Paul Graham’s ‘Free Pass’?

Shortly after I posted the first ‘Food for thought’ which gave an introduction to Paul Graham’s work, Stan Banos of Reciprocity Failure commented on the amount (or rather lack of) criticism his more recent projects have been subjected to. This doesn’t just apply to Paul Graham by any means and I think important points are raised here by Stan so have included his comments below: (Thanks Stan!)

– Matt

From the series 'Troubled Land' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Stan Banos:

FWIW, I think Troubled Land one of the greatest, most innovative documentary essays ever, and full well realize that Mr. Graham is close to a photographic demigod in many an art and documentary photo circle- and yes, who am I to say otherwise. Master photographer, innovator, educator- all well earned accolades. Nevertheless, all the above should not place anyone above criticism.

I’m not the greatest fan of his latter work, most of it searching for a new voice, a new vision he never quite achieves, but continues to deconstruct on his journey- and it most certainly is his prerogative not to repeat himself. But I continue to ask- who without his pedigree, without his name appeal would have been able to secure a publisher (other than Blurb) to publish a book of… grain? All without question or critique- no artist, politician, or god that should be given that much of a free pass.

From the series 'Films' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Matt Johnston:

I would tend to agree with you here. Troubled Land is the rare photobook that really can keep you coming back and finding new layers and new questions each and every time, for me the same is true of ‘A1′ and in a very different way ‘Beyond Caring’. His latter, more conceptual work certainly doesn’t have the same gravity as these early projects but in ‘A Shimmer of Possibility’ I still find something special (can’t really out my finger on what that is though).

The free pass is a very good question, and I think it can apply to a few photographers lately; I know it is photo-suicide to say anything against Mr R Frank but I was immensely disappointed with ‘Pangnirtung’ and suspect this 5-day documentation would not have been published by Steidl had Frank been a young and unknown author.

I think in these cases the discussion and critique or review of the projects/books should be more transparent, otherwise these authors continue to have an aura of invisibility around them; everyone says they are fantastic but no one want to say why! On top of this, so many reviews now simply take the letter of the publisher as law, and in turn the publisher points people to this ‘great new review’ and the circle of photobook love-in continues. (There are of course some fantastic reviewers and photobook commentators who do not fall into the category above – Stockdale, Colberg, Claxton etc)

Do you think Graham’s standing as an ‘Art’ photographer helps with this ‘free pass’?


From the series 'American Night' ©PAUL GRAHAM

Stan Banos:

I can only speculate, Matt. Some artists build up toward greatness in slow and steady increments then maintain a persistent level of quality throughout, others have a rather meteoric rise, and then milk it- others still, try as they might, just can’t grab the golden ring again. I don’t believe Mr. Graham a slacker by any means, he has continued to create in earnest- I just don’t think anything he’s done since his initial three books has come anywhere near that level of artistic quality, confidence and authenticity. His latter work is characterized mostly by a series of hits and misses, perusing perpetually changing waters- not unsimilar to most student work. In this respect, he very much follows the Stephen Shore mode- an initial brush with photographic immortality, followed by more “personal” explorations.

Again, as to why the dearth of criticism (constructive or otherwise)- it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why certain artists and personalities become irreproachable darlings of the art world. Maybe, just maybe, because he was once called on how not to do documentary (B&W only, please) and having proved them wrong (big time) critics are now somewhat reticent to step up- particularly since he’s quite articulate and can sling the vernacular as good as any other art shark, and beyond. I still remember hearing him wax prolific on the benefits of “meditation pages” between images.

Hell if I know- what I do find curious though is that even the immortals of cinema get called out whenever they lay a turkey- and it’s usually fast and furious….

See the comments for more discussion:

Elinor Carucci on ‘Immediate Family’, a Personal Reflection

My thanks to Elinor for offering these words on ‘Immediate Family’:

I saw ‘Immediate family’ when I was a student in Jerusalem and I was immediately drawn to this body of work. The images were so beautiful, magical, intense and complex…and even dark at times, as childhood can often be.
This landscape was like nothing I have seen before, being born and raised in Israel.

I love Sally Mann’s work, she is a brave and original artist.

– Elinor Carucci

Emmett’s Bloody Nose, 1985 ©SALLY MANN
Emmanuelle having her hair cut, 2007 ©ELINOR CARUCCI

Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’ and Death

Mann’s images in ‘Immediate Family’ show her subjects in a state of content, content with their surroundings and with the omni-presence of the camera. Her family seem to move slowly through life and through the book we hold in our hands, despite the titles incorporating ages and dates, there is a sense of timelessness and fantasy to the narrative.

