Nobuyoshi Araki's "Theater of Love" Reimagines the Photobook Experience

In the Realm of the Lenses

We see countless images every day on our smartphone and computer screens, scrolling through these pictures quickly and easily by simply swiping our fingers. Despite our finger work, dealing with photos on a screen lacks a physical immediacy. Even when looking at physical prints in a museum or gallery the photos exist to be seen and not touched. There might even be glass covering the print, another type of screen separating us from the image. Photobooks offer us a more personal experience with the images they contain within. We can physically handle the book and flip through its photos. Case Publishing’s 2017 reprint of Nobuyoshi Araki’s “Theater of Love” (designed by Yoshihisa Tanaka) goes a step further and attempts to give the viewer the experience of handling photographic prints.

This edition of “Theater of Love” is not printed like a normal photobook. For one, it is postcard-sized and comes inside of a box that is designed to be a replica of a Fuji photographic paper box from the 1960’s. After lifting the lid off of the box you will find what appears to be a stack of black-and-white photographic prints inside. The photos are loosely bound at the top edge and given some context in the form of a short note from Araki written in Japanese. The reverse side of the note includes an English translation of Araki’s text by John Sypal:

“I found a small photo paper box labeled ‘Theater of Love’ in my archives. I opened it to find about 150 prints; they must have been from around ’65. Back then I used to snap away with my Olympus Pen F, making these irresponsible patchy prints from negatives I haphazardly developed in hot water – all on purpose. Myself back then, the women, the places in these pictures – that era – everything’s expressed right here.
It looks like I said things like ‘Theater of Love’ in those days. Well, anyway, it’s pretty good. They’re good photos. Digital photography can’t work this way.”

Flipping through these photos feels like handling a stack of printed photos rather than a typical photobook. “Theater of Love” lacks a traditional book cover; the only cover is the lid to the box. The pages of the book are the postcard-sized photos themselves printed on thick paper stock. Due to the photos being bound at the top edge you flip through the photos vertically rather than horizontally as with most bound books. All these aspects add up to an experience that mimics Araki’s rediscovery of his old prints.

As for the photos themselves, they are in the diaristic mode that Araki has been shooting in his whole life. The pictures feature a multitude of subjects including women, street scenes, the sky, statues, and food as with most of Araki’s work. Combined with the presentation we get a sense of what visually interested Araki around 1965 (which is very much the same as to what seems to visually interest him now). All subjects are equal in front of his camera’s lens with a focus on sex, life, and death. A photo of a ceiling lamp is preceded by one of a couple in bed and followed by a picture of a street with a Japanese funeral car. Throughout the book, seemingly unrelated images share a connection through being a part of life and Araki’s vision.

While his subjects and interests have remained the same, Araki has constantly experimented technically with his photos. The photos in “Theater of Love” are no exception. They are heavier in contrast and grain than Araki’s current black-and-white work, a consequence of Araki’s shooting on half-frame and experimentation with development temperature alongside other developing and printing techniques. Some of the prints are of frames taken at the start of the film roll that are partially cut off. Others show signs of reticulation, bubbling, and cracking due to development at high temperatures. A half-frame camera, as the name suggests, captures negatives that are half the size of a typical 35mm film frame (and have an increased appearance of grain as a result). This effectively doubles the number of photos you are able to take; for example, a 36-exposure roll can take 72 half-frame exposures. A half-frame camera seems perfectly suited for the type of diaristic photos in “Theater of Love” as it gives one the capability of shooting many more frames. Araki, who constantly shoots anything and everything, took full advantage.

Like most half-frame cameras, the Olympus Pen F that Araki used for the photos in “Theater of Love” shoots in portrait orientation when holding the camera to the eye normally (horizontally). Most of the photos in “Theater of Love” were shot in landscape orientation and are printed as such. Many of the photos shot in portrait orientation, however, are printed displaying multiple frames on one page/print. Sometimes these are printed as diptychs with two vertical photos but others are printed with one centered vertical photo and two cropped frames on either side. These show parts of the photos taken before and after the frame in the center. Even some of the photos shot in landscape orientation are printed this way as well. Seeing multiple frames in this fashion adds to the feeling that the photos in “Theater of Love” are just a momentary glimpse into the everyday vision of Araki at the time. We are reminded that there were countless photos taken before and after those that we see printed in the book and they all could just as easily have been included instead. These photos are not the work of a photographer that seems concerned with (or believes in) “perfect” shots or moments.

“Theater of Love” gives its viewers not only a visual experience with its photographs, but also a tactile one that is missing from many of our interactions with photographs in modern life. Case Publishing and Yoshihisa Tanaka’s design reminds us of the joy of holding printed photos in our hands while providing us with a glimpse into Araki’s collected memories from his younger days. As Araki describes it himself, “Digital photography can’t work this way.”

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