Emi Anrakuji: Mapping Embodiment

One of the most distinctive photographers to have emerged since 2000, Toyko-based Emi Anrakuji has built a reputation on handmade photobooks and striking collections published by Nazraeli Books. Even her gallery shows feature multiple series of works, series that are non-sequential and yet seem irresistibly to suggest possible narratives. What links all of Anrakuji’s work, I suggest, is her concern to map embodiment and to document the process of such mapping. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her New York show at Miyako Yoshinaga, O Mapa (24 October—27 November 2013).

What little biographical information can be found on Anrakuji has emphasized her long struggle with health issues occasioned by a cerebral tumor. There is no need to invoke such a personal history, however, to see in her work a preoccupation with the body and with the artist’s own body, in particular: the vast majority of images in Anrakuji (Nazraeli, 2006) and ipy (Nazraeli, 2008) include Anrakuji’s body either partly or completely unclothed and most often focus on specific body parts. Legs and feet, hands and thighs, lips and breasts, tongues and hair appear again and again, often reflected in mirrors and generally isolated visually from the body as a whole. Three sequences in Anrakuji involve semi-erect penises as well, always effectively distanced from any obviously male body.

Such imagery could be theorized productively through the lens of Freud’s account of fetishism or Lacan’s evocation of the corps morcelé in his theory of the mirror stage, but what strikes me in Anrakuji’s work is the way these relatively detached body parts are always found in a field of other objects: bits of wire, balloons, matches, masks, mirrors, transparent panels, scratched and dirty floors, a couch, a bed, IV tubes with wooden spacers, various swatches of fabric and items of clothing, fish-net stockings, cut-out figures, architectural details, and elements of landscape. The more one studies the photographic sequences in her books, the more Anrakuji’s body seems to find itself in a rather finite world of objects, objects that repeat in various combinations to the extent that they become almost familiar to the viewer. Indeed, in many ways, it is the combinatorial structure—the variety of combinations of elements—that most centrally characterizes Anrakuji’s work, so much so that the isolated body parts so prevalent in the images become further elements of structural possibility. The human body and its parts are just items in a universe of objects, and the uncanny quality of Anrakuji’s photographs is surely a product of this fact.

What we see here is a striking confirmation of Jerry Thompson’s recent claim that the importance of photography has much to do with epistemology, with its revelation of how we know the world. Elaborating a point made by the 19th-century photographer, William Henry Fox Talbot, Thompson emphasizes that photography gives us “nothing less than a way of knowing the world that transcends our educations, our opinions, our intentions, hopes, and desires—in a word, our subjectivity. 1 Anrakuji’s work reveals a world that includes subjectivity but is neither shaped by nor defined by the human subject.

In this respect, at least, Anrakuji is effectively in dialogue with Takuma Nakahira, who argued as early as 1973 that contemporary history has shown human beings to have no special place in the world, so that “our means of expression at this point in time should discard ‘the image,’ and address the world as it is, and rightly position the thing as the thing and myself as myself in this world. To do so, all humanizing or emotionalizing of the world according to the self must be rejected. 2” In a later essay, “Self-Change in the Act of Shooting,” Nakahira would insist that “when I encounter afresh the world of reality, my own self-consciousness is dismantled; the act of rebuilding the consciousness has been imposed on me endlessly. That, in a way, has been my fate as a photographer. 3” This fate of rebuilding a dismantled subjectivity, I now want to suggest, also governs the work of Emi Anrakuji.

O Mapa (The Map), Anrakuji’s recent show at Miyako Yoshinaga, featured three distinct non-sequential series of photographs, as well as a short video piece. The left wall of the gallery was devoted to eight medium-sized images, two of which were in color, while the rest were in black-and-white. Like the other two series of photographs in the show, these eight images suggest a number of possible narratives, although nothing in the images themselves or in their sequence as hung dictates a particular story-line. The two color photographs provide the basic frame of reference for each of the other photographs in the series. One of these (O Mapa 11156) depicts from a rather low angle a young woman—Anrakuji herself—crouching on the pavement in front of an old bus and searching through a large handbag filled with various objects.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11156], from O Mapa series, 2013.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11156], from O Mapa series, 2013.

The woman’s bare legs and long hair highlight the fact that she is wearing a dark-blue dress, perhaps a uniform. The other color image (O Mapa 11139) appears to reveal the same scene from the much higher angle of someone inside the bus—perhaps its driver—looking down on the woman.

Here we see that she has beside her a bright purple parasol, while a bottle of rum and an egg-crate rest on top of the bus’s dashboard.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11139] from O Mapa series, 2013.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11139] from O Mapa series, 2013.

Each of the black-and-white images in this series picks up on some aspect of these two framing images. Thus O Mapa 11168 gives us another perspective from the pavement, with the parasol dramatically overexposed, while O Mapa 11327 returns to the cab of the bus, focusing on the steering wheel and the bottle of “Black” rum, but also including a hand and a bare foot inside the cab:  there is no trace of the woman outside at all in this image. O Mapa 11225 provides another view from inside the bus, but this time the woman seems to be approaching the windshield of the bus, her face hidden by the parasol and her right hand holding an insulated cup in front of the egg-crate on the dashboard.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11225], from the series O Mapa, 2013.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11225], from the series O Mapa, 2013.

O Mapa 11251 show the woman’s hand pressed against the bus’s windshield and reveal hints of her face:

This essay would not have been possible without the generous assistance of Stacy Oborn Platt and Miyako Yoshinaga.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11251], from the series O Mapa, 2013.

while the final image (O Mapa 11299) superimposes the woman in her crouch with a floor-level shot of the interior of the bus’s cab: here the woman’s face is turned to her left (the viewer’s right), as though looking towards the back of the bus.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11299] from the O Mapa series, 2013.

Emi Anrakuji, Untitled [#11299] from the O Mapa series, 2013.

Even from these prosaic descriptions, it should be clear that the O Mapa series once again situates Anrakuji’s body in a relatively closed field of other objects—pavement and bus, parasol and uniform, insulated cup and egg crate, rum-bottle and windshield—and the series effectively articulates the combinatorial of possibilities these object-elements define. Whatever narrative a viewer might bring to this series of photographs—perhaps a tale of an encounter, the nostalgia of an aging bus coloring the series’ depiction of a rather contemporary young woman—it is the various objects found in the images—including the body parts—that together make possible any narrative. What this means is that there is no subjectivity in the images, no subject in control, and it is the images themselves that make possible the constitution of whatever subjectivity emerges from the series of photographs. Something like a consciousness is “rebuilt” in these images, to use Nakahira’s term, but the precondition of this process is that any transcendental, guiding consciousness has been “dismantled” in the very making of the images.

In her artist’s statement for O Mapa, Anrakuji notes the existence of different kinds of maps:

…the map of a land’s end, the map of the universe, the map of one’s internal body, and the map of the thought. Even the remains of a stain or smudge of dirt sometimes appear to me as a map.” 

O Mapa is the map of my mind starkly expressed through the photography.  It is a stack of ‘action to live’ rather than emotional expressions.

