Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nobuyoshi Araki

Nobuyoshi Araki
Summer: Retrographs
Heibonsha Limited, Tokyo
Unpaged, numerous black-and-white and color illustrations, 6x9"

Nobuyoshi Araki
Xeroxed Photo Albums
The Works of Nobuyoshi Aaraki - 13
Heibonsha Limited, Tokyo
Unpaged, 200 color and duotone illustrations, 5 1/4 x 7 1/2"

The Japanese renewed my faith in black and white photography when photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki, Shomei Tomatsu, and Daido Moriyama gained new attention in the United States in the late 1990s. Nobuyoshi Araki aided that renewal by clarifying my notion that the best thing an artist can possess is a strong work ethic. Until then, my model for hard work had been Lee Friedlander, a remarkably prolific photographer who, like Araki, produces numerous books and does not edition his work. Araki produces numerous books that are often terrible, but occasionally rise to a level of merit with the right editing or singular idea.

The first time I visited Arcana: Books on the Arts in Santa Monica, I purchased the lovely, small (about 5x7") hardback collection of Araki images "Summer: Retrographs." On a high shelf towards the front of the store Arcana had dozens of imported Araki books. Previously I had only perused the dull, Tokyo Lucky Hole in the adult section at Tower Records and the book that contrasted decayed film-images with close-ups of flowers shot with ring flash. Unfortunately the name of that book escapes me at the moment. It was seductive in that case to see the garish color of the luminous flowers in contrast to the streaked, deteriorating images on the upper half of each page. Seeing such a selection of Araki books at Arcana captivated me as I looked at various books, trying to decide which one would make the journey to the cash register, and then back to Arizona where I was attending university. It was immediately impressive to become aware of a photographer who published such an enormous amount of material year after year, so much so that there was a series of books called "The Works of Nobuyoshi Araki" that seemed to number at least fifteen in quantity, one of which I would later purchase - "Volume 13, Xeroxed Photo Albums."

Araki's images look uncomplicated enough in composition and technique. There it is, the subject, the thing itself, sitting right there in the middle of most of the frames with little other formal monkey business. In picture after picture, he relentlessly photographed a better part of Tokyo's criss-cross of streets, electrical lines, clouds, and countless nude women in compromised or otherwise objectified positions. The subject of nude Asian women was alluring for a young, heterosexual photographer interested in traveling overseas as well as becoming a successful image-maker. While I personally have never produced a nude or been terribly interested in them other than in the occasional prurient foray into pornography, Araki's images managed to satiate something in the space between female exploitation and artistic expression. Araki's work, in my opinion, is pornography as it meets the criteria for potential usage as common masturbatory device but is saved from residing in that sexual ghetto for their oft-elegant compositions, usage of black and white, and interest in subject matter beyond the female figure. By my own definition, many things could be defined as masturbatory devices, but it just happens that those things typically reside behind the counter at the convenience store or on a high shelf like the aforementioned collection of Araki books at Arcana rather than in a Macy's ad for women's underwear. This also happens to remind me of Todd Hido's recent "Between the Two', a book that certainly fulfills jerk-off requirement for paying girls who wear lots of mascara to take off their clothes in hotel rooms. Nonetheless, back to the pornographer before us!

"Retrographs" and "Xeroxed" both feature samplings of Araki's photo-installations, in which he creates fascinating combinations of numerous pictures whether in using them as wallpaper, creating posters for temporary outdoor display, showing elongated transparencies, or by displaying contact sheets. These were just a few of his display methods seen in Xeroxed and the primary reason I purchased it as these techniques felt like a refreshing change from prints in frames that dominate white cube galleries.

"Retrographs" opens with an interesting sequence of pictures showing a piece of luggage by the rear of an open train. The position of the suitcase remains stationary while the tracks turn this way and that, the landscape constantly changing. The books is composed of black and white, vertical images with a small white bleed, excluding a brief, unnecessary middle section of color installation shots. Part of the attraction of these images is what seems like a consistent, technically perfect use of Tri-X film. The images sit in the blacks yet always feature full detail through the highlights.

