Nobuyoshi Araki was born in Tokyo in 1940 and was given his first camera by his father in junior high. He studied photography and film at Chiba University and went into commercial photography soon after graduating. Four decades and over 250 photo publications later, the 63-year-old artist stands a long way from his start as a cameraman for the advertising titan Dentsu. While he no longer has to distribute his art by himself (at Dentsu, he indiscriminately mailed his Xeroxed photo books to strangers), he still retains his gift for self-promotion.
Showing no signs of mellowing or retreating into retirement, Araki continues to stay active while maintaining his controversial persona. (“To take a good photo of a woman, you have to sleep with her,” he once said.) This May the photographer published “ARAKI by ARAKI” — a retrospective photobook of the 40-year career of this pioneer of contemporary Japanese photography. Despite the controversy and censorship that has colored the career of this maverick, it is difficult to question his talent. He possesses the almost magical ability to transform the most mundane details into objects of fascination, to impregnate them with a raw, sexual energy — from fleeting scenes of the urban landscape to slivers of sukiyaki beef or wilted chrysanthemums. His works are steeped in his trademark obsessions: women, flowers, women, skies, women, his cat Chiro, women, Tokyo — and women.
Like the man himself, who somewhat resembles a mad professor in shades, Araki’s photos leave an indelible impression. He shocks, seduces, perturbs and confuses. Those vaguely familiar with his works cannot help but notice the apparent disconnection between the gentle photographer of “Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey” documenting the artist’s relationship with his deceased wife and lifelong muse, Yoko, and the almost clinical way he surveys the female form, trussed up in ropes, in some of his bondage pieces. His work is full of such apparent contradictions. This mischievous photographer provokes viewers with images of the female form that are often oddly sensuous and objective at the same time, both erotic and cerebral. Ultimately, Araki presents us with a puzzle: the naked human psyche itself.
After four decades of prolific output, you seem to show no signs of slowing down. What keeps you going?
Photography for me is the act of living itself. It’s nothing special; it comes naturally.
What are you trying to do through your photos?
To live. Other people talk about trying to do something through photography or through politics, or whatever. I’m not like that at all. It’s all about me. That’s why I call my photos “personal photos.” They’re not for anything. It’s all about living, like breathing. So they don’t serve a purpose; they’re totally useless to other people! (Laughs). It isn’t about society or anything like that.
How do you see the nature of the relationship between art, the artist and the society in which he lives? Is there a relationship at all?
It doesn’t exist. I’m just not interested in “society” — what happens out there, the big picture. But having said that I guess as long as I’m alive, I’ll be part of this society, so it’s hard to deny any relationship point blank. To be honest, it’s the people and things immediately near me — for example, women, my neighborhood, particular places — that I have relationships with [rather than society in the abstract]. I don’t give a damn about [grand concepts like] the world.
As one of the most prominent figures on the art scene in Japan, can you talk to us about the status of the artist in Japanese society?
How should I know? Anyway, [Japanese] “society,” or rather the [Japanese] public, don’t understand the meaning of the word “artist.” They have no clue what an artist is. It’s only very recently that this label “artist” has suddenly become so trendy and entered the mainstream consciousness. For the longest time, we were simply dismissed as being useless and unproductive good-for-nothings. These days people have started to recognize that there might be some value in art after all — people have started talking about art as having a healing or therapeutic function — but the reality is that we [artists] have been ignored until now. For example, the reception I get in Europe and the reception I get in Japan are worlds apart. In Europe they call me “maestro”!
And in Japan?
It’s a completely different story. Let’s get one thing clear. No one tries to earn a living as an “artist” in Japan. It’s impossible. The real market [for my works] is in Europe. In Japan people know of me, but that has nothing to do with whether my works sell or not. In Japan, the average man on the street doesn’t think of photography as “art,” whereas in Europe [photography] is respected as an art form. In Europe people buy prints, but in Japan it’s only a handful of collectors who buy them.
