‘The X-ray is one of several 19th century inventions that were paired with photography and led to a new conception of the camera as being not a tool for recording what we see, but a means for capturing what we can’t see. Telescopes and microscopes were also part of this shift in understanding. The relationship between seeing and knowing was becoming more complicated and the uptake of these technologies heralded a growing awareness of there being a lot more in the physical world than our senses could detect on their own.
‘The images in Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series Koen (‘The Park’) also push the boundaries of visibility and human perception. They activate our vision where it usually fails – in the dark. Yoshiyuki obtained them by taking his camera on vespertine prowls of Tokyo’s public parks in 1971 and 1979, furtively capturing on film the Peeping Toms he found watching people engaged in sexual acts. Using infrared sensitive film and filtered flash bulbs, the amateur photographer was able to grant himself a gaze that penetrated straight through the very darkness that made him invisible to everybody else there. The levels of complicity, performativity and victimisation on the part of the subjects remain ambiguous – we know we are seeing something we are not permitted to see, but we have the sense that the amorous subjects audacious or desperate enough to have sex in these places must have been aware of the possibility of becoming visible.
‘Of course, there’s nothing especially Japanese about bonking in public parks. But in their localised context the photographs underline the limits of privacy in Tokyo in the 1970s. After WWII the Love Hotel phenomena had flourished in Japan, allowing couples to rent rooms for ‘resting’, charged by the hour. And even before these short stay hotels, sex in urban Japan had often been removed from the private home – where typically very little personal space was possible – and assigned to semi-public chaya ‘tearooms’. Many 18th and 19th century ukiyo-e woodblock prints survive depicting a third party casually watching copulating couples in such venues, so Yoshiyuki’s series can be situated in a historical thread of artists recording or imagining voyeurism as their primary subject.
‘Blown up and printed at life-size, Yoshiuki’s photographs were shown in 1979 at Komai Gallery in Tokyo where the lights were turned off and visitors were instructed to navigate the space with hand-held torches. The prints were destroyed after the exhibition, but the photographs were published in a book in 1980 before Yoshiyuki (a pseudonym, his real name remains unknown) set up shop as a family portrait photographer and vanished into obscurity. In 2006 Martin Parr’s publication The Photobook: A History included Yoshiyuki as an unknown innovator, prompting Yossi Milo Gallery in New York to track down the reclusive artist and convince him to reprint the remaining negatives.
‘The photographer’s sudden destruction of the prints and abandonment of the project suggests contention might have arisen over him showing the potentially incriminating photographs that had been so clandestinely taken, very recently, in the same city. We now have a safety barrier of more than three decades between us and the images, but their capacity to involve us prevails. It is when the figures have their backs to us and evade being identified themselves that we are most heavily implicated, no matter how much distance in space and time we have secured. As with Caspar David Friedrich’s rückenfigurs (and their modern manifestations in the surrogate bodies seen from behind in video games), we are forced to enter the image because we are facing the same thing as the depicted figure in front of us.
‘Looking at the Koen series induces an uneasiness that has something to do with seeing the seer looking while seeing ourselves being seen looking. Paintings depicting the Biblical story of Susanna and The Elders, where an innocent woman bathing in a garden falls victim to exploitative male desire, can have a similar effect. The scene was depicted by the likes of Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Tintoretto and Gentileschi – its popularity being easily attributed to the justification it offered for a prominent fully exposed female nude, sanctioned under the category of ‘historic painting’. While a sanctimonious position is superficially implied for the viewer, we can’t condemn the invasive gaze of The Elders without indulging in moral hypocrisy, knowing that we ourselves have gone on to perpetuate the same gaze so prolifically.
‘When we move from painting to photography the image’s capacity for implication is even stronger, because the photograph asserts that its subject at some point existed physically before the camera’s lens. It is a curious feature of the history of photography that long after the daguerreotype was superseded by cheaper and more efficient techniques, pornographic daguerreotypes continued to be produced and sold. The photo historian Geoffrey Batchen has linked this to the status of the daguerreotype as a tactile, hand-held, unique and non-reproducible object. The private act of opening the lined daguerreotype case (as with the nominally ‘sealed’ section of a men’s magazine, sealed only from those incapable of tearing the edge of a page) must have been part of the ritualised process of stimulation. The extremely long exposure time that the sexy daguerreotype image was known to have required could also have invested it with a sense of intimacy that enhanced its eroticism.
