Archive for October, 2011
In the early 1970′s, while walking with a friend through a park in Tokyo, photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki noticed that young couples used the park as a space for intimate encounters in the belief that they are protected by the darkness of the night. Equipped with a small camera and Kodak’s infrared flashbulb, Yoshiyuki produced a series of photographs that captures the nightly performance in Tokyo’s parks. In this haunting series of photographs produced between 1971 and 1979 and simply called The Park, the couples, both straight and gay, become the unwitting actors in Yoshiyuki’s play. While The Park has attracted much controversy in 1979 when it was first exhibited and published as a book in Tokyo, it was nearly thirty years later, in 2007, that Yoshiyuki’s project received global acclaim resulting in exhibitions throughout the US and Europe.
Photographing the couples kissing, fondling and maybe doing more, Yoshiyuki, as it appears in the photographs, was not alone in observing the nocturnal encounters. So rather than only depicting the couples themselves, Yoshiyuki would literally take a step back and incorporate the bizarre dynamic between voyeurs and the subject of their gaze in his photographs. The voyeuristic act is completed by the viewer of the photograph observing the subject of the photograph. Yoshiyuki thus sets out a complex dynamic of looking and being-looked-at which can be deduced into this formula: a couple kisses in the park, the couple is watched by voyeurs, the photographer photographs the couples being watched by voyeurs, and finally, the viewer looks at a photograph depicting voyeurs looking at a couple kissing in the park. In other words, not only the photographer but also the viewer of the photograph become incidental voyeurs in the act of looking.
There are a number of historical and cultural explanations for Yoshiyuki’s set of photographs. Most images for The Park were taken in Tokyo’s Chuo Koen, or central park, adjacent to the bustling Shinjuku district. Throughout the late 1960s, Shinjuku was both, the hotbed for political activism and the New Left movement, and also, the emerging center for the sexual liberation in Japan. Shinjuku thus became, quite naturally, also a major center for photographers keen to capture the Zeitgeist of their generation. Shōmei Tōmatsu (b. 1930), Daidō Moriyama (b. 1938), even the illustrious Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940) all produced photographic work, often with hidden or overt sexual references, in around Shinjuku.
Apart from any political and ideological affinities Kohei Yoshiyuki (b. 1946) might have had with his contemporaries, there is also a geographical reason why young couples would be inclined to make out in the park and subsequently attract voyeurs and photographers alike. Shinjuku is a major transportation hub with several overland and underground train lines converging at Shinjuku station. For those couples that don’t live together and especially for those who are separated by a long commute, Shinjuku represents a logical common ground in which intimacies might be exchanged. Even today, despite the cultural taboo of kissing openly in public, young couples can be frequently seen making out at Shinjuku station. It is precisely this cultural predicament, that making out in public is frowned upon, combined by the logistics of living in a megapolis in which couples are separated by extreme distances, that brings the lovers to Tokyo’s parks. Yoshiyuki’s photographic also precedes the widespread popularity of the ‘Love Hotels’, or establishments charging for a short ‘stay’, which became increasingly popular in the 1980s seeking to cover an obvious gap in the market.
In addition to the geographical specificities of dense urban living, Yoshiyuki’s The Park also evokes comparisons with cinematic trends in Japan at the time. Released in 1966, Shōhei Imamura’s iconoclastic film The Pornographers similarly deals with voyeurism and sexuality in Japanese culture. As film within a film, The Pornographers also seeks to reveal the very power (and limitations) of the cinematic apparatus itself. Like Yoshiyuki sneaking up to the voyeurs in Tokyo’s central park, Imamura depicts his subjects ostensibly in moments of looking. The central focus on the gaze in The Pornographers results in an extremely experimental and provocative form of visual communication. In one scene, the camera focuses on the main protagonist as he is watching a woman getting changed in her bedroom. In order to emulate the protagonist’s gaze sideways through the gap of a sliding door, the camera too is flipped on its side by 90 degrees. Like in Yoshiyuki’s nocturnal visits to the park, the viewer of the film becomes an unwitting accomplice while looking through the allegorical keyhole of the camera’s lens.
Because of its inventive camera techniques and angles, Shōhei Imamura’s The Pornographers would arguably also have an impact on American cinema. The classic scene in The Graduate (1967) in which Dustin Hoffman is depicted looking at Mrs. Robinson’s legs appears to be a close approximation of a similar scene in The Pornographers (1966). Yoshiyuki’s The Park too had a distinct effect on visual culture: in 2008, just a year after it was ‘re-discovered’, fashion photographer Steven Meisel’s series ‘Dogging’ unapologetically copies from Yoshiyuki’s acclaimed photographs.
