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Nan Goldin Ballad of Sexual Dependency
from The Ballad of Sexual DependencyPhotography Nan Goldin

Are these the most controversial photography books ever?

Madonna and Meisel, Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki: here are some of the greatest and most shocking images to go to print

What makes a photograph controversial? Drugs? Sex? Nudity? Shocking to some, art to others, it's the context, landscape and values in which such images sit that determine their shock value. From the uncomfortable works of Sally Mann and her children to the perverted world of Nobuyoshi Araki, these are some of the names who have caused the biggest stir — and years on, we still can’t stop looking. As we step into Tokyo public gardens after dark and onto the street corners of Seattle and LA, we chart 10 risqué photography books that are sure to spice up your coffee table.


Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki captured the late night activities occurring across several parks in Tokyo during the 1970s. The series of photos started one night when Yoshiyuki strolled around a park and stumbled upon numerous orgies taking place in the open fields. Using a 35mm camera, infrared film, and flash, Yoshiyuki’s voyeuristic black and white photographs document a subversive side to the bustling city, displaying the interactions between copulating couples and spectators lurking in the bushes. The images revealed a hidden Tokyo that had never been seen before, opening voyeurs up to a world where couples were free of restraint amidst the leafy fields and night sky.


While youth, prostitution and drugs may be themes for an interesting subject, controversy and criticism are always quick to follow. This was the case for photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her book Streetwise, featuring Erin ‘Tiny’ Blackwell — a 13-year-old girl that Mark and her husband Martin Bell met in 1983. Complete with black and white photography documenting the life of Tiny and her friends, living as young teens on the streets of Seattle, engaging in sex work and hard drugs, Streetwise displays the side of America that no one quite wants to see – opening up a lid on youth culture’s dark side during the 1980s.


With only 55 copies made, Momo Okabe’s Dildo is a rare find, but if you happen to encounter it, it’s a must-see. Documenting the relationship between Okabe and her lovers, Kaori and Yoko, the book explores the explicit world of the three lovers and the challenges of gender identity disorder they face. From love and sex, to genitals and surgery, Dildo provides an insightful and shocking look into the intimate world of the everyday, as the trio struggle to heal both physically and emotionally.


Shot in Los Angeles’s ‘Boystown’ — a section of LA known for its male prostitutes during the 80s – Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers, shot against the backdrop of the US’s AIDS pandemic of the early 90s, providing a particularly bleak look at Hollywood. While the candidly shot images of young boys from across the state provided intrigue, the real controversy came from diCorcia’s choice to pay these young boys using money funded by a $45,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant that was awarded to diCorcia in 1989. As you can imagine, paying prostitutes using government money caused quite the shitstorm during a time where the government was under fire from religious groups for funding art which celebrated ‘controversial ideas’ (known to them as anything gay and abstract).


Sally Mann is no stranger to controversy, but her third photography book Immediate Family definitely tops her chart. The book published by Aperture contains 65 duotone images of Mann’s three children — Emmett, Jessie and Virginia. While the images touched on childhood themes from playing dress up to napping, they also touched on darker aspects of sexuality, injury and loneliness — many aspects which garnered criticism upon its release in 1992. From accusations of child pornography to backlash that she was exploiting her children for financial profit.


A post-feminist work of art, with commercial success and critical acclaim. Sex remains the fastest selling coffee table book of all time, and 23-years on, stands strong as an iconic moment in time for Madonna’s most rebellious, pioneering and outlandish phase. True to what it promises, the tome was considered transgressive at the time for its unapologetic display of sex and exploration of sexuality in the most public of ways. With over 128 pages of controversial appearances from stars like Naomi Campbell, Madonna herself and Big Daddy Kane with influences from punk rock to soft core porn – Sex sits on top as one of pop-culture and photography’s finest moments.


Nan Goldin chronicled the struggle for intimacy in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency – a visual, and ever-growing, diary of Goldin’s cutting edge photography, originally published in 1986. Goldin’s documentation of her own experiences with drug addiction and an abusive relationship opened a window into her and her friend’s most private matters – remaining an influential example of the hardcore photography Goldin is known for. An intimate look into New York’s Lower East Side – the book remains a stoic icon two decades on.


Capturing Japanese sex culture and the craze inspired by a popular club called ‘Lucky Hole’, Nobuyoshi Araki documented more than 800 photos of its patrons engaging in various sexual activities. From bondage to orgies, no activity was left unexplored by Araki, as he wandered through Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood in search of such perverted pleasure seekers. The neighbourhood was notoriously known for its sex culture and subsequently shut down thanks to the February 1985 New Amusement Business Control and Improvement Act.


Shot by an infrared camera while exploring trysts and gropes on the Tokyo Metro, Ikko Kagari’s Pervert Rush invites us into the world of public fondling. Hands slipped down blouses, others inside trousers — nowhere is untouched in Kagari’s’ world as we voyeuristically view through his perverted eye. While sex, consent and privacy are all themes here, so is morality, as it begs us to question whether these thoughts may run through the minds of the daily commuter. Makes you look twice at the person you’re standing next to on that morning train...


To celebrate the first monographic exhibition for the works of Larry Clark, C/O Berlin developed a very special publication which takes a retrospective look at sexuality, youth culture and music. The 24-page booklet features collages and photographs all wrapped up in triptych gatefold album cover complete with an image of a tatted up vagina, bearing the name ‘Larry’. Who said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover?