Almost two months ago I saw the Nobuyoshi Araki exhibit at Mana Contemporary, in the post-industrial hinterlands of Jersey City (and subsequently blogged about it). I walked into the gallery and found myself surrounded by large photos of Japanese women, some in traditional dress, some naked, some in schoolgirl sailor suits. Most of the poses were erotic, some with legs splayed wide open. Many of the models were elaborately and precisely bound. Some were suspended from the ceiling.
I was...well “shocked” isn’t quite the word, certainly not “horrified”, nor does “surprise” quite fit, though I wasn’t expecting what I saw, heck, I had no particular expectation at all beyond checking out Mana Contemporary. Whatever mental state I was in, once I was able to set it aside, one question emerged: How did Araki work with his models?
Does Araki objectify women? Sure. Are the photos sexist? Why not? Is he playing to male fantasies of domination? Undoubtedly.
But, in order to get those photos, Araki the photographer cannot dominate his models. I suppose he could try, but it wouldn’t work. Why not? Because the models cannot dominate themselves, not in a way that yields those poses. The mind and body don’t work that way.
For example, the mind can order the face to smile. And the face will obey, after a fashion. But such a deliberate forced smile is different from a spontaneous smile. Anyone can see it. The camera would pick up on it.
Not that smiling is particularly germane here; most of the the women weren’t smiling. But the principle applies. Araki may or may not have a specific expression and attitude in mind for a particular shot, but he cannot order the model to assume some specific expression, even if he had the words. Nor could she order herself to assume it.
Somehow Araki has to evoke the attitude in the model (and then snap the shutter when the evocation works). That’s what I was wondering: How does he do it?
Arakimentari, a documentary by Travis Klose, has many clues scattered about in scenes from various photo shoots. Some involve models Araki’s worked with over some period of time, some are housewives he’s shooting for a magazine series. He works with two or three assistants, one handling cameras, another lighting, perhaps someone on make-up. He’s quick, matter-of-fact, playful, humorous, as the occasion requires. You see him moving pubic hair to get it just so, or moving the labia this way or that. Deftly, quickly.
It’s not the sort of thing that can be readily described. You have to see it.
The point is, first, he has to do it. Without it, no picture. Second, the women are comfortable with his doing these things. They say so, on camera. He makes them feel secure, safe, they can relax. Yet they’re naked, bound, genitals exposed. Secure, safe.
How’s Araki do it?
And what does this imply about the whole history of portraiture, both photographic and in older media (drawing, paint, sculpture)? It’s unnatural, this business of posing. How can you reveal a person’s essence when they’re not doing anything BUT posing?
What did Rembrandt see when he looked at himself in the mirror those many times for those many self-portraits.
What of the Mona Lisa smile? Where’s in coming from? Where’s it directed?