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Nobuyoshi Araki, Paysages avec couleurs (Colourscapes), 1991
From Paysages avec couleurs (Colourscapes), 1991© Nobuyoshi Araki / Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery

Your ultimate guide to Nobuyoshi Araki

With his retrospective currently on show in Paris, we take a 26-letter trip through the oeuvre of Japan’s most notorious living photographer

Artist, pornographer, diarist – Nobuyoshi Araki has been called many things. Often lauded, sometimes reviled, the Tokyo-born photographic maestro is notorious from east to west. The prolific photographer’s oeuvre is monumental, ranging from his world famous, graphic and highly sexualised “Kinbaku Series” to the day-to-day minutiae of existence. Tokyo’s darling may leave critics divided but his artistic genius is undeniable: every image is unique and captured with extreme levels of technical mastery, and his influence has penetrated just about every creative field, from photography, film to the world of fashion. With an Araki retrospective currently on display in Paris’ Guimet Museum until 5 September, it’s time for an A to Z guide on the artist.

A IS FOR ATOM BOMB

Born in Tokyo in May 1940, Nobuyoshi Araki grew up in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing of Japan. In the same way that the bombings continued to affect Japan over subsequent years, so too they permeate the photographer’s documentation of everyday life. In his 2010 photo book Tokyo hōshasen (Tokyo Radiation), the artist altered the time-stamp on each picture to appear to have been taken between the 6th – 15th August, linking the pictures to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which took place on 6th and 9th August respectively, while 15th August was the date that Japan surrendered to the allies. The photos in 1995’s Shukei (Last Scenery) and 2003’s ABCD, were developed at extremely high temperatures, causing the emulsion to reticulate and break apart as though they had been exposed to heat and radiation. Radiation became even more personal to Araki when in 2008 he was diagnosed with, and underwent a successful operation for, prostate cancer. Regarding his 2009 photo book Tokyo Zenritsusen gan (Tokyo prostatic cancer) he said, “I am making a connection between the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and my own radiation treatment for cancer”.

B IS FOR BJÖRK

As Japan’s most prominent photographer, it’s unsurprising that Araki lists a host of celebrities amongst his subjects. His best-known fan, however, is perhaps Icelandic megastar Björk whom he photographed for the cover of her first full-length album, Telegram, in 1996. Interviewed for Arakimentari, a documentary on Araki’s life, the singer explains how she first discovered the eccentric photographer’s work in London in 1993. It was “immediately a very powerful discovery,” she explains. Björk goes on to say that “he's the most energetic person I know… an artist like Araki is going to do everything at 9000 percent".

C IS FOR CHIRO

Chiro is the name of Araki’s beloved cat. Chiro arrived in the photographer’s life in March 1988 and stayed with him for the next 22 years until her death in 2010. The photographer’s relationship with Chiro goes beyond that of one man and his cat, though. After the death of his wife Yoko in 1990, Chiro became Araki’s most constant companion.The cat was the subject of hundreds of Araki’s pictures, with numerous photo books featuring her as the main subject. His first photo book dedicated to Chiro appeared in 1990 with the title Itoshi no Chiro (Chiro my Love) and she continued to feature in his work up until the very end of her life in Chiro Ai-Shi (Chiro Death-Love), which documented her final days. In this last book, Araki draws parallels between the death of his wife and that of the cat through revisiting pictures from his earlier works.

D IS FOR DENTSU

Araki wasn’t always the scandalous photographer we know him as now – in fact, his current career had very inauspicious beginnings. Upon graduation from Tokyo’s Chiba University with a degree in photography and film-making, Araki joined the Dentsu advertising agency as a commercial photographer where he worked until 1972. Dentsu was instrumental in making Araki the artist he would later become. He found commercial photography to be so conservative and limiting that he started to experiment with radical conceptual photography. Dentsu was also where Araki met his future wife Yoko, arguably his greatest muse, in 1968.

E IS FOR EROS

Eros is the Greek word for desire and passion. For Araki, everything stems from passionate love; life, death, sex. Unsurprisingly, he has been called an erotomaniac. Eroticism runs as a constant theme in the work – from explicit images of trussed up prostitutes, close-ups of genitalia and live action shots of himself and others engaged in the act of sex (he even captured his wife at the point of climax) through to more nuanced images of flowers and fruit. Many of Araki’s photo books take their title from the word eros, for example Erotos, EroReal and Eros Diary. Talking about the theme of eros in his work, Araki says, “‘Why do they come across as erotic? Because I shot them. That’s what my photos are.”

