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When I heard that Nobuyoshi Araki was holding an exhibition in Shanghai, two things came to my mind: naked bondage girls and let’s go!

Let me back up a little. I first heard of Araki from a friend. He recommended I check out some of Araki’s nudes. I did. I saw a garden gnome in a vagina, a watermelon smashed on top of a vagina, half-naked women dangling from the ceiling, and a snail on a penis. They were the kind of photos that burn themselves into your memory. They also cemented my view of Araki as a very famous, very dirty old man. The documentary Arakimentari did little to change that view and branded my brain even further. Araki behind his massive camera, cranking the film advance and saying “oh yeah, oh yeah” as a woman spreads her legs on the floor under the set lights. Araki fluffing pubic hair. Araki doing other Araki stuff.

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Whoa. Hey, I’m not saying I’m a prude or anything. I actually really liked it! He was a celebrity, his models loved him, he had quite a personality, and who can resist that hairdo? Not I, my friends.

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So I got a book. Tokyo Lucky Hole. I got it because the cover is wonderful and it was $25. Start cheap and with a whole lot of sex. I got a disapproving glance from the storeowner, but boy was I a hit at the bar that night when I pulled it out of my shopping bag. It sometimes functions as my coffee table book, the one I show people when they come over for the first time. It takes the edge off (and really rattles the easily-offended… what fun!).

Eventually, the genius of Lucky Hole crept up on me. What it is is a tome, the bible of the 1980s Japanese Shinjuku sex parlor scene. Malcolm Gladwell (of Outliers fame) eat your heart out. Araki clearly put in more than 10,000 hours shooting the amateur prostitutes, theme bars, and seedy sex-shops of Tokyo. There are hundreds of pictures of hundreds of locations. Female sumo wrestling, subway molester bars, crucified naked dancers, and a place where you lie in a casket and a woman sits on your face (what?). He can be seen in a lot of the photos hamming it up with his slick mustache and shades, always smiling.

And he’s not the only one. Everyone seems to be having a good time, clients and girls. They’re all grinning ear-to-ear. The tone of the work is unique. It’s not the sinister, depressing expose of love for sale that one might think. Whether or not it was actually all smiles is up for debate, but you come away from the book feeling like Shinjuku was a cultural enterprise, not the twisted type of sex slavery and exploitation that exists today.

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But I can’t comment much on that. What I know, I learned from the essays in the front of the book. And I’m getting off-track.

Ah yes, back to the beginning. As you’ll recall, I said “When I heard that Nobuyoshi Araki was holding an exhibition in Shanghai, two things came to my mind: naked bondage girls and let’s go!”

What I found at the exhibition couldn’t have been further from what I knew. It shattered my perception of Araki as kooky, pervy genius and elevated him to one of my favorite photographers.

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The exhibition was entitled Sentimental Journey/Decadence in Paradise. It is a personal glimpse into some of the most emotionally-charged moments of Araki’s life: his honeymoon, the death of his wife, Yoko, the death of their cat, and more recently, the impending demolition of their house.

We got started reading Araki’s introductory letter. I found this section of the letter relevant to what I would go on to see that day:

“I cannot stand it anymore. Not because I have chronic diarrhea and a middle ear infection. I know it is just because there is a flood of fashion photography at the moment, but I cannot stand that all the faces, nudes, private lives, landscapes floating to the surface are dishonest. Sentimental Journey is much more than just any other dishonest photography. It is my love and my decision as a photographer. I am not saying that this is honest photography just because I took a photograph of my honeymoon. I take love as my starting point as a photographer…”

It’s a bit long and rambling, and somewhat of an extreme stance, calling most photography dishonest. To be honest, it was a little off-putting. This exhibition better be good, I thought.

And it was. Araki wasn’t bluffing. The honeymoon photos fit the bill of love and sentimentality, but what really gripped me were the saddest of the bunch. This one for example:

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Taken of his cat as it is dying, this illustrates the kind of personal love and loss that Araki sought to capture. Taken side-by-side with what Araki would call the flood of dishonest photography, I think you can see what he’s getting at in his letter. This is the stuff of real life. I’d venture to guess I wouldn’t have the courage to take these photos. When my dog died, I couldn’t even be in the same room with him. You have to have a different kind of connection with both life and photography to go beyond the models, landscapes, still lifes and street photography, and click the shutter on these moments of joy and heartbreak.

Another series of photos takes place during the last stages of his wife’s illness. You walk down the aisle of the gallery watching as Yoko gets sick and dies.  Towards the end you see a man wheeling a gurney down the hallway of a hospital. The next photos are of a park, a ferris wheel, and an apartment block. These seemingly innocuous photos are suffused with sadness only an honest, deep personal loss can bestow.

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I’ve never been so emotionally rocked by a series of photos.

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I bought the book. This time I wasn’t showing it to my friends and snickering. It’s great, and for a reason so divorced from the greatness of Tokyo Lucky Hole that you might wonder if the works were produced by different people.

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I now have a different perspective on Araki. The hype surrounding his controversial nudes is well-deserved, but the bondage and the sex are only the tip of the iceberg.

Sentimental Journey made me reconsider the how and why of my approach to photography. Why do I post mainly pictures of places I stumble upon? People I don’t know? Why do I not take more photos of the people and things that are important to me? Am I trying too much to fit into a mold to catch an audience? I have a lot to consider post-Sentimental Journey.

In the meantime, I recommend you Araki, provocateur, genius, most human of photographers. These last two paragraphs from the exhibition say it better than I can.

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