The appropriation and re-appropriation of images that deal with the desire of (secretly) looking is perhaps less an indication of the social conditions in which they were produced in than it is an indication for how easily and universally such looking can have sexual connotations. Those who knowingly look at those who are unknowingly being looked at also exert a form of dominance over their subject. In this complex power dynamic, the photograph (or the film) acts as an active conduit which lays bare the deep desires and fears of controlling and being controlled. Located in the middle of Tokyo yet surrounded by nature, photographed in complete darkness yet fully visible, as the voyeurs in Yoshiyuki’s photographs sneak up to, watch, and sometimes even grab towards those couples they are looking at, The Park represents the topographical equivalent of a split personality disorder in which these desires and fears appear to be magnified through the lens of the camera.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
No Man’s Land by the Belgium-born Manchester based photographer Mishka Henner is a collection of images appropriated from Google Street View that depict the periphery of Spanish and Italian cities. The camera’s high vantage point gives the viewer a towering perspective over the landscape. To achieve the best image clarity, the Google Street View car is usually shooting on clear days while the Mediterranean sun ads a painterly quality to the images. Also, like all Street View images, Google seemingly protected people’s identities by blurring their faces.
What at first appears to be a rather banal depiction of the encounter between the natural and urban environment, turns out to be, on closer inspection, a strikingly haunting and surreal representation of the sex trade. Trawling Google Street View while researching a potential photographic assignment, Henner discovered that Google’s omnipresent camera inevitably photographed what appear to be prostitutes waiting for their clientele. The landscape, no longer innocent or benign, is marked by a trade that thrives on inequalities, exploitation and abuse.
It is with considerable irony then, that a number of images depict accessories that presumably make the physical demands of the sex trade more bearable: one women stands under an umbrella to protect herself from the scorching sun, water bottles give an indication about the daytime temperatures, others have found a chair to sit on.
While the women in Henner’s No Man’s Land clearly stand out from the surrounding landscape, at the same time, some of them also appear to withdraw into it. Hidden pathways, tiny side roads and cave-like hedge formations further emphasize the ambiguity in the sex workers’ activities. While they ‘wish’ to be seen by those seeking for sexual pleasure, they also need to remain hidden from the public, the law and the police. The title of the series No Man’s Land thus evokes a number of interpretations. In a literal sense, No Man’s Land highlights the gendered dimension in this body of work – in Henner’s project no man is represented in the land. Yet the title also refers to the fact that the sex trade functions precisely because it is located in a space in which the land’s law is seemingly suspended.
While Henner’s work alludes to the harsh gender inequality of prostitution, it also refers to the politics of globalization. A photographic series by the Italian photographer Paolo Patrizi, recently highlighted in an article by my blogger colleague Pete Brooke, suggests that the sex trade not only thrives on the exploitation of women in general, more specifically, it thrives on the exploitation of the migrant worker, or, in the extreme, the victim of human trafficking. The women in No Man’s Land thus appear marginalized on a number of levels: marginalized by their locality on the edge of the city, marginalized by their ‘trade’ on the edge of legality, and finally, marginalized by their presumed status as undocumented, or maybe even, illegal workers.
Standing along the country roads leading to Bologna, Rome or Cremona, the women, some of them wearing little more than a bikini, seem wholly out of place. It is perhaps the extreme contrast between luscious greenery, bright clothing and exposed skin that makes Henner’s work so unsettling. This visual contrast functions as a metaphor for the extreme socio-economic contrast of modern day slavery apparently thriving in one of the world’s most advanced economies. This is of course Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy where bunga bunga parties, underage prostitution and the wholesale sexualization of women in the mainstream media is not only silently accepted, but rather, it is endorsed by the highest echelons of power.
It would be incorrect however to assume that these landscapes of exploitation don’t equally exist in other parts of Europe, or indeed, in other parts of the world. In that sense, No Man’s Land also alludes to a prototype borderland in which the sex trade flourishes because of economic, monetary or judicial differences. I am thinking of the middle-class German sex tourist driving over the border to Poland to exploit economic disparities, or the Chinese trucker who capitalizes from a cheap currency conversion in Vietnam, or, as the American ambassador to the Philippines recently highlighted, the American men who take advantage of seemingly lax laws in the Philippines. Yet Henner’s No Man’s Land is no distant country: for those visiting in search of sex, it is often only a few minutes drive away from home. In one photograph, the tire marks coming from a dirt road gives an indication on the frequency with which No Man’s Land is visited by man.
