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Features Legends: Japan’s Most Notable Names
Araki Nobuyoshi: An Artistic Rebel, Unbowed

Iizawa Kōtarō [Profile]


Araki Nobuyoshi began his career as a rebel and is now one of the world’s reigning masters of photography. A critic and close friend of the artist looks back over Araki’s prolific and sometimes tempestuous life.

Araki Nobuyoshi is one of Japan’s best-known and most popular photographers. Now in his seventies, he shows undiminished energy, continuing to exhibit at art museums and galleries at home and abroad. He also has more than 500 publications to his credit.

Print from Tombeau Tokyo, 2016. Gelatin silver print. (© the artist/courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery)

Eros and Thanatos

Araki was born in 1940 in Shitaya (now Taitō), in the heart of Tokyo’s shitamachi “low town” of small commercial establishments and residences. The family business was making wooden geta clogs, but Araki’s father Chōtarō was also an avid amateur photographer. Under his father’s tutelage, Araki began taking photographs himself while still in elementary school.

The Araki house stood directly opposite Jōkanji temple. This was known as a nagekomi-dera (throw-in temple) because during the Edo period (1603–1868) the bodies of prostitutes from the Yoshiwara courtesan district with no family to claim them had been dumped in the temple grounds. It became Araki’s childhood playground. In later years, he would dub the basis of his photography “Erotos.” The word is a classic Araki concoction, combining the Eros of sex and life with Thanatos, the embodiment of death. We could even say that the essence of Araki’s talent, slipping effortlessly between the worlds of the living and the dead, lies rooted in the soil where he was born and grew up.

By high school Araki had already decided he would be a photographer. In 1959 he entered Chiba University in the Department of Photography and Printing Engineering. Most of his courses were science classes and he struggled hard for every credit, but was finally able to graduate in 1963 and joined Dentsu, Japan’s leading advertising agency. His graduation project was the photo album Satchin, in which he vividly captured the lives of a gang of children in his neighborhood. In 1964 the work won the first Taiyō Prize for photo reportage sponsored by the pictorial magazine Taiyō. This prize marked Araki’s public debut as a photographer.

During his Dentsu years Araki worked by day as an advertising photographer while engaging in guerilla photography on the side. He used the Dentsu studios to shoot nude photographs, which he showed in exhibitions and subsequently distributed in his handmade 1970 photo collection Zerokkusu shashinchō (Xerox Photo Book). As written in the title, it was produced on a Dentsu photocopier. The most important of his guerilla works, however, was Senchimentaru na tabi (Sentimental Journey, 1971), a self-published album of photographs he took of his young wife Aoki Yōko, a former Dentsu colleague, on their honeymoon trip to Kyoto and Kyūshū.

Sentimental Journey

Sentimental Journey is structured like a shishōsetsu, or “I-novel,”sometimes called a “personal novel,” a Japanese literary form in which the first-person narrator delves deep into the intricacies of personal relationships. In his short comments that served as the preface, Araki wrote that he had created the collection because, as he put it, “I believe it is the ‘I-novel’ that is the very closest artistic form to photography.”

The photographs in Sentimental Journey function as the text of an “I-novel” might, delicately stitching together the story of the artist’s relationship with a close other. He would later dub the technique shishashin, rendered in English as “I-photography” or “personal photography.” The form went on to become one of the important currents running through Japanese photographic expression.

The collection does not simply unveil the heart of Araki and Yōko’s relationship. It stands alone as a universal, almost mythological, tale that leads the viewer from the world of the living into the world of the dead, and back out again into the world of life.

Scandalous Nudes

Araki left Dentsu in 1972 to go freelance, and soon his distinctive black glasses and moustache were popping up all over Japan’s mass media. It was also at this time that he created his public persona of “Genius Arāki,” and started dabbling in a wide range of fields. His scandalous nudes kept him constantly in the spotlight, and he was developing a rather dubious public reputation. At the same time he was beginning to acquire an extremely high reputation in other quarters. When the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo held its landmark Fifteen Photographers Today exhibition in 1974, Araki was picked to be one of the exhibiting artists.

Print from Tombeau Tokyo, 2016. Gelatin silver print.(© the artist/courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery)

In 1981 the publishing house Byakuya Shobō launched a controversial new photojournalism magazine called Shashin jidai (Photography Age). At one point Araki had three series running concurrently in its pages—Keshiki (Landscapes), Shōjo Furendo (Young Lady Friends), and Araki Nobuyoshi no Shashin Seikatsu (Araki Nobuyoshi’s Photographic Life)—as he threw all his energy into expanding the boundaries of his creative world. Photography Age primarily catered to a young male readership with erotic photographs and articles, but also published in its vibrant pages Araki’s works and ambitious photography by other outstanding artists of the day, such as Moriyama Daidō, Kurata Seiji, and Kitajima Keizō. When we look at the photo collections Araki published during this period—works like Araki Nobuyoshi no nise nikki (Araki Nobuyoshi’s Fake Diary; 1980), Shashin shōsetsu (Photo Novel, 1981) and Shōjo-sekai (Girls’ World, 1984)—we can see how he continued to refine his methodology of blurring the boundaries between real-world events and fabrication, forcibly converting everything that caught his eye into his own “personal photos.”

Inaugural issue of Photography Age (left) and Araki Nobuyoshi’s Fake Diary (right).

Araki’s Tokyo Story.

  • [2017.02.20]

Photography critic. Recipient of the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities for Shashin bijutsukan e yōkoso (Welcome to the Photography Museum) and the Photographic Society of Japan Annual Award for “Geijutsu-shashin” to sono jidai (The Age of “Art Photography”).In addition to his writing, he curates photo exhibitions and is active as a judge for photo competitions.

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