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Review: Sex in the Park, and Its Sneaky Spectators at Yossi Milo Gallery

Posted By Administration, Thursday, September 27, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, January 22, 2014
DATE: September 23, 2007

Why are the Japanese couples in Kohei Yoshiyuki's photographs having sex outdoors? Was 1970s Tokyo so crowded, its apartments so small, that they were forced to seek privacy in public parks at night? And what about those peeping toms? Are the couples as oblivious as they seem to the gawkers trespassing on their nocturnal intimacy?

If the social phenomena captured in these photographs seem distinctly linked to Japanese culture, Mr. Yoshiyuki's images of voyeurs reverberate well beyond it. Viewing his pictures means that you too are looking at activities not meant to be seen. We line up right behind the photographer, surreptitiously watching the peeping toms who are secretly watching the couples. Voyeurism is us.

Untitled, 1973 © Kohei Yoshiyuki, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery
The series, titled "The Park," is on view at Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea, the first time the photographs have been exhibited since 1979, when they were introduced at Komai Gallery in Tokyo. For that show the pictures were blown up to life size, the gallery lights were turned off, and each visitor was given a flashlight. Mr. Yoshiyuki wanted to reconstruct the darkness of the park. "I wanted people to look at the bodies an inch at a time," he has said.

The oversize prints were destroyed after the show, and the series was published in 1980 as a book, one now difficult to find. Last year Mr. Yoshiyuki made new editions of the prints in several sizes, which have brought renewed interest in his work. Since April images from the series have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Mr. Yoshiyuki was a young commercial photographer in Tokyo in the early 1970s when he and a colleague walked through Chuo Park in Shinjuku one night. He noticed a couple on the ground, and then one man creeping toward them, followed by another.

Untitled, 1971 © Kohei Yoshiyuki, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery
"I had my camera, but it was dark," he told the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki in a 1979 interview for a Japanese publication. Researching the technology in the era before infrared flash units, he found that Kodak made infrared flashbulbs. Mr. Yoshiyuki returned to the park, and to two others in Tokyo, through the '70s. He photographed heterosexual and homosexual couples engaged in sexual activity and the peeping toms who stalked them.

"Before taking those pictures, I visited the parks for about six months without shooting them," Mr. Yoshiyuki wrote recently by e-mail, through an interpreter. "I just went there to become a friend of the voyeurs. To photograph the voyeurs, I needed to be considered one of them. I behaved like I had the same interest as the voyeurs, but I was equipped with a small camera. My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was not a real 'voyeur' like them. But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is voyeuristic somehow. So I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer."

Mr. Yoshiyuki's photographic activity was undetected because of the darkness; the flash of the infrared bulbs has been likened to the lights of a passing car.

Untitled, 1971 © Kohei Yoshiyuki, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery
"The couples were not aware of the voyeurs in most cases," he wrote. "The voyeurs try to look at the couple from a distance in the beginning, then slowly approach toward the couple behind the bushes, and from the blind spots of the couple they try to come as close as possible, and finally peep from a very close distance. But sometimes there are the voyeurs who try to touch the woman, and gradually escalating — then trouble would happen."

Mr. Yoshiyuki's pictures do not incite desire so much as document the act of lusting. The peeping toms are caught in the process of gawking, focused on their visual prey. Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum, suggested in a telephone interview that this phenomenon was not uncommon in Japan. She cited the voyeurism depicted in Ukiyo-e woodblock erotic prints from 18th- and 19th-century Japan, in which a viewer watches a couple engage in sexual activity. "It's a consistent erotic motif in Japanese sexual imagery and in Japanese films like 'In the Realm of the Senses,' " she said.

Karen Irvine, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, said Mr. Yoshiyuki's work is important because "it addresses photography's unique capacity for observation and implication." She locates his work in the tradition of artists who modified their cameras with decoy lenses and right-angle viewfinders to gain access to private moments. Weegee, for example, rigged his camera to capture couples kissing in darkened New York movie theaters. Walker Evans covertly photographed fellow passengers on New York subways.

"Like the work of these artists," Ms. Irvine said, "Yoshiyuki's photographs explore the boundaries of privacy, an increasingly rare commodity. Ironically, we may reluctantly accommodate ourselves to being watched at the A.T.M., the airport, in stores, but our appetite for observing people in extremely personal circumstances doesn't seem to wane."

Mr. Milo also noted a connection between Mr. Yoshiyuki's work and surveillance photography. "The photographs are specifically of their time and place and reflect the social and economic spirit of the 1970s in Japan," he wrote in an e-mail message. "Yet the work is also very contemporary. With new technologies providing the means to spy on each other, a political atmosphere that raises issues about the right to privacy and a cultural climate obsessed with the personal lives of everyday people, themes of voyeurism and surveillance are extremely topical and important in the U.S. right now."

