Nobuyoshi Araki’s Photographs Remain Influential—and Also Highly Controversial

Alina Cohen
Aug 1, 2018 12:30PM

Nobuyoshi Araki, Colourscapes, 1991. Courtesy of the Museum of Sex.

Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s aesthetic is instantly recognizable, whether he’s capturing submissive, rope-bound women, grungy group sex in Tokyo, or eroticized flowers. On occasion, the 78-year old will add a dollop of paint or scrawl calligraphy over an image. A Polaroid aficionado, he’ll often cut up his own instant prints to create collages—a half-dressed woman joined to a bright flower— juxtaposing two of his favorite themes in the same artwork.

Over the years, Araki has become a brand. There are over 500 books devoted to his work, and he’s kept busy with both editorial campaigns (his camera has captured Björk and Lady Gaga) and museum exhibitions. Despite recent controversies surrounding his relationships with his models, his celebrity persists.

Throughout his career, sex has emerged as Araki’s most frequent theme—under his lens everything from a snail to a cross-section of a pomegranate can resemble genitalia. Casual Polaroids from the past 20 years depict nude women up close, in intimate settings: in the tub, on the bed or the floor. Yet he’s also shot many portraits of his cat, Chiro, as well as the Tokyo landscape (albeit in diptychs juxtaposing trees, sky, and roads with naked women).


Critics claim that Araki’s compositions transform Japanese women into exoticized fetish objects for Western viewers. His kinbaku pictures, which depict women bound in rope (hanging from the ceiling, or just wrapped in knots on a bed), extend a centuries old motif to photographic form. Japanese woodblock prints as well as shunga (Japanese erotic art) have long aestheticized such bondage play. Araki helped popularize the practice for a global audience that’s often more interested in nudity than tradition. Bondage (1991), for example, features a woman girded in restraints so that just her breasts emerge. Like many of Araki’s models, she wears a traditional dress that’s been pushed down to reveal more skin. Araki’s subjects rarely smile, but often gaze confrontationally at the camera. Most of the pictures are more solemn and seductive than playful.

Araki was born in Tokyo in 1940. He attended Chiba University, hours east of the city, then secured a job as a commercial photographer at the advertising agency Dentsu. There, he assisted the firm’s campaign to advertise the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. During the 1960s, Araki also made his own work, taking candid pictures of Tokyo citizens on the streets and in the subway.

Late in the decade, two pivotal things happened: Araki’s father died and he also met Yoko Aoki, whom he would marry in 1971. His work adopted more passionate overtones. “My heart beats; I squeeze the shutter,” he once said. His prints forgo objectivity for feeling.

Araki brought a camera on his honeymoon with Yoko; his new bride became his muse. In the series, entitled “Sentimental Journey,” we see Yoko curled up on the floor of a narrow boat, or sitting on a hotel bed. Curator Maggie Mustard, who co-organized “The Incomplete Araki: Sex, Life, and Death in the Work of Nobuyoshi Araki” now on view at New York’s Museum of Sex (MoSex), calls the photographer’s relationship with Yoko “the nucleus of his most iconic work.”

Nobuyoshi Araki, Untitled (Lovers Allure), 2008. © Nobuyoshi Araki. Courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

Araki shot her smiling under a beach umbrella and with their cat, lying in the snow, reclining nude, and eventually in her coffin, after she died of ovarian cancer in 1990. (Yoko left no accounts of their relationship, and scholars are just beginning to examine her role in Araki’s work.)

The city of Tokyo also plays a prominent role in Araki’s practice. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, said Mustard, the city became a “living being” in his work. Araki’s “Tokyo Lucky Hole” (1978–1985) series captured sex clubs, private orgies, and illicit spaces. A black-and-white print from 1985 depicts a nude woman on a circular stage, straddling one man while giving another a blow job before an audience of eager onlookers.

In another picture from the same year, a high-heeled foot steps on a man’s bare torso. Two burning candles between his legs enhance the sense of zany, theatrical danger. After viewing Araki’s staged portraits, these pictures reveal the photographer as a keen observer of a raucous, apparently joyful community—sex becomes integral to the character of the city itself.  

In 1992, Austria’s Forum Stadtpark gave Araki his first European exhibition, expanding his influence beyond Japan’s borders. The fashion world, in particular, latched on to Araki’s compositions. According to Mustard, he influenced “this aesthetic of the candid, the hip shot, the emphasis on the explicit.” The photographer himself dismisses any divisions between fine art and commercial work.

In 2009, Araki began a series for which he documented between 500 and 1,000 people in each of Japan’s prefectures. In some ways, he’s come full circle, documenting daily life in Japan nearly 60 years after his first street photographs.

Juergen Teller, Araki No. 1, Tokyo, 2004. Courtesy of the artist.

Araki’s practice persists, despite the fact that he went blind in his right eye in 2013. He was also diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008. He photographed his scar and catheter, exposing the physical repercussions of his illness; connecting chemotherapy to Japan’s atomic-addled past, he created the series “Tokyo Radiation.” Araki documented his life and surroundings over a 10-day period. The resulting black-and-white images (of medical equipment, or a desolate patio) convey the artist’s preoccupation with mortality.

Despite his international fame, Araki’s reputation is far from pristine. This spring, scandal bruised Araki yet again when one of his models, Kaori (frequently seen rope-bound, nude, or apparently paint-splattered throughout his shots), alleged that he had exploited her during their work together from 2001 through 2016: offering no contract or rights to her images (which models generally don’t receive), dismissing her request for privacy as he shot pictures of her in front of an audience, and not paying her enough. Kaori said the #MeToo movement had encouraged her to make her story public. Another model claimed that when she was 19, Araki photographed her for a teen magazine and touched her inappropriately.

Throughout the MoSex galleries, the curators both detail these scandals (and Araki’s frequent affairs with his muses) and include films in which Araki’s models praise his collaborative, respectful process. A more agreeable perception of the photographer, and his relationship with his subjects, emerges.

“I want to make photographs that maintain their incompleteness,” Araki has said. “I don’t want them to lose their reality, presence, speed, heat, or humidity. Therefore, I stop and shoot before they become refined or sophisticated.”

This loose style, perhaps, has contributed to the sheer volume of his oeuvre and the intimacy of his pictures—and the resulting ethical quagmires. Araki may be an iconic figure, but our comprehension of his artwork—and its implications for his subjects—is still fragmentary at best.  

Alina Cohen