NOBUYOSHI ARAKI: I don’t know you that well. I know who you are, but readers don’t know much about you. Why don’t you tell them about yourself? I’m sure they would like to know when you were born, for instance. How old are you? What interests you? What kind of work are you doing? I’ll bet you’re not in your twenties.
KOHEI YOSHIYUKI: I was born in 1946.
NA: As the genius of photography, I’d like to introduce Yoshiyuki Kohei to our readers. You created a huge sensation by taking voyeuristic photographs of people having sex, and of voyeurs – peepers – watching people having sex, with infrared film. A lot of people made a lot of noise about them, but my critique consisted of exactly one line: “These are what I call photographs” (laughter). After that we met and chatted now and then, but I haven’t seen you for quite a while. Recently I received an invitation to your solo show. I couldn’t go because I was busy, but I mentioned it to the editor of Weekend Super, and heard later that he went to see it. When I asked him about it, he said he liked the way the photographs were exhibited.
KY: I turned out all the lights in the space, and gave each visitor a flashlight. That way I was reconstructing the original settings. I also blew the photos up to life size.
NA: You recreated the original settings. I didn’t get to the exhibition, so I don’t know exactly what you mean. Viewers went into a dark room with a flashlight and looked at the photographs? But that way, you can only see part of them.
KY: Yes, that’s how I wanted them to be viewed. I wanted people to look at the bodies in the photographs an inch at a time. But this is an uneasy situation. When it’s completely dark, the whole photograph is illuminated, but the viewer looks at it section by section. My original concept involved a corridor where points of light would be focused on the photographs. Viewers would look at them slowly … carefully.
NA: I see what you mean.
KY: They might even touch the photos. That’s how I wanted to exhibit them. But then I realized that viewers would suffer if I forced them to look at the photographs in that way. So, that time I just used a board as a partition in the middle of the space.
NA: I didn’t see the photographs, but that sounds interesting. And I think people could see what you were aiming for. But you’re focusing too much on how you show them. Five years ago, you wanted to exhibit them in a certain way, and the idea implanted itself in your brain until it became sort of an obsession. It’s like coming into some money and deciding to buy a nice gift for a girl you had a crush on long ago.
KY: Yeah, I guess you could say that.
NA: And it’s how you’d feel when the girl said, “Oh no, nobody does that anymore,” isn’t it?
KY: In a way.
NA: The photographs are definitely good, so maybe you should have exhibited them more straightforwardly. They are powerful enough to thrill anyone who comes to see them. The type of exhibition you’re talking about reminds me of a woman trapped in a bad relationship.
KY: I really enjoyed watching people looking at the photographs. Since the points of light were also their lines of sight, I saw things that were totally unexpected.
NA: That kind of thing was the mainstream in contemporary art not too long ago. If you asked me, I’d say go back to simple ways of exhibiting photographs. I’d tell fine artists to return to oil paintings and photographers to return to photographs.
KY: But your activities have a conceptual aspect to them.
NA: Yes, but when you exhibit photographs, you have to do it with conviction. And I heard you didn’t issue many invitations. That was a bad idea. It’s a shame you didn’t make a really spectacular gesture.
KY: I’m a coward.
NA: Cowards don’t go around spying on people and photographing them having sex. What was your motivation?
KY: It had never occurred to me to take that kind of photograph. I knew about peeping, though, and then one day I stumbled onto a scene – an incredible scene (laughter). That was when I was still an amateur. At that time, there weren’t many skyscrapers in front of Chuo Park in Shinjuku. There was a model apartment in one of them. I was walking behind it with a friend (we had just finished a shoot), when we saw something amazing!
NA: “Something.” I like your choice of words.
KY: Yes! I was shocked. They were actually fucking.
NA: They were?
KY: Yes. When I saw them, I knew this was something I had to photograph.
NA: You didn’t right then?
KY: I had my camera, but it was dark. After that I did some research. I found out that Toshiba made flashbulbs – infrared flashbulbs. Before I had a chance to use more than a few of them, they were discontinued. Then I looked around for filters, and ended up using two tricolor separation filters. After a while I heard that Kodak had some flashbulbs, so I used them. At that time, infrared flash units didn’t exist. Sunpak came out with them after I took these photos.
NA: So they’re making them now?
KY: Yes. Anybody can take photographs like these.
NA: Wow! Guess I won’t be able to have sex in dark places anymore. Are the people you photograph totally unaware of what’s going on? I’ve never used equipment like that, so I have no idea.
KY: The light flashes – a red light. I’d better not say any more (laughter).
NA: Like the lights on a passing car, from the subjects’ point of view?
KY: That’s right. Anyway, they’re so engrossed in what they’re doing that even a lot of light shouldn’t faze them.
NA: Let’s have a look at the photos. Yeah, these are amazing! Because they’re really fucking. Look at him giving it to her! You need a lot of nerve to take photographs like these. Mine are so pseudo-documentaries, so everything is staged (laughter). These days it’s the women who are aggressive. At Shinjuku Gyoen, for instance, the women are on top.
KY: I saw that sometimes, too. But I can’t photograph that. If the guy’s on the bottom, he’ll notice the camera.
NA: Look at this one!
KY: This is the real thing, too. But the guy was hopeless. He couldn’t get it up. The ambience made him self-conscious, I guess. I was right near them, listening and thinking he’d get it together. But then he said, “It’s no good” (laughter).
NA: The wonderful thing about this photograph is that it shows the peeper. It’s a self-portrait. It shows your shadow. I really like that. It’s probably strange to talk about photography theory in a context like this, but this is what a photograph is supposed to be. Oh, look, the peeper is touching her. He’s assisting. Wasn’t it hard to shoot these photographs?
KY: Well, it’s harder to photograph the peepers. But at that time, nobody ever dreamed they’d be photographed. I had a tiny camera with a flash attachment. I think it would be almost impossible to do that now.
NA: But you could do it openly, couldn’t you? Just grab one shot with your flash, and then run.
KY: I guess so. Maybe that’s the way to do it.
NA: Then you get different reactions. Maybe the peepers would be more upset at you than the couples for spoiling their fun, and start chasing you. Then you’d photograph their reaction.
KY: Maybe if I took sequential photographs. Wonder what would happen if I yelled out to them while they’re doing it, then took a flash photo.
NA: That’s an excellent idea. What I’ve been doing is taking photographs at night with a small flash, declaring, “These lightscapes are obscene!” It’s fun when you have only seconds to get a shot, and the reaction is very clear.
KY: Yes, it is fun.
NA: Maybe everybody will be doing it this summer, once word about the Sunpak flash-unit spreads.
KY: I heard the company got a lot of inquiries after my show.
NA: Uh, oh!
KY: Yeah. I won’t be able to do my work (laughter).
NA: You mean nobody has ever come after you when you took photos like this?
NA: Wow! Maybe you’re a Ninja.
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