Nobuyoshi Araki, known simply by his mononym Araki, is perhaps the most prolific photographer in the history of the medium. More than 500 books bear his name, including Tokyo Lucky Hole, about the infamous sex district of Kabukich. For those with an interest in the work of the controversial lensman who do not have the shelf space for his entire oeuvre, Taschen’s Araki presents an impressive overview of the photographer’s body of work, including thumbnails of the covers of his books through 2013.
Born in Tokyo in 1940, Araki studied film and photography at Chiba University and then, after graduating in 1963, went to work at the advertising agency Dentsu, where in 1968 he met his future wife and muse, the essayist Yoko Aoki. His book Sentimental Journey is a diary of life with Yoko until her death from ovarian cancer in 1990.
Araki himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, undergoing surgery that successfully removed a tumor. Five years later, he lost his vision in his right eye due to a retinal artery obstruction, using that medical condition as inspiration to create the series “Love on the Left Eye.” At age 78, he shows no signs of slowing down. His most recent exhibitions were “Flower-Life” at the Over the Influence Gallery in Los Angeles and “Love-Dream, Love-Nothing” at the Taka Ishii Gallery in his native Tokyo. In Japan’s capital, we meet at his dedicated gallery, Art Space AM, to discuss where his ideas come from for his often-controversial work focusing on life usually hidden from public view.
Digital Photo Pro: Where do your ideas for photo shoots and series come from?
Araki: My explanation is very simple. I shoot everything, since I think of my photos as the diary of my life, no matter what the subject is — nudes, townscapes, my daily life, everything. Life itself contains many aspects. Furthermore, the world itself is always changing. I’m just shooting it. I’m not trying to do something new, but I just flow with the times. So it is not that I come up with new ideas; rather, the world is overflowing with ideas. I’m just picking up those ideas. The key is to flow with time.
Also, I am getting old. A person’s way of thinking or feeling changes as they get older. I let myself go with the flow, I don’t try to show myself as being younger. I simply try to record what I am. I change as time changes. I would like to show my age in my photos, rather than hide from it. For example, I was dancing while I was shooting Tokyo Lucky Hole because the time itself was dancing, and I was young at that time. That was good, but now it’s like I’m sitting still using a tripod to shoot subjects.
DPP: Which camera are you typically working with these days?
Araki: A Pentax 67 with film and a Polaroid. It’s not good to sit still all the time, so I use Polaroid sometimes, which is handy and casual. I don’t use digital cameras. I need to feel that I’m shooting with my hands, with my eyes. I feel that digital photos are not shot by a person but by a mechanic.
DPP: Tokyo Lucky Hole is among the 500 books you’ve published. What is it about that format for photography that inspires that amount of publication?
Araki: First of all, I can’t publish everything I shoot. I’m a person who wants to do things fast. Since I’m impatient, I want to poop what I ate today. In other words, I want to get out whatever I take in on the same day. I photograph all the time, so I feel like getting the photographs out all the time. I want to show them to people. So although I’ve published more than 500 photo books, I cannot keep up with what I’m thinking or shooting or time. If I had been trying to get everything out, it might have been much more than that number. I heard that people that are using digital cameras and smartphones feel like that. I often take pictures, so I want to show them, too.
DPP: What’s the idea behind your recent exhibition, “Hana Jinsei” (“Flower–Life”)?
Araki: I have been shooting flowers since my honeymoon with my wife and my photo book Sentimental Journey. I’ve been experiencing a sentimental journey all the time. My life is sentimental. I started shooting flowers when my wife was faced with death, and I went to visit her. I entered the hospital from the back door and took the stairs to go upstairs. I was holding a flower that had not bloomed yet. It was the bud of a “kobushi” (magnolia). I brought it to her hospital room and put it beside her while she was sleeping. I started taking photos. Time passed by, and the bud bloomed just at the time she passed away. I shot the scene maybe because I felt that she had gone and was reborn in another world — she was reincarnated. I pressed the shutter. I used my diary camera, so that was the start for shooting flowers. Flowers represent “tengoku,” paradise/heaven to me. I used a different Chinese character in the title for my exhibition, “Tengoku e no Pasuporto” (“The Passport to Paradise”). In the title, I used the same character that is used for hell. It’s not that there’s a heaven and a hell. I feel there is one place that is the combination of the two.
