Nobuyoshi Araki is one of the more (perhaps the most) prolific photobook makers ever, with over 500 to his credit. Despite his renown, I’ve avoided his work. Every time I’ve gone looking, I’ve wound up finding Tokyo Lucky Hole or one of his other, more or less explicit/pornographic works, and I’m not too interested in exploitation.
Araki’s Sentimental Journey 1971 – 2017 – is different, though, and I’m a bit surprised I haven’t come across the Sentimental Journey series before. It’s different, and really brilliant.
Sentimental Journey 1971 – 2017 – is a catalog from a major exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. It starts where the first Sentimental Journey began, documenting his honeymoon with his wife Yoko, and continues with their life together up to her untimely death in 1990, about halfway through. Afterwords, there are pictures of the cat, color closeups of vegetables, photographs of sunsets that Araki painted on, and a great collection of short remembrances and essays by photographers, poets, and others.
In an inteview with Araki (warning: there’s a bunch of nudity in the video), at minute 6:18, he says: “You can’t learn that much from other people’s pictures. You only have a chance to learn something, doing your own photography.” Maybe so, but in looking through Sentimental Journey 1971 – 2017 – a couple of times, I’ve been photographing my wife more, and differently. So far, it’s been failures, and I have a good chance to learn some new things, but if not for Araki, I might not have had the same sort of inspiration or drive. You can tell that Araki loved his wife deeply and misses her terribly, and I hope to produce a body of work around my darling, adorable wife that shows something of my love and admiration for her.
SFMoMa has a couple of interviews with Araki that are worth a watch: Nobuyoshi Araki: Journey through life and death, Nobuyoshi Araki’s “more is more” approach to photography. He’s quite a character, for sure, funny, honest, grandiose, and seems like he’d be fun to hang out with and would probably make a good professor or lecturer. But I have a bit of conflict… On the one hand, there’s the sensitive, loving work in Sentimental Journey…, on the other, there’s all of the stuff for which he’s at least as well known: the bondage photos and near-hardcore porn-type stuff, the work that appears so misogynist and exploitative, indicative of a certain attitude towards women that is long overdue for a massive, worldwide adjustment. (I’m sure Araki and his fans have a more nuanced view.) But then Sentimental Journey… comes along, and it’s almost like “how can this be the same photographer?”
The first Sentimental Journey documented Yoko during their 1971 wedding and honeymoon, and 1992’s Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey added photos from the 1970s and 80s up through Yoko’s passing and funeral. But in between, Araki put out books like Tokyo Lucky Hole, which documented the wild red light districts of early 1980s Tokyo. Where was his love for his wife when he had his camera buried in some model’s crotch? To be honest, after hearing Araki talk about photography-as-life, about living through photography, life inside a frame, maybe I get it, maybe. And maybe I even understand his turn, after Yoko’s death, to even more hardcore stuff. But I feel a good deal of unease around it all, and find it hard to accept the brilliance of the man and his work, despite the ugliness in so much of it.
I plan to continue avoiding Araki’s hardcore, exploitative stuff, but I’m thrilled with Sentimental Journey 1971 – 2017 –. It gives a great introduction to Araki’s work and overall project, and if you hunt around a bit and don’t mind waiting on shipping from China or Japan, you can find a pretty cheap copy. Overall, I’d give it a solid 4.5 stars.
The rest of Araki’s work… I don’t know. I’m not going to study it, but I’ll keep thinking about it and the various questions it raises and contributes to swirling around in my head, I think. The cognitive dissonance is too strong to ignore.