Nobuyoshi Araki: 1960s Photographs

Ginza (3205-1), Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

Ginza (3205-1), Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

Anton Kern Gallery

January 8 – February 7, 2009

Araki is best known for his erotic photography, but this exhibition attempts to expand the historical and critical reception of his work by folding it into the dominant, accepted narratives of Western street photography. In this traditional incarnation, the art of photography lies within the ability to convert looking into seeing. Editing, or the process of reduction (and ontologically, exclusion), is essential to photography, particularly photography of the street. The exhibition at Anton Kern, with the insipid title 1960s Photographs, clearly attempts to place Araki in the grand tradition of street photography running through Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and innumerable others by calling on the what is arguably the apotheosis of the genre via John Szarkowski’s Photographs Department at the Museum of Modern Art. In fact the best comparison might be to Garry Winogrand, particularly for anecdotal reasons. At the end of his life, Winogrand’s compulsion to photograph relentlessly drained any art from the process. Szarkowski writes:

At the time of his death in 1984 more than 2,500 rolls of exposed film remained undeveloped, which seemed appalling, but the real situation was much worse. An additional 6,500 rolls had been developed but not proofed. Contact sheets (first proofs) had been made from some 3,000 additional rolls, but only a few of these bear the marks of even desultory editing.

*(quoted in Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment 242 but originally from Szarkowski’s The Works of Garry Winogrand)

One imagines a factory in which commodities on the assembly line never reach the next stages of production, moving along lonely conveyor belts before eventually falling into a pile at the end. With over 350 books, and nearly 300 prints just in this exhibition, Araki’s scopophilia seems restrained in comparison to Winogrand’s unfulfilled mania. Nonetheless, the installation at Anton Kern is visually daunting, with two long walls covered by large prints from the Ginza series, and another in sparse rows and groupings vaguely resembling Braille covers Subway. A fourth wall contains a dozen small vintage photographs of a familiar Araki trope: the vogueing nude model. Other than these last works, all of the images are black and white prints, directly pinned to the wall. It is a fortunate choice: Framing and glazing the photographs would inhibit the collisions and accumulations that are vital to the force of Araki’s work.

1461

2009 Installation View, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

To comment on the structural logic to the exhibition’s presentation, a quote from Brian Massumi’s helpful introduction to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus is useful:

Nomad thought replaces the closed equation of representation, x = x = not y (I = I = not you) with an open equation:… + y + Z + A +… (arm +brick+window+…). Rather than analyzing the world into discrete components, reducing their manyness to the One of identity, and ordering them by rank, it sums up a set of disparate circumstances in a shattering blow. It synthesizes a multiplicity of elements without effacing their heterogeneity or hindering their potential for future rearranging (to the contrary). The modus operandi of nomad thought is affirmation, even when its apparent object is negative. (Univ of Minnesota Press, xiii)

The gridded presentation normalizes a syntactical structure within which to understand the Ginza series. Placed within the grid, no single image outstrips any other in importance; sequencing and linearity become arbitrary. But Araki’s work is also anti-typological. Contemporaneous to the Ginza series, Bernd and Hilla Becher were developing their seminal studies of industrial forms. The dominant relationship between the images of the Bechers may be understood according to the closed equation of representation (water tower = water tower =not grain silo), while Araki’s installations adopt a different linguistic strategy altogether (…skirt + hair + jacket + school girls + old man… ad infinitum).

The Subway series invites inevitable comparison to Walker Evans. But while Evans was content to frame single images as discrete works, Araki has chosen to include sequential rows of images of the same subjects. Whatever he may have been after on these subway rides through Tokyo, one look wasn’t enough. Frequently he includes a three or as many as five shots of a single subway passenger. In one particularly poignant grouping, the photographer’s lens seemingly centered on the view between a woman’s legs (covered by pants) across the aisle, includes five images of the poor woman looking every which way except for at Araki. Clearly she knows she is being photographed, or at least watched, and tries to ignore the photographer’s intentions; inevitably this forms the very content of the sequence. The Evans mythology emphasizes him hiding his camera from his subway subjects; one wonders if Araki was so discrete, but suspects he might be more bold. The Subway series is installed in bands of groupings in about eight rows along one wall. The irregular gaps between images suggest that these are evoke splices in a timeline, bits of journeys documented and shown here as a partial record. The viewer is left to imagine the gaps in these subterranean voyages, privy only to a selection of private moments.

Installation, 2006, Anton Kern Gallery

2006 Installation View, Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY

Araki’s previous exhibition at Anton Kern in 2006 included a section presenting highly saturated close-ups of flowers with his bondage images: an overly facile and adolescent, if standard comparison of objects of male desire with, ahem, flowering. These images were arranged in a way that referenced the magazine or book spread, with opposing groupings of two or three images. This gives rise to a familiar linear and rote reading that quickly becomes predictable once the conceit is recognized.

It is almost impossible to imagine Ginza reading effectively as a book, in which a reader is forced to turn the page to find more images. Araki simply doesn’t seem to have patience to wait for the turning of the page. The installation of Ginza simultaneously denies the imperative of any single image while highlighting discrete details in each photograph. No picture tells a story or reveals much about it’s subject. Instead there are tightly framed faces. A trio of skirts flipping as they cross the street. Old men encountered on the sidewalk. Araki’s style might be described as restless, and certainly a bit rapacious. All of the images begin to feel like minor transgressions, at least impositions in the snapping of the shutter. In this sense the work does take on an erotic quality. The viewer need not truly see all of the images to understand and appreciate the body of work. It is instructive to simply notice the way in which details emerge. Ultimately, Araki can’t stop looking, and once enter his system of seeing, neither can we.

While some reviewers of the exhibition suggest that the images in 1960s Photographs are incongruous with the erotic images that Araki is best known for, it seems that the Ginza and Subway series are clearly extensions, or precursors, to the explicit scopophilia that characterizes his bondage and fetish photographs. If Winogrand gave in to the machinic capacity of the camera to endlessly reproduce, attempting to Xerox the world, by contrast Araki uses the camera nomadically, accumulating maps of his desires from the world around him.

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