F IS FOR FLOWERS

Images of flowers are often seen in the background or are the subjects themselves of Araki’s photos, but as we might expect from a man described as an erotomaniac, their presence is by no means innocuous. Their shapes and forms usually represent the female sex, but their essential ephemeral nature reminds us of our short lives and our mortality. Flowers in Ruins is an entire photo book dedicated to flowers and Erotos features images of decaying flowers and rotting fruit juxtaposed with close-ups of body parts.

G IS FOR GOLDIN, NAN 

Araki’s American counterpart, Nan Goldin, is a photographer renowned for her fascination with the subculture and sexuality. In 1992 the editors of the Japanese magazine Deja-Vu invited her to meet Araki while she was travelling around Asia and three years later, Goldin interviewed the Japanese photographer herself. “I’d already heard about this wild man of Japanese photography and of his diaristic, intensely sexual work. Araki had procured a copy of my Ballad of Sexual Dependency, though it’s unavailable in Japan due to stringent censorship laws. I was astounded to find a man on the other side of the planet who was working the same obsessions I was,” she said. A brilliant artistic partnership developed between the pair and they went on to collaborate most extensively on Tokyo Love: Spring 1994, a photo book capturing the essence of Tokyo’s youth.

H IS FOR HIGH SCHOOL GIRL FAKE DIARY

Araki’s porn film, titled High School Girl Fake Diary, is a soft-core pink film, or pinku (a specific type of Japanese pornographic film made by independent studios). Released in 1981 by Nikkatsu movie studios under its Roman Porno genre – dramatised porn – Araki not only directed the film but documented a behind-the-scenes account of the making of the film, which was released as a book with the same name. The film was poorly received and disappointed fans of the genre and Araki himself. Below, watch a video of Araki talking about his dislike of the film.

I IS FOR I NOVEL

The I-novel (literal translation of shi-shosetsu) is an early 20th century genre of Japanese literature where authors write in first person and narrate their own lives – as Araki does with his ‘diaristic’ approach to photography. In the introduction to his 1971 photo book Sentimental Journey, the photographer says “I think the shi-shosetsu is the closest thing there is to photography”. Araki’s photography is extremely personal and his endless documenting of the quotidian, from images of his cat to Tokyo skyscapes, as well as his more well-known erotic shots, have made up a ‘diary’ of his life in pictures. Plenty of his photo books have the word nikki, the Japanese for diary, in them: A Diary, Eros Diary, Diary of a Sentimental Journey, Grand Diary of a Photomaniac. S,some of his photo books can be seen as contemporary versions of the Japanese pillow book, a type of private diary, where nothing is too personal or too sacred to be recorded, with Araki even capturing his wife on her deathbed.

J IS FOR JAPAN

Japan is Araki’s birthplace. While the erotic artist has frequently run into trouble in his home country because of his more risqué pictures, nevertheless he is embraced as their most famous and prolific photographer. His images are, for the most part, centred around Japanese society and the subjects are usually Japanese, with models often pictured in traditional dress. Araki refers to Tokyo as his ‘womb’ and ‘mother’ and it remains an ever-present theme in all his work – central to his identity as a photographer. Most of the photographer’s pictures are taken in Tokyo where he was born and he’s captured thousands of Tokyo street scenes and skyscapes as well as images of the resident Edokko (Edo being the historical name of Tokyo). “Photographing a city that is not my own is bothersome. To be honest, I don't have any interest in any city besides Tokyo,” he once said.

K IS FOR KINBAKU-BI

One of Araki’s most prevalent themes is Kinbaku-bi, aka ‘the beauty of tight binding’. An ancient form of Japanese rope play, Kinbaku-bi is a sexualised development of Hojojutsu (the traditional martial art of using ropes as restraints). The techniques once used on prisoners have been adapted to blur the line between pain and pleasure and the element of control is transformed into a consensual erotic act. The photographer’s pictures of naked women bound with ropes in overtly sexual positions are perhaps his best known and most controversial, drawing frequent criticism and accusations of falling somewhere between misogyny and pornography. It has been said, however, that for Araki, the process is not about the tying of the knots or the sexualised position but rather about how the flesh changes colour when bound. “Kinbaku (knots with ropes) are different from bondage. I only tie up a woman's body because I know I cannot tie up her heart. Only her physical parts can be tied up. Tying up a woman becomes an embrace,” Araki explained.