'Virginia in the Sun' 1985 ©SALLY MANN

In some of the images this timeless quality transforms into more of a stillness, her children moving from subjects of a documentary to still life’s in a collection. It becomes apparent that just as Mann is aware of the joys and trivialities of life, she is equally intrigued and conscious of our fragile mortality. Since ‘Immediate Family’ she has gone on to document her husband Larry’s deteriorating physical health as a result of muscular dystrophy as well as the University of Kentucky’s ‘Body Farm‘, but even here in the serene Virginia landscape there is evidence of Mann’s curiosity. In an article from the Guardian in 2012, Blake Morrison commented that:

In truth, though, Mann’s lively obsession with death – her capacity to be unsqueamish about it while seeing its thumbprint everywhere – originated way back in early childhood. Her father was a country doctor who had seen his share of death and who liked to say there were only three subjects for art: sex, death and whimsy. He was himself an artist in his spare time, and his whimsical creations included a man with three penises (Portnoy’s Triple Complaint) carved from a tree trunk. It was an unconventional, rural childhood, middle class but bohemian: no church, no country club, no television. Mann describes herself as a “feral child”, running naked with dogs or riding her horse with only a string through its mouth.

'Jessie and the Deer', 1985 ©SALLY MANN

Mann presents us with the role of death in country life through images such as ’squirrel season’ and ’Jessie and the dear’, but these only solidify the nomadic theme we are presented with throughout the entirety of the book. What I found more interesting were the images that seemed to exude a feeling of death, or in some case more of a permanent stillness.

'Dirty Jessie', 1985 ©SALLY MANN

Here in ’Dirty Jessie’ we are presented with a clearly live Jessie but whose legs are positioned at such an uncomfortable angle that to make connections with a fall and broken limbs is one that many make on first seeing the scene. The grass spreading away from the body with a scattering of leaves contributes to the notion of impact.

In ’Flour Paste’ it is hard not to conjure up thoughts of death. The flour past on young, sleight legs gives the appearance of a much older subject, of frailty and ultimately when we consider the framing, pairing with ’Squirrel Season’ and an ankle bracelet that brings to mind a body tag, death.

'Flour Paste', 1987 ©SALLY MANN

Likewise in ’Jessie’s Cut’, the blood, stitches, closed eyes and lack of any other human presence create a sense of unease.

'Jessie's Cut', 1985 ©SALLY MANN

These images carry a real potency and add weight to the complete series of images Mann presents us with, and to me, it offers another strand to the book that I dont entirely understand – I love that.

– Matt


Hilary Wardhaugh on ‘Sally Mann’, a Personal Reflection

A big thanks to Australian photographer Hilary Wardhaugh for offering her own personal reflection on Sally Mann’s intimate practice and her family relationships. You can see Hilary’s website here or follow her on twitter here.
(The video Hilary refers to in this reflection can be seen at the bottom of the post)


“I have always loved her art and more so since being a mum.

I’m not photographic art critic and my words here are from the heart, only.


In a way I am torn about how I felt watching the film and Sally Mann’s unwavering vision, her dedication and the fact that she is seemingly consumed by photography. I would love the ability to be that focussed and am envious that she has a husband and family that are so supportive of her ‘work’ even though her work or art has always involved them.

I feel for the children, too. When I am consumed with my photography I would love to follow that train of thought or action to completion but I cannot because of family demands. Im not saying that Mann’s actions are selfish but I feel that she is fortunate to have the unerring support of her family. I’m guessing that her work supports them very well and so they appreciate that if she may be at times emotionally unavailable when working they appreciate that what she does pays the bills.

I don’t think that her being so consumed doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her kids. She is an artist and to work efficiently she needs to be in the right head space to work, though at times it is a the expense of family time. I met Trente Parke in 2003 and he was at that time very similar, saying that almost his every thought was of photography and he is an amazingly talented and successful photographer, too. In think it goes with the territory.

I did note that her son spoke about ‘Sally Mann’ not ‘mum’, but what to make of that I cannot answer.


Some people may see as what she has done as exploitative but I don’t. As a mum to a young boy I am fortunate of our close relationship that he allows me in and doesn’t mind being the object of my focus. To me their lives growing up being part of their mother’s vision was amazing. They were willing participants and I love the fact that many of the images they appear naked. Some of their portraits are so direct and raw, something only maybe possible if it’s your mother photographing you.

However, I feel it’s  always good to question any portrait and look deeper. Some of the childrens’ looks in their portraits could be deemed as  affected. Or was it that they had got to the point after numerous ‘takes’ that they were actually past that point where they were fully consenting. Who knows?

Mann’s images, art and consuming passion for photography make her an icon of our time and we need to thank her family for that, too.”

– Hilary Wardhaugh

Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’ and the Physical landscape

One of the things I love about photobooks is that they can stay on your shelf and change over time so much so, that two readings of the same book can cause completely different reactions.

Lately I have found myself drawn back to books that work with the physical, natural landscape, a few of my favourites at the moment being Paula McCartney’s ‘Bird Watching‘ and Bernard Fuchs’ ‘Roads and Paths‘.

©SALLY MANN 'Fallen Child, 1989'

And so perhaps it is no surprise that in picking up ‘Immediate Family’ again for this month, one of the themes that resonated unlike before was the physical landscape and serene beauty of this idyllic setting. As a town-dwelling citizen I see (naively) only the ideals of this rural setting, the simple pleasure of collecting yard eggs and resting by the water.

