Photography is about a single point of a moment. It’s like stopping time. As everything gets condensed in that forced instant. But if you keep creating these points, they form a line which reflects your life.
– Nobuyoshi Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki (b.1940) is a celebrated and controversial Japanese photographer whose work revolves around female eroticism and his fascination with his birthplace of Tokyo, Japan. While sometimes focusing on quotidian subject matter, including flowers or street scenes, it is Araki’s sexual imagery that has elicited controversy and fascination. Araki often addresses subversive themes—such as Japanese bondage kinbaku—in his provocative depictions of female nudes. With his notoriously provocative images, Araki has been involved in both scandals of attempted censorship and the subject of much controversial attention from critics and the press. Other important themes that motivate Araki’s work include the endless cycle of life and death, and the exploration of this precarious relationship. Since the inception of his practice in the 1960s, Araki has become one of his country’s most eminent and prolific photographers, having published over 450 photobooks of his works at the time of writing.
After studying photography and film production at Chiba University, Araki began his career as a commercial photographer at the advertising agency Dentsu. During this period he exhibited in his first show, Satchin and Mabo, also winning a photography contest for the post-war series, Satchin from 1963, which reveals some of the devastation from the war and the need for a fresh start in Japanese society.
It was during the 1970s that Araki rose to prominence as a fine art photographer: even the artist himself termed the beginning of this decade as “The First Year of Araki”. Publishing his first photobook in 1971 entitled Sentimental Journey, Araki then continued this project in 1991 with Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey. The original photobook documented his honeymoon with his wife, Yoko Araki, and the latter combines this with a visual record of her decline into a premature death. In 1974 Araki co-founded the Workshop School of Photography with other renowned Japanese photographers including Daido Moriyama and Shōmei Tōmatsu, and just two years later opened the Nobuyoshi Araki School.
Since the early seventies, eroticism has been an essential element in Araki’s work. However it was from 1979 that Araki began his engagement with kinbaku, a form of Japanese bondage that has inspired much of his work since. Though provocative in nature, Araki claims that his fascination with kinbaku lies in his mission which is to “free [the women’s] souls by tying up their bodies.” Other pervasive themes include his flower series which, although not focusing on the exposed, nude female body like much of the rest of his practice, remain erotic through their specific rendering and positioning of the photographs, which recall both female and male genitalia.
Nobuyoshi Araki’s works demonstrate a passion for vibrant colours and intense black and white photography. Inspired by Japanese traditions, both ancient and more modern, Araki’s influences include the Japanese art of Shunga, which reached its apex in the Edo period with infamous artists such as Katsushika Hokusai, as well as more unconventional signifiers of Japanese culture such as Godzilla-esque monsters, and modern Tokyo culture. Araki’s models also often wear the traditional Japanese kimono. In the photographer’s work, this traditional Japanese dress is intriguingly juxtaposed against the erotic posing of the models who wear them. These photographs are intimate depictions of sensuous subjects, as well as a documentation of everyday life in modern Japan.
Many of his photographs are erotic, straddling a line between art and pornography. Violence is also an underlying theme. Among his photography books are Sentimental Journey (1971), and Tokyo Lucky Hole (1990). Sentimental Journey “1972–1992” is a diary of life with his wife Yōko, who died of ovarian cancer in 1990. The first part of Sentimental Journey shows the couple embarking on married life—their honeymoon and sexual relations. Pictures taken during Yoko’s last days were published in Winter Journey.
Nobuyoshi Araki’s works are part of numerous significant public collections including that of the Tate Modern, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland. One of his most recent projects was To the Past, 2012, which incorporates many of the artist’s black and white photographs from 1979 until 2011. Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographs have won many important awards, including the aforementioned 1964 prize for Satchin, the 1990 Shashin-no-kai prize from the Photographic Society of Japan, the 1991 7th Higashjkawa Prize, the 1994 Japan Inter-Design Forum Grand Prix, and most recently the 2008 Austrian Decoration of Honour for Science and Arts.
Araki currently resides in Tokyo, Japan, a city that has served as a constant source of inspiration throughout his career. Today, his works are held in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Goetz Collection in Munich, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.