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.