The book features obligatory nudes as well as shots of various Tokyo streets adorned with power lines floating near our heads and advertising signage. Araki's cat appears around the house or in backyard, clouds flutter listlessly through the mid-day sky, and Araki himself pops up as subject of installation views or shown as sexual agent. In contrast to most black and white American photographers seen at the time, Araki's images felt remarkably fresh for their spontaneity in engaging the immediate world to the fullest. Even when not exploring Tokyo with cameras of various formats, Araki comes up with odd juxtapositions of toy lizards and lawn furniture in his backyard. While most of the Americans I was aware of were emulating Edward Weston in large format or Robert Frank with a hand-camera, Araki's use of small format photography felt unburdened by American photographic history that had come to define my own working methods.

It was striking to consider Araki as model for photo-making, less in that of emulating his lifestyle but more in how he earned the nickname 'photo-maniac' for the incessant, relentless photo-documentation of his own life after the death of his wife, Yoko. I had first heard of Araki from Mark Klett, who had suggested I look at the book that contains the photo-story of Yoko's decline into illness and death, "Sentimental Journey." Araki has acknowledged that his life ended and began after Yoko's departure. This shift in his life makes his photographs all the more pathetic, as if to keep himself going he entered a sordid world of sexual exploration best signified by the 768 page paperback ,"Tokyo Lucky Hole," that was likely his first US book, produced by Taschen in 1997. In that book, little of the elegance of his best work is seen as it feels mainly like a gaudy collection of visits to love hotels for prostitutes and little more. This post-death sexual exploration makes the work seem vapid at times, striking in its portrayal of all women other than Yoko as being without emotional value.

Also sharing the bill at nude-heavy publisher Taschen is Roy Stuart, whose work is more openly pornographic, but at least in Stuart's work the women have a strong sense of their own agency, making it more compelling than the great majority of sex-imagery available in the art book selection of Barnes and Noble where you can regularly find such boob-lovers as Jock Sturges and Sante D'Orazio.

"Xeroxed" includes many photos of Araki's handmade books, made mainly with low-contrast black and white photocopies, color copies, or other unknown reproduction methods. As with his installations and demonstrable work ethic, it was inspiring to see a number of books made in the least professional way possible. Rather than being limited to quality prints, high-quality reproductions, or standard binding or sizing, seeing an artist completely unencumbered by the traditional norms of publication was refreshing. Some of the image quality looks terrible, but that doesn't get in the way of fundamental composition or a need to quickly convey some notion/emotion of an image to the viewer. It is as if Araki is in a constant flux of creation and distribution, unperturbed by notions of perfection or completion. For Araki more is more. His books are just one more way to add to the ejaculatory nature of his ongoing output. Some of the books are amazing while others feel downright sloppy. Either way, the published material looks like an occasional, accessible pause in an ongoing stream of images.

Ultimately that lack of cohesion or self-reflective pause is also Araki's fatal flaw. Take away the sexual provocation and it's easy to see the man as a mediocre photographer interested in responding to the urban business of Tokyo with hectic pictures of power lines, otherwise in contrast to the soft look of colorful, sexualized flower imagery. Without the sex, or even because of it, he is kind of gross old man trying to hold on to meaning in his life through photography when all else is lost. Still he does get it right a lot of the time with many an elegant, erotic nude to save all those pictures that look no better than amateur sex-shots.
Araki has inspired numerous young Japanese to take up the camera as a means for documenting their lives, mostly to bland, diaristic effect. The only standout being Hiromix, who was unfortunately unable to sustain much excitement in her work beyond her the book "Girls Blue." Would looking at most people's diaries really be all that interesting?

At his best, Araki is an inspiring figure who utilizes photography as an integral part of the artist's life, at worst, he is an unhappy man who objectifies women and encourages us as viewers to do the same. It's interesting that despite his flaws, I continue to look at these two small books as models for what can be done with photography if you set aside the burdens of creating singular images and give yourself up to a stream of picture-making. With a camera in your pocket, maybe the world can reveal something to a curious mind when it comes to picture-making - even without all the sex.

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