Mann’s images really bring home this idea of living alongside the landscape when we see Jessie’s wild hair tangled up and becoming part of the foliage she stands in front of. Or where Emmet stands tall in the black water, only creating the slightest of alteration to the flow. This Virgina idyll also puts me in mind of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ from which I have lifted a few quotes alongside Mann’s images.

– Matt


“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society.

©SALLY MANN 'Yard Egss, 1991'

“As I sit at my window this summer afternoon, hawks are circling about my clearing; the tantivy of wild pigeons, flying by twos and threes athwart my view, or perching restless on the white-pine boughs behind my house, gives a voice to the air…

“Now that the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever. For the rest of the afternoon, perhaps, my meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway.

©SALLY MANN 'The Alligator's Approach, 1988'

“While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me. The gentle rain which waters my beans and keeps me in the house today is not drear and melancholy, but good for me too.

“On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes accros it by the streaks or flakes of light. It is remarkable that we can look down on its surface. We shall, perhaps, look down thus on the surface of air at length, and mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it.

©SALLY MANN 'The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987'


Daniel Milnor on ‘Immediate Family’, a Personal Reflection

Thanks to Daniel Milnor who runs the always-worth-a-bookmark blog ‘Smogranch’ over here for offering this personal reflection on Sally Mann’s ‘Immediate Family’. If you would like to add your own reflection, please do so in the comments below or by emailing

– Matt

I have very distinct feelings about this book because I discovered “Immediate Family” in the very early stages of my decision to become a photographer. I was NOT of the “art” mind at the time because the photography that gave me reason to pursue this endeavor was the photography of the Vietnam War. I found Larry Burroughs and felt a way I’d never felt before. I would go through old copies of News Photographer Magazine. I found “Deeds of War” by Nachtwey and again felt a way I’d never felt before. And then I found “Immediate Family,” and once again I felt something I’d never felt before but in a different way.

©DANIEL MILNOR from 'Vanishing Speed'

I’m not sure you can find two more different genres than war photography and what Sally Mann was doing, but I felt like they were both putting out similar emotion. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what to think when I found Sally Mann’s work. It froze me in my tracks. Since that time, all those years ago, I think her work had more of an impact on me than the work of the photographers in the photojournalism world, and I am still doing documentary work today. Years ago i was asked to do a portrait of my neighbor’s kids and I said “no.” The neighbor brought her kids over anyway and for the following seven years I photographed kids full time.

©SALLY MANN 'Approach of the aligator'

I never tried to copy Sally Mann but I surely had her emotional impact in mind every time I put my camera to my eye. She also made me realize I have a responsibility when it comes to my own family. I’m the guy. I’m the photographer in the family. If I don’t document my family there will simply be no record of them. When you walk in my house, the first picture you see is not an image from my 20+ years of doing documentary work. The first image you see is a 40×40 black and white portrait of my 8-year-old nephew. And on a sidenote….years ago, when I worked for Kodak, my phone rang and the voice on the other side said, “Hi Dan, this is Sally Mann.” Having the kind of friends I do, ones that would try to trick me any chance they had, I ALMOST hung up on her. Turns out it was the “real” Sally Mann. I’ve lived in LA many years, have never been starstruck by anyone but in this case I was almost speechless. In my office I have a portrait of Sally Mann, made by my New Mexico photographer and friend Karen Kuehn. I keep it there as a reminder to never forgot what this pursuit of photography really means. So, in short, if you don’t have this book…..get it.

– Daniel Milnor

Matt Johnston on ‘Sentimental Journey’, a personal reflection

From the moment you pick up Sentimental Journey, it feels like an occasion. Removing the bright red ‘diary’ from it’s slipcase creates an intimate viewing, I feel like I should ask permission before turning the first page.

If we are to follow Araki’s intended sequence, the first page is the last page (at least to a western [left to right] book reader), but it is testament to the book that so many read in the opposite direction and still find a fantastic and compelling narrative.

I have read this book front-to-back, back-to-front and on numerous occasions, dipped straight into the middle and explored outwards. On my first viewing, I read from right to left, in chronological order, and I’m glad I did, as I will never get that first viewing back. For me, more than any other photobook, ‘Sentimental Journey’ changes drastically after the first viewing, I cannot help but read the images differently knowing the events to come. And so I hope that those who have not yet seen the book, will take the time to view it in it’s entirety.

I think it is a shame to call ‘Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey’ a sad story, but it  also feels unfair not to touch upon the sadness and loss shown on these pages. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call ‘Sentimental Journey’ a human story. Araki exposes us to the extremes of human emotion, of love and lust and death, but never allows us to stay too long, and always affords us time to contemplate. This is a book that flows gently, but at a pace that keeps the eye from lingering, and instead we have respite in the images of the everyday through Araki’s eye.

It is these in-between moments I have become more drawn to as I have read and re-read the book, just as we notice small details in films the second time around. As we near the end of the book these moments begin to form a routine and a pattern within the larger body of work. I feel I understand how Araki sees the world, how he relates to it, and how he enjoys the subtle changes occurring in his apartment, balcony and environment from day to day. Settling into this routine highlights Araki’s emotions when the sequencing becomes restless and perhaps more sporadic as we approach the end of the book, an of the narrative.