What this means, I suggest, is that we cannot read the images of these series as expressions of a subject’s emotions; rather, the images provide maps for acting, for living—“action to live”—and our own sequencing of the photographs effectively constitutes a particular embodiment of the possibilities inherent in the artist’s work.

From this perspective, then, Emi Anrakuji’s photographs open up a remarkably rich epistemological field. These images help us to know some of the ways in which subjectivity is constituted in a field of discrete objects. In our own encounter with the modes of encounter articulated in her photographs, Anrakuji helps us come to know the often disturbing, generally uncanny, ways in which we find ourselves human subjects, embodied in a world. If Roland Barthes is right in arguing that the most profound “way of the Photograph” is the path that leads to a confrontation with “the wakening of intractable reality,4” then Anrakuji’s work surely offers us an opportunity to awaken to the deepest understanding of subjectivity as it is constituted in and by a world of objects 5.

Emi Anrakuji has a new exhibition opening this month at Miyako Yoshinaga, 1800 Millimétre (April 23—May 30, 2015). From the show’s press release:

The title of her new series 1800 Millimètre is an allusion to a well-known poet Shiki Masaoka; whose essays entitled Byosho Rokushaku (Sickbed of 1800mm) was finished just before his premature death. Like Masaoka, the ordeal of the sickbed has impacted Anrankuji’s productivity. In her late 20s, Anrakuji was diagnosed with a brain illness that confined her to a hospital bed on and off for the next decade. Her gradual recovery left her blind in one eye and with severely impaired vision in the other. This condition has made Anrakuji, who cannot see a tip of a pencil, discover that the camera can be her eye. 


And a nota bene from this website’s author, Stacy Platt: Jonathan Scott Lee is a Professor of Philosophy at Colorado College, whom I have had the great good fortune to meet and befriend, finding out rather quickly that we both share a deep and impassioned interest in Japanese photography (and that we are both afflicted with the subsequent terrible and sublime sickness that is Japanese photobook collecting). Jonathan’s research interests are as ranging and profound as his collecting habits, and he is currently at work on a book about Jean-Luc Godard. I hope he keeps writing about photography, and I hope we can work collaboratively on something that makes use of both our love and critical thinking about photography in the near future.


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.

the personal aesthetic

what do you mean when you think of the word “aesthetics?”

is it a detached, dry, intellectual word, something too often and too wearily encountered on yet another artist’s statement written by some anonymous gallery assistant? is it a rare and personalized form of sight that only “master” artists seem to posses? is it a convenient pivot-term that critics can hover upon when creating confining boxes to fit their arguments about an artist, their output and their psychology into?

does one learn aesthetics or does aesthetics learn you? meaning: is aesthetics a panoply of ideas and concerns one encounters in a ripe and meaningful fashion, something to add to an artistic arsenal that will further give shape and weight to work made–or is it a different kind of encounter, a shocking familiarity, when you realize that a fully articulated way of thinking about something is one that you have always had and always carried with you, unawares. until that moment of encounter.

are aesthetics something given to you from the outside, or is it latent potentiality, waiting there for you to recognize it as some part of your self?

what informs you? who cares about beauty and making and thinking in ways that seem important to you, that resonate? is it a process of thinking or making/doing, or, as new age and cliché as it sounds, a mode of being? and: who and what has embodied this notion for me?

the first photographer that turned my head was bill brandt.

soho bedroom, 1938

i was but a babe to photography, its history, practice–any and all of it. but when i looked at the work of brandt, something beckoned. whispered to me, compadre.

new as i was to the medium, certain rules were known “rules” and these would concern focus, shadows (and the ability to see deeply into them), varied tonal range, how-to-shoot-a-nude, how-to-shoot-a-documentary-photograph. the whisper inside me was gleeful and grateful because she recognized brandt as bucking all of those rules and the images, despite the break with what is known as successful image making, still managing to be strong, stand-alone, Moments With Which To Be Reckoned.

i think i saw his nudes first, before anything.

camden hill, 1947

these were not the cool, controlling, perfected bodies of edward weston. or the shamelessly direct and wondefully amateur turn-of-the-century erotic nudes i had also become aware of. these were…if they were like anything, they were more like nudes i’d see in paintings than in anything i’d ever seen in a photograph. elongated, mannerist limbs. skin tones so contrasty as to lack any perceptive familiarity i had of the notion “skin.” perspective shifted, skewed, on its side. was the photographer laying on the ground sideways to get this view? maybe. and the mood of them…sad like the nudes of edward hopper. enigmatic and a little dangerous like the collages of max ernst. or even better yet, like the representations of the feminine by his lesser-known and muchly talented wife, dorothea tanning.

you could not “see into” his blacks. he did not want you to. or did not care if you cared. sometimes the perspective was such that it looked like the photo was made through the fat end of a coca-cola bottle.

east sussex, 1953

what i was responding to but didn’t yet know was brandt’s capacity to show a range of emotion and form simultaneously. emotions both protracted and projected as if on a blank, white movie screen. his accounting for, or dismissal of, the added layer of projected meaning by a potential viewer. a practiced eye that liked to double the association of forms, to play with that psychology in his photos. a photographer who, for me, would give me a little (the image), but was more than content to leave much in the way of meaning or interpretation a blank.

i learned recently that brandt’s work was not only unappreciated in his working days, but openly ridiculed and reviled. in the great big book on brandt that i feel lucky to own, bill jay writes about the experience of having championed brandt’s work as a junior editor for Popular Photography. the editor, les barry instead found it, “…impossible to accept the concept that this collection of poorly printed, ineptly cropped photographs of badly posed, unattractive women is his idea of serious work.” talk about being misunderstood. jay asserts in his foreward that despite decades of being told that he was a bad printer, an inept portratist, a sentimental documentarian, a horrid seer of the nude form, that he went right on working and working. making images and printing them exactly as he saw fit. it seems impossible to imagine a working artist today not withering against such steady, constant negative critique. when i think how often an artist quickly finds a comfort zone in their aesthetic vision once it has been vetted by curators and commerce (are the two even distinguishable anymore?), and how oftener and oftener it seems that one does not toy with the ingredients of success once you’ve begun to grope towards it, bill brandt’s plodding example seems nearly heroic to me.

years after i first encountered brandt i found another artist-as-touchstone. by this time i had become more personally invested in photography; i had been studying it for a number of years, i had rented studio space and built a darkroom that i learned to fail and fail better in. my travel plans on a student budget consisted of trips to traveling gallery and museum shows in whatever blocks of time i could afford to pay to stay out of town for. i had met and become friends with some other photographers, and now an intersecting dialogue of ideas, approaches and aesthetics had come to inform and play off of my own.

at the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, i first encountered the work of japanese photographer masao yamamoto. i wasn’t quite prepared for what i saw there, or the reaction i would have to his work. again: the niggling sense of familiarity, of shared sympathies or concerns. the greeks had a word for it: anagnorisis, meaning literally a recognition of someone, not only of their person but of what they stand for and represent.