L IS FOR LOVE ON THE LEFT EYE

In October 2013 Araki lost the vision in his right eye due to a retinal artery obstruction. For some photographers this would have been a massive blow, instead, it only served as new inspiration for the insatiable artist. “I say to myself that I believe I should be able to see things differently,” he explained. In 2014, he released a new photo book coupled with a June 2014 exhibition at Tokyo’s Taka Ishii Gallery, both entitled Love on the Left Eye. The images reflect his altered visual state. The nudes and flowers that make up this collection of images are half eclipsed – the right side of each exposure coloured in with a marker before printing, and the photographs produced represent the shadowed vision of his right eye. The title is also a reference to Love on the Left Bank, a 1954 publication by Ed Van der Elseken, which Araki drew inspiration from in his younger days as a photographer.

M IS FOR MONSTERS

Again taking inspiration from aspects of Japanese culture, Araki’s work features images of mythical beasts and monsters – such as the 2014 series “qARADISE”. Taken from the Kaijū (strange beast) film genre, which depicts monsters attacking Japanese cities or engaged in combat with other behemoths, imagery of monsters revives the tradition of animism taken from old Japanese prints – for example, works of Edo period artist Katsushika Hokusai. Monsters or Kaijū, such as Godzilla, are representative of human desires, which is an essential theme in the photographer’s work. A famous image of his cat Chiro shows her on a terrace surrounded by plastic dinosaur figures.

N IS FOR NUDITY

Araki’s nudes range from tender, loving images of his wife naked to graphic, almost obscene pictures of women trussed with rope and being penetrated by vibrators. Nudity, however, does not simply mean nakedness for the artist, who says he doesn’t see nudity as an exposed breast or pubis but rather believes that a woman is exposed through her face, not by her naked body.

O IS FOR OJO SHASHU

Death and mortality are also ever-present in the work of Araki and the photo book Ojo Shashu (Photography for The Afterlife) is dedicated to those themes, with gallery exhibitions also taking the name as they explore Araki’s ideas surrounding heaven and hell, as well as life, death and sex. Ojo is the Buddhist word for death, in the sense of a journey’s end at the culmination of a life lived to the full and Araki created the term Ojo Shashu from an influential Heian-era religious text, Ōjōyōshū“ (Teachings Essential for Salvation) written in 985 by Buddhist monk Genshin. Throughout the course of this prolific photographer’s life, several events have taken place to remind him of his mortality: the death of his wife and of his cat, his cancer, the atomic bombing of his country and the 2011 earthquake that struck Japan.

P IS FOR PORNOGRAPHY

The endless question surrounding Araki’s work is whether it’s art, a brilliant masterpiece, a fantastic form of conceptual photography or misogynistic, gratuitous porn. Many articles about the photographer tackle this question and it all seems to come back to… your individual interpretation of it. Maybe you see Araki as a dirty, lecherous old man living out his sexual deviancies by undressing and binding his models or maybe you see him as a Tensai (a master) who uses his camera to capture unimaginably intimate and shocking images as part of a huge body of work. Your choice. Whatever your personal opinion, it’s hard to deny the photographer’s innate technical mastery of image staging and colour.

Q IS FOR QUANTITY

Araki is regularly referred to as one of the most prolific photographers in the world. To date the 75 year old has 450 photo books and counting. The sheer amount of work comes from the fact he’s been doing it for over half a century and also because his repertoire knows no boundaries. From erotic images of women trussed in the traditional Japanese style through to pictures of his cat, and ordinary Tokyo street scenes – he captures anything and everything. In this video interview he talks about spreading his photos out and seeing them as never-ending, like a Buddhist Mandala – “as far as my photos are concerned, everything depends on the quantity I produce,” he remarked.

R IS FOR RECOGNITION

Araki’s wealth of work has gained him huge international recognition as a photographer and artist, however, it’s not just his pictures that are notorious. Unlike many photographers who stay invisible, hidden behind their camera lenses, the eccentric Araki is a well-known celebrity in his native Tokyo. He’s become such an icon, in fact, that he’s unable to walk down the street during the daytime because people accost him with their iPhones and try to take pictures, which he hates. “Noooo, people come up and start snapping away with those damn mobile-phone cameras,” he complained in a 2007 interview. While he might not like being photographed, the idiosyncratic character hardly tries to pass himself off in the crowd, instead opting for a distinctive look of trademark round spectacles, shocks of tufty hair, braces and bowties.