The toning and aesthetic of the images combined with the off-white paper gives an almost ethereal feel, but I always remember the book as a series of crisp, bold, black and white Images. I don’t know why, perhaps I cannot remember enough to replicate the immersive experience of sitting down with this book and reading from cover to cover.

– Matt

‘An Outsider’s View’ by Sean Davey on ‘Sentimental Journey’

This great piece on Araki’s ‘Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey’ has come from Sean Davey, a photographer, one eighth of the ‘brokenbench’ collective and a Photo Book Club Meet-up organizer.
– Thanks Sean!

An Outsider’s View
– A Personal reaction to Araki Nobuyoshi’s Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey

I remember clearly the first time that I saw the book Sentimental Journey/
Winter Journey. I was sitting in the living room in a friend’s apartment, when
a mutual friend ours, and fellow photographer, had just returned from Japan.
Both my friend and I received a book as a present. I received a book by
Daido Moriyama, while my friend received something rather different, a slimmer,
seemingly more discreet book, which had a bright red cover and no title. The
book came in a cardboard slipcase with Japanese characters on it. I could not
read the title, nor even discern whose work it was. The book itself immediately
intrigued me.

After examining this red book for a few more clues, I resigned myself to simply
look at the photographs. I had no idea what I was looking at, and my initial
reaction was one of complete bewilderment. Opening the cover, the first picture
showed a cat bounding through deep snow, the date ’90 2 1 imprinted in the
lower right-hand corner. The picture was a snapshot and looked like it was shot
in someone’s backyard. Turning the page, two more pictures of the same cat, the
date identically printed on both photographs. This time the cat was inside; one
image showing the cat looking out onto the snow, in the second photograph it
was curled up on the covers on a single bed.

I went through the entire book from start to finish, clueless to the fact that I was
reading it the wrong way (Japanese books start from the opposite end, reading
from right to left rather than from left to right). I felt that something was askew
and while it did cross my mind that I was missing a cultural reference (as major
one as it was), I knew immediately that I was looking at one of the strongest
pieces of photographic literature that I had seen. I went over the book again and
again, front to back and back to front, oblivious to the meaning of the Japanese
characters presented on some of the book’s pages. All I had to go off was the
images and the sequence in which they had been placed. To me this book started
with a cat in the snow and ended with a couple on their wedding day. To my
senses at least, this work was some kind of sentimental diary.

For a number of years I have been less and less interested in what I see as being
trivial components of photography; composition, technical details, and even
subject matter to an extent. What is important to me in a photographer’s work is
not what the photographer actually photographs, but rather what that work says
about them and how honest he/she is about what they are photographing. To
this day I have not seen a book of photographs so honest and personally involved
as Araki’s Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey. The lack of ego so humbly and
beautifully presented in this book emphasises Araki’s understanding that he
himself is neither subject in, nor author of this body of work, but rather an equal
mixture of both.

How terribly sad it is to see a loved one become ill and in the case of Araki’s
wife Yoko, to die. The feelings of loss, anguish and emptiness permeate the
lives of those who remain and who often see, up-close, the pointy end of human
suffering and pain. But there is also, after mourning, celebration and eventually
some kind of personal acceptance and closure, the end of one journey will
always lead to the beginning of another. The power of this book lies in Araki’s
ability to simply present us with a personal diary, a record of events and
personal moments so expressive of so many different themes; love, loss, passion,
happiness, fear, sadness, longing, death, mourning, acceptance, celebration and
isolation, while sequencing the pictures into a cohesive and structured narrative.

Still to this day I have never seen a translation of the text in Sentimental
Journey/Winter Journey, and I’m not really sure that I want to. Perhaps not
knowing the entire story is part of the reason that I find this book so invigorating
and emotionally moving. More recently I have been pondering the landscapes
made by Araki that appear immediately after Yoko’s death (a photograph shows
the two holding hands followed by a gurney being pushed down a hospital
corridor, presumably carrying Yoko’s body). I come back to these landscapes
over and over again, visualising a man who has just lost his wife, driving away
from the hospital and photographing from the window of his car, questioning
everything, absolutely everything that surrounds him, and doing it though
photography. The photographs say nothing but they reveal everything.

Metaphors abound in Araki’s inclusion of his cat Chiro towards the end of the
book, and through these pictures, I sense that Araki is starting to accept the loss
of his wife and is saying his final goodbye to Yoko. If you read it like I first did,
starting from the end (and as I still prefer to do) and work back to the picture of
Araki and Yoko on their wedding day, the photographs of Chiro indeed mark the
start of a very personal and sentimental winter journey, one that stands out as
my favourite photography book to date.

– Sean Davey

Harpreet Khara on ‘Sentimental Journey’, A Personal Reflection

Thanks to photographer Harpreet Khara for offering the following personal reflection on Araki’s ‘Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey’. I have included the book video from cover to cover for those who have not been able to beg/borrow/steal a copy!

