A friend whose opinions on art I really respect pointed me at this work a while ago. Because of that respect I’ve been thinking about it but I keep ending up in the same place. Kohei Yoshiyuki has had both gallery and museum exhibition and the work is being treated as important and serious. He spent several months befriending and becoming part of the sexual peeper groups in the parks before taking these secret photos. The infrared flash he used meant that his shooting was invisible.
There is more work at the Yossi Miho Gallery
The Yossi Miho Gallery talks about the exhibition — “For these photos, taken in Tokyo’s Shinjuku, Yoyogi, and Aoyama parks during the 1970s, Mr. Yoshiyuki used a 35mm camera, infrared film, and flash to document the people who gathered there at night for clandestine trysts, as well as the many spectators lurking in the bushes who watched—and sometimes participated in—these couplings. With their raw, snapshot-like quality, these images not only uncover the hidden sexual exploits of their subjects, both homosexual and heterosexual and also serve as a chronicle of a Japan we rarely see; as Martin Parr writes in The Photobook: A History, Volume II, The Park is “a brilliant piece of social documentation, capturing perfectly the loneliness, sadness, and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like Tokyo.”
As does the New York Times. “If the social phenomena captured in these photographs seem distinctly linked to Japanese culture, Mr. Yoshiyuki’s images of voyeurs reverberate well beyond it. Viewing his pictures means that you too are looking at activities not meant to be seen. We line up right behind the photographer, surreptitiously watching the peeping toms who are secretly watching the couples. Voyeurism is us.” There are more photos at the gallery site.
I’m appalled by the work. I usually have complex reactions to work and the questions it raises, but not this time.
This isn’t about shocking — shocking is fine if it’s interesting and or good art. Stealing photos of people who think they have personal privacy very rarely can be justified and certainly not in this case. Voyeurism is about spying when you know you shouldn’t. Clearly, it can be thrilling, but that doesn’t make it OK when you’re violating people’s non-public lives. The consequences for people if they had been recognized from these photos would have been unfortunate. There was also the potential here for violating real lives. (The work was published in book form at that time.)
I’m not talking about the quality of the art. I’m very unimpressed with the web images but I don’t know how I would react to the actual prints. But I doubt that this is that kind of remarkably good work that can make you want to re-evaluate.
I would be interested in the commentators’ reactions if these photos had been taken in parks in the US in the 1960’s or now. Would they be talking about it “being linked distinctly to US culture” with quite so much confidence? Would it be “capturing perfectly the loneliness, sadness, and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like New York?” And I wonder if they would be quite so comfortable about people being recognized.