A melancholy woman sitting on a tiled floor in the back of a bare room: her left eye is hidden behind a white eye patch piece, her right eye is closed, and, titillatingly, her panties are exposed to view. A hundred photos later: a black rectangle, a total blackout. Thus begins and ends Shi Nikki (Private Diary) published in the 1990s in Japan. This set is exhibited in its entirety for the first time at the Parisian Bourse de Commerce-Pinault Collection, inaugurated last May, and has been reprinted in joint publication by the Bourse and delpire & co.
The two photographs bookend a disparate series mixing images of naked women, still lifes, landscapes, urban and industrial views, bondage scenes, cloudy skies, and of the photographer at work. Nobuyoshi Araki is all this: a transparent, yet mysterious whole. The only key to reading this work are the date stamps marking a chronological progression from July 27, 1992 through December 31, 1993.
Also known as 101 Works for Robert Frank, Shi Nikki is about life and death. It tells a story both intimate and universal, just like the whole oeuvre of this prolific Japanese photographer, author of over 500 books, most of them self-published (a common practice in Japan). Nobuyoshi Araki was thrown into the spotlight with the 1971 publication of A Sentimental Journey. The book chronicles his honeymoon and is “a symbol of my love,” as he puts it in the introduction. It already contained the signature element of his future work: a strong autobiographical component. It’s “the idea of a novel of the self,” he noted in the same text.
Nobuyoshi Araki uses images to transpose into photography the literary genre of “watakushi-shôsetsu,” or the I-novel, popular in Japan. He photographs the way he breathes, and he uses the medium to express his inner self. It is sometimes poetic, often melancholic and demonic, even deadly. It’s as if Araki had lenses in place of eyes and as if the camera were an extension of his mind and soul. When his wife died prematurely in 1990, Araki naturally mourned her death through images. And if he dedicates Shi Nikki to Robert Frank, it is because the Swiss photographer had suffered the loss of his son.
His way of thinking about photography is what makes Nobuyoshi Araki’s work unique. In the exhibition, the 101 horizontal prints are laid out soberly along a trail that follows the curve of the picture rails: just like in the book, one image per double page spread. In the book and the exhibition alike, the images are an invitation to an emotional journey.
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
Nobuyoshi Araki, Shi Nikki (Private Diary): For Robert Frank, December 8, 2021 to March 14, 2022, Bourse de Commerce-Pinault Collection, Galerie 3, 2 rue de Viarmes, 75001 Paris.
Catalogue, text by Matthieu Humery, 220 pages, published by Bourse de Commerce-Pinault Collection and delpire & co., €45.