– Matt

During my studies in photography, I discovered that many of my favourite photographers were incidentally Japanese; Hiroshi Sugimoto, Daido Moriyama, Masahisa Fukase, Seiichi Furuya and the lovely Eikoh Hosoe (whom I had the opportunity of meeting in New York at Aperture last year).

Nobuyoshi Araki is well known within the photographic sphere for his sexually-charged/erotic pornographic imagery; in Japan he has achieved somewhat legendary status. It was clear to me when I visited Japan that there were clear cultural differences in the way men viewed women/women viewed men in the East/compared to the West.

American photographer Nan Goldin: ‘you can’t look at Araki’s work and understand it from a Western perspective, he is actually freeing these women to express their own desires’.

Araki has been described as a pornographer, a monster, a genius, a “dirty uncle” and much else besides. He has called himself most of these things, too, and makes much of his persona as a somewhat cartoonish, priapic little devil, as though he were himself a character in an erotic 18th-century drawing of the Floating World. [Guardian: Dirty Pretty Things]

His early work ‘Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey’ however tells a very different story. On a personal note, this book was hugely influential on me when I first encountered it; it was raw sentimentality and very ‘real’. With the later work, he seems to assume a mask; sliding into caricature, the ‘cartoonish, priapic little devil‘ – just who is the real Araki?
This book firmly put his later body of work into context for me.

Nobuyoshi Araki:I want to take photos that blend sex and death’ he says, ‘these two desires are inseparable’. This is what he feels makes his work distinctive, ‘glimpsing death and sex, and sex and death‘.

I like simplicity, he uses a variety of cameras – some images are cheap camera snap-shots (with the electronic date stamp in the bottom corner). Originally self-published, this book taught me that firstly; equipment/money do not necessarily need to be barriers to evocative photographic work. Secondly, that you are allowed to embrace sentimentality – I remember feeling at that time, that in trying to become accepted as a ‘serious art photographer’ it would be regarded as professional suicide for me to reveal my own sentimentality for a final project. This book was one of the reasons I chose to use mobile phone images, digital snap-shots and 35mm together to create the narrative for my own project, which certainly had been a personal ‘Sentimental Journey’ of sorts.

Araki’s book ‘Sentimental Journey’ encouraged me to consciously embrace my own sentimentality to the very extreme – not to shy away, but to actively explore it.

Yōko Araki, from Sentimental Journey

In ‘Sentimental Journey’ he documents the relationship with his young wife Yōko, the marriage, the honeymoon, her fight with a terminal illness, his loneliness after her death. The book is in Japanese and so reads back-to-front, however it also worked for me in reverse too – a circle of life. It is one of the few photo books that have ever stayed with me long after I had looked at it; as I had wandered down empty Tokyo streets with my camera, I experienced myself what Araki was trying to convey in those stark images of alleyways. Yōko left behind a cat called Chiro; this becomes a very poignant thread he hangs onto throughout the book (the cat itself became the subject of further work). The photographs changed in their meaning to Araki after Yōko died; like Nan Goldin retrospectively ‘seeing’ issues in her relationship with her boyfriend or Elinor Carucci who saw rifts in the past photographs of her parents who later separate – In this honeymoon photograph, Araki now sees the foetal Yōko’s death voyage across the river Styx on her ferry ride to the other side. To Araki, the ‘Winter’ itself becomes death after Yōko is diagnosed with a uterus problem and given only months to live.

After this book I saw Araki in a completely different light. After his wife’s death, he seemingly uses his photography to drift between the realms of life, sex and death through a masquerade of monochrome and colour – a beautiful book.

Further Info:
Araki continues today, photographing celebrities such as the ubiquitous Lady Gaga, alongside random Japanese women he meets in the Tokyo streets. The Taka Ishii Gallery has a close relationship with Nobuyoshi Araki – I narrowly missed meeting him on his 70th birthday/ Anyone interested in limited edition books would enjoy a visit whilst in Tokyo.

Arakimentari – is a 2004 USA film directed by Travis Klose. It is a Documentary film about acclaimed and controversial Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. The film looks at Nobuyoshi Araki’s personal life as well as his art.

Nobuyoshi Araki, Video Documentary and Interview

Below is a video exploring Araki’s contemporary practice as part of the video series ‘Contacts’ by Studio ARTE.
And as a bonus – below that is an interview between last month’s featured artist Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki!

Thanks to those who have submitted personal reflections, we will post these soon, and if you would like to comment, do so in comments section.

INTERVIEW: “Naked City: An Interview with Nobuyoshi Araki by Nan Goldin” (1995)

By Nan Goldin, ArtForum, January, 1995

In 1992, the editors of the Japanese Magazine Deja-Vu invited me to Tokyo to meet Nobuyoshi Araki. I’d already heard about this wild man of Japanese photography and of his diaristic, intensely sexual work. Araki had procured a copy of my Ballad of Sexual Dependency, though it’s unavailable in Japan due to stringent censorship laws. I was astounded to find a man on the other side of the planet who was working the same obsessions I was.

