The Sad Photographer

I think were becoming immune to photographs. Over exposure through magazines, posters and screens filled with photos has blunted the sharp thrill of seeing the world frozen into image. Ubiquity means we have built up resistance to its effects.
Photography is really a function of technology. When the technology changes, so does the meaning of photographs. In its early days, it was an event in itself: you would have to stand still for minutes wearing your Sunday best.
Now pictures are often photoshopped into perfection, we are far more mistrustful of them. Perhaps we need a new term for the medium: maybe pixelpictures - acknowledging digital technology has fundamentally altered the DNA of the medium.
Digital technology also means huge archives for every family. We’ve gone from 36 photos per roll to hundreds. The Kodak moment has been stretched into a constant torrent of self-documentation. We all shoot like pros now. It’s like a social smoker suddenly taking up chain smoking.
The ubiquity of photography and its ready transmission make me wonder why I should bother going to an actual gallery to look at some photographs. Couldn’t they just have emailed it to me instead? Maybe the Barbican wanted a piece of the controversial action when they booked the Araki show.
Araki is a Japanese photographer who has had controversy thrust upon him – unsurprisingly, as a much of his work features naked girls tied up with rope. It’s the usual tedious art/porno controversy that journalists love to think of as news. Perhaps Araki doesn’t mind too much either – after all its help propel his career. Looking like a professorial version of Keith Flint sporting nil-nil sunglasses, full of aphorisms, he’s not shy of self-promotion.
The Barbican show is a retrospective showing Arakis various subject matters: Nude girls, Tokyo, Nude Girls and Tokyo, Food, Food and Nude Girls, Flowers, Nude Girls with flowers stuck up them, Nude Girls with Nude girls, nude girls tied up. Imagine Readers Wives going on page after page, imagine the husband got bored of taking pictures of his wife and started taking pictures of his food, his pets, the sky. Imagine his wife started weeding the garden still wearing her stockings and suspenders. Imagine his wife got ill then died. Imagine he took pictures of the sky. Imagine the husband never stopped taking pictures.
He’s obsessive, pointing and clicking like a serial diarist. And it’s partly the volume that demonstrates his commitment. Images are stacked 4 up on the walls just to contain the mass of serial images. Arakis compulsive picture taking is almost all personal, his neighbourhood, his city and the people he meets. Shots of the city next to nude bodies. Flowers just about to wilt. The sky. Food that looks like cocks and tits. Plastic dinosaurs crawling over and into cunts. All the meals his wife cooked him after returning from hospital to die.
Photography is essentially documentary. A camera is really just a recording machine, with an image as output. It’s really useful when it’s got a task: documenting a childs birthday party, recording a crime scene. It’s problematic if you want to make art. The raw image itself has all kinds of meanings, which artists often use to make art with, but these meanings come out of the box along with the instruction booklet. Unlike painting or drawing, it’s difficult for the photographer to actually infiltrate the process, beyond pointing and clicking.
Despite photography’s fine-grained resolution, it falls a little flat. It can be technically stunning, but emotionally dead. You just can be Ansel Adams any more. Maybe that’s why many photographers with art aspirations invoke tropes from art – like nice lighting, controversy, and cartoon personalities.
Arakis subjects might spring from his life, but they also explore his relationship to the world as a photographer. At once using the cameras frame to isolate subjects, while simultaneously addressing issues way out of shot. Perhaps these photographs are also about the limits of what photography as a medium: how much, or how little, it can do.
Frustration at these limits seems to fuel Arakis photo-addiction. If you looked back through Arakis lens, maybe you’d see the tear streaked viewfinder of a man who can’t help himself from producing yet more dead planes of silver oxides - all the while yelping the title of the show: ‘Self!”, “Life!”, “Death!”. Behind the cameras mechanical process is a man reeling from the sheer energy of living.
Maybe Araki hates photography for what it does to life. And maybe that why he ties up all those girls. These pictures physically demonstrate what photos do - turning the endless movement of life into a still image. Perhaps violence against the medium is why he dunks transparencies in chemicals and splatters them with paint. Maybe it’s his rage against the photomachine.
Novels, poetry, painting, are all introspective processes that give shape to an external form. Photography, like other applied arts - product, graphic, and interior design are not readily suited to engage with those kinds of interior monologues. That’s what makes them great mediums to explore the meanings of the modern world. Asking these more objective, mechanised processes to do the impossible means pushing at some real boundaries. Imagine a kettle that expresses angst, a stapler that makes you think about death, a font about sex.
Perhaps Araki and his camera are struggling with the evil twin of the industrial revolutions mechanised bounty. The same wonder and fear that inspired and troubled the Luddites, William Morris, Warhol, Kraftwerk and Philip K Dick. Perversely, given his productivity, Araki seems to be asking what we want photography to do for us.

Araki: Self•Life•Death
6 Oct/05 - 22 Jan/06
Barbican Art Gallery

Posted by sam at November 10, 2005 1:37 PM

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