Throughout a prolific and contentious career, Tokyo-born Nobuyoshi Araki has delved perhaps further than any other Japanese photographer into the themes surrounding sex, death and domination. His work over a 46-year span has seen him publish more than 450 photobooks tackling subjects as varied as prostitution, sadomasochism, love and intimacy.
His personal and sometimes voyeuristic photographs have sparked much controversy, but his graphic use of imagery has been an instrumental force in breaking taboos surrounding nudity in modern Japanese culture.
Whilst he has gained many admirers and a legion of dedicated followers, his detractors dismiss his work as misogynistic and derogatory, comparing it to mere pornography.
Always an innovator, the 76-year-old’s skill behind the camera is still very much in demand, having recently teamed up with New York’s Supreme to collaborate on their latest clothing release. With this in mind, the latest installment of our Know Your Photographers series takes a look at the impact and legacy of one of Japan’s most fearless photographers.
High Wire Antics
If Araki is known for one thing in particular, then it is his highly sexual – and often controversial – black and white photography.
A particular fascination of his is the art of rope bondage, known in Japan as Kinbaku-bi – the "beauty of tight binding." Huge swathes of his work are dedicated to images of demure Japanese women, often in traditional dress, hanging precariously from ceilings or sitting on floors, staring silently back at the camera with their limbs tightly restrained.
The ideas of control, submission and eroticism that are found in Kinbaku-bi make it the most alluring of subject matters for Araki, and the practice of depicting women in these positions has been an obsession of his throughout his career.
Undoubtedly there is a strange beauty in seeing a woman draped in a kimono suspended aloft with ropes, but the capturing of a moment of such intimacy and vulnerability can, at times, feel somewhat exploitative.
His pursuit of Kinbaku-bi has led to much criticism, with accusations leveled at him that his negative representation of women shows them merely as objects existing solely for men’s sexual desires. Some regard his images as equal to pornography, whilst others accuse him of promoting the use of violence against women.
Fellow photographic provocateur Richard Kern views Araki’s high-wire antics as a way of him playing out his fantasies in real life. “Men like to have ultimate control over women,” he explains. “I don’t care what excuse they give you. It is men wanting to see women in a position when they can be dominated totally.”
'Tokyo Lucky Hole' and the Exploration of Tokyo’s Red Light Districts
Sexuality, power play and lust are important motifs in much of Araki’s work. Having been born in a red light district in northeastern Tokyo in 1940, it is not entirely surprising that his attention is so focused on subjects linked with the environment of his upbringing.
But in 1990, shortly after his wife Yoko died of ovarian cancer, he embarked on the most controversial period of his career, with the resulting book, Tokyo Lucky Hole, a personal diary of his trips to the brothels of his home city.
Whilst it is true that Tokyo Lucky Hole is incredibly shocking in its visceral detail (sex, bondage, cages and orgies all feature heavily), the documentarian style that pervades the body of work gives it an almost anthropological angle.
The power of the imagery lies in the authenticity of Araki’s approach, something he achieved by blurring the lines between subject and photographer.
The first-hand participatory method in which Tokyo Lucky Hole is shot sees Araki at the center of many images, actively engaging in sex with the prostitutes whilst his assistant takes control of the camera. It is here, in the genuine moments of intimacy – not the nudity – where shock value lies.
Nothing is off-limits in Tokyo Lucky Hole, with the prostitutes and their clients shown in all emotional and physical states. Pleasure, depression and passion are all captured by Araki’s unremitting lens. The work has been interpreted by some as voyeuristic, but Araki here is playing the role of documenter, capturing a part of life that is rarely seen by the outside world.
Comparisons With Robert Mapplethorpe
The themes and subject matter that Araki explores bear a striking similarity to that of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Known for his active involvement and extensive photographic documentation of the gay and underground fetish scenes of New York in the 1970s, Mapplethorpe also broke the divide between subject and photographer.
He often invited his sitters to engage in sexual acts with him, photographing the results, and, like Araki, using his sexual behavior as the basis for much of his artistic output. Somewhat tellingly, they both played with the idea of sexuality in non-sexual objects.
Mapplethorpe’s extensive period looking at the ambiguous, inherent sensuousness of flowers is also something Araki focuses on in his 1993 book, EROTOS. Here, he impregnates taps, shadows and gaps in the pavement with a strong suggestion of eroticism. Sexuality, even in the mundane and everyday, is clearly a driving force for both artists.
To depict Araki as a man with a singular focus on sex would be doing him a huge disservice. There is a much more emotional and personal side to his work that often gets overlooked in favor of the overtly shocking images.
In 1971, he made his mark on contemporary photography when he released the book Sentimental Journey. In it, he documented the honeymoon he and his wife took, exposing the tender, intimate and mundane moments any couple would experience on their wedding vacation. Mixed amongst the photos of train carriages and hotel rooms are images of Araki having sex with his new wife, Yoko.
These incredibly private moments sometimes make for awkward viewing – seeing someone so physically and emotionally exposed can be uncomfortable for some. But Araki hasn’t included these images merely to distress. “That is what everyone does on a honeymoon, so it is nothing special,” he explained in a 2011 interview. “I like to explore the banality of life, people’s ordinary activities.”
Sentimental Journey is the first part in a larger series of books that study two of the most influential figures in his life. Released in 1991, Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey recounts the final years of his marriage, with a particular focus on Yoko’s battle with terminal illness.
His images methodically detail her symptoms, the deterioration of her physical and mental health and her eventual death. It is an unflinching, often distressing look at the devastation caused by cancer and is a perfect example of Araki’s fearless mindset when it comes to photography.
After Yoko’s death, Araki lived alone with his pet cat, Chiro, and the 2010 book Sentimental Journey, Spring Journey centers around this new relationship. Once again, the work was published after the subject’s death and the focus is on the moments the two shared together in the wake of Yoko’s departure. The parallels between the two journeys are poignant, with Araki purposefully choosing similar compositions and themes to draw parallels between his two muses.
These books show that Araki considers no subject too sensitive. Even his battle with prostate cancer in 2009 is documented in forensic, emotionless detail in the book Tokyo Zenritsusen gan (Tokyo Prostate Cancer).
The date stamps on the bottom corner of the photographs have been manipulated by Araki in order to display the 6th and 9th of April, references to the dates of the 1945 atomic bombings by the U.S. on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here, Araki is alluding to his own personal relationship with radioactivity by making the connection to two of the most harrowing days in Japanese history.
A Relentless Passion for Photography
A look back at Araki’s work to date shows a man with a relentless passion for photography. The vast majority of his images make their way into the public domain via his photobooks, with his prodigious work seeing him release up to 20 a year, often in limited editions of 500-1000.
The act of releasing these photographs is “like diarrhea,” he says. “When I take photographs, I publish them immediately so that I don’t get constipated.”
The impact of Araki will always be most acutely felt in his homeland, where his uncompromising portrayal of sex and sexual practices caused the most controversy.
His approach has landed him in trouble with the government many times – his 1992 exhibition "Photomania Diary" was forcibly shut by the police on grounds of obscenity, whilst Araki was also arrested for disorderly conduct – but he must also be credited with helping to break taboos around the subjects of nudity, sex and prostitution.
But Araki’s aim was never to change the world. Photography for him is a way of life. With a camera in his hand he is alive; free to explore his thoughts, pursue his fantasies and catalog his life experiences, trying to capture the unquantifiable ephemeral moments that life presents before they disappear forever.
Check out Nobuyoshi Araki's latest book here.
When you're done, take a look at our Know Your Photographers installment focusing on Richard Avedon.