We met for the first time at Dug, his regular jazz bar in Shinjuku, where he presented me with a bottle of I.W. Harper Bourbon (his favorite drink) with my name on it. Now it’s stored there next to Robert Frank’s. He showed me his Tokyo that night; we went to the back-alley bars on the Golden Gai, bars that used to be brothels, and that seat about six people each. It’s said that no one can really translate Araki because he speaks in puns and jokes.

Most Japanese women are too shy to translate his endless sexual allusions, so when the women in his entourage blushed furiously, I’d say “Is he talking about his penis again?”

Araki is a superstar in Japan. You realize this if you chart his wake through the streets of Shinjuku–young girls screeching, yakuza gangsters pointing, salary men stopping dead in their tracks. No photographer in the West has this kind of public visibility. The people of Tokyo love Araki–he’s one of their own, a homeboy, and he loves them back: his work has been one long poem to his city of birth and of choice.

Araki has published almost a hundred books. He once told me he’d spent years as a commercial photographer making other people famous, and now he’s an artist making himself famous. Though he’s long been celebrated in Japan, his work has only recently been exported to the West, through the word of mouth of Western artists like Robert Frank, Jim Jarmusch, and myself. In the past few years he’s had retrospectives in Graz, Austria, and in Frankfurt, and gallery shows in London, Cologne, and New York.

As Araki’s work starts to spread, I’m sure some will find it misogynist. I don’t, but perhaps that’s because I know the man: I’ve seen and known his generosity and curiosity about people and about life, his love for and appreciation of women, his naughty-boy attitude toward what is taboo or revered or overserious. Much of his recurring imagery–girls in school uniforms, girls in complicated rope tricks, girls in love hotels–is popular in Japanese pornography; but Araki crosses the line between pornography and art. His work is colored by love, and meant as homage–to women and to beauty and to his own desires. In Japan, where women’s roles are in a period of flux and the idea of female identity in the Western sense is a new one, many young women find Araki’s images liberating. To show their bodies, to flaunt their sexuality, feels to them like freedom; teenagers flock to Araki to be photographed by him.

Since I first met Araki we’ve collaborated occasionally, and recently we published a book together, Tokyo Love. I believe he has attained greatness a number of times–in Araki’s Tokyo Erotomania Diary, and in Sentimental na Tabi/Fuyu no Tabi (Sentimental journey/winter journey, 1991), which he calls his “purest” book, a deeply moving record of his honeymoon with his wife, Yoko, in 1971, and then of her death from cancer in 1990. Araki is a driven man. On the day of our interview he’d done a long shoot at a rented studio in the afternoon. As usual, he had an entourage in tow, and we all headed for a Spanish restaurant to talk over squid-ink pasta eaten with chopsticks. Then we returned to the studio, where Araki held a workshop on photographing the female nude. Some of Tokyo’s leading directors, designers, editors, and actors were in attendance, and he kept them going till midnight.

NAN GOLDIN: One of the things Westerners feel about Japan is that it’s a very conformist society–as in that Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out must get hammered down.” Are you a nail sticking out?

NOBUYOSHI ARAKI: No, I’m not the nail that sticks out, probably because of my in-born vitue. I’m more like a naughty boy.

NG: In the text you wrote for our book together, Tokyo Love, you say you now only want to photograph happiness.

NA: Yes, but happiness always contains a mixture of something like unhappiness. When I photograph unhappiness I only capture unhappiness, but when I photograph happiness, life, death, and everything else comes through. Unhappiness seems grave and heavy; happiness is light, but happiness has its own heaviness, a looming sense of death.

NG: Why do you always say that photography itself has a smell of death?

NA: To make what is dynamic static is a kind of death. The camera itself, the photograph itself, calls up death. Also, I think about death when I photograph, which comes out in the print. Perhaps that’s an Oriental, Buddhist perception. To me, photography is an act in which my “self” is pulled out via the subject. Photography was destined to be involved with death. Reality is in color, but at its beginnings photography always discolored reality and turned it into black and white. Color is life, black and white is death. A ghost was hiding in the invention of photography.

NG: A lot of master photographers who have been working for a long time, like Robert Frank, Larry Clark, and William Klein, have become frustrated by still photography and have started making films.

NA: I resolve that feeling by working on the Arakinema show. It’s not the artistic process of shifting to another kind of expression that attracts me, it’s something more emotional–the biological impulse to bring the dead to life. I want to revive what photography has killed. Every photograph kills sound and words, reducing them to a flat print. I want to add sound and words. Films come close, but films by a photographer are usually another way of showing photographs. The photographer is just using movies to enhance the photo’s liveliness. Even if Frank, Clark, and Klein try filmmaking, I would doubt they become cineasts. They’d always remain photographers–just photographers presenting their photographs as films.

NG: What is the Arakinema–a movie? Stills shot on video?

