Sex And Death – Nobuyoshi Araki

With the recent ‘Astrid And The Exis’ piece came the realisation that this was, over 100 posts in, the first time I’d focused on a photographer. I thought I’d better begin to address this accidental omission, and pay more props to the still image, starting off with the controversial Tokyo photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, now in his seventies, whose medium ranges from global art galleries to the pages of readers wives type porno mags (which brings to mind what Alan Moore said about the difference between erotica and pornography being largely dependent on the income bracket of the buyer).

I first came across Araki via the 1995 Channel 4 documentary, ‘Fake Love’. I found the old VHS I’d recorded it on and watched it again recently. I was reminded how the narrator, Alexandra Gilbreath, had been uneasy about his photographs, her tone quite condemning as his work left her cold. Although she was aware that he plays a game, it’s one she felt he took too far. What was interesting is that it was apparent that whilst the narrator and some of the other female contributors to the documentary, all Western, found his photography derogatory towards women, Japanese women on the contrary seemed to find it liberating. As the American photographer Nan Goldin stated, ‘you can’t look at Araki’s work and understand it from a Western perspective, he is actually freeing these women to express their own desires’.

His work is certainly provocative, and he’s never shied away from the taboos, not least with the Japanese bondage photography which has gained him many admirers and detractors. It’s the artist’s job to push our buttons, which is what Araki revels in. On the surface you’ll find an unashamedly dirty old man, but that’s just the surface, that’s but the role he plays. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll discover a prolific artist whose range of work is simply staggering, with hundreds of photographic books published. Special mention to ‘Sentimental Journey’ (1971), a collection of shots taken during his honeymoon with wife Yōko, and ‘Sentimental Journey / Winter Journey’(1991), which updates the original book, documenting her final days, leading up to her death in 1990. It was at this point that a lot of people sat up and took notice of him for the first time – the tragedy would be the catalyst for his oncoming celebrity status as Japan’s most famous / infamous photographer.

The themes of sex and death are central to his art, ‘I want to take photos that blend sex and death’ he says, ‘these two desires are inseparable’. This is what he feels makes his work distinctive, ‘glimpsing death and sex, and sex and death’.

Yoko Sentimental Journey

This photograph of Yōko from ‘Sentimental Journey’ took on a whole new meaning following her untimely passing two decades on. What was originally a snapshot of her peacefully sleeping in the boat suddenly became symbolic of a journey to death, Yōko’s foetal positioning suggesting a return to the beginning – it’s as though she’s crossing the River Styx on her ferry ride to the other side.

Araki’s work became better known in the West following the session he did for Björk’s album ‘Telegram’ (1996), and more recently his bondage shots of Lady Gaga, which, rather than shocking peoples’ sensibilities, have been greeted with much acclaim, and have also, of course, brought his name deeper into the mainstream of Western popular culture.

The short 13 minute piece linked here, ‘Contacts: Nobuyoshi Araki’, provides a real insight and a great introduction to his work. I should mention that it includes some nude shots, so you might want to be careful where you view.

For further exploration the Travis Klose documentary film ‘Arakimentari’ (2004) is highly recommended.

Nobuyoshi Araki Wikipedia:

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3 Responses to Sex And Death – Nobuyoshi Araki

  1. Juliet October 6, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    I found it interesting that with Bjork his approach is not at all sexual in the way that some of his other work is. He saw an innate childlike or innocent quality within her and captured it. I also really loved the sky photographs he took after the death of his wife. They are really emotive. Not all of the Japanese women found it liberating. One found it humiliating to be used as a glorified vase, but I think the exploration of sexuality in his work is interesting and it definitely inspires a reaction. However, it’s still a man in control, choosing the image of female sexuality that we see. Sexual politics, particularly female sexual politics are in a different space in 2011 than they were in 1995. I think the narrator’s resistance is partly due to a post-feminist response to the fact that women had been trying to free themselves for decades / centuries. The reaction to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and her “Sex” book was strong compared to the mainstream acceptance of Rihanna and Lady Gaga’s use of bondage today. It’s more acceptable for women to explore their sexuality in whatever form now. I do find it strange that powerful women want to portray themselves as submissive though, but that’s a much larger debate!

  2. greg wilson October 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm #

    Hi Juliet – really good to get your perspective and insight.

    As you say, even the individual aspects of sexuality present a whole can of worms – put it all together and it’s that human minefield that has built and brought down cultures since year dot. What’s deemed moral today is decried as immoral tomorrow, and vice versa (pardon the pun).

    This ebb and flow is something I hadn’t properly considered when I was younger. You grow up believing that morals are somehow fixed, ‘right’ is right and ‘wrong’ is wrong, but eventually you find that society has a way of changing its mind, for better and for worse (depending on your own individual subjective morality). It’s like you point out, there was a huge controversy when Madonna issued her ‘Sex’ book, but now Lady Gaga gets trussed up and hardly anyone bats an eyelid – ‘in olden days a glimpse of stocking…’. To some that means progress, but to others degradation – and the moral pendulum keeps on swinging its way through time.


    BTW I’d assumed that the ‘glorified vase’ model had her tongue in cheek when she was talking about the experience – maybe I misread there.

  3. Gareth February 8, 2021 at 7:07 pm #

    I don’t suppose you know if Sex And Death – Nobuyoshi Araki is viewable online anywhere?

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