Yet earlier artists also went to great lengths to capture transgressive behavior. In the 1920s Brassai photographed the prostitutes of Paris at night; his camera was conspicuously large, but his subjects were willing participants. More recently, in the early 1990s, Merry Alpern set up a camera in the window of one New York apartment and photographed the assignations of prostitutes through the window of another.

Susan Kismaric, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, agrees that Mr. Yoshiyuki's work falls into a photographic tradition. "The impulse is the same," she said. "To bring forth activity, especially of a sexual nature, that 'we' don't normally see. It's one of the primary impulses in making photographs — to make visible what is normally invisible."

"The predatory, animalistic aspect of the people in Yoshiyuki's work is particularly striking," she continued. "The pictures are bizarre and shocking, not only because of the subject itself but also because of the way that they challenge our clichéd view of Japanese society as permeated by authority, propriety and discipline."

Sandra S. Phillips is organizing an exhibition on surveillance imagery for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art next year. "A huge element of voyeuristic looking has informed photography and hasn't been studied as it should be," she said. "Voyeurism and surveillance are strangely and often uncomfortably allied. I think Yoshiyuki's work is amazing, vital and very distinctive.

"It is also, I feel, strangely unerotic, which I find very interesting since that is the subject of the pictures. I would compare him to Weegee, one of the great photographers who was also interested in looking at socially unacceptable subjects, mainly the bloody and violent deaths of criminals."

The raw graininess in Mr. Yoshiyuki's pictures is similar to the look of surveillance images, but there is an immediacy suggesting something more personal: that here is a person making choices, not a stationary camera recording what passes before it. As Vince Aletti writes in the publication accompanying the current show, Mr. Yoshiyuki's pictures "recall cinéma vérité, vintage porn, frontline photojournalism and the hectic spontaneity of paparazzi shots stripped of all their glamour."

Surveillance images, so far, do not have that signature.

By Philip Gefter

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Review of Developing Greatness: The Origins of American Photography, 1839 -1885

Posted By Administration, Sunday, August 26, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, January 22, 2014
DATE: August 26, 2007

In late 2005, Hallmark Cards donated its remarkable, choice, and extensive collection of photographs (some 6,500 in all) to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. With the opening of the new Bloch wing on June 9th, and Keith F. Davis's formidable show "Developing Greatness: The Origins of American Photography, 1839 -1885," the geography of photographic collections has been redrawn. Kansas City is no longer a "fly-over" city for students and lovers of photography. In fact, if you're interested in understanding the origins of photography, or American art history, "Developing Greatness" is a "must see" show.

The show begins with over 165 daguerreotypes expertly lit with fiber optics in specially designed cases. There are several rare, small, primitive portraits from the first months of photography, including a previously unknown self-portrait by Henry Insley from ca. late 1839, and two works by Robert Cornelius. Samuel Bemis's whole plate view of the Lafayette House at Franconia Notch, N.H., would be a masterpiece of composition from any point in the Daguerrian era, but the primitive quality of the technique and the other-worldly rendering of trees on the mountain side give the impression that the artist was an astronomer catching the first nanosecond from the big bang of photographic light.

Unknown Maker, American. Clown, ca. 1850–1855.
Daguerreotype, sixth plate, image size: 2 3/8 x 1 7/8
inches. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Next is another previously unknown plate: an interior view of two rooms of a Daguerrian studio. The first and closest room could be the waiting room of a daguerreotypist of modest means; a common domestic interior with low ceilings, spare furniture, and framed daguerreotypes on the wall. It is washed in gentle, low, early morning or late afternoon light. A man is seen through a doorway in a second room; he is seated in profile with a contemplative gaze, facing a window. It is apparent that he is in a workroom (above the doorway are the words "No Admittance"), and is busy assembling a daguerreotype for a customer. A unique and innovative composition, the clarity, natural light, and size of the image makes the viewer feel as if they have gone through a key hole with Alice to view a scene from another world.

Except for the radical leap in technologies, the daguerreotype was a direct descendent of hand-painted portraits on ivory made in similar scale and presented in similar hinged leather cases. While all daguerreotypists borrowed something from this earlier tradition, a few went far beyond any painterly precedents.