If a person gets a passport to go to heaven, he might find women or flowers or monsters or snakes there. It might at first look only nice and happy. I shot cut flowers for my exhibition “Hana Jinsei” (“Flower–Life”). In Japan, people put flowers into coffins. Maybe I am still feeling the mood like that. I may be unconsciously shooting paradise with my wife. I feel as if I’m shooting my life “with” flowers, not the life “of” flowers.
DPP: Why do you prefer working with cut flowers?
Araki: Cut flowers are killed once. Flowers reflect the time of death. And flowers make me think of a second life. And we make them alive again. I resuscitate them by putting them in water and shoot that situation. I then leave them for a week or so without changing the water and photograph them again. I feel that flowers which are about to die, that are withering, right before the time of death are sensual.
DPP: Another series, “Love on the Left Eye,” is an example of how you dealt with your own physical issues through photography.
Araki: I published a book called Tokyo Zenritsusengan (prostate cancer) when my own body got cancer. Then I lost my eyesight in my right eye. Such experiences drive me into shooting photos. Ideas have never stopped flowing, they have never stopped flowering. My friend Ed van der Elsken published a photo book called Love on the Left Bank. My book Love on the Left Eye was a kind of homage to him. Since I’m shooting with a camera, it shows everything—the whole frame— but I painted one side of the images almost black to reflect what I’m seeing or not seeing. So that’s how I title my books and how I change my misfortunes into photography. When I’m looking through the lens, of course I see the whole frame with one eye, but it’s the idea of the one eye I’m trying to convey. I also often get inspired by things related to death. It’s not that I express it this way consciously; it’s coming out naturally. I’ve been doing this approach my whole life.
DPP: How were your experiences photographing Björk and Lady Gaga?
Araki: They made me feel confident about what I was doing. Being commissioned by the world-famous Gaga and Björk made me feel that they recognized my talent, or at least they liked me. There are many talented photographers or photographers that have awards out there, but they asked me to photograph them. That can be a source of my power. They came to me. Being appointed by the people at the top of their professions makes me think that I’m doing alright. People like Björk or Gaga who are running at the top give me the confidence to feel that I’m also running at the top. So that was very nice. Photos are my words. They are actually beyond words connecting me with people, especially with great women.
Björk said to me, “Shoot me as you like.” She brought her own clothes and asked me which ones she should wear. I wondered how she knew about me and why she liked my work. It was because she dropped by White Cube gallery [in London] after her concert and saw my exhibition and said that she wanted Araki to shoot her. When I went to karaoke with Björk, she sang a Madonna song. We had such a great time. In the case of Gaga, she asked me to shoot her being tied up. I think she understood what tying up means. I feel glad when such cool women like Björk and Lady Gaga come to me.
DPP: What is it about bondage in the form of “kinbaku” (tight binding) and “kinbaku-bi” (the beauty of tight binding) that makes them such an interesting subject matter to photograph?
Araki: It’s not “kinbaku-bi,” it’s not the form or shape, it’s about their changing by being tied up. When I photograph women, I’m not shooting ropes or the act of tying up; I’m trying to find their sensuality, which is coming out by being tied up. If I’m not photographing the whole body, I can do it without using a “nawashi” (rope artist). They put importance on making objects or art works by using women as ingredients or material. My emphasis is on their sensuality.
DPP: Where is the line between art and pornography, or is there one?
Araki: In my opinion, pornography should include art and art in some way should include an element of pornography. They each should include elements of the other, otherwise it is not interesting, whether it’s photography or painting or literature.
DPP: How are you printing and displaying your images?
Araki: I think of photos as traditional Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) such as those by Hokusai. So I don’t want to put photos into frames like an oil painting one by one. They should be out of frames and expand. I show my photos in many ways. I especially like handmade washi paper. So I’m doing something in the most traditional method. I want to show my photos as if they were published in old times. The other reason for using washi is that I don’t want to show something too masculine — washi is softer, feminine — I think the delicacy of washi expresses the Japanese gentle character.
Special thanks to curator Hisako Motoo for arranging the interview and Mutsumi Nobuhara and Sachiko Nomura for their translation skills.
Photos Courtesy of Art Space AM and Taschen Books.