Acts of Intimacy: The Erotic Gaze in Japanese Photography @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A group show bringing together the work of three Japanese photographers. The black and white photographs are variously framed/unframed, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space (with a hanging divider) and the book alcove. The exhibition was organized by Christopher Phillips.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their processes, dates, and other information as background:

  • Nobuyoshi Araki: 100 gelatin silver prints, 1993, each roughly 11×14, from the series 101 Works for Robert Frank
  • Daido Moriyama: 35 gelatin silver prints, 2016, 32 sized 14×11, 3 sized 20×24, from the series a room
  • Kohei Yoshiyuki: 18 gelatin silver prints, 1979, each sized 17×23, from the series The Park

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s hard to take a close look at photography filled with nudity, eroticism, and sex and not bump up against the tricky issues of voyeurism. By definition, in images like these, there are multiple layers of active watching going on – we as viewers are looking at pictures made by a photographer who was looking at an object of desire – and so our reactions are undeniably mediated through the eyes of another. We are directly experiencing the photographer’s intimate sense of affection, arousal, or even lust, but doing so from the position of a distanced, uninvolved observer. And it’s that push and pull of closeness and separation that often creates a subtle sense of tingling illicit dissonance in erotic work.

This smartly edited show offers us three distinct versions of erotic intimacy, in the form of separate projects by three esteemed Japanese photographers: Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Kohei Yoshiyuki. In each case, we are presented with a photographer and a body of work (executed in black and white) investigating the complex nature of attraction, but the three could hardly be more different, which gives the exhibit its conceptual richness.

While the seemingly obvious issue of where to put the camera has always been a critical question for photographers, it is even more of importance when dealing with erotic imagery – simply put, distance matters. Up close pictures, taken within an arm’s length of the subject, give us a feel for the heat of physical attraction and the sensual interchange between two real bodies. Step back a few steps and the exchange is markedly more visual, as both the photographer and sitter are knowingly performing for each other – posing, scene setting, fantasy, and roleplaying start to enter the equation. And walk back many more strides and the encounter being documented becomes entirely impersonal, something occurring between other people (not ourselves) and beyond our ability to participate or influence – we are simply watchers at large. So along this spectrum of distance, we move from private to public and near to far, and those measured spaces meaningfully alter our perception of and engagement with what’s happening.

In this trio of work, Daido Moriyama’s pictures from his 2016 series a room bring us in the closest. Blasted with the light of a flash or left to blur into ephemeral impressions, his images chronicle the before and after of intimacy. In the preamble, he watches closely as his female partners (always faceless) relax on the leather sofa and ultimately undress, his camera taking in the details of white pumps, painted fingernails, a twist of hair, or the exposed hint of panties. There is a casualness to the heated gestures that implies closeness, with legs pulled up underneath, an arm dangling, or a modest effort to cover more private parts, this mood becoming more relaxed in the aftermath, where naked bodies lounge with less tension, and roses, bathtub fixtures, and old cigarette butts fill out the scene. In these works, Moriyama’s heightened eroticism comes in the close attention paid to his partner of the moment, his gaze taking in the tiny nuances and overlooked details that add up to simmering desire and satisfied repose.

In comparison with the muted passion of Moriyama’s images, Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographs feel noticeably cooler in temperature. Taken from a series made in 1993, just after the death of his wife, the pictures here feel quietly tentative, like the first steps back into the world after being gone for awhile. Araki gazes absentmindedly at traffic on the overpass, down typical city streets, at commuters and salarymen on the move, and of course, at his cat. When he moves inside to make his signature nudes, he stands relatively far back, taking in the entire woman and her surroundings (a bathroom, a traditional wooden tub, a bed, or an enclosed tatami mat room). A few of the images recede even further, creating pictures of Araki making pictures, with him sprawled on the floor with his camera or behind the tripod framing the subject. And while there are bondage nudes, explicit nudes, and plenty of fully naked women looking directly into the camera, the photographs feel a little like Araki going through motions of generating eroticism, rather than actually feeling it. His models seem game to try whatever he might ask for, but there is a vulnerable formality about the whole endeavor – there is almost no spark of energy or frisson of sexual connection apparent in the pictures. This in the end makes the series feel almost timidly sad, rather than transgressive or explosive – the seductions are staged without much conviction, and largely drained of the intense emotions that normally give life to such meetings. And if we reorient ourselves away from the usual stereotypes of what we expect from brash sexiness and back to Araki’s mindset at the time, there are moments of unadorned grace to be found here, where a nude isn’t a come on, but instead a muted kind of catharsis.

With these two projects as foils, Kohei Yohiyuki’s controversial images from The Park offer yet another version of eroticism, this time seen from so far away that we often have little ability to understand what is even going on. Taken at night in Tokyo’s city parks, the pictures are an odd taxonomy of cruising, groping, grabbing, and illicit coupling, both gay and straight. We see almost no nakedness, just partially clothed bodies huddled in the bushes, tangled in stolen embraces or quick physical transactions, with creepy watchers crouching nearby trying to get a better view. Yoshiyuki’s nocturnal images take voyeurism to its logical endpoint, as we watch the watchers watching the action, every touch and kiss roughly flash-lit for all to see. The sense of personal intrusion is so strong in these images that they feel far more subversive and unsettling than any explicitly naked body might be.

In the end, the interchange between these three bodies of work offers an unexpected conclusion – even though all three explore the nature of private encounters, Moriyama’s works are the only ones that have a consistent charge of actual eroticism. This doesn’t make the dialogue between the projects less strong, it just shifts the pressure points, asking us to explore the edges and uneasy adjacencies of passion. In Yoshiyuki and Araki, we see urgency and the lack thereof, where one overwhelms the circumstances and turns them into an exploitive charade, and the other leaves us lonely and empty, reaching for the elusive warmth found in real human connection. Seen together, there is a roundness to this collective portrayal of intimacy, each project offering a portion of the nuanced emotional landscape of attraction.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum exhibit, there are of course no posted prices, so we will forego the usual discussion of secondary market histories. The included photographers are represented by the following galleries (in New York):

  • Nobuyoshi Araki: Anton Kern Gallery (here)
  • Daido Moriyama: Luhring Augustine (here)
  • Kohei Yoshiyuki: Yossi Milo Gallery (here)

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Read more about: Daido Moriyama, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Nobuyoshi Araki, Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

One comment

  1. Pete /

    I came across an Enrique Metinides photograph an hour or two ago that, for me, overshadows the series of erotica images here. Oddly, though, there is a kind of connection; while Metinides dealt compulsively with the dead body (of either sex) rather than the sexualised female one, it too was about the gaze, was just as fetishistic, and arguably even more voyeuristic. And yet from all that comes a frame that depicts everything you need to know about love.

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