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Artist

Nobuyoshi Araki

Japanese

1940, Tokyo, Tokyo prefecture

Black and white portrait of an Asian man wearing an eye patch, Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki; photo: © Nobuyoshi Araki, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

One of the most prolific figures in the field of Japanese photography, Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940) has produced countless pictures and more than five hundred photobooks since 1970. Such an abundant body of work defies easy categorization, an endeavor made all the more challenging by Araki’s experimentation with media including collage, film, and, more recently, Polaroid instant technology. Araki’s wry, irreverent work, frequently employing sexual subject matter, has often ignited controversy and earned him a degree of notoriety. The frenetic nature of his photographs, which he tends to shoot with very little preparation, is emblematic of the Japanese experience of World War II and its chaotic aftermath.

Araki entered Chiba University in 1959, majoring in photography and film. The regimented and technical nature of the program, then situated in the engineering department, was unappealing to the nonconforming Araki. The film he turned in as his final project, however—Children in Apartment Blocks (1963)—served as the germ for one of his earliest photographic series, for which he received an award from Taiyo magazine the following year. Satchin (1964) focuses on schoolchildren in the Shitamachi neighborhood of Tokyo, which remained largely unchanged amid the flurry of rapid urban transformation leading up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After graduation, Araki took a job as a commercial photographer for the advertising firm Dentsu. While he found the work frustratingly dull, he made good use of Dentsu’s well-stocked facilities to pursue photography on his own time, going so far as to illicitly use the company’s photocopier to produce an early photobook.

Two events pivotal to Araki’s life and work took place in the late 1960s: his father died in 1967, and he met his future wife, Yoko Aoki, then working as a typist at Dentsu, the following year. Death and love would become two of the principal driving forces behind Araki’s profoundly human photography, and Yoko would become Araki’s most frequent photographic subject. The couple wed in 1971 and embarked on a honeymoon, which Araki extensively photographed. With its narrative style, personal tone, and vernacular aesthetic, the resulting volume—Sentimental Journey (1971)—is regarded as one of the most important Japanese photobooks of the twentieth century. Araki’s growing success as a photographer allowed him to leave Dentsu to focus solely on his artistic career in 1972.

Araki has referred to his wide-ranging and eclectic work as “I-photography,” after the “I-novel,” a Japanese confessional literary genre often written in the first person. His unwavering concentration on his own life and experiences—sexual and otherwise—pushed against the dominant documentary photographic aesthetic, epitomized by such figures as Hiroshi Hamaya, as well as the are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, and out-of-focus) aesthetic of the Provoke movement, prevalent in Japanese avant-garde photography beginning in the late 1960s. Araki tackled these approaches head-on in his series Pseudo-Reportage. The related photobook, published in 1980, pairs these quasi-documentary pictures with misleading captions, underscoring the problematic nature of photographic veracity.

After Yoko passed away, in 1990, Araki began a host of new projects, even using his own diagnosis with prostate cancer in 2008 as a jumping-off point to explore the diminishing status of analog photography. 2THESKY, my Ender (2009) consists of photographs covered with salt, which will cause the object to deteriorate over time, mirroring the physical decline of the photographer himself. While he was not included in the landmark exhibition New Japanese Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1974, organized by John Szarkowski and Shoji Yamagishi, he was included in Yamagishi’s second exhibition collaboration in the United States, Japan: A Self-Portrait at the International Center of Photography in New York in 1979. Araki gained international exposure in Europe prior to this, participating in Neue Fotografie aus Japan at the Kulturhaus der Stadt, Graz, Austria, his first group show outside Japan, in 1977. His first international solo show took place in 1992: Akt-Tokyo: Nobuyoshi Araki 1971–1991 at the Forum Stadtpark, Graz.

