Several cult photobooks by Japanese and European photographers in our upcoming December 12 auction examine a topic that has emerged as a new collecting trend: sex and sexuality. Straddling the vast intersection of voyeurism, pornography, documentation, cultural revolution and female objectification, and including photographers such as Helmut Newton, Nobuyoshi Araki and Richard Prince, each of these titles pose more questions than they answer.
For Document Kouen [Document Park], photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki visited two parks in Tokyo, each well known for nighttime rendezvous, sexual activity and voyeurism. He turned his infrared flash on both the participants and the spectators, and then finishes the book with a section of abstracted stills from the free pornography films screened in so-called “love hotels.” Commenting on loneliness, contemporary urban life and the role of sex in Japanese society, Yoshiyuki stops short of pornographic indulgence, while exploiting the deep-seated traction of the imagery. As the reader, are we also willing participants in this ritual?
This question goes one step further in Ikko Kagari’s Document Tsuken Densha [Document Tsuken Express Train], which documents, with some titillation, the chikan, or gropers, on the Tokyo subways. Here the line between spectator, participant and perpetrator is purposely blurred, and the viewer is left with the uncomfortable sense of inhabiting each role fully. As in Document Kouen, the infrared flash lends the images a disjointed, impersonal and yet solidly invasive tone.
Gunter Rambow’s Doris, a title published Germany, is decidedly different in character, and yet also asks the viewer to question their gaze and role. Here, a vivid, dynamic cover serves as a colorful gateway to a series of images depicting nude women. The later sections of the book give way to bold, nearly abstracted, close-up views of women’s genitalia. Is this commentary on the 1970s sexual revolution or casual cultural misogyny?
Helmut Newton’s SUMO, published two decades later, depicts the photographer’s nude female models in more visually powerful, yet equally overtly sexualized poses. The sheer size and weight of this volume repackages the theme, shifting away from the intimate, soft-cover to the sensational showpiece, while maintaining the sense of the reader as privileged observer and the women as desirable objects.
The topic of sex and sexuality—which never loses appeal—has emerged as an exciting sub-genre of the photobook, and collectors are competing for works by some of the most potent and compelling photographers of the 20th century.
Thank you to Deborah Rogal, Senior Specialist in Swann’s Photographs & Photobooks Department, for contributing this post.