“Over 4,000 pictures!” the press officer shouts with enthusiasm over the phone the day after the opening of the most comprehensive exhibition of 65-year-old Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographs to date.
“Self.Life.Death” is currently showing at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, and spans Araki’s entire career from his early days as a photographer working at the advertising agency Dentsu, when he was taking pictures of petchan (Pepsi bottles), to his most recent shots commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the war. The exhibition also includes a display of almost 300 of his books, as well as a recent documentary made by U.S. filmmaker Travis Klose.
The sheer volume of images is stunning, but then for someone who is a self-proclaimed shakyojin, a photo lunatic, a play on Katsushika Hokusai’s moniker of gakyojin or painting lunatic, this is hardly surprising.
Although the comparison with Hokusai is somewhat cheeky, what emerges from the exhibition is that Araki takes his own career as seriously as the painters of the past. “Everything is related to what he is doing. Photography is his life . . . if he is asked to choose between photography or his family members, he would chose photography,” says curator Akiko Miki, who has come over from the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where she usually works, to give The Japan Times an exclusive interview and present a public lecture.
Araki’s own personal narrative, or “I-novel” as he calls it, strikes you as you first enter the exhibition. On the left side of the first gallery is a kind of enclosure dedicated to pictures of Araki’s balcony in Gotokuji, Tokyo, which he kept as a mausoleum in memory of his late wife Yoko Aoki (d.1990). In the recent “Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey” (1991), Araki reworks his most famous book, 1971’s “Sentimental Journey,” a photo diary of the couple’s honeymoon with his images and her words, with the photographs he took as she was dying in 1990.
“Araki’s theme is always the same. It has ended up with this question — the relationship between life and death. Try to observe life in relation to death and death in relation to life,” says Miki.
It seems an odd paradox for someone who, like Kitagawa Utamaro, another Edo Period painter, is mostly famed not for his monogamy but for his promiscuity in life and art. Isn’t Araki famous for his images of naked women, and doesn’t he claim to have had relationships with all of them? Here are pictures of models, some of them pregnant, in kinbaku, an ancient form of Japanese rope bondage; some are maimed; some suspended from the ceiling; almost all with their legs splayed. The women are in different stages of erotic excitement or physical destruction: masturbating, post-coital, passed out, their faces, limbs and private parts sometimes erased by the photographer.
For a newcomer to Araki’s work, the effect can be disturbing. But this, alleges Miki, is all part of the persona of the diarist. “It is his imagination — he creates imaginative stories, love affairs with certain models,” she says. “For him, photography is a diary, it represents the whole of his life, the people he has met, the people he has talked to, the scenery that he sees, etc. . . . it is of course not just a diary, it is the way he inserts fictive things and manipulates the dates and the diaries.”
She also sees Yoko in many of these images. “We talked about love affairs and fictive stories between Araki and the model, but in fact it is always the relationship between Yoko, who died, and Araki . . . I get the impression that some of the models are, not exactly alter egos but a replacement of Yoko, who he has lost . . . there are so many different women’s faces, but when you look at a lot, there are certain faces that he likes and certain similarities to Yoko’s face. I think over and over he keeps re-creating the relationship between Yoko and himself.”
The book “Sentimental Journey” (1971) was an astonishingly frank account of the couple’s honeymoon; his images are combined with Yoko’s words, and according to Yoko, her aunt was so shocked by the exposed young bride that she had to take to her bed for three days. Looking closely you start to see that the best pictures here are all part of sequences — chronological narratives that Araki turned into books.
There are photographs from the book “Satchin and his Brother Mabo” (1963) — itself from the film “Children Living in Apartment Blocks” (1963), a thrilling portrait of kids in Tokyo’s Shitamachi that won him the Taiyo photography prize; and there are the poignant photographs and sketches he made for an in-progress I-novel that he started with the suicidal writer Izumi Suzuki (d.1986). “I am convinced that for him, the book is the most important way of representing photographs,” says Miki. “He keeps saying that the exhibition is like fireworks, it is ephemeral, while the book is something that he can keep, and composing this sequence gives certain stories and certain narratives.”
Miki notes that this exhibition is exceptional in that it includes work that has never been seen by the public before. Some are early archival photographs exhibited in the “workshop books” that he made at Dentsu, “where he learned that photography is not just taking photographs, it is about how to edit and present them,” she says.
Although Araki may have rebelled from the advertising firm, leaving Dentsu to work freelance after winning the Taiyo prize, his iconoclastic instincts have paradoxically only made him more of an icon. Araki has kept himself constantly in the public spotlight — he even brands himself an Araki Genius who makes Arakimentaris and Arakinema and whose preferred form of subversion is Ararchy. Miki even describes the 1992 charges of obscenity by Japanese police for exhibiting his sexually explicit photographs of women as a “kind of ritual arrest.”
So, with this retrospective at the Barbican, has the dirty uncle of Japanese photography come clean? His reception in London has certainly been positive, with very few critics protesting the nature of the subject matter.
“I was very conscious that in the West there was a very strong stereotypical image of Araki — icon of bondage, kind of pervert, almost pornographic photographer; it is certainly true that some of the images deal with it. But he is not a pornographic photographer for male sexual desire, that is not the point,” claims Miki. “A lot of the Western public didn’t know anything about Araki’s photos of Tokyo; it was quite important to show different aspects of his works.”
And, after so much sexual imagery, Araki’s outdoor shots provide light relief. In one of the last sequences of the exhibition from the book “Tokyo Summer Story” (2003), a homage to film director Yasujiro Ozu, we follow the photographer-voyeur around the streets, past ads for bathing wear; people hanging around outside Shibuya; a steel robot on the side of a building; a hearse; election posters; a children’s marching band; a summer festival; a mother with kids. The story of a summer in Tokyo unfolds beautifully through the photographer’s frame as he shoots from a car window. Like Eugene Atget, who photographed the empty streets of Paris at the turn of the last century, Araki is fascinated by the city of his birth, which has literally risen from the ashes during his lifetime. He takes photographs of Tokyo because “Tokyo is a story.”
In these city narratives and in the thousands of portraits he has taken since the 1960s, Araki is at his best, using his photography as a medium to expose the human happiness, sadness, togetherness and loneliness in the world he sees around him. In Klose’s documentary film, he eagerly retrieves books from his archives that are filled with movingly expressive faces of ordinary people he photographed in Ginza in the 1970s, “feelings of sadness and loneliness, it shows in their faces,” he says.
But like any good I-novelist, Araki just cannot resist inserting himself into the frame. Most of the sequences begin or end with some kind of self-portrait. As I was leaving the exhibition, I noticed the last photograph in his “Araki Now: Sixty Years on after the War” sequence. It is a shot of a model’s back with Araki’s impish face tattooed at its base. A bit like an obsessive child, Araki loves putting his signature on things — especially women — although his authorial pose sometimes gets in the way of the narrative he is trying to create.