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Hisako Motoo: Who is this Nobuyoshi Araki?
“My photos tell you a lot,” says Araki. He also says: “If someone’s life is boring, their photos will be boring too.”
For him, snapping a camera is as natural as breathing the air or having a pulse. “Taking photos is life itself.”
Every thought, personality and action in life repeatedly draws convoluted curves, in which both truth and untruth are present at the same time, and this is linked to the outside world by a camera. When an entire life flows from the finger pushing the shutter button to the viewfinder, the light-touched outline of reality is transformed from a simple view or sight into a spectacle. This is also why Araki’s photos are personal photos.
As Araki says: “The one expressing him/her/itself is the subject in front of the camera (whether it be a person, a street or the sky); all I do is seek to catch that expression and then photograph it in the most impressive way possible.” A photograph is nothing other than the interplay of effect and counter-effect between the subject and Araki. He then says: “A photograph is only truly made when someone looks at it, and a relationship unfolds that enables the viewer to link the work to his or her own story.”
Born in downtown Tokyo in 1940, Araki grew up in the city. In his childhood, his father, whose hobby was photography, always let him help. Although his father was only a hobby photographer, he was regarded as so talented that local people often asked him to take photos at family celebrations. “Behind the shutter curtain of a 4×5 inches camera lies the whole wide world. It was truly exciting!” After Araki graduated from the prestigious Ueno High School, his family consented to him studying photography, so long as he did so at a state university. Thus, he studied film and photography at Chiba University. With Satchin, a work made for his master’s degree, he won the first Taiyo Award (1964). In 1963 he began work at the major advertising agency Dentsu, where he met Yoko, who later became his adored wife.
As we look back at Araki’s works, it is striking how they were always innovative and controversial. In 1971 he self-published Sentimental Journey, a book of black and white photos printed on photocopying paper and published in only a thousand copies. The photobook recorded his honeymoon with Yoko, doing so with brutal honesty and thus going against the objectivity, social sensitivity and photo-technical knowledge that were regarded at the time as the linchpins of photography – this is how he exploded onto the photography scene in Japan. As a photographer he committed himself to taking personal photographs, beginning with Sentimental Journey and clearly going beyond any previously produced personal photos (family and commemorative photos). “For me, it was completely self-evident. I think every photographer has taken nude shots of his wife,” Araki says. The only question is whether they make them public. A founding principle of Japanese photographic art is a kind of personal and varied subjectivity, exerting a great effect on the younger generations and encouraging them to publish photos of family and friends. Today, if we look at the social media platforms – at Instagram, for instance – all we see are personal photos. In Japan it was then that the seed of this culture was sown. (Incidentally, Araki does not use a mobile phone, computer or digital camera.)
Having got married, Araki almost immediately began work as a freelance photographer. He did not follow the beaten path, preferring to do things his own way. He was full of original ideas: for instance, he opened guerrilla exhibitions in telephone kiosks, cafeterias and outdoor carparks. More and more people came to an understanding of his art, and he published more and more photography books. In the 1980s, magazines such as Photo Age published his photos of women dressed in kimonos or naked and bonded, as well as a series on street prostitution. Apparently, the editor of Photo Age often found himself summoned to the police station and forced to submit a written apology. Ever since the Edo period, bondage has had a ritual aspect that reveals the essence of erotica. Still, it was difficult to draw a clear line between nude photography and pornography, for in Japan it was only in the late 1980s that photography became a recognised form of art, with the appearance of museums and galleries specialising in art photography. At the time, Araki’s reputation as a photographer was limited to erotic nudes, while his many experimental pictures and instinctively conceptual photographs (in his words, “off-the-cuff ideas”) were appreciated only by editors and curators with knowledge of the world of photography.
