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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Yoshiyuki Kohei


His real name is unknown. Kohei Yoshiyuki is a pseudonym for an ordinary commercial photographer who, for a brief period in the 1970s, documented a strange subterranean aspect of Tokyo culture. After a short interlude of notoriety, Yoshiyuki quietly disappeared from the art scene.

It all came about by accident. Yoshiyuki and a companion were walking through Chuo Park in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo one night when they encountered a man and woman having sex on the ground. Just as surprising, they saw two other men very near the couple, intently watching.

Yoshiyuki was fascinated by what he’d witnessed–not just the couple engaged in intercourse, but also by the voyeurism–and decided to document it. He learned of two other parks in Tokyo where lovers and voyeurs gathered. "My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was not a real ‘voyeur’ like them," he said in an interview. "But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is voyeuristic somehow. So I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer."

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Yoshiyuki doesn’t seem to have been terribly burdened by the ethical issues involved in the project; he was more troubled by the technical difficulties of shooting photographs in the darkness of the park. After some research he discovered Kodak made infrared flash bulbs. Those bulbs combined with 35mm infrared film enabled him to prowl the parks in the dark and record activities he could barely see with the naked eye.

That was also a problem. Working in the dark, it was nearly impossible to see what was in the frame. Yoshiyuki often had to guess at the image composition. The exposed film revealed more than was actually visible in the viewfinder, more than was visible to the eye. He discovered the voyeurs he captured on film not only crept close enough to see the couples having sex, they sometimes even engaged in a sort of furtive groping of the couples’ arms and legs. The voyeurs were, in fact, occasional participants.

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He photographed it all–couples by themselves, couples surrounded by onlookers, heterosexual and homosexual pairings, the voyeurs–and he did it for eight years. From 1971 to 1979 Yoshiyuki haunted the parks of Tokyo taking what critic Vince Aletti called "among the strangest photographs ever made." The photos have the gritty and grainy quality of surveillance imagery. It makes them seem more real while also injecting a sense of emotional distance between the photographer/viewer and the subjects. Despite the content of the photographs, they are distinctly non-erotic.

In 1979 Yoshiyuki’s park photographs were exhibited in a Tokyo gallery. The exhibit was as odd as the photos themselves. He had the images enlarged to nearly life size, accentuating both the realism and the graininess. The gallery itself was deliberately kept very dark; visitors were issued flashlights to find their way and to look at the photographs. The size of the photos and the darkness meant viewers were unable to see the entire image at once; they were forced to examine the image in sections. That approach radically changed the viewing experience.

Yoshiyuki’s response to the exhibit was appropriately voyeuristic. "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." The subject matter and the unique viewing approach made the exhibit a sensation.

When the exhibit closed, Yoshiyuki destroyed the large prints. The following year, 1980, many of his park photographs were published as a book entitled Document Kouen. Some of the photos were subsequently purchased by major international museums, such as MoMA in New York City and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. In critical reviews Yoshiyuki’s name was often mentioned in conjunction with other famous Japanese photographers.

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Despite his growing celebrity, the man known as Kohei Yoshiyuki essentially ceased to exist after the publication of his book. He sloughed off his pseudonym along with his fame and reportedly returned to his quiet life as a commercial photographer shooting family portraits for a major Tokyo department store. Although there was a short-lived retrospective of his work in 2006, there has been no new work from Yoshiyuki.

Three decades after they were taken, the photographs–and the manner in which they were taken–remain controversial. Although they’re not actually sexually explicit, the images retain a sort of lurid sweatiness that many viewers find rather queasy-making. They still make people uncomfortable.

It’s not that uncommon for photographers–especially street photographers–to turn the viewer into a sort of secondhand voyeur. The peeking-over-the-shoulder perspective of Yoshiyuki’s work, however, powerfully reinforces that voyeuristic feeling…a feeling further enhanced by the sad fact that there’s nothing casual about the ‘casual sex’ we see in the photographs. The sexual activity seems hurried, nervous, and anxious both on the part of the couple and the watchers. This isn’t about love, it’s about transitory lust, it’s about primitive release.

The night itself also plays a part in creating the emotional texture of the images. In some of the photographs, the lights of the city are visible in the background, and we are at least subconsciously aware that the people in these photographs have deliberately chosen the outdoor darkness for their liaisons. The nocturnal outdoor environment underlines the almost predatory approach of the voyeurs, who generally run in packs and silently stalk the couples they watch.

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Yoshiyuke, of course, wasn’t the first artist to document this sort of transgressive voyeurism. He wasn’t even the first Japanese artist to do so. There are, for example, extensive collections of ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the 18th and 19th centuries depicting voyeurism. What Yoshiyuki did was remove any filter of romanticism from the behavior.

Work of this sort inevitably raises questions. At what point does voyeurism become art? Does voyeurism necessarily have to be dissociated from an artistic pursuit? Does art justify the behavior of the photographer? By engaging in these behaviors in public–even under cover of night–do the lovers give up their expectations of privacy? Do the voyeurs give up their expectations of privacy? Do–or should–photographers have the right to infringe on that privacy in the name of art? By looking at these photographs are we, the viewers, complicit in any breach of ethics made by Yoshiyuki?

I find myself wondering if we’d ever have heard anything about the photographer who called himself Kohei Yoshiyuki had he and his friend not had that initial encounter in the park. I wonder what sorts of photography Yoshiyuki is shooting now. I wonder why he stepped so easily away from the embrace of the fine arts community. And I wonder if we’ll ever hear from him again.

I suspect not.