I flew for 12 hours for him, not knowing whether this was going to be an exciting or a humiliating experience. V Magazine had sent me all the way to Tokyo, to his universe, for a photo shoot. We all knew that clothes were going to be incidental and that the outcome was not going to be “nice” or “commercial.” Not with Nobuyoshi Araki.
I got to the studio before him. For the very first time in my career, I felt the need to have a drink before the shoot. I should have asked for vodka, but I didn’t dare, nor did I wish to seem insecure, so I settled for red wine. I drank and smoked my way through make-up and hairstyling, constantly thinking about his reputation and feeling like I was an offering to a three-eyed ogre.
I had discovered him six months earlier in Arakimentary, a documentary about his work and obsessions. In one scene, the clownish-looking photographer giggles at a woman hanging naked from the ceiling, wrapped in rope. In another, a young woman poses in front of him, her kimono half open above her pelvis, revealing a thick, black bush. Araki jokes, smiles appeasingly, then stops, looking disgruntled. He walks calmly towards her, bends over and starts styling her pubic hair with his own fingers, like a smitten hairstylist. He takes his time; his motions are calm and confident, straightforward and incredibly erotic. Happy with the new “hairdo,” he returns behind the tripod and starts shooting again.
That’s how my fascination with Araki started, at the time still mixed with fear and a large dose of Icantfuckingbelievehedidthat. I discovered a resourceful artist, author of hundreds of books published throughout a career that began in the ’60s: images of a Tokyo whose backstreets vibrate with the everyday gestures of people living at a pace that is unfamiliar to us, close-ups of genitalia – explicit or concealed by paint smudges or scratches – portraits, stills of naked women looking straight into the lens. I was intrigued by his apparent misogyny and by the power he seemed to have over these women who allowed themselves to be tied up, subdued, exposed; by his superstar status, worshiped by a seemingly traditional Japan; by his naughty boyish appearance, the self -proclaimed “genius” who doesn’t have the patience to wait until others call him that.
When V Magazine came up with the idea of my being photographed by him, I accepted in the blink of an eye.
Araki comes to the studio holding his most recently published book. He gives it to me, after signing it, like a proud cat that had just caught a mouse for me. I’m trying to look unimpressed, but I’m shaking and sweating in disbelief. Araki is short, with tufts of ruffled hair on both sides of his half-bald head. He looks as if he had that moustache since birth, setting him apart, as it did for Hitler or Dali. He is wearing John Lennon glasses, just a little smaller and odder, jeans with red suspenders, a white T-shirt, golden pointy shoes and girly socks, white with red cuffs. He doesn’t speak English and gestures excessively, often to his own fly. His eyes are at times reassuring, at times demonic. He behaves like a child and laughs loudly at his own jokes.
I get in front of the camera and we face each other, somewhat embarrassed. Except for a few colored spotlights, the studio is empty. My first outfit is black lace underwear and a man’s jacket. Both of us have performed this ritual dozens, if not hundreds of times before, yet we are still uneasy. He’s more in control than I am; the cat who had just given me a mouse is now grinning under his moustache, ready for a new challenge. I’m trying to hold his gaze and I’m grinning back. He caresses the tripod, takes my hand and looks deep into my eyes: “You woman. Me man. No photographer. This… just paradise.”
I think he’s trying to tell me that everything is going to be all right. He introduces me to some guy, a “bondage expert.” I wonder how someone becomes a specialist in rope binding, what does his résumé say, where did he study? To begin with, the guy ties my wrists and ankles together. I’m immobilized on the floor, and the only thing I can think of is my panty line, and whether everything is decent. I blow at the falling hair strands that tickle my face. The expert circles me like a concerned artist admiring his work. I tell him that my name is Diana and I give him a “nice to meet you, now that you tied me up so securely” smile. He smiles back respectfully, but without much interest, concerned only by his piece of rope, as if it too should be a character in this scene. My ego is hurt: “I think you should tighten the ropes,” I tell him bitterly. “It would be better if I felt I couldn’t move at all.” I don’t know if he understands. He tightens the last knot and leaves me. Master Araki approves, the expert bows before me, and then walks away without a word.
Araki works super-fast. From time to time, he approaches and tells me a joke in Jenglish, gesturing excessively. He measures the light on my buttocks, he musses my hair. He yells at the hairdresser who tries to rearrange my hair in a clean, fashionable style. He tightens the ropes around my arms and breasts. I feel his piercing gaze pulling at my underwear, silently asking me if I want to take them off. I shake my head. He shrugs, smiles, kisses my hand, and returns to his camera. I ask for another glass of wine.
After the first shot and another glass of wine, I start feeling at ease, and we find our rhythm, like two lovers after the awkwardness of the first kiss.
Suddenly, I understand what he’s telling me. He becomes more affectionate and keeps his eyes on me the whole time. He’s playing, he pretends to press the shutter button, and then stops, dances wildly around the tripod only to start all over again, yells, gets excited. I give in, only to pull back; he encourages me whenever he senses I’m insecure, he invites me to trust him. He seems pleased when I’m furiously pulling at the ropes, and even more pleased when I give up. I don’t know who’s the seducer and who the seduced. It’s a game we both play, a game about acceptance and trust which makes me forget the obsession with perfection, fashion, my body, and the clothes covering it.
We shoot four pictures. We finish sooner then I had hoped, only a few hours later. Overwhelmed, I get dressed. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been in a studio, nor in a man’s bed.
For a long time, I thought that his photographs gave the impression that he slept with all those thousands of women he photographed; in interviews he claims he did. I don’t know how much of it is true and how much just cockiness. However, in a way, he is right: our relationship was that of a woman and a man, not that of a model and a photographer. That “you woman, me man” was our safe word that I didn’t need to use. We had, as he likes to call it, a “ménage-à-trois” – me, him, and his camera. Those photos sealed our intimacy, now sentenced to a lifetime on paper. I became one of his many women subjects; he, the most unusual imaginary lover I have ever had.
I know that he loved Yoko, his wife whom he photographed during their honeymoon, in the middle of an orgasm, lying absent-minded in bed, naked or dressed, holding the cat, an orchid between her legs, love in her eyes, lost in her thoughts away from him, or sleeping like a baby after making love. He photographed her in the hospital before she died. He took her funeral picture; he photographed her absence from the places they visited together and her bones after the incineration.
I was, and still am, jealous.
The book he gave me back then shows photographs of tied-up, naked women, a world in black and white that he later colored softly. “I have sex to take good pictures,” Araki said during an interview. “My photographs of nudes and landscapes turn me on. I play with the words lust and color – they are both represented by the same Japanese kanji.” I’m fascinated by how beautifully Araki speaks of his art. He does it tenderly and impudently and I think he loves in the same way.
I wish I had taken my panties off.
Diana Dondoe lives in Paris, smokes and owns a cat. She also has about 55 pairs of shoes – sneakers and boots notwithstanding – and a habit of cutting her T-shirts’ collar to make them more comfortable.
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