NA: Arakinema is slides shown simultaneously on two slide projectors, so that the photographs overlap. What makes Arakinema compelling is that there’s a sort of sensuality of vision when photographs intertwine. My relationship with my subject is extremely important to me–I value that time and space of communication between myself and the subject when I’m working–so the more sensual the photograph is, the better. And if I mix old photographs with new ones in Arakinema, something I hadn’t noticed may come out. When I take photographs I collaborate with the subject; when I show photographs they collaborate with each other. And the relationship with the audience comes on top of that.

ara 746 08 INTERVIEW: Naked City: An Interview with Nobuyoshi Araki by Nan Goldin (1995)

NG: Have you ever made films?

NA: Around 1963, I made a 16-mm. film with a Bolex. It was like John Cassavetes. Back then, I was looking at Italian Neorealist films by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica; I liked their documentary touch with boys and girls on the street, and their use of ordinary people as actors. I found an old prewar apartment in my neighborhood, and I followed the life of the boy who lived there, as if I was seeing myself in him. I was shooting 16-mm. film and at the same time taking still photographs of the same subjects. I collected the photographs in the book Satchin [the name of the boy Araki photographed], which was just published. So really l started with movies–I made three altogether.

NG: You were young then–20 or something.

NA: In 1964 I was 24. Perhaps my desire to show photos in series comes from my experience making 16-mm. films. Banmei Takahashi’s recent film The New World of Love contains a number of my photographs. That link with cinema has always been there.

NG: When did you start taking photographs?

NA: I was taking photographs before I made any films, but it was around the time I was making films that I got serious about taking photographs. I took my first photo at elementary school, on a school trip in the early ’50s. My father, who was an amateur photographer, had given me a camera called a Baby Pearl, and I brought it with me on the trip. I began by taking pictures of a classmate I liked, and of the Ise Shrine.

NG: A “Baby Pearl”?

NA: The Baby Pearl was a camera with a bellows, made in Germany or Japan, I’m not sure which. I began by taking pictures not only of girls but of scenery. More recently Tokyo Nude, for instance, has both nudes and scenery. So I’ve always been doing the same thing! I’ve made no progress.

NG: Your father was a shoemaker?

NA: My father owned a geta [wooden clog] shop in Tokyo. He took photos when he wasn’t working, and he was good at it–ordinary scenic photos. Typical, stereotype-Japanese photos with a field in the front and Mount Fuji in the back.

NG: Was he still living when you got famous?

NA: He was still alive when I won the Taiyo Award, in 1964, and the Taiyo Award was a prize for young photographers then. But my father came from the Shitamachi, which is a traditional working-class neighborhood, and he was also very shy, so he didn’t show he was happy. After he died, though, people told me he’d boasted about me and the prize to everyone. If he were still alive, and saw me with this foreign photographer called Nan Goldin, he would have been thrilled. I wish I could have shown him myself the way I am now.

NG: In Japan, people recognize you in the street. You’re a superstar. Are any other Japanese photographers as famous?

NA: I don’t think so. But most of the famous people in Japan travel in their cars, and I still ride the subway. I like to be out on the streets among the people.

NG: Given the sexual obsession in your work, and the strict obscenity laws in Japan, have you had trouble with the authorities?

NA: Yes, but with the police only, not with the people. The police once came to an exhibition of mine, but by chance I wasn’t there, which was kind of lucky because I would have been arrested on the spot. The gallery people were taken away. This was the “Photomania Diary” show, in April 1992. We had set up a huge light box with about 1,500 35-mm. slides, so they were really small; eight of them showed sexual organs. The cops looked at every single one with a magnifying glass.

NG: Are the “Obscenities” and “Bokuju-kitan” series a reaction to that?

NA: Yes. During the inquiry they gave me this simple rule that no photograph could show a sexual organ. So I had the idea of scratching the genitalia in the photographs to hide and erase them. In part, I had to teach people that genitalia are not obscene in themselves; it’s the act of hiding them that’s obscene.

During the war, whatever didn’t pass the censors in Japan was painted over with bokuju, or Chinese ink. So in my new book, Bokuju-kitan, I hid the genitals with Chinese ink, just to show the police that was more obscene. [Bkuju, Chinese ink, kitan, strange stories; Araki in punning on the title Bokuto-kitan, “Strange stories from east of the river,” a famous novel by Kafu Nagai.] But I wasn’t doing it just as resistance to censorship, or as a joke: I was creating another form of art. If obscenity laws can be used to create new art, maybe it’s ok to have a certain number of restrictions.

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” [a vibrator] 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. Maybe the future trend is not for “spring pictures” but for “spring photos”–that’s it!

ara 747 08 INTERVIEW: Naked City: An Interview with Nobuyoshi Araki by Nan Goldin (1995)

NG: What about women in Japan–some people in the U.S. will want to know whether you’ve had any complaints from them.

NA: Never at all. As far as I know, all women love me.

NG: What photographers have influenced you?

NA: I like photography so I like all the photographers before me, even if they’re lousy or not my style. But among foreign photographers, Frank, Klein, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Ed van der Elsken, and Brassai were the ones who stood out when I was young. I was working in advertising, at Dentsu, so I had access to foreign magazines and plenty of information. I remember seeing work by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.

