The artistic cross-fertilization between Japan and the United States is a well-known phenomenon that originated with Japan’s opening of their ports in 1854, and the following unprecedented trade that began between the two nations. Along with the reciprocal appreciation of each country’s respective graphic art and objects, resulting in such styles as Japonisme, came also the mutual awakening of differing notions in regard to their respective sexual traditions. Japan started orienting itself towards the modernised Western world, consequentially adapting westernised attitudes towards morality, and inhibiting its own century-long erotic tradition. The West on the other hand discovered Japan as a new exotic land and one whose unrestrained sexual culture remained for many years as the object of artistic and literary phantasies.

Despite the drastic changes to the relationship between the two hemispheres in the 1930’s and 40’s, the mutual fascination that was discovered between their respective creative outputs has generated extraordinary cross-cultural references that are still being explored today. It is perhaps somewhat unsurprising then that two of the greatest Japanese photographers of the 20th century, featured in the exhibition Araki | Moriyama: A History of Seduction, are closely linked to two of the greatest American writers of the same century, namely Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. Despite the fact that Nobuyoshi Araki apparently never read any of the latter author’s novels, he is often referred to as “the Henry Miller of photography” in the academic discourse that surrounds his work. In contrast, Daido Moriyama directly credits Kerouac’s On the Road as one of the main influences on his photography, to the point where he dedicated one of his most famous photobooks, Karyudo (Hunter), to the American author.

However, long before the two photographers were drawn to American literature as a source of inspiration, the aforementioned authors looked to the East for their artistic guidance: Miller’s later work was largely influenced by the style of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, as well as by his marriage to his fifth and final wife, a young Japanese woman named Hoki Tokuda. On the other hand, Kerouac, who belonged to a younger generation than Miller, channelled his passion for Japanese culture in general, and Zen Buddhism in particular, into his novel The Dharma Bums. We are thus witnessing an on-going reflexive game of artistic ping pong between East and West.

Similarities between the work of Miller and Araki is especially strong regarding their controversial receptions. The name Henry Miller is nowadays a quasi-synonym of a sexually explicit, and at the same time not-fully-accepted, artist. Likewise, though Araki has drawn a large amount of interest from an international audience, relatively little scholarly work has been done in comparison to his considerable creative output. The reason for this is the short-sightedness with which their respective oeuvres are approached. While both rely quite heavily on sexual content, the analogies of their works reach beyond mere sexuality. As one notices in ARTUNER‘s A History of Seduction exhibition, Araki did not limit his imagery to that of bondage, but produced beautiful still life, city and landscape photographs as well. Miller too is only renowned for a small proportion of his corpus; books such as Opus Pistorum, Sexus and Quiet Days in Clichy, which still stir up controversy today, overshadow his spiritual, surrealist and even Dadaist early writings produced in the 1930’s. That sex plays a central role in both of their works should, however, not be disregarded. In response to the accusations of obscenity, is the famous saying of D.H. Lawrence, “What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another”, which should serve as a response to either of the artists’ work.[1]

A silver gelatin print  by Nobuyoshi Araki, titled Sentimental Journey from circa 1971

It is fascinating to see the close parallels by which both Miller and Araki veil the autobiography in their work with fiction and lies. In each case it appears as if the truth is better understood through a lie, and they magnificently demonstrate how the lie is a more suitable artistic carrier for the absolute truth than the truth itself could ever be. Araki carries this logic also into the realm of literature, by composing diary-style novels such as I-Novel, Pseudo Diary, and the many texts accompanying his photographic books which number close to 500 at the time of writing.

Moriyama first encountered Kerouac’s On the Road while he was working as a photography assistant (just prior to becoming a freelance photographer) in his mid-twenties. Values such as chance encounters, constant transition and, what the main character in Kerouac’s novel refers to as having “seen” the road, immediately became central to the Japanese photographer’s work. Shortly after reading Kerouac, Moriyama shot a landscape series out of moving cars. The story was later covered in the famous Mainichi Camera magazine under the relatively unambiguous name, ‘On the Road’. “In On The Road each phrase is like one cannon shot,” Moriyama told the paper at the time. “The narrative is always moving, always looking at different things at the same time.” Some twenty years later he applied the shooting metaphor to his own work too, stating that he was snapping photographs like the quick-fire of a machine gun. The career-altering photograph of Stray Dog brought Moriyama even closer to the essence of the American novel. Like both the canine, and Kerouac, the photographer put the journey at the centre of his work with wandering as their shared way to explore the world.

Kerouac famously wrote On the Road on a continuous roll of paper, without the formality of having to stop in order to prepare a new page to be written on. The same smooth, uninterrupted style is also notable in Moriyama’s street photography. Images that are dozens of years apart often seem to have been shot, not only on the same roll of film, but even in the same afternoon. It is in this manner that the master of Japanese street photography pursued the documentation of his own, personal vision of the urban life on the Nipponese island. This is most often compared to Robert Frank’s quixotic project of capturing more than just the documentary veracity of America in the photobook The Americans, whose foreword was written by no-one else but… Jack Kerouac.

This is just the last of many examples of how successfully the circle between East and West, between photography and literature and between America and Japan closes itself, always circling around and returning, with ever more fruitful mutual inspirations.

Bibliography:

Johan Kugelberg, ‘Daido Moriyama, a photograph is the result of a momentary thought’, in Brad Pitt’s Dog: Essays on Fame, Death, Punk, 2012

Katrin Burtschell, Nobuyoshi Araki und Henry Miller – eine japanisch-amerikanische Analogie: Ein interdisziplinärer Ansatz über Absicht und Wirkung des Obszönen in Kunst und Literatur, 2009


[1] Lawrence, D.H.: Pornography and obscenity. In: Sex, Literature and Censorship (New York, 1953), pp. 195