J.D. Edwards, American (1831–1900). Steamships
at Cotton Wharf, New Orleans, ca. 1857–1860. Salt
print, 5 1/2 x 7 7/8 inches. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
On view by Southworth and Hawes, for example, is a delicately rendered sixth plate of frost patterns on a window. This photograph is a radical departure from both the tradition of portrait painting, and from any "normal" use of the daguerreotype, which was largely applied to portraiture. All other photographs of natural forms are descended from this photograph and a small handful of remotely comparable examples. And of the progeny, few are as beautiful as this.

Charles D. Fredricks, American (1823–1894).
Fredricks' Photographic Temple of Art, Broadway,
New York,1857. Salt print from wet-collodion negative,
16 1/8 x 13 1/2 inches. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
The show also includes a Southworth and Hawes portrait of Mary Hawes, the artist's daughter. The young girl is standing and holding on to a chair in an evocative and painterly pose. We would be viewing a masterpiece if that were all that was going on. However, her dress is beautifully tinted red and clouds have been painted in the background, probably by the child's mother. With no horizon line or other spacial reference, it's not clear if the chair is an oversized prop or if the young girl is much larger than a normal size chair. The space of the picture becomes intriguingly ambiguous, and the viewer is forced to wonder if the scene was made on a cloud or on earth.

Southworth & Hawes, American (Albert Sands Southworth
, 1811–1894; Josiah Johnson Hawes, 1808–1901). Harriet
Beecher Stowe, ca. 1843–1845. Daguerreotype, quarter
plate, image size: 3 3/4 x 2 7/8 inches. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins
Museum of Art.
The Russell Miller portrait of an artist painting a trompe l'oeil backdrop has been very well received since it first surfaced about twenty years ago. An elderly woman standing in front of it expressed a commonly held sentiment: "WOW!!! ......... WOW!!!.........WOW!!! The brilliance of this work is poignant. While very little else by Miller is known, it seems impossible that a work of this quality could have been a strictly "one-off" production. What else might this brilliant daguerreotypist have made, and where are the plates?

Next is a portrait of a young man sitting precariously on a chair with his mouth wide open and his whole visage expressing alarm or excitement. This marks an important point in the mid-Precambrian era of photography. It's one of the earliest photographs of human emotion.

The sixth plate of gravediggers may be unique in the Daguerrian era. The sky has a dense, iridescent blue color caused by over exposure, which gives a bizarre, otherworldly feeling. One of the figures is wearing an unusual Transylvanian style cape. The image looks as if it could be an illustration from an Ambrose Bierce story, or a still from a Rod Serling or David Lynch screenplay.

Other treasures include an astonishing whole-plate view of the interior of a butcher shop, a profile portrait of Frederick Douglass, a barn-raising scene, a uniquely artistic "trophies of the hunt" still-life from 1842, and an outdoor view of boys playing marbles. All of these are "new" additions to our historical knowledge: none have ever before been published.

At some point the reader may wonder whether the reviewer is suffering from irrational exuberance or whether this is really a great show. The curator, Keith Davis, often "blasted" many of the finest pieces out of private collections. Most collectors and curators have no choice but to wait for a great piece to come to the market place. However, thanks to the generous support and forward thinking of Donald J. Hall, Hallmark's Chairman of the Board, Mr. Davis was given the means to develop a collection of international importance. This was done through "blasting": steady travel, lots of study, networking, and a willingness to pay a fair (or even "full") price for great pieces. The result is an unusually large number of national treasures of photography in one place.

The 122 paper photographs are equally stunning and important. Many of the most famous practitioners are represented, with both familiar and little-known masterpieces. This section begins with pre-Civil War work by J. B. Greene—the brilliant young American based in Paris—Samuel Masury, and Charles D. Fredricks. A large group of Western landscapes includes signature works by Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, and William Henry Jackson. The Civil War section is equally memorable. A.J. Russell's photograph "Fredericksburg: Rebel Caissons Destroyed by Federal Shells" is a stark record of the impossible and unimaginable horrors of war. The dead horses are almost too contorted and abstract to be read as horses. The caissons look as if they have been up ended and littered by a tornado. The three Union figures stand somberly staring at the ground as if they are wondering how such devastation is possible. Other prints in this section include Alexander Gardner's rare series of the hanging of the Lincoln conspirators, and a previously unpublished portrait of General William T. Sherman and his son.

The show concludes with a variety of works from the 1870s and early 1880s, from lively cartes-de-visite and stereographs to Lewis Rutherfurd's celebrated 1865 view of the moon, and a pristine copy of William Bradford's lavish album, "The Arctic Regions."

While large, this show is not overwhelming. Instead it is inviting and inspiring: a memorable overview of a most remarkable subject. One of the best shows of early American photography ever produced, it is a true "must see".
By AIPAD Member Mack Lee

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