the images, for those of you who have not seen them, are extraordinarily small. and variegated in size. some are 2×3, some 3×3, more often than not odd sizes. they are torn and worn and tea-stained. they are printed too dark to see distinctly and too light to see for certain. they are not treated or exhibited as precious objects, and the revelatory experience of seeing contemporary photography speak loudly through smallness and intimacy reinvigorated my sense of the range and possibility of the genre of photography.

installation view at the jackson fine art gallery, 2003

craig krull gallery, santa monica, 2003

i don’t know this for certain, but i think that yamamoto allows the gallery to decide how his work is to be shown, with perhaps a few sentences about his working philosophy and thinking. when i spoke to an assistant at j.f.a., she told me that the photographs arrived at the gallery minus any of the usual fuss and precocious preciousness surrounding the transport of contemporary art. they were stuffed unceremoniously into a box, all sitting on top and intersecting with one another. i imagined a cigar box stuffed to the brim with someone’s old and aging personal history, closed with a thick rubber band on the outside.

wabi-sabi aesthetics has always deeply resonated with me, and its precepts can be readily seen in yamamoto’s works. the tenets of wabi-sabi, if such a thing exists, would include some or all of the following:

  • a purposeful lack of hierarchy; de-emphasis on class or caste (with origins in the traditional japanese tea house, in which the entry to the tearoom is purposefully set very low, so that everyone, regardless of rank, would need to lower themselves to enter)
  • preoccupation with a watchful observance
  • an emphasis on economy, but without drifting into a kind of miserly-ness
  • an appreciation of evanescence, emphemerality, of fleetingness
  • leonard koren writes that things wabi-sabi are, “…unstudied and inevitable looking…[but] not without a quiet authority.”

to my thinking, wabi-sabi is an aesthetics of removed/impersonal vulnerability. what do i mean by that? that it is vulnerable and yielding to nature, events and circumstances beyond its control. that it shows its wear and tear on its sleeve but does not do so loudly. it is quiet and proud while being constituted from humble origins. is it an aesthetic of a new kind of puritanism? i don’t believe so. within wabi-sabi is a lack of fear or an expectation of any kind of reward.

after all of this disorganized meditation on the constitution of my personal aesthetic, i am no nearer to deciding whether or not aesthetics are something one does, or has done to one. i certainly experience a “simpatico” moment when encountering something that has managed to articulate something i know to be a deep personal truth, but then, doesn’t everyone? or are those answers and assumptions too pat? do the majority of art-makers and see-ers even give aesethetics a second-glance anymore, or have we all decided that it is the undisputed domain of a bunch of dead french continental philosophers? are aesthetics confined to the domain of form, art and making? is it something one lives (here i think of agnes martin, of richard foreman, even of anthony bourdain)? the one idea i keep returning to, the thing that i want to express here that matters to me, is that a certain self-awareness of one’s borders, boundaries, what one gives and what one keeps close to the chest, are all elements of art making that make the making Real to me, that i want to internalize like a mantra, that i wish were more present in the world around me and in those who happen to be in the business of making.

influences and confluences

to have the knowledge that you seek a particular vein of something is to be aware of not only your tastes, but what influences you, creates bias and division, separates one set of concerns from another. connoisseurship, perhaps, but also a little bit of greek wisdom: to know why you are drawn to specific things, people, situations or a kind of aesthetics is a form of knowing thyself.

i have been swayed by a particular kind of representation of birds. for years i’ve been made aware of this imagistic longing which i posses. it is very specific. when i say to someone, “i’m interested in making photographs of birds,” to the addressee that immediately creates some presumptions that become harder to correct if the conversation goes much deeper than this. “oh, so you’re into landscape photography then?” no, not exactly. not the way you perceive what that genre is, nor, probably, the way that i do.

when i search for ways to describe this, even to myself, the vocabulary comes up lacking. the best way i can find to describe what i mean and to describe it absolutely is to pull a photograph or a book from somewhere and physically give it and then in turn my meaning to someone. to you. my clumsy visual lexicon:

a certain awareness of grace:

camille solygua


michael ackerman

a love of form and play with space:

katsushika hokusai

masao yamamoto

smallness. delicacy:



jim dine : birds

from multiple sensibilities i become aware and attuned to my own. i define what bird is to my own eye, and i redefine each adjective i found to describe each form; meaning becomes expanded and at the same time compressed. i also define by negation what the image i seek is not. a healthy respect for both these image makers and what they pulled from within them begins to emerge within me. awe is balanced by fright which is balanced by play which is balanced by tea-stained memories that never were. the influences become confluences when i take my camera into a scene with a mind full of birds.

these were taken a much warmer season ago, in a much warmer clime than i inhabit now. before i left the south:

these are sketches of thoughts, really. the diet of one who intends to make more images which will evoke the lexicon she’s using to go by for the moment, and then expand the meanings she had previously described. more work in the works. both the written and the seen.

what little girls want: the art of miwa yanagi

A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch
old breast against young breast.

–Anne Sexton, “Rapunzel,” Transformations

miwa yanagi, rapunzel, 2005.

miwa yanagi creeps me out–in all the good kinds of ways. her images carry the capacity to go from surface to psychological in lightning-quick speed, and what lay in the subconscious afterwards folds into complex unease with a lingering, distinct aftertaste. cursory on-line research into her newest body of work provides three titles describing the same set of images, all apt in one or more ways: fairytales; the darkness of girlhood and the lightness of aging; and the incredible tale of the innocent old lady and the heartless girl.” whichever phrasing you choose, this third body of her photographs follows seamlessly where the last left off, and her visual problem-solving mingled with her confidence in her questions and critque makes her among the most interesting and provactive image makers today.

the japanese have a phrase for women art photographers, and it is not one that they should be entirely grateful for: onnanoko shashinka, translated literally as “girlie photographers.” as the first wave of established japanese photographers begins to make way for the new second wave, women have been struggling to make work that is both personal and collective, meaningful without being minute. and while work by female photographers is being produced, there is irritatingly little infomation or exposure of it. the lack of interest, press or support of contemporary female photographers in japan has been in part because of the concerns choosen to be explored in their art gets snidely referred to as “women’s work” and is subsequently dismissed. miyako ishiuchi‘s photographs catalog her mother’s articles of clothing and ephemera, as a daughter tries to understand her relationship to her and to herself through personal (nearly sacristral) objects she wore or carried on her person. michiko kon deals in still lifes constructed entirely of foodstuffs. gloriously decadent, humorous and grotesque, they are still made of items that a woman bought at a market, which are ingredients in a meal, that to a japanese mentality is to be served and prepared for a husband and family.

