Japanese erotic photographer Nobuyoshi Araki reflects on death ahead of Hong Kong show

Araki has been called a pornographer and an exploiter, something he shrugs off. Just don't call me an artist, he tells Julian Ryall

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 11:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 2015, 5:55pm

Since he fought off cancer in 2008, photographer Nobuyoshi Araki has given up many of his vices. He no longer drinks the Bombay Sapphire gin or Wild Turkey bourbon that he once so enjoyed, while the cigarettes have also been consigned to the past. But he can't bring himself to give up his last vice, the one that has always had him in its thrall: beautiful women.

"All I drink now is mojitos with no rum, but lots of love instead," the impish Araki says. "I stopped drinking and smoking when I got sick and the only thing that I like to smoke now is the nipple of a beautiful woman."

He says this with another of his smiles, but it is not meant to shock or offend. It's simply Araki being honest about the latest phase of a career that has traversed seven-and-a-half decades and will see him collaborate with two more of Japan's most famous photographers for an upcoming exhibition organised by The Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation.

"Up Close: Eroticism in the works of Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki" opens at The Space for a nine-day run from October 16. It will include nearly 50 works that explore sexual experience as a metaphor for life and include a daily programme of screenings of documentaries examining Japan's avant-garde art movement.

Araki's contributions to the exhibition include a number of collages of semi-clothed women against photographs of clouded skies from his "My Ender" series, created shortly after he underwent surgery for prostate cancer, as well as works from the earlier "Marvellous Tales of Black Ink" collection, featuring naked women tied up and juxtaposed against sex toys. Other works are from his "Hana Kinbaku" collection, taken in 2008, and "Love on the Left Eye" series, published in 2014 after Araki lost virtually all vision in his right eye.

Sitting in his favourite drinking hole, a glossy, subterranean bar called Rouge on the fringes of Tokyo's Kabukicho nightlife district, Araki says he is looking forward to the Hong Kong exhibition and says he prefers to have his shows overseas rather than in Japan.

"I seem to get the best reactions in Europe, with Vienna the biggest response followed by Venice, Paris, London and Amsterdam," he says. "I like it because people understand my work and they say so. It's very different when I exhibit in Japan. The nature of Japanese people is not to show their emotions or their ideas, so they hide their reactions when they see my works.

"But in my heart, I believe that Japanese people understand me the best, although they will never admit it," he adds with a shrug.

At the same time as being celebrated, Araki has triggered controversy for works that have been variously labelled obscene, predatory, vulgar or lurid. The debate rages on over whether his images are pornographic and exploitative or artistic. Frequently, the naked women in his pictures are staring vacantly into his lens. She is detached; the viewer is effectively taking part through Araki's work.

In an introduction to his art, Ivan Vartanian, writer, curator and publisher of works about Japan's photographic art world, has said Araki "has made the camera a metaphor for man and reduced the subject of woman to a set of female genitals. This is his purposeful provocation of the system that has been in place for centuries. By embodying such stereotypes, he is at the same time holding them up for ridicule."

I believe that all women want to be tied up, and not only physically but mentally as well
Nobuyoshi Araki

Araki dismisses suggestions that his work is aggressive or exploitative of women with a mildly irritated wave of his arm. Binding them in bondage rope, he insists, is done "with the touch of love".

"I believe that all women want to be tied up, and not only physically but mentally as well," he says. "If a man does not tie a beautiful women up, she will run away. You have to tie her up so she can't."

Born in Tokyo in 1940, Araki learned the basics of photography as a boy alongside his father, a semi-professional photographer who was always in demand for school graduation photos. He has a vivid memory of his first vision through the lens of an old-fashioned large-format camera mounted on a tripod; it was upside down. To honour that memory, an image in one of his most recent books is deliberately upside down. It is also a comment on the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, which left the entire nation inverted, he says.

Araki studied photography more formally at university before joining Dentsu, the advertising agency, where he met Yoko Aoki, whom he would later marry. Issued in 1971, the book Sentimental Journey is an intimate photo essay of his wedding and honeymoon, including images of their rumpled bed sheets. Updated and reissued 20 years later, it has become a photographic diary of their lives together that concludes with Yoko's death, from ovarian cancer, in 1990. The final pages have images of Araki holding his wife's hand on her deathbed; another is of her face, surrounded by flowers, in the casket shortly before she is cremated.

"If I had to choose my three favourite photos, I would choose the photos I took of my father, my mother and my wife on their deathbeds," he says.

"When my father died, his face looked very unhealthy; it was not the face that I remember and he would not have wanted me to photograph him like that, so I deliberately kept it out of the frame," he says, showing me the image. Similarly, he walked around his mother's body seeking the best angle before he was finally satisfied.

"They would have been happy," he says. "My father taught me how to be an excellent photographer, but I believe that to do my best work I had to see my parents die."

He sips his rum-free mojito and we sit in silence for a while. We change the subject and I ask about his preference for Japanese women in his work. "I take photos of Japanese women basically because I have to be able to communicate with them," he says. "But beyond that, I like Japanese women.

"Photography is about communication between the photographer and his subject, the small details."

He snorts at the suggestion that he is an artist as much as a photographer. "Modern art is a con," he says forcefully. "It betrays you. Contemporary art is a fraud and I'm a photographer, not an artist. There are too many lies in contemporary art. I'm a liar in my work, but contemporary artists tell more lies."

Asked how he is a liar, Araki says the images that are captured by a camera are merely a copy of reality. They are not real; they are, by definition, a lie.

Araki insists that the images he captures are "private photos" that are not intended to be beautiful or scenic, but a reflection of his everyday life and his emotional state at a moment in time. "But at times I feel ashamed and I want to hide. This is why I sometimes change the dates on the photos that I take, that I lie. That is a very important part of my work and a part that I think an international audience will understand."

Although he is slowing down now he has hit 75, Araki says he is constantly making plans. In April, he will have an exhibition in Paris with a title that translates as "Tokyo Graveyard". He senses that his own life is coming full circle.

"The death of my mother and father, the death of my wife; after those tragic events, my energy to take photos was stimulated," he says. "I have had prostate cancer and lost the vision in my right eye, so my own death is approaching. But death gives you the opportunity to understand how much you have loved your subjects and how much your subjects have loved you."

Up Close: Eroticism in the works of Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, October 16-25, 11am-8pm, The Space, 210 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. Inquiries: 9180 7716