‘In contrast, these gritty candid images suggest anthropological distance on the part of the photographer. Whether we like it or not we are lined up right behind Yoshiyuki in the chain of voyeurism, while in many of the images (the most interesting ones, I think) the final object of vision (the erotic act) cannot be seen. They are hardly suitable masturbation material: we are granted proximity while being denied any illusion of intimacy. Rather than removing traces of the photographer and the photographic process to suggest we are seeing directly, they make us intensely aware of the photographer and his precarious position. In this sense they are less photographs about sex, and more photographs about photography (the word means literally ‘writing with light’ but the invention was nearly named skiagraphy, ‘writing with shadow’). These images make visible what is supposed to invisible to us – sex, yes, but also, more compellingly, darkness itself.’ — Amelia Groom
Kohei Yoshiyuki @ Wikipedia
KY @ Yossi Milo Gallery
Book: ‘The Park’, by Vince Aletti
‘SUNDAY SALON: Yoshiyuki Kohei’
‘Anton Corbijn on Kohei Yoshiyuki’s ‘The Park’’
Book’ ‘Document Park’
‘Park life: how photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki caught voyeurs in the act’
Kohei Yoshiyuki-The Park
Il Voyeurismo di Kohei Yoshiyuki
“The Park”, Kohei Yoshiyuki
Fisheye: How did you end up photographing voyeurs in action?
Kohei Yoshiyuki: At the time I was looking for subjects to photograph, including dragging in busy neighborhoods. I was witnessing scenes of fights or aggression, but that did not interest me. The park was not far from where I lived and when I discovered these nocturnal scenes, I found it fascinating. What really appealed to me was the radical transformation of the park, the contrast between day and night. A place for children and families the day becomes a playground for couples and voyeurs at night, it’s another world!
Do you know why these couples ended up in the park to make love? Is this still the case today?
I took most of the photographs in this series at Shinjuku Central Park (Editor’s note: a central district of Tokyo). At the time it was a brand new park, probably open at the end of the 1960s. It was very central in the neighborhood, making it a good place to go after a dinner or movie for couples who were starting to go out together. Seeing other couples in action seemed to excite them, and since they were mostly young couples, we can assume that they could not afford to have an affair at the hotel.
I did not go back to the park after posting these pictures, so I do not know what’s going on right now at night. But today it would probably not be possible to take the same shots, people might be more careful.
How did you manage to penetrate this universe to take pictures?
It took me six months to be accepted and considered a member of this voyeur community. During this period, I learned the technique to approach couples. I also let the matters take a look at the device I kept in my bag. I needed them to ignore my material and say, “He’s just a voyeur like the others, but he has a camera. The most difficult thing has always been to approach subjects gently. If a couple or a voyeur began to pay attention to my presence, it became impossible to take a picture.
Did you consider yourself a voyeur?
I was never sexually excited, but I was excited to be there and take pictures. I think voyeurism is part of the photographic act.
Did couples know they were watching? How did they react, especially when voyeurs began to touch them?
I think couples had heard about the existence of voyeurs in the parks but, presumably, they never thought they would be observed. The voyeurs always approached slowly in the back of the man and tried to give the impression to the woman that it was her boyfriend who was touching her. The women never noticed that they were touched by a voyeur. But sometimes, after starting to caress the body of a woman, the voyeur became less careful and the situation was racing. In this case, it happens that the man becomes suspicious and surprises the voyeur who then left the place immediately. After understanding what had happened to them, the couples were shocked.
What material did you use for shooting?
The camera was a Canon 7 with interchangeable lenses with an integrated selenium light meter for measuring light, so similar to a compact camera. I used a high-speed infrared film and an additional strobe flash with a dark red filter. For the draw of the negatives, I used a liquid usually used for the development of X-ray images. In appearance, all that is a bad combination but it worked very well.
In the park, we were in complete darkness and I was not able to see well. I had to evaluate the shooting angles and distances in the dark, many shots were taken without looking in the viewfinder.
Have you been inspired by other photographers?
No. I just wanted to photograph these situations and I did it my way. I imagine you have the name Weegee in mind, but it was only after the exhibition at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York in 2007 that I learned that Weegee also used infrared film.
The first time you exposed your shots, you had the idea of an original staging (reused several times later) that turned viewers into voyeurs. How did the public react?