i have never liked the notion of women vs. male artists of any sort. women-only shows, while they serve a purpose, feel like a half-hearted attempt at artistic affirmative action. equality has never come about through polarity. the fact is, the playing field has never been level, and all that’s ever mattered–male or female–is the work. photography, because of its relatively late entrance into the art scene, has been perhaps the greatest democracy of all the arts (whether or not you read about it speaks to something else). ishiuchi’s photos are delicate, eerie and truly personalized, intimate documents. kon’s are among the first photographic images by a japanese photographer that i ever became infactuated with (and whatever happened to her anyway? has she made anything since the mid-1990’s?). that said, miwa yanagi makes altogether different kinds of images. different from women. different from men. different from anything i have ever seen. miwa yanagi is an artist whose questions give way to more questions.

yanagi first found herself championed by a transvestite japanese photographer,yasumasa morimura, who had been making a splash re-enacting art historical scenes and inserting himself as an obvious asian-male-made-to-be-westernized-ideal-of-female. he introduced her work to a curator of a major deutsche bank exhibition, held at the kunsthalle in frankfurt. her work was shown along the same walls as cindy sherman, nobuyoshi araki, jeff wall, miyako ishiuchi and morimura.

her first series, elevator girls, is startling to look at and is seductive in its deliberately sleek and polished sensibility. but when i first saw them i did not understand what i was looking at, and faced with the cultural roadblock, stopped at the surface.

elevator girls, 1996-1999

i did not know what an “elevator girl” was, and wasn’t aware of any overreaching cultural critique going on in the images. there are times when i assume that if i need to be given too much information about the context for a work, or why it exists, then the work becomes about the information and not about the work itself. i tend to think that these pieces fail when the explanation is more interesting than the visual. but happily in yanagi’s case, her visuals are always thought through, well executed and the context is necessary, and necessarily engaging.

noriko fuku describes elevator girls as those who:

…wear beautiful uniforms called “royal fashion,” often created by famous designers, and they receive special training where they learn to bow and speak with an exaggeratedly feminine tone of voice: “welcome to our department store. we appreciate your visit here today. this elevator is going up now and stops at all the floors upon your request. the second floor is for designer brand dresses for ladies. are there any customers who would like to stop here?” when the door opens, she says, “please mind your step.” another elevator girl is usually standing outside the door, also wearing royal fashion. the elevator girl inside the elevator smiles and bows to the girl outside, as if saying, “i am handing over my customers to you, please take care of them.” elevator girls stay in their tiny cells repeating the same speech and gestures hour after hour. only beautiful young girls are hired for these positions. for the previous generation, this was a highly desirable job.

without this information all i saw were sleek, surreal examples of consumer culture, and was completely oblivious to the specific critique on that culture the images were made to provoke. as i read in interviews and articles, i began to glean that this first work was possibly not meant for a wider cultural audience than the japanese (though her successive work would contend mightily with more collective themes), and that what it would become was yanagi’s first stab at puncturing this feminine bubble that exists in japan, the one that sets out all the acceptable options for a woman’s course in life and what her expectations can and should be for the duration.

white casket, 1998

i trust yanagi’s images in part because her line of questioning is evident and continually surprising: what can young, educated japanese women expect for their ambitious lives lived in large cities, post-education but pre-marriage? what does it mean to define oneself through sheer consumerism? is one doll different at all from another? is life as an elevator girl like living in some terranium, existing as a perfect moving object in a kind of fishbowl? how does one escape? does one escape? is collective identity a kind of murder, a form of sought-after suicide? in interviews, yanagi comments on the varities of female experience in japan, chief among those she questions are a group deemed “parasites.” parasites are women who choose to stay living at home with their parents while spending all of their considerable salaries on fashion. the relationship’s dynamic perpetuates itself because both parties think they are doing good deeds by living under the same roof: children think they are being good by watching over their parents and just generally being there, and parents feel a reason to live in continuing to take care of them. yanagi has said, “they stay home and spend all their money buying what they want. prada or hermes, japanese women consume all brand-name products. the industry does best in japan thanks to these women.” with no real cultural comparison in the west, the finer points of her criticism of this aspect of daily life was completely lost on me. once i had read the context which to a japanese would be self-evident, the photographs pulsed with their intended meaning.

in this interview, yanagi describes how her experience with her models from the series elevator girls began to generate fodder for her next work, grandmothers.

yanagi: in the process of making the series, i had the opportunity to talk with models who were in their twenties. it was interesting. they want something for their future. but they have a hard time expressing what they want as if their desires were subdued or locked inside…japanese women think they have to be lovable and liked by everyone around them…they think that they don’t deserve to live if they are not like that. as a result, they don’t talk openly about their wishes or strange desires even though they had some ideas about who they wanted to be when they were children. in order for them to recall their childhood dreams, they need to be liberated from their youthfulness.
wasaka: young women cannot express who they want to be at present because they are young?
yanagi: right. but, they can often express what they want to accomplish 50 years later. i think that occurs after they feel liberated from the age issue.
wasaka: does that mean that they don’t care anymore about what others think of them when they become senior?
yanagi: yes. so the more restricted she is today, the more free and gorgeous she may become fifty years later in her imagination.

misako, 2002
in your arms i used to listen to
that song which i will play again tonight
oh hazy moon
how many more nights are yet to pass
for this desolation to cease.

it is with her grandmothers series where yanagi began to fully come into her own. she had begun elevator girls as a performance piece, switching to photography when she became frustrated by the lack in the piece’s capacity to give her full authorial control. as if hitting a wall from such strictures, she turned around here, and gave up some of that rulership and found that it took her places it could not have with her absolute direction. using some of the models from elevator girls, and procuring others through an on-line advertisement she placed, she found stories within stories of what young women dreamed about becoming when they were older, once freed from their perceived obligations to family and society. artist and girl went hand-in-hand, teasing out the dreamed-of-life and what it might look like. using a combination of aging software, latex and makeup, yanagi brought the young into lively agehood. the women were asked to compose something that the reflective, experienced older woman would say or think.

ai, 2004

i know people in this neighborhood talk behind my back and say that my fortune-telling is fake.
i don’t do this to get a bit of money from these kids, i’m not that desperate or bored
i’m just here waiting for one special customer: my successor.
since she’s not attracted to the past or anxious about the future,
i leave it to chance that someday, she’ll enter through this shattered doorway.
after she takes my place, i’ll live quietly, discharged from both my hopes and regrets.
how many more dull fortunes do i have to tell
i can’t help feeling pity for these innocent girls.
their lives will be just like their mothers,
chronic boredom interrupted by disappointment and disillusionment.
can’t believe that they come here to confirm that.
i’m fed up with their girlsih secrets,
made rosy only by their shallow expectations and cheap dreams.
i’ll only take five more customers today.
oh, this girl is about to cry.
there’s no use for tears, sweetheart.

the result is a compelling battery of images, myriads of self-directed destinies and specifically wished-for futures; a truly realized and collaborative work. perhaps because the piece wouldn’t be complete without it, perhaps because it was too good a self-portrait opportunity to resist, yanagi included herself in the retinue of old ladies:

miwa, 2001
for ten years
i have looked after many children
every time
i embrace a new child
we all embark upon our journey together
at eighty
the long journeys across many mountains and rivers have become difficult.
still, i keep going
with the thought
that my children will exist
in the farthest reaches of this earth.

