Icons of Photography: Nobuyoshi Araki

Nobuyoshi Araki was born on May 25 1940, in Tokyo, the fifth of seven children of a traditional shoemaker (and hobbyist photographer). Araki, as he is always known, would have been nearly five years old the night 279 USAF B-29s dropped 1,700 tons of bombs on the city, creating the firestorm which killed at least 100,000. He has recalled emerging from a bomb shelter to see a neighbour’s house explode into flames.

Life and death. It’s tempting – and probably right – to suggest that Araki the photographer was born in that Tokyo moment. As a photographer, he’s known for three big things.

One, that he is, by his own – not always reliable – account, something of a pornographer.

Two, the sheer volume of his output – ‘the most prolific photographer in the history of the medium’, according to the Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Photography. Araki himself: ‘The more photos the better.’ A 2003 show in Modena contained 3,300 pictures. His 2006 Barbican retrospective featured more than 4,000. ‘Everything depends on the quantity I produce,’ he has said.

Three, he has created his own Tokyo – in thousands of seemingly mundane but powerfully evocative images. ‘A city of obscene energy and inhuman emptiness,’ wrote Junichi Shioda, chief curator of Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Art. ‘Araki’s photographs are like a mirror, reflecting the reality in which we live.’

He didn’t come straight to the game. At university, he studied engineering. Then, in 1963, he went to work for Entsu, now the world’s biggest advertising agency. There, he met Yoko, his wife, model and muse – whose death, in 1990, cast the longest of shadows over his work. ‘This central, feminine void rules everything,’ he later said of Yoko.

In 1972, he struck out on his own as a photographer. ‘After working as a commercial photographer, advertising on behalf of other people, I quite simply decided to go into advertising for myself alone, promoting myself.’ Right from the beginning, he put together books of his work, records of his own life – in the Japanese tradition of shi-shosetsu (‘novel of the I’) but also a contemporary far eastern parallel to the self-documenting work of such Americans and Europeans as Stephen Shore and Wolfgang Tillmans.

His first books were photostatted and passed to friends. Soon, they were properly printed. To date, he has published some 350. Araki: ‘My photos are my diary. Period.’ When his wife Yoko fell seriously ill, he made a ‘food diary’ of everything he ate with her in the year leading up to her death. Working in both colour and monochrome, he used ring flash and a macro lens designed for taking close-ups of skin diseases and internal organs. The diary became a book, The Banquet.

Still, it is too easy to be taken in by the belief that the photographs are the photographer. Araki is slyer than that. There is a distance and irony in his pictures that there is not in, say, Nan Goldin’s diary-of-my-life photographs. He is always playing games – of his own devising, his own subterranean world. ‘I take nude pictures of women even when they’re fully clothed.’

His work is omnivorous, rapacious, filled with hunger. While other photographers take pictures then edit, Araki seems only to edit before he shoots, never after. His vision is narrowish: women, flowers and Tokyo, mostly. But within that, nothing is privileged, everything has equal status: a Tokyo backstreet, a flower, his lunch, Yoko on her death bed, Yoko in orgasm, an S&M brothel, plastic monsters, a young woman in a flowery dress, himself, the Japanese poet Miyata Minori naked, showing her mastectomy scar.

Nor is there any one Araki style or approach. Snap-shots, studio constructions, carefully staged images, colour, black and white, Polaroids, prints from negatives left in the rain, hand-coloured images: he’ll try anything.

Nothing is forbidden, everything is printed. Which is why his work has such universality to it. It’s the inside of his head, first, but it’s a representation of the inside of all our heads, too. If it’s true that our entire life flashes past us as we die, Araki’s oeuvre is perhaps an attempt to create that experience. (It’s not true, by the way, that our life flashes past us as we die. Studies of the ‘back-from-the-dead’ – ie those of us who have physically died but been reincarted by the powers of modern medicine – have found no evidence of  it, anyway. Instead, perhaps, Araki’s entire life flashes past us as we die.)

There’s despair in his work, too – scarcely news to Araki himself. ‘After Yoko’s death I wanted to photograph nothing but life. However, each time I pressed the trigger, I closed on death, for if you photograph, then you stop time. I want to tell you one thing, and listen well: Photography is murder.’

He has also often said, in various ways, that, for him sex and death are inseparable desires. It is, of course, his sex pictures that have gained most attention. To some, they are simply pornographic – as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Direct imagery, designed simply to arouse, is a Japanese staple. You see people – well, men – studying it on subway trains. You see it in the erotic images of Shunga, which are said to have been a significant influence on Araki. Probably the most famous Shunga print is Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814), a woman having sex with a pair of octopuses. ‘Goood! Whew! Aah! Good, good, aaaaaaaaaah!’ reads part of the caption.’ So pornographic. So comic strip. So funny. So Araki.

His work has appeared in Japanese Playboy and the wonderfully titled S&M Sniper magazine. He’s made a porn film – neither Araki nor porno fans much liked it. And he’s made many, many pictures of young women trussed in ropes – the Japanese form of erotic bondage, kinbaku, which became widely popular during the 1950s, ie Araki’s teenhood.

That these pictures are not to be taken entirely at face value is perhaps indicated by the obvious fakeness of the blood. ‘I only tie up a woman’s body because I know I cannot tie up her heart,’ he said. ‘For Araki, faces are the real private parts,’ wrote Adrian Searle. ‘I don’t take photographs with my head,’ said Araki. ‘I take them with my dick.’

He has been fined for pornography but the fines have been small. He’s something of a god in Tokyo. He even has his own private karaoke bar in the city. It’s been used for fashion shoots for Nippon Vogue.

© Peter Silverton 2019

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