Zen Audacity in Eikoh Hosoe’s Barakei: Consideration of an Image


Yukio Mishima, as photographed by Eikoh Hosoe for the publication Barakei, or, Ordeal By Roses.


This is it. The image that forever did me in, the one that turned me into a Japanese photography addict.

To tell you what you are looking at is one thing, and flatly stated it’s rather simple: this is a photograph of the late author Yukio Mishima, standing on a marble zodiac in front of his home, wrapped in a garden hose—the end of which is stuffed into his mouth, held there (in a gesture of pulling it from within himself) with his left hand. In his right hand, he holds a wooden hammer, raising it above his head. He is looking up. The photograph was shot from above, taken while standing on a ladder. Mishima’s gaze is direct, intent and provocative.

To explain what this photograph is, however, and what it means, is something else entirely. And the answer will vary depending on who you ask.

In the preface to the book, Mishima wrote that what he came to understand in the course of the making of Barakei was that all photographs were either “..a record or a testimony.” What he’s referring to is very similar to John Szarkowski’s assertion that a photograph either becomes a mirror or a window, and this modernist dichotomy is fittingly evoked by Mishima, given that he was a figure that was deeply divided between his fascination and love for classic western culture as well as fanatically devoted to describing and elevating the culture of a pre-WWII era Japan.

When the photographer, Eikoh Hosoe , is given room to speak, he recounts the following:

Mishima’s father happened to be watering the garden, so I grabbed the hose, and wrapped Mishima in it. I completely wrapped his body in the hose and kept him standing in the center of the zodiac where he was planning to erect a statue of Apollo. I asked him to look up and concentrate on the camera which I was holding on a ladder above. I asked him to lie on the zodiac and I photographed him from a low angle on the ground. Then I asked him to walk slowly, with the hose still wrapped around him, and to lie down in the narrow space between the wall of his home and his neighbor’s house. I continued shooting for about an hour.

“I have never been photographed like this,” he said. “Why did you do it this way?”

“This is the destruction of a myth,” I replied.

To me, it is an image that seems to recount a myth, one that is particularly Promethean in character. In the above photo, Mishima looks as if he has had that hose in his mouth for all time, and as if he will be holding that hammer up in the air for about as long. Prometheus is best known for giving humans knowledge of the gift of fire, which had previously been the sole dominion of the gods. In punishment for his overreaching, Prometheus was bound to a rock and made to have his liver picked out by an eagle every day, only for the wound to heal and the liver to regenerate overnight, so that he could be punished anew each day. Mishima’s life itself was caught between battling impulses and competing aesthetics, which for the author became a literal matter of life and death. Obsessed with Greek mythology and the martyrdom stories and iconography of Christian saints, Mishima was also radically political, adhering to a bushido creed and, at the end of his life, attempting a coup d’etat to restore the power of the emperor. He was among the best known contemporary writers of modern Japan, was enormously prolific in his (too) short life, writing over 30 novels, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature three times.

What was remarkable about this photograph (and the entirety of the Barakei series, but especially this image) is that it exemplifies what it is to have an encounter with someone whose will and creative fortitude is equal to that of your own. An encounter is not adversarial, but collaborative. Each player is open and loose, but still entirely contained within themselves and within their own power. Both experts at trained spontaneity. They improvise with one another, allowing themselves to be used as material by the other, and in turn still exercise their own creative will throughout.

Hosoe was a young photographer coming to the home of a well known and revered author. What he did that day on Mishima’s lawn was an example of zen audacity: Eikoh Hosoe walks into the world of Yukio Mishima with the end goal of making photographs of the man. Leaving himself open to Mishima’s environment and what it might reveal about him, he entered the scene with no preconceptions. He sees the garden hose and audaciously wants to wrap him up in it, stand on a ladder to photograph him from above, with Mishima placed in the center of his own zodiac. The act of wrapping Mishima in a hose is one that says, effectively, “I can’t work with you if I have to worship you.” And in the act of binding the author, Hosoe liberated himself from him. Mishima, in turn, accepted the initiative and humbled himself, finding it both profound and amusing.

In the West, a portrait is often the negotiation between the photographer and the subject, a mediation between the desire on the part of the sitter for a good image, and that of the photographer to make an image he deems worthy of himself (or, as I’ve suggested previously, all portraits are a form of self-portraiture on the part of the photographer). That is not what happens in this photograph. Mishima surrenders entirely here. There is no negotiation. He surrenders with trust, knowing that whatever happens photographically, Mishima will still be Mishima. He is opening himself to the experience of self-transformation under Hosoe’s direction, essentially trusting Hosoe in an act akin to a kind of photographic psychoanalysis. Hosoe, in turn, knows how to trust his own responses in the midst of an intense encounter with an intense personality. This would become the hallmark of all of his subsequent work. Hosoe knows how to get intensity out of a worthy subject; he knows how to have an Encounter. This image is not a record of something about the author Yukio Mishima. Neither is this photograph a testimony of Hosoe’s fantasy idea of Mishima. This photograph is a meeting of the two.

stray thoughts, more words

the quote i read that sucker punched me this week:

I pursue no objectives, no system, no tendency; I have no program, no style, no direction. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes or variations that lead to mastery. I steer clear of definitions. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, noncommittal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty.
–Gerard Richter


if artists were weather patterns, what would richter be? a plodding, thick, continual rain? tenacious and thick with mist?

and i learned this week that the japanese use large department stores as exhibiton spaces for photographic projects. it seems i knew that about miwa yanagi’s work, but had not applied it mentally across the board. this mode of aesthetic representation at once seems horrid and fascinating. more the latter than the former. and the department stores often have hired curators as well, to manage collections. i guess alot like corporate collections being managed here, except that in a department store all sorts of everyones will see the work. i like that better. the idea that one can be shopping for bras one moment, and then be displaced by art in the next, while never leaving the same space. shouldn’t that be a tenet of art anyway, displacement?

