Sunday, 25 October 2009

Nobuyoshi Araki, photographer

On the 6th of November, 2006, I interviewed the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki at a quiet little bar in Shinjuku. Throughout the interview he swayed, fidgetted, spoke erractically, and made constant exclamations, sometimes in English (indicated in the text by quotation marks).

After the interview, my interpreter and I accompanied him to a small "snack" bar, where he sang karaoke and was interviewed by an NHK TV crew. After that, my memory starts to get foggy, but I definitely missed the last train home.

CBL: Why did you call the exhibition Tokyo Jinsei (Life)?

Araki: I was born and bred in Tokyo. Almost my whole life has been lived here. Tokyo is my mother. It is my uterus.

CBL: But when a child is born it leaves the uterus.

Araki: (Laughs wildly). It’s a lingering attachment to the mother.

CBL: So, it’s like a kind of childishness? Like you don’t grow up?

Araki: Just by looking at me you can understand. “Look me!”

CBL: Yes, when I saw you, my first impression was that you work in the circus. Your appearance is very important for taking photographs because you have a comical appearance you can be very intrusive and maybe even rude with camera, but people will forgive you because of your appearance.

Araki: To be serious, I don’t calculate it. This is just my natural style. But when I take photographs, I try to dress to fit the occasion. It is very important to change clothes. For example, when I photograph in Shinjuku, I wear jeans, T-shirt, and sports shoes, but when I go to Ginza, I wear a suit. I change my costume depending on where I take pictures.

CBL: Why jeans for Shinjuku?

Araki: To suit the object or the person. If the person I’m photographing is naked, I will be naked... “Naked Photographer!” It’s very important to suit the object.

CBL: So, if you’re taking a picture of a naked woman, how does that help to make the picture better?

Araki: Why are you even asking!? When two people make love, both people have to benaked. This is the same thing.

CBL: So, in other words, taking a picture of a naked woman is the same as makinglove.

Araki: Yes “Naked love!” That sounds good, doesn’t it? “Naked love” - that’s good.

CBL: Back to the exhibition. This reflects Tokyo’s changing fashions over many years, but Tokyo is not the most beautiful city in the World. Why don’t you try to photograph other cities like NY London?

Araki: But it’s troublesome. I’m only interested in Tokyo. People like to take pictures of the person they love the most. I take pictures of the city I love the most. The point is I love Tokyo, and the most important thing for me is to take pictures of it. I tried taking pictures in Paris and New York, but actually I’m not interested in other cities, because I love Tokyo. I went to the Barbican for an exhibition, but even if I go to London or Paris and take pictures. I am taking pictures of myself.

CBL: So the place is meaningless in itself? The place is just an accident?

Araki: I can’t take a picture of London or Paris. I can only take a picture of something in London or Paris. It’s very difficult to explain

CBL: By focusing on Tokyo over 44 years, doesn’t this exhibition become very much a nostalgia trip?

Araki: I guess so. People say photography should try to avoid nostalgia, but I say photographs simply are nostalgic.

CBL: Nostalgia is a slightly sad feeling about something that is gone.

Araki: The meaning of nostalgia for me is not sad memories or something that has disappeared. Not just memories. It’s like the warmth in a mother’s belly.

CBL: So, that’s also like staying close to the uterus. You don’t leave the uterus. You stay in the same space, and, by embracing the nostalgia of photographs, that helps you to stay in the same time. It’s a kind of death that attempts to stops or slow the death imposed by time.

Araki: Including, but not concretely. This attitude of mind is called transmigration or metempsychosis – wheel of life.

CBL: But also this kind of nostalgia and love of place (Tokyo) suggests you are trying to hold on to the same position, which is very interesting because Tokyo is always changing. Every few years they knock everything down and rebuild, like Roppongi Hills. It’s like clinging onto a rock during a storm at sea.

Araki: Moving and changing is really interesting. If it doesn’t change it’s no good. It means the city is alive. Anyway, it’s not changing at all. It’s simply moving! This is what makes Tokyo very attractive for me. This is why I can’t move from here.

CBL: If it becomes too modern and shiny and covered in glass, it becomes more difficult to photograph. The old Tokyo with its ramshackle appearance – old buildings with natural textures – was easier to take an interesting photograph of than if it’s glass and concrete.

Araki: There’s nothing that is difficult for me to photograph. Everything is attractive for me. For example women, if they are beautiful, that’s attractive, but even if they are ugly they are attractive for me.