Mishka Henner’s work also raises questions about authorship: these are, after all, images that are freely available to anyone with an internet connection. To that extent, Henner himself inhabits a peripheral state as photographer as he is neither taking, constructing or even printing the photograph. Rather than photographing No Man’s Land himself, Henner’s work is more closely aligned with that of a curator who assembles and edits images to create a visual narrative.
For me, Henner’s work is about exploitation. In the first instance, it is the subjects in the photographs that are sexually and economically exploited. Yet, as physically removed the ‘photographer’ or the ‘artist’ might be from his subject, No Man’s Land also evokes questions about the subject being exploited by the image-maker. But who exactly is that? Is it Google’s invasive lens scanning the landscape in pretty much every advanced economy on the globe? Or is it Henner who has subsequently collected a wholly subjective and voyeuristic interpretation of the urban periphery? The viewer, too, is complicit in this exploitation: Google Street View and the various photographic projects that have since used it as source material emerge out of the demands of an economy thriving on images, thriving on seeing what would otherwise remain unseen, and thriving on the complex and unequal power relations that such form of seeing entails.
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The iconic iPhone. The iconic iPod. The iconic Steve Jobs. Rarely has the perception of an individual been so synonymous with the perception of a line of products, commodities, material objects. In this blog post I want to explore how this slippage between individual and object is largely due to how both are presented to the public. For this task I turn to apple.com, the virtual HQ of Apple, to find a remarkably simple black and white photograph depicting the late Steve Jobs. Yet beneath this veneer of simplicity lies a fairly complex set of visual codes which, I believe, require further examination.
The caption “Steve Jobs 1955-2011″ dramatically impacts our reading of the image. The man that we are looking has deceased yet in the photograph he is alive. And not only is he alive, but also, he looks far more healthy than most of his colleagues, friends and family members will likely remember him. Rather than depicting an ill man, the Apple corporate hierarchy has, of course, chosen a photograph that puts Steve Job in a rather ‘good light’ (the photographic origin of this expression should be acknowledged). Here is a man who looks calm, thoughtful, even content as he looks into the camera. As much as the photograph is simple, Jobs’ trademark black turtleneck sweater and his round frameless glasses further suggest that Jobs himself is a man who prefers asceticism over excess. In a sense, the very attributes of the photograph are meant to underscore Apple’s pursuit of form enabling function. My point is that in the photograph Steve Jobs was represented like one of Apple’s (other) iconic products. A white backdrop, a simple studio lighting set up and defined outlines – these are the visual codes of product photography.
Apart from the slippage between individual and object, other aspects in the photographs require further scrutiny. The wedding band for instance – Roland Barthes might have regarded it as the punctum – suggests that Steve Jobs was a loyal and trustworthy family man. As much as he was the head of a large corporation he was also the head of a family. Further underlining Steve Jobs perceived role as leader, it is no coincidence that the photograph was cropped at the middle of the chest evoking comparisons with sculptural busts. Like Plato, Caesar or Napoleon, Steve Jobs is one to be remembered.
Yet there is another element in the photograph, one that is also borrowed from classical sculpture, which, I believe, impacts our reading of the image the most: Jobs’ left thumb and index finger resting on his chin. Similar to Rodin’s iconic sculpture The Thinker, Jobs is represented as an individual deeply engaged in his own thoughts. He is the master, the visionary, the genius of Apple. The fact that corporations are controlled by board members, the fact that corporations are governed by shareholders, and equally, the fact that the products of such corporations are produced by hundreds and thousands of anonymous workers is not discernible in the photograph. It is not necessarily what is in the photograph, but also, what is outside of the photograph which tells us what type of corporate image Apple is pursuing in it’s visual communication strategy.
Those following the news footage of people resting flowers (and apples) at Apple stores throughout the world will not have failed to recognize the religious connotations of these actions. One iPad and iPhone application even illuminates a virtual candlestick to commemorate Steve Jobs’ death. For the next few days, Apple stores will continue to resemble sites of pilgrimage. A cynic might say that this is, perhaps, further affirmation that consumerism is our religion. Yet I would suggest that the manifestation of Steve Jobs as icon and the subsequent religious-like mourning of his death is not necessarily a reflection of a society deeply embroiled in consumption, but rather, I believe it reflects a society coming to terms with how individuals are virtually connected, how they share things and how they communicate. The sad irony then that millions of people found out about Jobs’ death via an Apple device.
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I would like to thank my 1st year photography students at the Australian National University for providing me with invaluable material for this post.