Araki recorded every moment of his twenty-year marriage to Yoko, who died young. “I had always thought I would do portrait photography only in old age, but thanks to Yoko I started much earlier.” In late January 1990, on hearing that Yoko was critically ill, Araki rushed to the hospital with a bunch of magnolia branches. The white magnolia blossomed in the room where his wife gave her last breath – it was following the black and white photo of this scene that he began to photograph flowers on the balcony, as well as empty rooms that were missing Yoko’s flower arrangements. Ever since then, flowers have been an important motif in his oeuvre, including in the recent work Secrets of Flowers, in The Shadow of Flowers with its black and white photos on a white background, in Flower Rondeau with its close-up shots, in Sensual Flowers with its painted flower photos made with a ring flash, as well as in several recent series, namely It was Once a Paradise, Flower Game, and The Soul of Flowers, where he photographed arrangements of flowers and dolls in natural light. In 1992, his major solo exhibition in Graz (Austria) received great acclaim; since then, as a travelling exhibition, it has been on view in the major European cities. He has also published such works as Pseudo-Diary (made with a date stamp camera on 35mm film), Tokyo, Car Window (a series of 450 photographs that Araki took while slouched in the back of a taxi as it roamed the streets of Tokyo), and Ero-tos, formed from Eros and Thanatos (Araki’s own wordplay). The year 1998 saw the publication of his 20-volume (non-exhaustive) retrospective collection, mostly comprising his more recent works. In the 1990s, Araki’s photography became increasingly well-known abroad. The nickname Grand Maestro spread in Japan too, where he was already a well-established artist.
In Japan, people were living the final days of the economic bubble that had arisen in the latter half of the 1980s. Huge sums of public money were being spent on culture, while commercial spending on advertising increasing exponentially and the large retail stores were even founding museums. Fashion and advertising photographers were the great favourites of the period; the public knew them from the media. Araki, who viewed himself principally as an artist, counted as an exception. His avant-garde working methods and self-expression, coupled with his original appearance and behaviour, earned him an outstanding reputation. Although he had been practising his craft for nearly thirty years, Araki’s passion for photography had not faded. There had been no change in his vividness and honesty, in his childlike innocence, in his sense of duty, and in his sensitivity towards others.
Araki’s triumphant advance did not come to a halt in the 2000s. Magazines in several countries issued special editions containing his photography, and curators and reporters from all over the world came to visit him. His photobooks were published abroad in rapid succession. In Japan, he worked on the project Faces of Japan, in the course of which he traversed the entire country, making portraits of a thousand families in each prefecture. He self-published the series The End of the Century and the series Fotoku the New Century, for as he says: “If I’ve photographed something, I want it published immediately.” In addition to photography, he also made many photo-paintings (painted photo works), using watercolour and ink. In many countries, solo exhibitions of his work were held at major museums: for instance, the exhibition Self, Life, Death (2005) at the Barbican Centre in London. In 2008, he won the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art, becoming a life member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and Arts. In 2009 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which he received surgery the following year. Even during his struggle with the disease, he did not abandon photography. On the contrary, he documented his illness as a kind of uninvited guest in Posthumous Works and Posthumous Works II. In 2010, his beloved cat, Chiro, died at the age of twenty-two.
Araki always points out that both Eros and Thanatos feature in his pictures. By photographing the deaths of his father, mother, wife and beloved cat, he marked their loss in his memory for ever. “A photograph stops the flow of time through the aperture on its opening and closure.” For him, photography is a medium that “serves the reflection of things”, while he himself “merely places time in a frame”. The endless number of cause-effect relationships between time in gentle motion and reality are detached from the real world in the moment a photograph is taken. At the same time, the door to the imaginary world created by photographs becomes visible to anyone. The present is continuously dying away, but the photo recorded as a picture stands in connection with the deepest of memories and can go back and forth between the past, present and future of people. In Buddhism, the truest enlightenment is when we come to understand that everything is mere illusion. In the never-ending cycle of existence (mundane desires) and non-existence (emptiness), the photographer turns all his love towards the unique and unrepeatable present.
In 2013, Araki lost his sight in the right eye, owing to a retinal artery obstruction. It was then that he published the series Love on the Left Eye (a play on words with Love on the Left Bank, the title of a photography book by Ed van der Elsken, whom Araki much admires) and another series titled One Eye. Araki, who will turn eighty in 2020, says: “As one gets older and photographs even more, the cameras get better and better.” As we grow in experience, our spiritual (inner) eyes open ever wider. In his most recent works, the ever-increasing life energy can be felt, arising from the ever closer and stronger presence of death. There can be no doubt that Araki – whose true Paradise, as he himself has said, is the camera viewfinder – puts his whole being into his photos. Yet viewers too can find themselves in his works. It may well be that what Araki has sought to give us by way of his photography and in support of the drama of life and death, has always been, in its essence, love felt for the whole world.