NG: I’ve always had the impression you particularly admire Frank. How did you meet him?

NA: Someone from Japan gave him my book Araki’s Tokyo Erotomania Diary. Later, when he was asked what Japanese photographers interested him, he said “Araki.” We met when he came to Tokyo. I think of him as an older brother. But he’s more serious than I am.

NG: Are you interested in American artists using photography, like Cindy Sherman?

NA: I like Cindy Sherman’s work, which isn’t that far from photography.

NG: What about Japanese photographers?

NA: When I started photographing, Ihei Kimura and Ken Domon were active, but they were completely different from me. The photographers I associated with and liked included Shomei Tohmatsu, Daido Moriyama, and, among the less-known ones, Takuma Nakahira. But Japanese photography was itself influenced by Europe in the ’20s and ’30s and then by America. In the ’60s and ’70s we all looked at Frank and Klein, and at the catalogue of the U.S. exhibition “Contemporary Photographers–Towards a Social Landscape” [at the George Eastman House, Rochester, in 1966]. I might have been influenced by those photos. I don’t want to see it as “influence,” though: I am more influenced by my subjects, women and the streets, than by other photographers. People abroad are interested in my photographs now because I’ve always worked in Tokyo. My work has nothing to do with influence from the West; it’s based on my relationship with my subject.

NG: Does success in Europe or America interest you?

NA: Not much. I don’t travel abroad. I don’t have much of a desire to have everyone around the world see my stuff. My new book, Bokuju-kitan, has only a thousand copies, but that’s all right.

NG: You wouldn’t just travel for pleasure, or to visit me?

NA: If it’s going to be just the two of us, Nan, I’ll start English classes tomorrow.

NG: But you wouldn’t travel to take photographs?

NA: I did photograph in New York once, in 1979, and it was really exciting. But I use words in the process of photographing, so its difficult taking pictures overseas. I usually talk to the model as I’m shooting–it’s a “word event.” Words wouldn’t be necessary if I were looking at the subject as a “thing,” an object, but I want to capture my relationship with the subject, the action between us, the flow of time and mood. If I were photographing foreigners I’d really have to study the language.

NG: What about the lexicon [Arakeywords: The Araki Lexicon]?

NA: The book is in progress, with a Japanese writer. It will be like a dictionary of me. The writer has already put together nearly 500 words I invented–my keywords.

NG: How many books have you published?

NA: About a hundred.

NG: In Europe and America, if you have more than five or six books, they start to think you’re getting too popular–that you’re overexposed. Do other Japanese photographers publish so much?

NA: No, but I’m a kind of photo-play-aholic. People say I’ve published a lot, but essentially I think photographs should be taken and published fast. The nature of the medium doesn’t require you to consider everything and work it out thoroughly.

NG: How long does it take you to plan a book?

NA: There’s no specific rule–sometimes a month, sometimes a year. It depends on how I feel.

NG: Have you ever collaborated with any other photographer on a book, as you did with me?

NA: Collaboration is a kind of love affair. No, I’ve never collaborated with any other photographer.

NG: Do you have any favorite among your books?

NA: Sentimental na Tabi/Fuyu no Tabi (Sentimental journey/winter journey). I have to pick that book, because it marked the start of a new phase of my work. What I said earlier about my desire to shoot happiness and the joy of living has to do with the fact that I showed death in that book. I’ve taken a variety of photographs since then, but eventually they boil down to the idea of photography being simply a diary, a record of what happens day to day.

NG: What’s your latest obsession, your latest body of work?

NA: I have an obsessional subject: “From death toward life.” And I’m working on a diaristic work–a book of photos all taken with a compact camera, to be published in the spring.

NG: For me, the fact you’ve done so many books is one of the things that’s inspiring about your work. Another is that you’re the only photographer I know who uses whatever format you want.

NA: Photography is a collaboration with the camera, and every camera is unique; our time can’t be captured by a single camera. Using one camera is like being confined to a fixed idea. If I photograph a woman with a six-by-seven, medium-sized camera and then fast with a compact camera, the photo will be different. If you take the camera as “man,” it’s as if I throw four or five men at a woman. Obviously her response differs depending on who he is. There’s also a difference depending on whether it’s a camera I have a lot of experience with, one I’m using for the first time, or one that’s hard to use.

NG: An old lover and a new lover.

NA: Love too depends on the kind of person you’re dealing with.

NG: Do you ever photograph men or boys?

NA: Only a few, but I’d like to photograph more. I photograph because of my relationship with the subject. I’m a late bloomer, and am immature when it comes to relationships with men. Perhaps I should start.

NG: Aren’t you going to Osaka to photograph a boxer?

NA: Yes, his name is Tatsuyoshi Joichiro. Someone asked me to a fight; I’m very interested to go. What I want to photograph, though, is not the match itself but the training, in the small space that is his world. He’s on the brink of his career, he’s insecure, he’s not sure he’ll win. I’m interested in men’s weakness.

NG: Do you ever have sex with your models?

NA: Almost always. A photo shoot is very erotic; it’s part of the atmosphere.