So what you’re saying is that a general awareness, or rather appreciation, of photography as an artistic medium is lacking in Japan?
Yes. In Japan, photography has a rich history rooted in our native art forms such as ukiyoe (wooden block prints). We have a long tradition of prints. I guess the fundamental problem is that you can make as many copies as you want of photos or prints. So anyone can do it. There’s nothing special. This is particularly the case these days with digital cameras all the rage. It’s so easy, anyone can do it, and so it loses all value. And so people just don’t buy photos. This mentality is so deeply ingrained in Japanese people that the photographer becomes “one of us” and so as a result we [photographers] are deprived of any kind of special status. In a sense you’re given more credit as an “artist” if you draw well.
What have you found to be the differences in the reception of your works abroad and the reception of your works at home?
Well, compared with Japanese viewers, I think they have a better understanding [of my works]. They understand what photography is. To be honest, though, it doesn’t really matter to me how they interpret my work. As long as I see the word “maestro” in the headlines, I’m happy.
And how about the media in Japan?
Well, I haven’t done many interviews with the Japanese media recently, so this is actually rare. If you look at my photos you’ll understand that there’s very little room left for questions. It’s all there.
Because you’ve put yourself — all your energies, thoughts and emotions — into your photos?
Yes, basically. I’m there in my photos. My photos are extremely graphic, extremely detailed, extremely explicit. There’s no ambiguity. My work is simple, it’s all laid out in black-and-white, so they probably find it hard to know what to ask.
Your have a wide and varied repertoire of photographic styles and subjects, some of which are sharply contrasting. Do you find that there are people who love one aspect of your work, to the exclusion of all others? “Yes please” to flowers, but “no thank you” to nudes?
I don’t think so; they’re not the majority. These days I project my passion for life onto everything I take so it’s all cool — whether it’s women, flowers, skies, clouds, cats. And people have begun to latch onto this. That’s why my predominantly female fan base keeps growing. For example, say there’s someone who first starts off by buying my book of cats, then while they’re browsing through the bibliography they stumble across the bondage shots and nudes and end up buying these as well and consequently liking my work even more! Now that’s something, don’t you think? Whereas in the past fans would selectively pick out just the cats and flowers, now it’s everything. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that wonderful? I guess this kind of thing started happening 20 or so years ago. And it says a lot about women. I have a lot of female fans you see. Men will always like the dirty, erotic stuff, but with women it’s not quite the same.
I think things are slowly getting better and people are beginning to understand my work better. I think it’s important to have some kind of feeling, or a passion toward everything and anything. It’s all the same: flowers, women, the sky, my balcony, that person sitting in front of you in the subway. You have to look at everything passionately. I get the sense that people are finally beginning to realize that this is what photography is all about. And I don’t mean to boast, but I’ve probably helped to bring about this kind of awareness. People always talk about being good at something or loving something. That’s not good enough. You have to feel [a passion] for everything around you.
Why is it that so many women bared themselves for you?
It’s simple: It’s because I’m honest and direct. I don’t hide anything from women, I have no secrets.
Is that all? You make it sound so simple.
Because I’m adorable? (Laughs) It’s simple. A lot of men get nowhere with women because they’re not honest about their feelings. That’s why they get nothing in return. Women will respond to you as long you hurl your true feelings at them, stripped of all pretensions.
Look at my photos and you’ll see that I shoot each and every woman passionately. You see I’ve been doing this the past 40 years, and every year these amazing women keep turning up on my doorstep. I’m a lucky fellow! Each one of them brings back a certain memory. Each one of them is special to me.
So the relationship doesn’t end after you’ve pressed the shutter release?
I keep in touch with most of them. I guess that’s a measure of just how much we connect at the time.
One distinctive aspect of your nude photos is that most of the models featured are not professionals but amateurs from all walks of life: students, housewives, OLs. What brings these women to your doorstep?
I guess they can’t help it, they can’t resist. That’s something you should ask them, not me.
