When Kohei Yoshiyuki became aware of the fact that Tokyo’s parks were frequented by voyeurs watching young couples having intercourse, he went to these sites to photograph this peculiar phenomenon. The artist captured unique situations of intimate affection and pleasures usually reserved for the private realm. The couple’s actions were therefore accessible to uninvited spectators, who were in turn observed and documented by Kohei Yoshiyuki. Even though Kohei Yoshiyuki’s postmodern images were made in the 1970s, the subject of voyeurism has a long art historical tradition.
Before Kohei Yoshiyuki: Voyeurism in Art History
Depicting the nude body, especially the female body, in private situations has been a beloved artistic subject for centuries. The theme of Susanna and the Elders has been interpreted by numerous artists in several time periods. Similar to Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photos, the subject gave these artists the opportunity to not only display the sexualized body in an intimate and private setting but also the voyeurs gazing upon the scene and trying to get a piece of the action.
The biblical story of Susanna and the Elders talks about a woman named Susanna who is being watched by two elders while bathing. The two ask her to sleep with them. She rejects their offer which is why they have her arrested, accusing her of adultery and claiming that she had sex with a young man under a tree. When they are questioned though, it turns out that they were lying, and Susanna is set free. The story has served as a subject for paintings done by many important artists such as Tintoretto, Artemisia Gentileschi, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt. In addition to works that depict the voyeurs during the act, art history also offers an array of images that include the viewer as the only one who is allowed to watch.
Whether the woman is depicted while bathing, undressing, or lying naked in her private chambers, art historical images often represent her as seemingly unaware of the viewer. Works like these offered the viewer a peek into the private and intimate world they were usually denied access to. The voyeuristic tendencies in artworks are often synonymous with the term the male gaze. The concept was used by the art critic John Berger in a series he did for the BBC called Ways of Seeing. Berger discussed how European paintings showed women as objects, who are just there to fulfill male desires. The term was later coined by the film critic Laura Mulvey in order to criticize the representation of women in movies.
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Kohei Yoshiyuki’s works are even more closely related to the images of photographers like Brassaï, Walker Evans, and Arthur Fellig, also known as Weegee. In the 1930s, the Hungarian-French photographer, poet, and sculptor Brassaï photographed Paris by night and often took pictures of sex workers. Walker Evans photographed people on the subway in New York in the late 1930s by hiding a camera inside his coat. Arthur Fellig captured tenement fires, accidents, crime scenes, and couples kissing in a dark movie theater.
According to the senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim Museum, Alexandra Munroe, the depiction of voyeurism was a common subject in Japanese art. Some of the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints made during the 18th and 19th century depicted a spectator watching a couple having sex. Munroe said that that was a consistent erotic motif in Japanese sexual imagery and in Japanese films.
Who Was Kohei Yoshiyuki?
Kohei Yoshiyuki was born in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1946. The Japanese artist was a commercial photographer who became known for his voyeuristic images in the 1970s. They were first shown in 1972 in the Japanese publication Shukan Shincho. Kohei Yoshiyuki photographed unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples, which was not readily accepted by society at the time. This made the publication of his works quite revolutionary.
In 1979, he exhibited them at the Komai Gallery in Tokyo. There, his photographs were printed in life-size, the lights in the gallery were turned off, and the viewers had to use flashlights to look at them. The conditions of the exhibition turned the viewers into voyeurs. The artist wanted to simulate the darkness of the park and make people look at the bodies an inch at a time. Kohei Yoshiyuki died at the age of 76 in 2022. His works are now part of the collections of important institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Kohei Yoshiyuki and ‘The Park’ Series
Accompanied by a colleague, Kohei Yoshiyuki walked through the Shinjuku Chuo Park in Tokyo when a suspicious scene caught his eye: a couple lying on the ground being approached by two voyeurs. He decided to photograph the couples and the men lurking in the darkness at Shinjuku Chuo Park and two other parks in Tokyo. The photographs he took during these nightly strolls resulted in the series called The Park.
In 2006, the British photographer Martin Parr included the series in his publication The Photobook: A History. The Yossi Milo Gallery in New York contacted Kohei Yoshiyuki in 2007 and exhibited his works the same year. After that, the works were included in exhibitions like Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera at the Tate Modern in 2010, Night Vision: Photography After Dark at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011, and at the Venice Biennale of 2013.
How Kohei Yoshiyuki Created His Voyeuristic Park Photos
Before Kohei Yoshiyuki took pictures of the obscure scenes in the parks, he visited the areas for about six months. He befriended the voyeurs in order to gain their trust. Even though Kohei Yoshiyuki acted like he had the same desires as the voyeurs, he did not consider himself one, or at least not directly, since he was only there to take photos. He said: “My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was not a real ‘voyeur’ like them. 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.”
To capture his subjects in the dark, the artist used a small camera and infrared flashbulbs made by Kodak. The flash of the bulbs was similar to the lights of a passing car, which enabled Kohei Yoshiyuki to stay hidden while photographing them. Not only did Kohei Yoshiyuki stay unnoticed, but to a large extent, the couples were also not aware of the voyeurs. Yoshiyuki said that the voyeurs would watch them from afar and after a while, they would get closer and closer. When the voyeurs tried to touch the women they were watching, the situation would sometimes result in a fight.
Capturing the Intersection of Public and Private in 1970s Japan
Kohei Yoshiyuki park images are intertwined with Japan’s economic and social circumstances in the 1970s. Large cities experienced excessive crowding and a high cost of real estate, which made it hard for people to own a home. The lack of privacy in a city brimming with people was indirectly represented in Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photographs. If premarital sex and homosexuality were frowned upon, the park offered a refuge for people. The public realm of the park became a semi-private one where couples went to enjoy intimate moments. Those moments, though, were disturbed by the people crouching in the bushes.
According to Kohei Yoshiyuki, he knew about the things that took place in Tokyo’s parks by hearsay. When the artist was asked why people in Japan engaged in these voyeuristic activities during the 70s, Yoshiyuki explained that the parks were rare blind spots in the urban jungle where people could behave freely. He added that he did not experience the sites as shady environments, but as places where people would act out their desires in a completely innocent manner. Kohei Yoshiyuki said that this situation changed in the 1980s due to the evolution of the sex entertainment industry.
How Yoshiyuki’s Work Addresses Surveillance and Privacy
Topics like surveillance and privacy are often mentioned when Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series is discussed. The artist was interested in these themes, which is why his photos offer an interpretation beyond a possible critique of voyeurism, even though the thematization of voyeurism is still very prevalent. The gaze is directed at the people hiding in the dark and watching the couples, while simultaneously asking the question of what Yoshiyuki’s role is in this scenario. He could be a voyeur or a photographer merely documenting the circumstances or both.
For Sandra S. Phillips, who organized an exhibition on surveillance imagery at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, voyeurism and surveillance are strangely allied. It, therefore, seems fitting that Yoshiyuki’s images got included in the exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera. Considering how the discussion about surveillance and privacy is becoming increasingly vital, Kohei Yoshiyuki’s work has not lost its relevance.