Nobuyoshi Araki was raised in Shitamachi, the old traditional quarter of downtown Tokyo, where his father made and sold geta (traditional wooden) clogs. An amateur photographer, Araki senior bought his son a camera when he was at primary school and from that time Araki became an obsessive photographer. In 1959 he enrolled in the department of photography and printing in the engineering faculty at Chiba University, where he watched Japanese and foreign films and produced a 16mm film for his graduation project Children in Apartment Blocks. His concurrent photographic project Satchin earned him the prestigious Taiyo Award in 1964, shortly after he had joined the advertising agency Dentsu, where he worked until 1972. Frustrated by the constraints of conservative advertising photography, in 1970 he produced his first book of pictures Xerox photo Album in an edition of seventy, illicitly using the Dentsu office photocopier and sending copies out to famous people and random individuals selected from a Tokyo telephone directory. At Dentsu he met his wife Yoko, to whom he paid homage in Sentimental Journey, a photographic record of their honeymoon published in 1971. In the preface to the book, Araki claimed that his ‘point of departure as a photographer was love’ and likened his intimate account to an I-novel, a form of Japanese fiction written in the first person. Araki later photographed Yuko’s premature death in 1990, publishing images of her illness together with some of their honeymoon images in Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey 1991.
Eroticism has been a central theme in Araki’s work since the early 1970s; an abiding fascination with female genitalia and women’s bodies as objects combines with repeated images of flowers, food, faces and Tokyo street scenes. Throughout his prolific career as a photographer, Araki has challenged Japanese conventions while expressing his principle interests: sex and death. In 1995, in conversation with American photographer Nan Goldin, he commented:
I had to teach people that genitalia are not obscene in themselves; it’s the act of hiding them that’s obscene ... Since I began photographing genitalia, there’s been a trend toward allowing pubic hair to be shown in photos. When I was told I couldn’t show genitalia, I thought it might be acceptable to hide them by inserting what’s called an ‘adult’s toy’ in them, or some other foreign object. They said no. Maybe they realized that there’s essentially no eroticism in nudes; the body only becomes erotic when there’s some action or relationship. What I do with obscenity is in the tradition of the Edo period’s ‘spring pictures’ [pornographic woodblock prints], which expose only the genitalia and the face and leave the rest of the body clothed.
(Quoted in Nobuyoshi Araki, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, p.59.)
Araki describes his photographs as ‘a collaboration between the subject and the photographer’ (quoted in Tanaka, p.547), emphasising the importance of his relationship with the model. Because spoken conversation is a vital part of this and he speaks only Japanese, he has photographed virtually exclusively Japanese women. He has attained cult status for many women in contemporary Japan who feel liberated by his willingness to record photographically the expression of their desire – although paradoxically this is to be an object. Since 1979 he has created images of women bound using traditional Kinbaku techniques, developed during the Edo period (1603-1867) and featuring in many Ukiyoe woodblock prints. He has photographed bound women in black and white and colour, either wearing traditional kimono, as in this print, or naked. Models wearing traditional school uniform, as depicted in Untitled 1995 (Tate L02275), also appear in this body of work. A later feature of Araki’s Kinbaku pictures is a selection of miniature plastic dinosaurs which interact with the model’s body. Similarly sex toys or flowers may appear as part of the set up. In this picture, the seated model looks down at a transparent plastic penis which emerges from her vagina, as though she has grown it or is giving birth. She is smiling – an unusual expression in an Araki Kinbaku image.
The photograph was produced in an unlimited edition.
Nobuyoshi Araki, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, exhibition catalogue, Sammlung Goetz, Munich 1997
Akiko Miki, Yuko Tanaka, Tomoko Sato, Nobuyoshi Araki: Self, Life, Death, London 2006
Noboyoshi Araki, Araki by Araki: The Photographer’s Personal Selection 1963-2002, Tokyo 2003