Since Nobuyoshi Araki lost his beloved cat Chiro a year ago, he made a point of taking photographs on a daily basis. He took shots of naked women in kimono, of the sky, of Tokyo on the day of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake (March 11) and even some on his way to hospital appointments. In thousands of images, Araki illustrated a year of his life without Chiro, his favorite companion since his wife died 11 years ago.
“Film Nostalgia” at Taka Ishii Gallery exhibits around 600 of these, often personal, images, as the photographer most famous for his erotic shots of women now professes that nostalgia is the most important aspect of our lives.
“I am not embarrassed to title my show ‘Nostalgia,’ as I might have been in the past. Though it can come off as very cliched,” Araki says thoughtfully. “But I am now officially calling myself ‘The old man, a photo maniac,’ just like Hokusai (the ukiyo-e artist who called himself “The old man, a painting maniac”) did when he was about 75 years old. Photography, in a way, is a modern ukiyo-e.”
Along those lines of traditional Japanese art, some of Araki’s photography assimilates aspects of nihonga (Japanese-style painting) Flowers pictured with dinosaur toys mimic flower and bird motifs, while nude women draped in kimono imitate flower paintings. Though he playfully challenges himself with this tribute to nihonga, Araki says maintaining his distinct style in the face of an age-old tradition was relatively simple. “It’s easy when you are a genius, ideas just fall to you,” he explains laughing.
His storied love of the female form, too, continues to be a strong feature of his work, as can be seen in his fashion magazine photos. To Araki, fashion photography is amusing and fascinating. “Women change depending on what you dress them with, not when undressing them,” he says, explaining that the female figure is like an art work when styled by designers such as Yoji Yamamoto, and it is their facial expressions that change the most. “That’s not the case with Uniqlo, though,” he quickly adds.
Out of the 13 series of prints on show, one section, titled “Pseudo Dates,” comprises various everyday subjects, including friends, food and some old images of Chiro. Araki used to say that a photo was not a photo unless it was dated, but here he has scratched out each of the images’ dates. “I can alter a photo to make it appear in the present, past or future,” says Araki, who once rolled back the date meter on his camera on the anniversary day of Chiro’s death in order to photograph another series dedicated to the cat. “But for these series I felt that if I erased the time they were taken, they would last forever. To me, the result symbolizes eternity.”
As well as obscuring dates or changing them to evoke nostalgic emotions, Araki aptly uses a new version of an old medium for another series of images in “Nostalgia.” After Polaroid discontinued their instant films, Netherlands-based Impossible Project re-opened an old Polaroid film factory in 2009 to create something similar — and Araki, who has always loved Polaroids, has been using the new films since they went into production.
Though Impossible Project didn’t gain the rights to Polaroid’s film formula, its films still produce that hazy vintage look that many photographers admire, and the company says it intends to keep improving image quality. Araki, however, prefers the new films’ unstable nature. “I like the blurry ones,” he says, pointing to a photo that has developed with a light-blue hue and gray spots. “These instant films may be made by amateurs but they produce great photographic aesthetics.”
This loyalty to analog photography sits well with his newfound admiration for nostalgia. “I’m still attracted to the darkroom process and the use of paper,” he says. And if nostalgia is indeed the most important aspect of life, for photography it might ironically point to the future. “I will root for film photography till I die,” Araki says, commenting on digital cameras.
Nobuyoshi Araki: “Film Nostalgia” at Taka Ishii Gallery (Kyosumi, Tokyo) runs till May 28; admission free; open 12 p.m.-6 p.m. For more information, visit www.takaishiigallery.com.