/// THE BODY TEMPERATURE OF PHOTOGRAPHY
From the hundreds of thousands of photos Arākī has taken over the course of his career, the artist identifies three as his favorites: the deathbed photographs he took of his father, his mother, and his beloved wife Yōko, who died in 1990. These are photographs in which life itself had already slipped away before the camera could bring human movement to a standstill. In this sense, these final pictures are his ultimate photographs. This is true from the perspective of time: each one represented his last chance to capture the physical presence of a beloved relative before they disappeared completely. Yet even beyond that, these photographs manifest a unique ontological doubling of the “lifeless” quality always attributed to photographs in a picture of a lifeless person. In a sense, the deceased person, as a “bodily likeness,” is already akin to a photograph: a visible shell that has been left behind.
The photo, on the other hand, lives on in the moment as the visual presence of the absent. It is “born” during the chemical development process rendering the latent image on the film visible, eventually revealing itself to the world on coated photo paper. In an interview, Arākī described how the process of taking photos with an analog camera and developing the film can produce sentimental feelings as a kind of “mysterious secret.” This lends photography a human character, and it is for this reason that he considers digital photography an inadequate medium of expression. “I do not feel the body temperature of the subject in digital images. There is no physicality. A digital camera turns a photographer into a robot, with no feeling.”
Physicality and feeling in Arākī’s work
Arākī carries always a camera on a shoulder strap at hip level. Worn close against the body, it becomes an integral part of his person, an extension of his sense of sight and touch (in addition to his sense of eroticism). A wide range of feelings and possible responses arise when looking at his extraordinarily diverse oeuvre: repulsion, shock, doubt, wonderment, outrage, surrender, powerful affect, melancholy, fear, calm, contemplation. His images are close-ups of these swells of emotion. Just as Arākī’s body itself touched the things and people that he photographed, he has been touched by them emotionally. It is these acts of touching and being touched to which the viewer of his photographs is subjected, too. Sometimes it comes too close. Especially for a female viewer.
We forget too easily that photography is a haptic medium through and through. The dominance of the visual image overrides our attention to its tactile qualities. As Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu wrote in their introduction to the 2014 book Feeling Photography: “Touching photographs, whether it is the glossy surface of a developed print itself or even the protective frame that might enclose this print, is one of our most compelling engagements with the medium, particularly since this act is often accompanied by the sensation that the subjects pictured on this surface can somehow touch back.”
One could also add to this the index finger that glides across touch screens, but since all of Arākī’s works are analog, I will mention yet another fundamental aspect of the tactile in photography: the process by which the image itself comes into being—through particles of light reflected by the photographed subject. These photons strike the gelatin layer on the film inside the camera, touching it, penetrating into it, and transforming the light-sensitive silver salts into silver. This chemical process is based on physical interaction, even though on molecular level. It is in this context that we can understand Arākī’s view that analog and digital photography are worlds apart in terms of their “sensory value.” In Senses of Embodiment: Art, Technics, Media (2014), Mika Elo argued that digital technology releases the sense of touch from its affective (emotional) qualities by making the finger the omnipresent tool of physical engagement with the touch screen. In the use of digital technologies, the emotional aspect of touch is completely independent of the bodily aspect. It is the cherished framed photo of the adorable Yōko that appears as a lovingly handled relic on Arākī’s personal altars in many of his later photographs.
Looking at a body of work that spans six decades, we see that Arākī’s life story is made up of many different chapters. Each one tells its own story. The form meanders between fiction, poetry, and autobiography, showing the artist’s virtuosic mastery of diverse styles. Arākī repeatedly touches on older themes, re-composing them again and again into new series of works. His connection with shishōsetsu or the “I-novel”, a specifically Japanese literary genre, shimmers through his very intimate photo essays in the Sentimental Journey trilogy (1971, 1991, 2010) and in his various books about his muse Yōko. Yet it seems also the basis for the entirety of his work. In shishōsetsu, the writer as a real person takes center stage, fundamentally shaping the fictional main character of the “I”. In contemplative observation coupled with unflinching self-revelation, the author reflects his own life and the emotions that are part of it. In Arākī’s work, we witness the most intimate and tender moments shared between two lovers, Arākī and Yōko, on their honeymoon (her gaze in his gaze) and Yōko’s later illness, up to the point in time when her eyes close forever; we see the mourning gaze of the bereaved in his home together with their cat Chiro, and views into the infinite beyond fragments of sky—and all this alternating with profane images of everyday life. In every one of these pictures, Arākī is the author who holds the pen in releasing the shutter.
But why do these lines of a personal photographic narrative have such an impact on us as viewers, far removed from the lives of Arākī and Yōko? Art historian Margaret Olin provides a striking explanation for this. In her book Touching Photographs (2012), she argues that the indexicality of the photograph lies less in the relationship between the photograph and its subject than in the relationship between the photograph and its beholder. She refers to this as a kind of “index of identification.” Every individual sees or reads their own version of Arākī’s shishōsetsu and connects their own emotional experiences with it.
The confessionalism that is intrinsic to the genre of the “I-novel” follows precise rules, however, as noted by renowned Japanologist Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit. She describes this act of confession as a ritual in which author and reader play equal roles and which can only be understood within its cultural and social context (together with the associated behavioral codes). The reader assumes a certain authenticity from the author, which lends the subject matter a sense of immediacy—indexicality in words. The popularity of this literary genre in Japan is often associated with the prohibition of public voyeurism under Japanese law. But then why is Arākī even more popular here in the West than he is in his home country—when, as he acknowledged, his work can only be truly understood there?
Viewed in the context of Japanese culture, the direct proximity between life and death in Arākī’s work appears as a close natural interaction. The aspects of both life and death are encapsulated as a unity in a single word: 死生観—life-and-death. In the medium of photography, we see this life-and-death materialized. The “positive” image on the photographic paper is actually the reverse of the film negative. What was dark there is now light. And it is the bright light particles that create the darkness of the silver particles. As Belgian philosopher Henri van Lier argued, every analog black-and-white print retains a typical “hesitance between darkness and light, the opaque and the transparent, the convex and the concave.” I would add to this a hesitance between death and life.
In Buddhist funeral rituals in Japan, the deceased are given a new name, as if they were going to continue their existence in the world of the dead. Various burial rites attempt to dissolve the relationship between the deceased and the person who was still living not long before, in order for the living to develop a new relationship to the deceased and allow them to make their journey to the afterlife. Is a photograph not also something like a new name?
Asked what his last photograph will be, Arākī answers: “I will take my own photo from the coffin by using a digital camera for the first time.” It will be his first picture without a body.