SLOW LANE – Copyright The Financial Times
BYLINE: By HARRY EYRES
My first proper camera is still sitting in a drawer somewhere in the old family home. I can’t bring myself to throw it away, maybe because it was so obviously built to last. This virtually indestructible, far from lightweight apparatus is a Zenit single lens reflex made in Russia in the early 1970s. Everything about it is solid, slow and manual: you need a separate light meter, and then you have to set the aperture and the shutter speed and focus, all by hand.
This wouldn’t be the camera of choice if you wanted to capture a leaping gazelle or the fleeting expression on a face. I used to take mainly landscape photographs, in black and white (certain people commented rather sharply on the absence of human interest in my prints). But the whole process, of hunting or just stumbling on the right combinations of light and scenery, then of developing and printing, again slowly and by hand, using a prewar Leica enlarger, gave me, as a teenager, hours of the most intense pleasure.
I was lucky to have a father who was an excellent amateur photographer and could induct me in the various skills and pleasures of the craft. We had a darkroom at home, a secret, hidden-away place off a back passage, with its distinctive smell of photographic chemicals and leather golfclub covers. That special moment when the image starts to appear on the white paper, as it floats in the developing tray, was as magical to me as witnessing the lights going down in a theatre or finding that the notes and my fingers had finally gelled in a passage of Mozart or Schubert.
There was a time in my life (late teens) when I thought of myself as a photographer. I now see it as part of the process of becoming an artist – and by that term I don’t mean a demigod with special privileges, but merely a person for whom inspiration, the contact with the muses or what Plato called the musical element, is an essential part of what it means to be a human being. With the Zenit, or its replacement, an Olympus OM10, in hand, I felt inspired in the most unlikely places – a school playing field or a London bus. Photography was exhilaration.
In time (perhaps because I realised that I was not that good a photographer, nothing like as good as my talented, over-modest father) I transferred that feeling to writing poetry. But I have never forgotten or ceased to be grateful for what photography, one of the great democratic arts of the 20th century, gave me: the permission to live life, aesthetically, to the full.
If I felt that permission had been granted, I certainly never took it to the extremes pushed by the amazing Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Araki is probably best known for his erotica, including the truly strange images of kimono-clad (or unclad) women trussed with ropes, in the tradition called Kinbaku. To call these images pornographic, it struck me as I went round the huge and wonderful Araki exhibition at the Barbican in London, is somehow to miss the point. Western pornography has developed, on the whole, in a direction that mimics the ever-increasing functionalism of late industrial life. Western porn may work, functionally (and economically), but, in a peculiarly grim way, it has lost touch with Eros. Araki, on the other hand, is a genuinely and frankly and joyously erotic artist in a long Japanese tradition.
In the end though it wasn’t Araki’s erotica that stayed longest with me. He has said that, “photography is going to and fro between life and death”. You might think that life, the raunchy, Rabelaisian, multifarious life of Tokyo’s red light district where Araki grew up and resides, predominates in his work over death, but the two poles are always present. None of his photographs are more moving than those taken over the winter of his wife’s mortal illness and death in 1990.
In some quite mysterious way, Araki’s images of his balcony, the family cat, a cardboard cut-out girl, the local streets and metro station become imbued with a desolating grief. The trick is one of absence: you sense something is left out, and what is there (the cat with its head bowed) stands for something else. Surprisingly, I was made to think of the poems Thomas Hardy wrote after his first wife’s death, especially “The Walk”, where he speaks of the difference made to everything by the knowledge of irrevocable absence.
But what is also striking is the way these photographs constitute a personal diary. Araki is able to record not just the external features of his life but the gamut of his feelings, from desire to grief to a meditative sense of infinitude, conveyed in a recent series of skyscapes. Araki is a Shakespeare of the camera, avid for and open to all kinds of experience. He shows that far from being a pathetic attempt to preserve unlived moments in aspic, photography can be a way of living with the utmost firstname.lastname@example.org. See www.ft.com/eyres for more columns
HARRY EYRES – The Financial Times
SLOW LANE – Copyright The Financial Times