Artist: Nobuyoshi Araki
Publisher: Libro Port Publishing
It all began with ShaShaSha and my desire to learn a little more about Nobuyoshi Araki. Like most people, I thought I had seen my fair share of, let’s face it, bad photobooks made by Nobuyoshi Araki. With 450+ books, it was incredibly unlikely they were all bad (call that my working hypothesis) and I thought I’d go back to the very beginning. Via ShaShaSha, I accessed Sentimental Journey, which I thought was a real master piece. Now, where and/or how to find other good books?
In the 1990s, Araki published a series of books called The Collected Works of Nobuyoshi Araki, with 20 books in total. On (US) Ebay, I started looking and I bought number 6 from the series, Tokyo Novel; from what I can tell (I can’t read Japanese) it’s a mix of work done throughout the years. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but the good work is really very good.
A former Japanese student of mine then brought me three used books from the series and for very little money, one being number 4, New York, which is nothing but brilliant. In 1979, Araki spent time in New York and he photographed there, producing, amongst other things, street photography that rivals the American masters’ in quality (plus a bunch more stuff, including what look like images of prostitutes). The book is very Araki, and it’s very New York.
A few days later, I came across number 16, Erotos, on Ebay. Having learned my lesson now about the quality of these books – some are great, some are really quite bad – I checked the internet for possible samples of the work; what I saw looked promising. Once the book arrived in the mail I couldn’t quite believe how good it was.
While researching Erotos, I also found that there was another version released a few years earlier (1993). Someone on Amazon.com was selling it for $40; I bought it. The 1993 version is a generously sized hardcover, the reissue is a smaller softcover. The order of the images differs (image pairings remain the same, though). Whether there are more images in the reissue I can’t tell (there are no page numbers, and I’m too lazy to count the pages in both books), but it feels like a little more.
Erotos is what it is, but that’s what makes it so great. For many of its photos, it’s not very clear at all what one is actually looking at. Is this…? Could this really be…? Sometimes, it is, but often it isn’t. It might just be food that looks like something entirely different. But oh yes, that is a snail on someone’s private parts.
Erotos uses a very, very simple idea, but it’s executed incredibly well. Even the most pornographic photographs don’t look and feel pornographic (in the sense that sexual pornography pretty much always looks pornographic, yet not necessarily enticing or erotic at all). Instead, they’re, well, erotic in a strange photographic sense, in particular given the deeply beautiful black and white employed to render them.
I’m not sure I’d now call myself a fan of Araki’s work. But I know that there is quite a bit of work that’s very, very good. Araki might just be the Mark E. Smith of photography. I own almost all albums by The Fall. Plenty of them stink, but the good stuff is utterly brilliant.
Published 6 October 2014
Jörg Colberg is a photographer, writer, and educator. Since 2002, Jörg has been working on what is now Conscientious Photography Magazine, a website dedicated to contemporary fine-art photography.