yanagi could be speaking about all the women she encounters while researching and producing her many images. or she could mean the women she hopes are touched or changed by the ideas of possible futures they could embody, if only they could see themselves within those possibile potential selves. or further still, the children may be the actual works themselves, taken out of japan, department stores, and foreign art museums, and held in the mind’s eyes of millions who come in contact with them, and by extension, with her wish for herself and a changed world.

her grandmothers series was well-received, shown in europe, japan and america, and included in a book of her work and interviews. it was reviewed as a series that viewed aging and feminity in a positive light, and the context for the reviews rarely delved anywhere near yanagi’s larger critique of banal and repetitive existences most japanese women live in today.

her newest body of work, the darkness of girlhood and the lightness of aging, begun in 2004, picks up some of the more sinister strands that her previous works had flirted with, but had not fully given voice to. to my eye, it is her most darkly compelling and aesthetically full-rounded work to date. in all her previous images, the final product is presented in lush, large, and luminous display, some photographs reaching 70×280″ in size. heavily digitally manipulated, extroidinarily detailed, we are engulfed as viewers into her mise-en-sc√©ne. these new images are smaller (but not small, exactly, measuring about 40×40″), classically printed black-and-whites, and still deal with a female-to-female dynamic, but in the well-known terrain of the fairy-tale.

gretel, 2004

i cannot find much information about this series, and am frustrated, as i often am, about the lack of information concerning newer work by pioneering japanese photographers. what i do know about the series i found in a recent issue of asia art pacific magazine. the review tells that yanagi reconstructs fairytale scenes from western tales as well as from gabriel garcia marquez’s erendira. she casts girls between the ages of five to eleven, and records them as both a girl and an old woman. the end result, in the handful of images i’ve seen (and want desperately to see in person), is chilling, unsettling, and utterly engrossing.

snow white, 2004

i quoted from anne sexton’s book of poems transformations at the beginning of this post. that particular tome was sexton’s dabbling into tales-told-slant, and yanagi’s rendering of girl-into-old-hag, innocence thwarted, and the cycle of youthful curiosity giving way to trials, self-discovery and redemption has much in sympathy with sexton’s treatment. in both the little girls aren’t all as innocent as they seem; evil witches are misfortunate shrews who wear their life’s regrets on their sleeves; both wield a certain power and horror; both are one in the same.

erendira, 2004

yanagi’s new series of work is being show from august through october at the hara museum of art in tokyo. i do not know whether it will come to the states or not, but if you have the means and opportunity to see it, i highly suggest you do so.


so it’s more of a visual thing than a lengthy-esoteric-discussion thing, but i’ve been most intrigued by the effect that the institute of design (and, more precisely, its golden-era mentors) have had on the aesthetics of early post-war japanese photographers. i know that yasuhiro ishimoto was studying with siskind and callahan during the heyday, and took his artistic armory back with him to japan, but i’ve just loved looking at the following homages made in respectful nods to callahan by nobuyoshi araki and masahisa fukase (i was certain there was a furuya one, but i think i was just hoping it existed):

the original:

eleanor, chicago, 1949

and those who wish to treat the matter through their own filters:

yoko araki, undated

yoko fukase, izu, 1973

in the introductory essay to anne wilkes tucker’s encylopedic tome the history of japanese photography, the author asserts that araki and fukase both became known to the japanese because they were the first to show the “intimate homelife and personal emotional state of their subjects.” as i read more and more about the environment from which contemporary japanese photographers emerged, i see (though as a westerner cannot fully comprehend) more and more how this work must have come as a shock to the viewing public. i also can’t help but meditate upon how, in absorbing eastern men reinterpret the tones of callahan’s portrait of his wife, they show something else of themselves, of the woman in front of them, and of east contemplating west. it’s amazing and a little humbling to consider just how revolutionary something so simple as an unguarded moment of one’s wife, captured on film, could revolutionize how an entire generation of photographers began to see, and it’s something i’ve loved thinking about ever since i came across these photographs.

The Art of Losing Love, pt.2: Seiichi Furuya and Christine Gössler

To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed into a single still.–Alfred Stieglitz
The other person is absent as a point of reference but present as an addressee. This strangely warped situation causes an unbearable presence: You are gone (which I lament); you are here (because I am turning to you).–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.
The more one blows on a fire trying to put it out, the larger the flame becomes.
One stops blowing. The cold blue of the flame changes to a soft red.
Why is that I tried to extinguish that warm, gentle fire?–Seiichi Furuya, 1996

I wanted to write something about love and madness. About what it is to love when the futility of its expression is felt omnipresently, and how one’s ability to pour love into one so stricken mirrors the futility of love itself. The lover will always find a way to empty love from themselves and into the beloved, and the beloved will always take and take and take.

Is it compassion for something we are powerless to affect that drives love into futile places?

Is it a recognition of our collective vulnerability, a karmic reflection back to us that if we were to be so stricken, there would be someone there to love us unconditionally, to worry over us properly?

Is it just an emotional impulse to try and fix something that is broken?

(Or is it all of these things and more, and words further trying to articulate only mess it up further?)

The phrase stultiferous navis emerged in the middle ages when towns, confronted with a mad contingent, did not know what to make or do with them. Were they senseless and harmless, non-contributing members of society, or were they “touched” by god, therefore to be feared and/or awed? Hedging their bets, the townsmen would collect those so “touched” and load them onto boats that would leave their shores, unmanned. If god wanted them, then he would guide them to safe shores. The townspeople could view themselves as merciful, in that that they did not murder them directly.

Later the mad were isolated, and put into the space of former leper colonies, on the tops of hills–where their screams could not be heard, so distanced from the populous.

Their madness came to be viewed as a moral flaw, a willfulness of spirit that could be driven out by hard work and good examples. The institutions of Tuke and Pinel in the 18th and 19th centuries reflected back these beliefs.

Now, in the 21st century, we think we know that so-called-madness is chemical. We scoff at the notion of humoral pathology, wandering wombs and inherent moral flaws. We know that neurons misfire, that parts of the brain don’t receive enough serotonin, that we can mix together cocktails of things and with enough tinkering, nearly anyone can be made “well.”

Seiichi Furuya was a man haunted by an emotionally deficient past. his younger brother was left permanently mentally ill due to a childhood fever, and institutionalized for life. One night he was pinned under the chassis of a car because of the drunk driving of his father. He moved away from his native japan and settled in Austria, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Christine Gössler.

Christine had been through emotionally trying times as well. The year prior, her betrothed had called off their engagement, and she had plunged into a suicidal depression. In an effort to extricate herself, she had slit both her wrists and her neck, the reasons behind which she did not tell Furuya until years later.

Two wounded and circumspect found one another and buoyed each other’s spirits. Furuya began photographing her immediately, she became the center of his eye, and of his “I.”