But I can’t help but wonder what’s in it for them?
The time we spend together, we have a lot of fun, you know. That’s what relationships are all about — sharing an experience — and in this case the experience is recorded in the photo. At the same time it remains with them as a very personal memory. Perhaps it’s the latter that means more to them. That’s the kind of relationship I have with my subjects: one of extreme intimacy. The time that we spend together, just the two of us, whether it’s just five or 10 minutes or as long as a year, the photo forges a bond between us. It’s a record of that moment, and of our relationship. I won’t say that the bond lasts forever. People talk about photos lasting forever, but that’s bullshit. But you know, frankly speaking, I’m the one who wants to ask!
Have you ever asked?
Of course not. They come to me wanting to be photographed, so what can I say? It’s not my place to ask why.
You have done a number of high-profile ad campaigns for big names such as Coca-Cola and Uniqlo, alongside your other noncommercial work. Where do you draw the line between work and art?
It all boils down to the woman’s charm. That’s all I care about.
What do you mean by a charming woman?
I guess that’s defined by the chemistry between us. At the end of the day though it’s a question of class. A woman’s got to have class.
Is a woman’s charm always linked to sexuality? Or can they be considered separately?
Hmmm. Well, I guess that’s inevitable.
And for men?
Men have to be sexy, too, mind you. But a charming man . . . hmmm. Male sexuality isn’t really my field. It’s something a bit removed from my interests. For a woman though, sexuality is a must. Some of the younger generation [of photographers] have started to explore male sexuality, but I haven’t ventured down that path yet.
So is that your next challenge — an exploration of male sexuality?
It’s not really my style, although I’m not saying that it doesn’t interest me at all. I guess I’ll get there eventually. At the moment I’ve been asked to write something for the new Andy Warhol photobook titled “SEX.” It’s all male nudes. I really don’t like pretending to be something I’m not, or being insincere, so it doesn’t feel quite right. I’m not quite ready yet. Things might change in the future, but now’s not the time.
So I guess this will keep you busy over the next 40 years?
The next 40 years? I like that spirit! I’m going to keep doing this until I’m 100!
What’s in store for the next 40 years?
That is something I don’t like to set in stone. I like to leave that to fate. Life’s more fun that way. The women I meet will shape my future, that’s why I’m certain I’m destined to meet a true goddess. Anyway, it’s better that way — to have your life laid out for you by God. The whole idea of setting out to make your own future is such a boring idea. I want to go return to a white canvas, to return to a state of unconsciousness. You see today is all about the next 40 years, not the past 40 years. I want to keep looking toward the future.
How do you think Japan has changed during the 40 years you have been working as a professional photographer?
How should I know? Change in Japan? There hasn’t been any, I imagine. We’ve been in a postwar era. All the wars have been in Iraq or where have you, so there’s been little change [here]. No atomic bombs have been dropped or anything. And the small changes that we experience in everyday life don’t really count as changes. You meet a man, you break up with a man — that isn’t change. It’s just the ebb and flow of things.
But you mentioned earlier how you have seen a change in the attitudes of your predominantly female fans toward your work. Surely that is a reflection of some wider change in women?
But that’s not a significant change. That’s what I’ve been trying to say: That’s the extent of the changes that we experience [here in Japan]. Having come all this way, I guess it’s a bit strange to say this about myself and my own work, but you’ll notice that there’s really been no real change, no evolution as such in my work. Sure, there are times when I focus on death, and other times when I emerge from these morbid moods to contemplate sex and life — from thanatos to eros — and then back again. It’s an endless cycle, which keeps repeating itself.
Some of your nude and bondage photos seem to conspicuously challenge the boundaries of pornography and art. What do you think distinguishes the two? Is such a distinction meaningful?
Leaving aside the question of what is art, if there is something, it’s that art devoid of porn is weak art. Art always contains some element of pornography. Or rather it should.
Why is that?
Because it’s the motivating force for all life.