Art & Photography / In Pictures

Exposing Nobuyoshi Araki's Most Sentimental Series

The provocative image-maker has dedicated his life to erotic photography, but there’s a lesser-seen element to his work that exudes softness, two new Tokyo exhibitions demonstrate

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“Sentimental Journey ― The Complete Contact Sheets"
Nobuyoshi Araki, Sentimental Journey: The Complete Contact Sheets, 1971-2015© Nobuyoshi Araki, Courtesy of amanasalto

For many, the name Nobuyoshi Araki is synonymous with Kinbaku – the artful form of Japanese bondage to which he dedicated many photographic projects. Stark black and white scenes of intricately bound women suspended in mid-air come to mind, as do vivid images of models in contorted positions, evoking a sense of beauty and violence simultaneously.

Nevertheless, there are several gentler, more private components to the provocative photographer best known for his explicit portrayals of sexuality and death, as two new and concurrent exhibitions in Tokyo demonstrate. From Sentimental Journey: The Complete Contact Sheets, at the city's IMA Gallery, to Nobuyoshi Araki: Photo-Mad Old Man A 76th Birthday, which runs at Taka Ishii Gallery until later on this month, they cover material from the 76-year-old's powerful relationship with his late wife, essayist Yoko Aoki, to his reflections on his own advanced age through snapshots from his past. Quite a lot to take on for a septuagenarian, perhaps – but Araki, who has published around 500 books to date, shows no signs of slowing down.

Indeed, his rich life offers no end of brilliant material for a retrospective. After studying photography at university in the 1960s, the young Araki went on to pursue commercial work at Dentsu, an advertising agency where he met Yoko Aoki, who would later become his wife. In 1971, his first photobook, titled Sentimental Journey, was released. The self-published monograph was an intimate photo essay documenting both mundane and deeply intimate moments from the couple’s wedding and honeymoon. At the time, Araki’s overt depiction of sex garnered controversial attention from both critics and the press – but as the photographer has continued to insist, his desire to capture such moments stemmed from a natural impulse, rather than an intention to shock.

It's this poignant series which forms the base of material for Sentimental Journey: The Complete Contact Sheets at the IMA Gallery, during which 18 prints showing a total of 653 cuts are being shown for the first time, from images of a young Yoko holding an emotive gaze during sex to photos of her elegantly clothed, and lying vulnerable on a boat. Though Araki's candid and erotic sensibility is still in these images, the visual narratives shift to focus on the emotionally raw and intimate facets of his relationships with his late wife. "It doesn’t matter whether the exposure or the focus is right," he says in a statement accompanying the exhibition. "The time frame captured and disclosed in the contact sheets totally represents my determination as a photographer."

Up until her death from ovarian cancer in 1990, Yoko appeared as a model in much of Araki’s work, and played a significant role in the controversial photographer’s exploration of both Eros, or desire, and Thanatos, death, two themes which remain central to his oeuvre. The seminal tome, which is now recognised as a highly influential part of his work, will be reprinted to mark the occasion, and is slated to come out later this year.

“To live is to go through a sentimental journey, and to him, to photograph is to go through a sentimental journey,” Yoko once said of Araki’s inseparable relationship with his medium. As if to prove her right, after the passing of his wife Araki continued the autobiographical project and reissued the book as Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey (1991) to include a hauntingly moving chronicle of Yoko’s battle with cancer, and subsequent decline into death. But this speaks volumes of the photographer's motivation: Araki once said that if he were to choose his three favourite photos, they’d be the ones that he took of his father, mother and wife on their respective deathbeds. The inextricable relationship between life and death is a recurring subject of fascination for the photographer – further exploration into which can be seen in Araki’s second exhibition in Tokyo.

Held at Taka Ishii Gallery, Photo-Mad Old Man A 76th Birthday features new images shot to commemorate the 76th year of his life as well as more than 400 works from his latest black and white photo-series, Tombeau Tokyo. From documenting everyday street scenes, to youth subcultures with his characteristic touch of sensuality, Araki’s birthplace of Tokyo has proved a source of endless inspiration and space for him to reflect on emotional states at particular moments in time. As Araki himself has said, "Sentimental Journey hasn’t ended at all. It has continued on since then. Photographs I have shot today, yesterday and tomorrow are all connected with that time."

Sentimental Journey: The Complete Contact Sheets is at IMA Gallery in Tokyo until July 9, 2016. Nobuyoshi Araki: Photo-Mad Old Man A 76th Birthday is at Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo until June 29, 2016.

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