If you consider the taking of photographs to be in a sense a matter of fixing time and space, then this work–the documenting of the life of one human being–is exceptionally thrilling…in facing her, in photographing her, and looking at her in photographs, I also see and discover “myself.”–seiichi furuya, 1979

The above words were written for the catalog of a show Furuya had exhibiting the images he had made of Christine over the first year they had known one another. later, of this same writing, he added:

…Rereading the translation again and again I feel uncomfortable, I find it somewhat difficult to believe that it is something I myself wrote. Since my proficiency in German at that time did not allow me to write it properly, Christine, herself the subject of the essay, corrected it for me, and this is probably the source of my irritation. Or perhaps it is due to the eighteen years that have passed.

His tone is cynical, like someone who has been overextended and who has fulfilled far too many uncomfortable requests.

Seiichi Furuya and Christine Gössler would soon marry, and they would later have a child, Komyo. Throughout their seven years together, Christine would plunge in and out of depressions and psychiatric institutions. And one Sunday in October of 1985, she would jump to her death from the 9th floor of their apartment building in East Berlin. Furuya photographed her throughout, to the very end. And this faithful and macabre portrait making would become his artistic and philosophical project.

Is death the manner through which others love?

I do not understand those for whom suicide and death is a great seducer…

What is it to be guided by a death-impulse (wish fulfillment) throughout one’s life, and what is it to be one in close proximity to it?

In an essay to the exhibition catalog of A Model Wife, Arthur Ollman writes:

She occupies the center of most of the pictures. Slowly and intermittently, over time, her intensity, seriousness, and depression emerge. The pictures, even the most pained, are shot intimately and at close range. Furuya’s distance to his subject is the physical distance of trusted family. This, then, becomes our viewing distance as well, and often it seems too close.

What if you believe that the greatest thing you can know–that can be known–is precisely what you cannot–that which is alien and final and unknowable–death itself?

How does one who loves someone else who is intoxicated–obsessed–with the idea of of their own death–how is that imbalance of drives and values ever reconciled? Do we pity the one who dies or the one left with loss (the one who was always left with loss–even when in the presence of the loved one–loss is ever present)?

Some time past noon on October 7, while she was supposed to be preparing lunch, Christine disappeared. While the parade commemorating the thirty-sixth anniversary of the founding of East Germany was being broadcast, and which I was taking photographs of while also watching after Komyo, I had a bad premonition. I hurried down the hall to the bedroom facing the living room but did not find her. The door to the flat was half open.
Running out of our fourth floor flat, I immediately headed for the ninth floor. As I was running up the stairs I heard a dull thud. It sounded like a bag of cement hitting the ground.
The ninth floor was inaccessible from outside, but there was a connecting passageway which enabled one to come and go between the neighboring residences…one time, muttering to herself, and perhaps making an appeal to me in a moment of crisis, she had said, “If you jumped from here, you’d definitely die, wouldn’t you?” I couldn’t help but recall that scene, and the sound I had just heard a moment before, when I discovered a familiar pair of rubber sandals at the flung open window.
“Ko-chan. Mama ist tot.”
“Papa, has du mama gettet?”
There is no way of knowing whether Komyo remembers that conversation. To this day I have regretted saying, “I killed her.”–Christine Furuya-Gössler Memoires, 1978-1985
…One after the other the images–one of the day we flew to Japan; of our wedding ceremony in Izu; of her ecstatically smiling face when she drew the best fortune at Izumotaisha shrine–appear and disappear. As I rapidly retrace the past, my memory becomes confused and fatigued and starting to blame myself, I gradually return to myself…by blaming myself i can find absolution. My awareness of my need to save myself probably comes from this idea.

I first came to Seiichi Furuya through his most famous image, the contact sheet that shows his wife’s suicide, or more precisely, shows him showing us his wife’s suicide. And then coming to him through all the questions which follow such a fantastically passive event. Is it mediation? Astonishment? A need to rely on something normal or everyday in order to understand, or assimilate, something unfathomable and out of time? Stop time in order to stop life from happening at that very moment?

And then there is this question: what is he trying to get at in exhibiting these final contact sheets? In mediating that moment amongst the others, mixing frames, choosing one version over another–what does an educated eye do when it looks at a contact sheet if not the most automatic of all things: it edits.

I have been reluctant to post on this photographer since I first knew I wanted to write about him. Because to write is to reflect, to know yourself through that which you ingest and infer, and the issues at hand in Furuya’s pscyho-biography and his philosophical boundary conditions are delicate and emotional ones. It is not that his photographs are the most artfully seen, or those most representative of an era’s way of seeing. It is that his photographs are both an image of a wound and its excision, that they are a compulsive need to live with and to exorcise the presence of something the photographer does not understand, cannot ultimately help to cure and is utterly terrified of living without. What would occur were Furuya to burn his hundreds of pictures of Christine, his thousands of negatives? Would he feel release or would it be unrecoverable loss? What does it mean to tie your identity as an artist to a memento mori project on your dead wife? What if all you have to hold on to memory and feeling is your connection to this loss, this absence and lack, and to divest yourself of it is a kind of personal heresy?

What I find myself most drawn to in my investigation of love, loss, Japanese photographers and eastern aesthetics in general is that the work often asks more questions than it answers. That there are fewer initial biases or prejudices to confirm, and that you as the viewer are often in the same uncomfortable, unknowable space as the photographer, and further: that there are no apologies tendered for the questions which fall in empty air, or the discomfort felt between the book and your hands, or the image on the gallery wall and the place between you and it.

The Art of Losing Love, pt.1 : Words on Masahisa Fukase

It must be difficult to live with a photographer.

First, you must think you’re eternally being spied upon, trying to be caught unawares, that an eye waiting to catch the true-true-you is always present, and always watching. It is only later that you realize that it isn’t your essence that the photographer is trying to capture and distill truth from, it’s theirs. That each image pointed at you is really just a sublimated view of themselves, and that what they project when they point and click in your general direction is really just a reflection back of self, sometimes twisted and sometimes upside-down.

So it’s a perverse kind of attention: they look at you to get a better look at themselves. Didn’t you know that an essential piece of the camera is the mirror installed inside the casing?

Are all photographs made by photographers of those they love just a kind of extended visual autobiography? How much does our conception of the world hinge on how we love? Does the dynamic of our chosen relationship(s) begin to define our aesthetic, at least in relation to how we visualize it? And how do we choose partners? Do we choose one that keeps us in check by having a world view that complements (does not mean that it is the same as ours) our own? Do we choose one that will tear ours down, or constantly challenge it? Or do we choose one that we can only grasp for a little while, knowing that love and life (and photography, too) are ephemeral and fleeting?

I’ve been thinking about photographers in love, and the photographs they make while in that state. And also its shadow-twin: same photographer, making something out of a place of loss from that love. What is it to make a memory out of loss? To distill the precise ache of mourning? In photographs that become about loss‚ did the losing already happen before the photo? Did it happen in the course of it? Is the photo then a document of loss? Are these then the most documentary of all documentary images?

