“One who reaches the peak falls and dies.” An interview with Nobuyoshi Araki
19 • 12 • 16Péter Baki
Araki Nobuyoshi is one of the leading contemporary figures of the universal photography scene. On the occasion of his exhibition held at the Mai Manó House, we had a discussion with him at the Tokyo-based gallery he founded himself. He met us wearing a T-shirt decorated with one of his own photos. He had not given any interview to anyone for a year, but he made an exception with Punkt.
You once stated, “If someone’s life is boring, their photos will be boring too”. Looking back, what kind of life have you been living?
I feel that the “Sentimental Journey” that has made me famous as an artist is a never-ending one. Even today, I am still living it. Many things have happened to me in the meantime: the loss of my wife, the death of our cat, I got cancer and stroke. Yet the journey I have been taking with my camera will only come to an end upon my death, and I do not regret it at all.
Your art is characterised by constant renewal. Within the context of contemporary photography, how relevant are the new series?
I do not write a novel either develop a pre-designed work. Rather, I do live my days. Nothing is planned ahead, and this way of living is linked to a photographic attitude where I let myself be driven by happenings. My job is to experience the happenings of a given day and to show them through my own perspective, my own filter.
What was the reception of the Sentimental Journey in Japan, which is probably your most renowned series and a classic example of documentary photography as well?
I have no idea, I simply created the series, which later took on a life of its own. I do not strive for recognition, because an artist either gets recognition or not. My only concern is to transform my feelings into photographic material.
Although the series has brought you an international reputation. Subsequently, to what extent were you able to separate your creative, artistic process from your commissioned works – given that, for instance, that you were also asked by Björk and Lady Gaga to collaborate with them?
During this kind of commissioned works, my aim is to grasp the personality of the ‘client’, and I am not interested in whether my model is a famous person or not. I suppress my own photographic methods in order to create a picture that is a true reflection and representation of the photographed person. I do not make any distinction between these commissions and my other artistic works, what matters is my own standards. I have made several series of men as well, including politicians and average people. There was no difference between them, I always regarded them as partners.
At the same time, in your world-famous series you took photographs of women, starting from the 1980s and your works have aroused scandals even in Japan. What do you think, how can a European person approach your photographs?
I am not motivated in making European – or any other – people understood my works. I had an opinion about sexuality and from that point on, the process of photography was my main concern. I do not regard myself as an artist, I am rather a photographer who must do his job every single day.
Up to the present, you have published more than 500 photography albums. What can books offer you as a medium?
I do not own a car, I do not have any computer or mobile phone, and I do not use digital cameras either. All of my exposures are made on analogue film. And books are the best format for analogue pictures. My photos can only be authentically reproduced as enlargements on photographic paper and pictures on the pages of a book. To me, digital photographs always remain at the level of primary vision. However, in an ideal case, film can convey some kind of underlying scene. In my opinion, digital photography is a superficial thing, and by being so, it is also the end of photography.
Some years ago, there was a group of students around you. What kind of impact does the group have on Japanese photography today?
The students were no good for anything, and since then they have gone on their separate ways. I expected my students to devote all of their energy to photography, but this is not how things work today.
You do, however, have some persistent and faithful assistants, such as Hisako Motoo, the curator of your current exhibition at the Mai Manó House. To what extent can you entrust your works entirely to a curator?
Curators can do whatever they want, I never intervene. They are younger and have a better understanding of what people might like to see when encountering my works.
During the course of your long career, you have accumulated a huge photographic archive. What will happen to your oeuvre?
I’m not particularly interested, maybe they will be thrown away. What is important to me is that I can take photos now. At the same time, I am happy to see that there is a great interest in my pictures at galleries and in the form of books. In this way, they will live on.
You once said that as one grows old, one’s photos get better and better. Which series or which period do you like the best in your life’s work?
I always like the best what is happening right now around me, in the very present. Mount Fuji is 3776 metres high, but it is not wise to reach its peak, because from there, the path can only go downwards. One who reaches the peak falls and dies.
The #MeToo movement has led to criticism in your case as well. In the light of this, do you see the circumstances of your photographic process differently today?
We do not speak about this.
Nobuyoshi Araki: Sentimental Journey
Curator: Motoo Hiszako
Mai Manó Ház
October 15, 2019 – January 19, 2020.