Araki says:
Life is always tied to the idea of death.
The infinity of the sky, its emptiness and the ephemeral nature of clouds reference this inextricable link between life and death that permeates all of Araki’s oeuvre.
Moving on to the commission for Musée Guimet, Tokyo Tombeau, Araki presents the images in the format of an ancient scroll, side by side, horizontally without a frame, rolling one after another as if ad infinitum, almost as a monument or memorial. Neutres in his catalogue quotes Araki as saying:
It’s a walk of life. Even though I am still alive, it’s as if I was already dead or gone up to paradise. This idea of photography on a scroll, in reference to the tradition of painting scrolls, came to me after the publication of my book Paradise is monochrome. It’s a flower garden or an entertainment park. I have fun with flowers. In fact, when we say kairaku en (entertainment park), we think it’s a pleasure park, while in fact, for me, it’s an ambiguous pleasure. The character kai that I use is not 快 [to please] but 怪 [monster]. Since my first flowers, since the beginning, nothing has changed. When I was young, I had fun with flowers from the cemetery of a Buddhist temple. And now, I have the impression that I am fabricating a cemetery where I can have fun.
The series takes the titled Tokyo Tombeau (Tokyo Tomb) because, Araki says,
Tokyo is a cemetery. It’s a park of attraction. In fact, I don’t separate paradise and hell. For me, if paradise doesn’t include elements of hell, it’s not paradise. For example, a woman that is exempt from all evil doesn’t attract me. You know, the king of hell, Enma in Japanese mythology, exists even in paradise. It is difficult for me therefore to express this nuance. I try to capture this idea in a photograph. It’s a current of thought to which I adhere since a long time. It’s the same as with flowers, I photograph those that are about to wither, without being conscious.
Constellated by a narrative of loss, such as his wife’s death, the loss of sight in one eye and his prostate cancer, Araki’s life reflects his belief that photography is “a lie […] or another truth”, which represents reality through a filter, imperfect, yet carries the photographers emotions and soul. Depicting life, death and imperfection are underlying themes in Araki’s oeuvre.
Consciously or not, he unfailingly captures them in his photographs, whether they appear as erotic and sensual representations of the female body, voyeuristic urban scenes or still lives. On show are a series of photographs on which Araki has drawn and painted to make them visibly imperfect with his intervention. He is quoted in the essay by Philippe Forest as saying:
Often, I try to take the perfect photograph, but I also add a drawing to it, a sort of imperfection. Only to avoid shooting the perfect photograph. We know that there is nothing worse than perfection.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
Extracts from catalogue provided by the museum were translated from French into English by the author of the article.
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