many stray thoughts this week. finished reading ghost’s image, and am seized with the desire to hear that voice once more. he has another book i’ve been told i’d like: to the friend who did not save my life, and i will order it in the coming weeks.


i’m chastising myself because i went on a book-buying binge and am waiting for the avalanche to arrive. of everything i ordered, however, i am most excited about the copy of masahisa fukase’s the solitude of ravens that i found for a decent price. i cannot wait to see the whole project as he laid it out in book form, and i hope there is some writing by fukase in it as well. been a bit obsessed with the idea of photographers that integrated superstition or folk lore into their own representational personal psychology. emboldened by that find, i also looked into trying to find a copy of hosoe’s kamaitachi, which was a body of work produced in the 1960’s involving a country myth of a weasel-like demon that enters a village, charms the villagers, seduces ladies, and then lies in wait to steal children away with it in the end. an eastern pied piper? hosoe wanted to revisit the myth because the dancer he used to portray the demon was from the same place he had been evacuated to as a child fleeing the cities during wwii, seeking sanctuary in the countryside. the exotic expanse of the countryside fueled hosoe’s imagination as a child, and he remembered being haunted by this story while living as a refugee in a place that was so foreign to any context in which he had been raised. in any case, i entered bizarre territory when researching this book, finding only two copies both of which went for around $5000.00. my god, i thought, i’m entering the realm of the ninth gate! never before had i entered a book title in a search engine and generated a sales price into the thousands. sigh.

i would still love to see the complete folio one day, though. one i dug up just now that i’d never before seen:


striking me: when you encounter work that, to borrow van gogh’s language, “hits the yellow high note,” it is at once made known to you that what you are responding to is an articulation of your aesthetic that you had yet to realize, something within that you are confronted with, and that once confronted you know that your task is to find a way to wrench it from your being and put it out in front of you. like that which you are looking at, but to have it come from you.

i believe that if my aesthetic were a character, its character notes would be that which was ambiguous, and a little bit darkly so.

spirit and making

i know it’s a pedestrian wish, but i wish weekends were longer. the space of two days of time to do with what i will is just enough to begin to return to myself, to have a sense of what i’d do with my time if all of it were mine. i plan and cook meals; i can read in good long stretches; this evening i went to the library and filled out endless interlibrary loan requests; and now i’m rolling around different stray thoughts on photographers and how they describe themselves (and the world) in my head.

i found this great article on eikoh hosoe, in which he is describing seeing gaudi for the first time in barcelona. about how he couldn’t even begin to photograph it then, he had to experience it first (and not first mediate an experience through camera) and then come back to it, thirteen years later. he’s describing some rocks that are arranged seemingly arbitrarily int he architecture, and then he realizes:

“i found that the order was not arbitrary. They were placed with cosmic order like the sun in the center of rotating planets…what gaudi was ultimately pursuing through his architecture was a zen spirit. maybe what i was looking for was not the design of the architecture, but a zen spirit hidden in his body of work.” (interview with darwin marable, history of photography, v.24., #1, spring 2000)

it’s this notion of someone’s work being imbued with spirit that’s interesting to me (nice dovetail to earlier in the article when they’re discussing hosoe’s shinto roots: his father was a shinto priest and he grew up in a shinto shrine). it was occuring all through the kawabata book i just finished, the master of go. in it, kawabata describes the playing of go by americans and europeans, and that how it is as if they understand the rules but nothing of the spirit of the game, of the deliberate dance and individual wills of the players involved. of how the tone of each move is answered in kind by the rejoining move, and that to not acknowledge this in a play can be insulting and “in poor spirit.”

have also been remembering a startling personality that slips from my memory for periods of time, and then my memory searches for his strange, exclamatory-sounding name. vojta! vojta dukat! i can’t dig much up on him on the internet, and i think he prefers his obscurity. but i found this:


vojta was a guest lecturer at a short-lived program i attended several years ago in prague. the school was a documentary photography summer program, and it attempted to expose very western, very american young impressionables to some central european sensibility in the form of these guest lectureships of different (mostly czech) photographers. there were some more famous names of people i’ve seen in aperture and such since, but it was vojta (such a great name) that made the biggest impression on me. he came to the room not with the customary slides, but with a great (like two feet thick) stack of smallish photos tucked under his arm. he started putting them all on the table, one after another, like cards. each image was astonishing, simply and beautifully seen. he had magic light in nearly everyone, and the overall their tone was quiet, usually interaction between two or a few people. intimate. i remember thinking he was like what rasputin would be if he were a photographer instead of a sensate holy man, or that maybe in fact vojta was some sort of sensate holy man, able to insinuate himself into profoundly quiet moments without ever being insinuating.

the room was respectfully quiet while he talked and layed out his photographs. and then, as was custom, when he was done students volunteered to be “critiqued” by the guest. a girl, one of the more confident ones, started to bring out her photos. vojta picked over them, going through them faster and faster. finally he looked into her. “why did you make these?” he asked her, in all sincerity. “it’s as if you were thinking of nothing as you pointed your camera, that you saw nothing as you looked through the lens. arbitrary, messy and thoughtless. why make any photographs at all in this manner? why waste?” and there was more i think, that he said which i don’t remember, and she was more than a little startled. and it’s true that the workshop was comprised mostly of amateurs, hobbyists, and those looking for a little direction. but i think about how one is taught to make and make and make (especially in the beginning) as much as possible, to make in such a frenzy that precludes thought–and how refreshing it was to hear someone (with the image archives to back it up) that no, it is important to see, or to learn to see, before one goes on a manic making spree. my partiality to slowness comes, to some degree, from this memory.