S IS FOR SENTIMENTAL

While Araki has a strong interest in the erotic, notions of sentiment are also central themes to his work. Deeply personal and referred to as Shi Shashin, or personal photography, his pictures act as visual diaries, recording memories and exposing the private moments of his life. Starting in 1971 with his seminal Sentimental Journey (1971), a record of the artist’s honeymoon, Araki went on to publish numerous photo books with the word ‘sentimental’ in their titles. Perhaps most famous of all is his Sentimental Journey 1972-1992, a two-decade documentation of the life he shared with his wife until her death in 1990. In an interview, Araki states that any of his works with the word ‘sentimental’ in the titles he always edits himself. “Taking photographs is as natural as breathing. Photos are life. Life is a sentimental journey,” he said.

T IS FOR TABOOS

Araki has undoubtedly had a taboo-breaking career. His graphic images confront the hidden eroticism that lies beneath the surface of polite Japanese society; sex, prostitution, BDSM and the role of the Geisha are all subjects the fearless photographer addresses. By pointing his camera lens at the hidden sexual underbelly of Japanese society, he tackles off-limit issues and confronts the hypocrisy of the country’s censorship laws. The nature of some of his pictures has been so outrageous, in fact, that the he’s been arrested for obscenity under Japanese law.

U IS FOR UKIYO-E

Ukiyo-e, translated as ‘pictures of the floating world’, is an ancient form of Japanese woodblock art, most popular between the 17th and 19th centuries. It depicts a utopian Japanese lifestyle through images of beautiful women, folklore and scenic landscapes. Ukiyo-e also features erotica, or Shunga (literal translation is ‘spring’ and is the term for Japanese erotic art). Both art forms are referred to as inspirations for Araki’s photography.

V IS FOR VAGINA

This list wouldn’t be complete without vaginas getting a place of their own. Araki is fascinated with female genitalia, he not only photographs them IRL but also turns the mundane into vaginas, with one Vice journalist asking “Who else can make a photo of the ground look so much like a vagina that you start to seriously consider jerking off to it? Nobody but Araki.” Araki also likens his camera to the vagina, with the photographer saying that he feels that when he takes a picture, he is inside the camera, ‘entering’ the subject in the same way as he enters a woman. He calls his camera his “vagin-eye”.

W IS FOR WOMEN

Women are the most enduring subjects of Araki’s photography and the female form dominates his work. In the foreword for the Taschen publication Araki he explains why he almost exclusively photographs women – “A photographer who doesn’t take photos of women is no photographer, or only a third-rate one. Women teach you much more about the world than reading Balzac’s Human Comedy”. Women are undoubtedly his muses. His best known models are his wife Yuko, dancer and performer KaoRi and model and actress Rila Fukushima. “I am not a great photographer, but I only have great subjects such as Yoko and Kaori,” he once quipped.

X IS FOR XEROX PHOTO ALBUMS

The Xerox Photo Albums, released in 1970, were Araki’s first published photographic compilations. During his stint at Dentsu, Araki became increasingly frustrated with mainstream photography. In rebellion, he took pictures of prostitutes, illicitly used the Dentsu office photocopier to xerox the images and then bound them into books which he proceeded to post to friends, critics and people chosen at random from the phone book. On the one hand, Xerox Photo Albums was a symbolic two fingers up at the commercial photography the brazen artist hated and a means of getting his work noticed. On the other, the collection was an extremely experimental photo project and part of the conceptual art movement emerging at the time, where the photo book was considered a piece of art and a happening in its own right.

Y IS FOR YOKO ARAKI

Yoko was Araki’s wife and she had a tremendous influence on his work and his life, with hundreds of thousands of pictures and numerous photo books dedicated to her. Photographing almost every moment of their life together – from their honeymoon in 1971 to her death on 27 January 1990 – Araki captured images of the most mundane through to the most intimate. Yoko’s delicate and wistful image is captured constantly, from sitting in railway carriages, holding the cat Chiro, asleep in a boat or reading a newspaper through to private moments captured in the marriage bed. Perhaps most shocking and personal are the photos taken of Yoko in her coffin after she died of ovarian cancer. Her death had a profound influence on Araki’s work and saw a turning point in his style, which changed from his earlier subjects of pleasure and sexual bliss to the much more graphic and raw images which are often associated with the shocking artist.

Z IS FOR ZINES

Araki’s erotic work has been featured in magazines like Playboy and New Self (a Tokyo publication) but he’s also revered for his technical skill as a photographer. He’s sought after by a broad spectrum of magazines because of the amazing quality of his work and his ability to capture the essential nature of women on film. From Vogue to the New York Times Magazine, the photographic chameleon has been invited to work with numerous magazines, and images of one of his own favourite models, Rila Fukushima, were shot by Araki for the Winter 2015 issue of Dazed.

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