I first published some of this work in a Japanese weekly in 1972. I then worked as a photographer for a news agency for several years. When I left this job to become a freelancer, I had the opportunity to do an exposition. It was in 1979 in a contemporary art gallery. The gallery was in a basement without a window. The spectators were thus in the dark in the face of large-format prints, almost human-sized, and everyone had to illuminate my photos with a flashlight. This idea of scenography came to me right after the shots. The reaction of the public was very good, except for one person who called the police believing they had seen scenes of crimes. Two inspectors came to the gallery, but they did not report anything. After this exhibition, I decided to publish a book with these photos. In the meantime, I had learned of another park in which homosexuals congregated. I photographed them in 1979 to add these images to the series and finalize the book. Shortly after the publication, I heard that a voyeur had boasted about being on one of my photos.
According to the British photographer Martin Parr, your work is “a brilliant documentary work that perfectly captures the solitude, the sadness and the despair that so often accompanies human relationships and sexual relations in major metropolises like Tokyo.” What do you think of his analysis?
I appreciate Martin Parr’s comment. I consider it to be documentary photography, and I am very happy that my work has been broadcast and well received. I hope my photos will also be seen in Japan. Unfortunately, I do not hear much interesting about my work in this country.
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. He has semi-backed down, gambling that a temporary stay on the fuel tax is enough, but, at least in statements, the yellow vests are not satisfied and more big protests are scheduled for this coming Saturday. Either the turn-out will be down, and the protests kept benign-ish by the police, or it’s going to be total hell. Hard to tell yet. How refreshing to see a piece about literary hoaxes that doesn’t, at first glance at least, talk about you-know-who. Thanks! I’ll read it in a bit. ** Chris Cochrane, Chris, comrade, buddy, hello! Vibrant is a good word. As I told David, it’s a bit of backing down, which is really quite big for him since he has been very arrogant about not backing down, until now, but I’m not sure if it’s enough. We’ll know on Saturday. Yes, Zac and I will come to NYC with PGL. Ideally there’ll be a bit of a run of the film, but we’ll be there for the debut event if nothing else. Don’t know when or where that’ll be yet. Yes super great about the Dance Magazine thing! That was awesome! I don’t suppose there’s been any talk or progress re: further performances? I’ve heard zip. Wow, that is one crazy killer set list! And you’re leading off with Pollard which means you are a god in my book for all eternity, although, truth be told, you were already. Yay! Really good set list. I would love to hear what you do with ‘Crest’. Just saw that Stereolab might start playing live again, which is exciting. Steve Hackett solo! Dude you really must record that thing. I mean, really seriously. I’m so broken that I can’t be there. The 60th is scarier as a concept than it proves to be in the day-to-day, in my experience. The gif fiction construction is pretty particular. There is a resemblance to my writing, especially around the ‘Marbled Swarm’ time, but there’s a weird combo of great freedom and lack of guidance plus strict, repressive action that’s not like anything else, which is partly why I keep loving to make them. Just made a new one that I think might be my best yet that’ll be up here this weekend. Enjoy the rehearsals, and, ideally, we’ll get to chat before the big gig and b’day. Tons of love to you, sir! ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Thus far, in Paris, the protests are only on Saturdays, so it’s been normal around here this week. As I told others above, it’s hard to tell what effect Macron’s give will have. I would think it will take some of the ferocity out of the protests, but people are both very pissed and feeling quite empowered, so it’s a wait and see until the weekend. I think, ideally, there’ll be new some kind of limited run of PGL in NYC, but I don’t know what thew latest is yet. News, of course, when I do. Thank you! ** _Black_Acrylic, Ah, so that’s who won the Turner. I don’t know that work at all. I’ll go watch the Tate film to start with, thanks! Excellent about the great final class and the feedback! Do you feel like you’re ready to keep writing on your own without the prompts of the classes? Nice title. ** Keataunika, Hey. Wow, I’m going to need to read and parse your first sentences once I start my second cup of coffee because I’ve started this in a fog, but I like it. I felt some Ronell in there, I did. Being a babe magnet is every boy’s dream. I think I used to wish I was at some point. Hm, I think I must’ve. Ha ha, I know the monologue of which you speak, what were the odds?! Rock the sunlight. ** Okay. Maybe I’m crazy but I think that a bunch of you might like the show that’s my gallery today. No? See you tomorrow.