CBL: I saw a good example of what you are talking about. There was one picture of a beautiful woman who had an operation – that was a mixture of something that was shocking and ugly, but also beautiful. What’s the story behind this photograph?

Araki: “Story”! The breast was cut off. [garbled] There is no conclusion. We can imagine a lot of things. And maybe she has some deep feeling, but I took this picture not to solve the problem, but we can imagine that she has some kind of feeling.

CBL: But why did she ask or allow you to take the picture?

Araki: Because she loves me. It can’t be helped. What! Because I am the greatest photographer in Japan she came. She loved my photographs of flowers and sent me a letter. Naked! What’s important is the relationship between me and the object. It’s a kind of love story. I don’t mind why the relationship started or something. The most important thing is just the relationship between the two of them. Just the moment is important. At that moment, this world becomes just our world.

CBL: So the present moment is important?

Araki: I don’t understand what you want to know.

CBL: The important thing is now!?

Araki: That’s part of it. The most important is the... the happiest time is when both of us are taking a picture.

CBL: If you had pushed the button one or two seconds later, would it have been a different picture?

Araki: The time when... The picture is like emotion, like a sexual encounter. “Like a fuck!” It’s the timing that is very important.

CBL: What makes you push the button?

Araki: God!!! (laughs.) What makes a photographer take a picture? What makes an artist paint a picture? It can’t really be explained. It’s a kind of instinct or impulse.

CBL: But you must take a lot of pictures – like a machine gun – so you must also throw away a lot of pictures.

Araki: I almost don’t throw away any pictures, as you can tell from the fact that I have published 357 books of photos. Soon I will be producing a book of my best photos, but every photo is great and wonderful, so I can’t throw any away and taking pictures is a lot like sexual foreplay. Even though it ends in an orgasm sex is not just a fuck. A lot of my pictures are foreplay and the best ones are orgasms.

CBL: Analogies like that may give people the impression that you are obsessed by sex.

Araki: To be alive is to be under the influence of Eros. Actually I am not a sexual person but it’s OK to be called sex obsessed.

CBL [looking at one of the pictures in his book]: Selling photos from a box. What’s that about?

Araki: In the old days when I was a teacher of art. I did that. It was an experiment to make my students think about how to show their pictures to other people. There are many ways to show pictures. And at the time in Japan photographs weren’t sold as art. Paintings were sold but pictures weren’t so, I told the students to come up with new ways to show pictures. So we sat on the street with trunks with every picture 100 yen, but our appearance was quite rough and people didn’t come. It was a kind of workshop.

CBL: Like a 100 yen shop!

Araki [laughs and claps]: This class wasn’t selling pictures but how to show the pictures. So, for example, they were also showing the pictures on the platform or we put the pictures in the telephone books and when people opened them they’d find a picture.

CBL: Recently you’ve started to use digital photography?

Araki: I’m using it but hardly at all. Digital camera is like an express – convenience – surface. It doesn’t go deeper.

CBL: In your photography you often explores women’s sexuality, don’t you.

Araki: “Explorer” that’s good! No I don’t explore. It’s just interest.

CBL: But at the present exhibition, there’s one that explores male sexuality. [I indicate a photo of the baseball player Sadaharu Oh in a bath.]

Araki: Which one!? The picture of Oh! Bisexual! No I’m not!

CBL: What’s going on?

Araki: He’s just having a bath. I wanted to have a bath together but, as you can see, it was very narrow. This and other photos of famous people are connected to my work for magazines, although not all of them were used. But this picture is also a story between Mr. Oh and me.

Parts of the interview remain untranscribed.


Anonymous said...

Nostalgia isn't sadness in any way. That sadness is an afterthought. Nice interview. I like Araki's photography, but he gives me the creeps.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Nostalgia IS sadness. So much more also (from Wikipedia):

The term was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer (1669–1752) in his Basel dissertation. Hofer introduced nostalgia or mal du pays "homesickness" for the condition also known as mal du Suisse "Swiss illness" or Schweizerheimweh "Swiss homesickness", because of its frequent occurrence in Swiss mercenaries who in the plains of lowlands of France or Italy were pining for their native mountain landscapes. English homesickness is a loan translation of nostalgia. Allegedly, the first use of the word in a publication was in Sir Joseph Banks' journal of the first voyage of Captain Cook in the Pacific, when, near Java, he stated that the sailors "were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the physicians have gone so far as to esteem a discease under the name of Nostalgia."
Cases resulting in death were known and soldiers were sometimes successfully treated by being discharged and sent home. Receiving a diagnosis was, however, generally regarded as an insult.