— Matthew Kluk

interviews

Essays and Artist Talks

  • The exhibitions Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography (July 15–August 21, 1966) and Fifteen Photographers Today (July 26–September 8, 1974), held at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, gathered recent works by artists who played indispensable roles in the development of Japanese photography after World War II.[1]

    They featured key representatives of the first generation of postwar photographers such as Eikoh Hosoe, Ikko Narahara, Akira Sato, and Shomei Tomatsu—all members of the VIVO group, which sought to renew photographic expression—as well as figures associated with the influential journal Provoke such as Daido Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira, and Yutaka Takanashi. The earliest work, shown in Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, dated to 1962, while Fifteen Photographers Today included ongoing series published in journals through (and beyond) the year of the exhibition itself. The two presentations together thus highlighted the major trends of nearly fifteen years of Japanese photography—an era that is now regarded as one the most exciting periods for the medium in postwar Japan. In order to understand the significance of these exhibitions, one must first consider the backdrop. The National Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1952 in the Kyobashi area of Tokyo, mounted The Exhibition of Contemporary Photography—Japan and America one year after its establishment. As indicated by its title, the exhibition united some of the most significant Japanese postwar photography with American works, selected from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.[2] In the thirteen years between that presentation and Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, the museum held six more photography shows.[3] Many focused on Japanese photography specifically, and most centered on work from the postwar era. All of them prioritized the introduction of contemporary trends. In those days, the National Museum of Modern Art did not have a curator of photography. Instead, up through the time of Fifteen Photographers Today, it nominated curatorial committees of external specialists to determine the content of its photography exhibitions. The committee members were Japan’s most renowned photography critics and editors of leading photography journals—figures who, month by month, browsed the pages of publications dedicated to the art form and wrote critical essays and commentaries, both closely following and shaping current trends. Due to the curators’ broad insights into the field, their exhibitions provided well-balanced overviews of the medium during this period; one might call them straightforward expressions of the self-image of the Japanese photography scene, analyzing contemporary movements and highlighting their most representative works rather than addressing particular topics. Prime examples were the three Contemporary Photographs exhibitions of 1960, 1961, and 1963. Each of these nearly annual presentations featured pictures that had been published in magazines or exhibited the preceding year, offering a cross section of the most recent and outstanding developments in the field.[4]Three years after the cancellation of the Contemporary Photographs shows, the museum mounted Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, this time using a different curatorial framework. According to a text in the exhibition catalogue (fig. 1) by Shigene Kanamaru, a member of the selection committee, the participating photographers could be divided into two groups: those who started working from ideas or concepts, reflecting a “subjective” approach, and those who were more concerned with understanding the people, places, and things they depicted, reflecting an “objective” approach.[5] Kanamaru adapted this terminology from the notion of “subjective photography” that had gained traction in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[6] Thus, whereas the Contemporary Photographs exhibitions aimed to present comprehensive selections of the best work in all genres from a given year—from the purely artistic to photojournalism, advertisements, and scientific photography—Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography moved in a more narrowly defined direction, considering the trends of the past several years but highlighting only those deemed most deserving of broader attention.[7] The organizers of Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography, and later Fifteen Photographers Today, also deliberately focused on a new generation. While the Contemporary Photographs exhibitions showcased pictures by photographers of a considerable age range, all of the participants in Ten Artists of Contemporary Japanese Photography began their careers after the war. With Yoshinobu Nakamura the oldest, at forty-one, and Kishin Shinoyama the youngest, at twenty-five, the group was quite young overall. This narrow age range would persist in Fifteen Photographers Today, where Masahisa Fukase was the oldest artist with work in the show, at forty, and Shigeru Tamura was the most junior, at twenty-seven. While all of the photographers had already received some degree of acclaim, they were still considered relatively young.
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related exhibition

  • Exposed
    related exhibition

    Exposed

    Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera since 1870

    May 28, 2010–January 8, 2012

    Investigating the shifting boundaries between seeing and spying, the private act and the public image, Exposed challenges us to consider how the camera has transformed the very nature of looking. Bringing together historical and contemporary photographs, films, and video works by both unknown photographers and internationally renowned artists, this provocative exhibition examines some of the camera’s most unsettling uses, including pornography, surveillance, stalking celebrity, and witnessing violence. Exposed poses compelling and urgent questions about who is looking at whom, and why.

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