To The Past By Nobuyoshi Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki is perhaps the most prolific photographer of all time, yet all the while, he remains best known in the West for much of his highly charged and provocative nude works. From high art, through to commercial commissions, fashion shoots, and vivid still lifes, the scale of Araki’s range of work is unsurpassed. In addition to his chameleonic capacity for stylistic variances, Araki’s emotional approach also runs the gamut. Often displaying a wicked sense of humour, Araki is also notable for a distinct humanistic vein of sentimentality that has spanned his career. A profound example is the documentation of his relationship with his wife, capturing the euphoria and lust of their honeymoon through to the sadness and longing resulting from her decline and untimely death from cancer. Always present is entire spectrum of emotions—urge, love, elation, loss, and grief—essentially the spectrum of life captured on the page.
All the while, Araki remains a master of constructing narrative in his books by playing with sequence and time—often altering the digital auto-date settings to draw a determined emotional response from his viewer. In this sense, Araki plays the role of trickster, affecting certain impulses. The result of which is a new reality arising from artifice, defined by subversion, chicanery, and white lies.
To The Past (Little Big Man, strictly limited edition of 350 copies, $325) focuses on his auto-dated photo diary black and white photographs, spanning monumentally from Araki’s adoption of the process in 1979, up until the day of the great Japanese earthquake in March, 2011. Ordered ‘chronologically,’ Araki’s masterful editing defines a clear narrative of passing time and life over 32 years. The edit, often with the sublime sitting next to the seemingly mundane gives further charge to all images both individually and as a whole, and each can be viewed as a link between moments previous and following. To The Past, viewed alongside Araki’s many other books can be seen, paradoxically in light of its chronological fraudulence, as an exceedingly open and frank dialogue about universal truths—joy, and sadness, life and, ultimately, death. While an inherent honesty and nostalgia are hallmarks of much of Araki’s previous work, the level of reflection and openness on display in To The Past can clearly be read as the tenderising influence of age, illness, and experience.
The narrative arc of To The Past begins during Araki’s early forties. On a SONY television, we see projected the ruins of Hiroshima—a post-war mash-up with both ‘new’ and ‘old’ Japans. Tender images of his wife Yoko, his contemporaries and friends are ballasted by the devastating frankness of Yoko’s death—a heartrending and sentimentally charged image of him holding her hand in hospital sears emotionally. Throughout, familiar themes emerge—Araki’s beloved cat Chiro, scenes of rope bondage, and his boundless sexual appetite. Towards the end of the book, we observe Araki undergoing treatment for his own fight with cancer, before finally ending on two images taken on the day of the earthquake—the negatives distressed and scratched as a traumatic reaction. With reference to the first atomic disaster near the beginning, and the second at the end To The Past is an edition defined by uncertainty and remains open-ended both back and forth. To highlight this sense of linear control, the title of the book gives insight to Araki’s clever manipulations as he pulls the viewer backwards to the past whilst maintaining perpetual motion forward. ❚