Masahisa Fukase’s best known work was made while reeling from loss of love. After thirteen years of marriage, his wife Yoko left him. While on a train returning to his hometown of Hokkaido, perhaps feeling unlucky and ominous, Fukase got off at stops and began to photograph something which in his culture and in others represents inauspicious feeling: ravens. He became obsessed with them, with their darkness and loneliness. His photographs capture them mid-flight; crouched in trees at dusk with glowing eyes; and singularly and spectacularly depressingly dead, in cold deep snow. In the forward to the book published of this work, Akira Hasegawa writes, “Masahisa Fukase’s work can be deemed to have reached its supreme height; it can also be said to have fallen to its greatest depth. The solitude revealed in this collection of images is sometimes so painful that we want to avert our eyes from it.”

I have posted a few images of this body of work in other posts, and there are others available in other places, but below are a few images taken of what was his primary subject before the ravens, what can be said led directly to his more famous work of ravens: pictures of his wife Yoko:

Sarobetsu, Hokkaido, 1971

New York, 1974

Mastsubara Apartment, 1968

The body of photographs I’ve seen of Yoko show a multiplicity of moods, filled with both surface and subverted meaning. there are playful, joyous photographs, such as the first one above; sardonic commentary concerning perception, as in the second (the photo shows Yoko dressed in formal kimono, kneeling beneath photographs of herself at the opening of John Szarkowski’s curated show at MOMA in 1974 of New Japanese Photography, totally and utterly ignored by the hoi polloi coming to mingle around images made of her by her husband, whom the show, in part, is celebrating); and still there are those posed, Mastubara Apartment, which for all its premeditation, probably says more about power and projection than even Fukase could have imagined when composing it.

Yoko has said of that time that it was punctuated by, “…suffocating dullness, interspersed by violent and near suicidal flashes of excitement.” In a move meant to author more control over her own life, she left him in 1976. Fukase spiraled into a profound depression, made the work with the ravens over a period of years, remarried, divorced, and then in the summer of 1992, when descending a staircase at a bar he frequented, he fell. The fall was severe and caused considerable brain damage, and Fukase lives the next and the rest of his continued days in an institution, where he has no sense of photography, photographic history, or his place in it. Yoko, now remarried, visits him twice a month. She has said, “with a camera in front of his eye, he could see, not without. He remains a part of my identity, that’s why I still visit him.”

When I read about Fukase’s fate last week I was stymied. Struck with the realization that a photographer with such clear, articulated and felt vision was prematurely taken, and that whatever else he might have had to say was taken away not only from himself but the rest of the world to experience through him; then the aftershock that it is not the finality of death that has taken that away, but the murkier waters of the mind which has receded his thoughts and inclinations from both himself and anyone else. Fukase has no clue who the Fukase was before that made those photographs, or why, or what can be gained in the making. He has no care that an entire lifetime happened before he is where he is now; and further, given how tortured he was over the loss of Yoko (even despite the remarriage he reportedly never stopped mourning her), the now obliviated mind might be a kind of gift, a reprieve from too much knowing, too much sight.

the philosopher and the trickster: daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki

moriyama: …but don’t you think that using a flash in the American fashion is also exciting?
araki: oh yes. using a massive flash, smoking a big cigar and living it up! a kind of brutality–your pictures are violent in that sense, aren’t they? don’t you think that it is necessary to have a sense of brutality in photography?
moriyama: yes. envy, possessiveness, and jealousy, followed by violence which is engendered by these emotions.
araki: scary…but this is, i believe, what photography is.
(from an interview moderated by akihito yasumi, shinjuku, tokyo, july 28, 2003)

i’ve been researching quite alot on two seminal figures of modern japanese photography, daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki. and i’ve been paralyzed in thoughts of writing about them here, because as i read and look and read some more, i’m struck with a familiar student’s lament: the more i know, the less i know.

at first i thought the two could not be more different and polarized in their approaches to photogrpahy and responses to the world within and around them. and i had prematurely written off araki as a borderline pornographer, which he still is sometimes, but he’s also much more than that.

as i read first about moriyama, and then coming across araki’s name here and there in that research, i wondered how the two were connected. they are not of the same photographic generation, per se; perhaps solely divided by how old they were while they experienced the end of wwii. moriyama’s photographs consistently evoke dark, struggling identity-in-the-making. they are grainy, full of contrast, and seem to be about the eternal underside of things. araki’s photos, in contrast, seem to be puerile, joyous reaction against such moribund thoughts, and there is a playfulness evident throughout that suggests a lightness of heart that moriyama lacks. not that either is better or worse for the comparison, but that they are just…different.

daido moriyama, fence, yokoto, japan, 1969

nobuyoshi araki

moriyama’s childhood memories are filled with visions of green jeeps from which chocolate and gum would be ejected into the air by passing GI’s; the smells of an abandoned rubber plant, to which he would clamber into alone and considered his thinking spot; and the “weary perversity” of the basetown that sat on the edge of his home, in which he would explore and form his own opinions about himself, japanese identity and the occupying army. his book memories of a stray dog includes not only his photos that he made when he returned as an adult to the (now abandoned) base towns of his youth, but wonderfully articulate and unforced writing about memory, photography and a desire to persist in the present–both through lived experience and through the language of photography.

people steadily lose the landscapes they have accumulated. it’s not likely that anyone can faithfully recall how scenes appeared ten or twenty years ago… i think people continue to live in the present because we forget most every little thing. the remembrances that sneak up on a tired soul may sometimes stir us, but there is no tomorrow in that… where in the world did the era beyond my memories and the people who lived in it disappear to? after time, which we can actually only see now in historical documents, there are memories we carry. after our time, what memories will be carried forth by the people who follow?
–memories of a stray dog

as i have been absorbing his words and his work, i find myself relegated to the most facile means at trying to breach cross-cultural understanding: compare and contrast. but still, one has to begin somewhere. how different is moriyama’s photographic project than such is conceived of by western minds! and not just in this body of work, not merely in this book or any other of his i may procure and read, but his life project, his set of philosophical questions he could no sooner undo or unask than he could change his dna. not to say that photographers in the west don’t have their own questions, but sometimes the questions are ignored, or heard/answered wrong, or that one gets distracted by other aspects of the art world.

for example: one is taught by practicing artists and in academia that it is extremely desirable to have a “project.” that you will, in fact, have many of them, and that they should be somehow connected. lauren greenfield’s girl culture; larry clark’s tulsa up through kids; joel sternfeld’s on this site, to mention a few that are well known. all of these works are polished and thought through, but where they fail is that that they are often not felt through and throughout. they become exercises, they become the finishing of a “project.” they are not chiefly concerned with discovery, but about confirming a bias or a prejudice, whether visual, cultural, psychological or all three at once. moriyama’s project is about exploring the gap between seeing and feeling, about a semantic divide that is both verbal and non-verbal. his is an investigation of self, but not for the reasons of western autobiography nor does it use its methodology. his questions and answers (and then the new questions that get asked in the face of those answers) are not of one book or project, but all of them: those made in the past, those being made now, in the present, and the ones that have yet to be asked, yet to be made.

i can’t help but think of rilke, and think it incredibly appropriate to apply to moriyama:

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them. and the point is, live everything. live the questions now. perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer…

his photographs ask over and over again: who am i in relation to this event, or this person? how is this moment unlike any other i have ever known, or will ever know? what else exists outside this view, the frame i may select, the things i am not photographing? can a photograph ever pretend to know any of this? can i?

moriyama’s influences include shomei tomatsu, william klein, ni√©pce, wegee, warhol, nakaji yasui and novelist osamu dazai. from my point-of-view, his inky blacks and grain remind me of bill brandt’s documentary work; his manic shooting reminds me of winogrand (with the important exception being that moriyama sees deeply into the ingredients of things, and winogrand sports in the surfaces); his need to mediate experiences through the camera reminds me of warhol (who spent the last years of his life interacting with people via his tape recorder or camera, but not directly). in one of the better reviews of his work i’ve come across, leo rubinfien writing in art in america said that:

moriyama’s best work everywhere implies a trauma that must have occurred just outside the limit of our vision, just before we get to the scene, or just beyond the reach of our memory. we feel that what we are getting now is its residual radiation.

so how are these two, daido moriyama and nobuyoshi araki, even remotely related? one is full of pensive thought and writing, the other full of laughable soundbites. one sees the world in a series of caught moments, another carefully stages his. one predominately in black-and-white, the other predominately in color. moriyama’s photographs in moments feel full of existential dread, while araki’s are full of…what? existential excess? perhaps one of the easiest ways in would be to examine a subject both of them have trafficked in: the nude.

araki first became aware of moriyama’s work through a short-lived magazine project called provoke. the group’s last issue showcased moriyama’s work, and was published in 1970. araki, who was working uninspired at an advertising agency at the time, saw moriyama’s nudes and felt jealousy.

at the time, i was also thinking “photographey=eros” and that images which did not embrace the erotic were not qualified to be photos. moreover, i had the idea that photography was unavoidably associated with the concept of death, therefore, and eros which did not contain aspects of thanatos could not be the photographic expression of eros. that photo of moriyama’s seemed to represent exactly what i was feeling.
–interview moderated by akihito yasumi, 2003

moriyama’s nudes were many things at once: careful, respectful, moody, intimate and distant simultaneously. while araki has become famous for his erotic photos, they look nothing like moriyama’s and yet it seems for that difference in thought and approach were all the more fascinating to araki.

on the bed I, daido moriyama, tokyo, 1969.

araki later questioned moriyama as to why his nudes were either blurred or did not show the face, claiming that a nude photo of a woman should always show her face. moriyama replied that it had something to do with a “samurai’s tenderness,” meaning that he did not intend to brag about romantic conquests. was it a chide to a younger colleague, then, a judgement of what araki’s photos of the same genre seemed to be saying?

if it was, it hardly needed to be said, because araki is a living, breathing extroverted oedipal urge extroidinare. he says everything himself, playfully, before you can come out and accuse him with knives in your voice. his ridiculous exuberance takes all the meanness from you:

I‘ve been taking photographs since I came into this world. I was no sooner out of my mother’s womb, than I turned around and photographed her sex! Photography is the first thing I shall do after my reincarnation!

and, on the subject of ropes (for which he is famed):

Basically, I have never been interested in tying up the body of a model. What I was aiming at was the female heart. That was what I wanted to lay in chains. In the course of time, if I can put it this way, the models have tied themselves up, have bound themselves to me … I work using my entire bodily presence, I reproduce in my photos the space and the time between my models and myself … The camera is a kind of seismograph here…

rope impressions, nobuyoshi araki

when i first encountered araki i rolled my eyes. i did not think that there was anything beyond his surface voyeurism, and at best i found myself caught between amusement and feminist outrage. but then i questioned: what is it that offends me about his work? is it the subject matter? or is it the fact that it is so commercially successful? or, beyond that, is it that araki appears to have no questions at all?

I have nothing to say. There’s no particular message in my photos. The messages come from my subjects, men or women. The subjects will convey what there is to say. I have things to photograph, so I’ve nothing to express. Right now, I’m showing my enjoyment of life rather than the sadness of death. Some people I know say that life is sad. But today I think the opposite. Death is sadder.
–from an interview with j√©r√¥me sans .

from his own mouth. but can he trust what even he himself says?

it may be hard to believe it to look at his photos, but araki was married. to a woman who became his favorite and most studied model. he made a book of photographs of their honeymoon together, which is now shown alongside with the pictures of her illness and death (yoko died in 1990 of cancer, at 42). if araki has questions to answer, or questions he is avoiding, it is resoundingly in these photographs:

from a sentimental journey, taken on araki’s honeymoon

yoko in the bath

in sharp contrast to the thousands of other photographs of women araki has taken, the study he made of his wife over the course of their relationship says something much more than can be carefully arranged with ropes, props, leering and provocation. it is a photographic conversation between two people, and it is a document of feeling and relation to feeling. and, more than that perhaps: the failure to completely realize love in a marriage. or of the failure of photography to communicate either love or lack of love. araki has said of this work and of his wife:

Maybe I only had a relationship with her as a photographer, not as a partner. If I hadn’t documented her death, both the description of my state of mind and my declaration of love would have been incomplete. I found consolation in unmasking lust and loss, by staging a bitter confrontation between symbols. After Yoko’s death, I didn’t want to photograph anything but life – honestly. Yet every time I pressed the button, I ended up close to death, because to photograph is to stop time. I want to tell you something, listen closely: photography is murder.

quite different from barthes’ assertion that death is imminent in photography–araki says that photography is death itself, and that the act of photographing is to cut oneself off from life… or at least, that seems to be what he is saying there. at that moment.

which leads me to question: which is more accurate? the photographer who asserts with halting questions, who is careful and deliberate in his thought and actions? or is it the one who is full of contradictions, denials, self-wrought conundrums? is it better to observe and keep the world at a distance, or is it better to insinuate oneself in the drama? better to know or to laugh?

so many questions. and i’m still reading and learning and looking. the fury of these images and concerns has been consuming, and i should learn to not be stymied by being stunned. writing more as i am learning more. and of late, i’ve been loving what i’ve been learning.

some books to check out:

memories of a dog, by daido moriyama

daido moriyama (contains the interview between araki and moriyama)

phaidon 55 series: daido moriyama (i love this series of books, and this is a great collection for cheap)

black sun: the eyes of four, by mark holborn (an amazing collection of four seminal japanese photographers: shomei tomatsu, eikoh hosoe, masahisa fukase and daido moriyama)

araki (supposedly the definitive work, weighing in at 600 pages and a mere $2000, take a gander if you can find a copy)

tokyo nostalgia, by nobuyoshi araki

viaggio sentimentale (an italian catalogue of a show araki did in prato, a good compendium of his life’s work, at a fraction of the “complete works” price.)

death: elegy, by nobuyoshi araki (i haven’t seen this yet, but i am dying to)

catch and other stories, by kenzaburo oe (this has been great companion reading while looking at moriyama’s photos of military bases)