Blue Period/Last Summer by Nobuyoshi Araki, reviewed by Robert Dunn

Nobuyoshi Araki doesn’t need me to write about him. He probably doesn’t need anybody to write about him at this point, five hundred or so books in (or is it five thousand?), and a long, serpentine, impressive career behind him (with, one hopes, much more to come). I mean, what is there to say anyway? That he did breakthrough work back in the early ’70s, discovering along with Daido Moriyama just how exhilirating a bunch of blurry photos reproduced on a crappy Xerox machine could be. That in the ’80s he became a rapscallion celebrity photographer, especially in the pages of the girlie-rag/serious photo magazine Shashin Jidai (Photography Age), that would feature Araki sex shots and Daido Moriyama serious-photo spreads (or vice versa). That Araki went on to a series of strong street photographs; perhaps the most powerful (and far from appetite-arousing) photobook dedicated to food, The Banquet; and, yes, way too many bondage shots. Every time you flip a page of even one of his more anodyne-appearing books, there’s a good chance you’ll hit yet another bondage picture. (Like, what’s up with that squid in The Banquet?) Alas, I’m not a connoisseur of pics of women trussed up with black leather and chains (tend to turn my eyes away from them, actually), but my sense is that Araki takes a pretty damn good one. Seems to put all of his heart (and other body parts) into the bondage snaps. It’s just that there are so damn many of them … not to mention all kinds of #metoo issues.

Which means I approach Blue Period/Last Summer, a new book by him, though of older work, with some trepidation—or at least a sense of Why bother?

Well, I am bothering because the book is beautiful, and beautiful in a way that it turns out only Nobuyoshi Araki can be.

Published by Session Press/Dashwood Books, Blue Period/Last Summer is two books in one, published that way at Araki’s request. Both works derive from a series of slide-show and music performances he gave starting in the ’80s. (There have been over 30 films made to project these happenings through the world.) Blue Period and Last Summer are comprised of photos from the ’80s, many first published in Shashin Jidai, then shown separately back then, and put together for a 2005 flick.

 So how do all these photos made for many different occasions and performances work as a book? Amazingly well … so much so that I’d call Blue Period/Last Summer one of the most beautiful, thoughtful, stirring Araki books ever.

One reason the book (and photos) work so well is that Araki threw external processing at the original photos. He tells us that Blue Period is about the past, and captures that quality by having dunked each slide into a chemical bath to tint the shot blue in wholly unique ways. There are many shots of nude women—and yes, one with a long red cord bound around her ankles and chest—but they’re 1) artful and inventive (as well as erotic) in the way Araki almost always is when shooting nudes; and 2) with the liquid splotches, blurs, and etching into the film, each shot gains a cool beauty. The past indeed … as if each shot is seen through a bluish dream haze of memory.

Last Summer, Araki specifies, is about the future, and in that half of the book he’s dabbed or thrown paint at each color slide, mostly primary colors, reds, greens, oranges, blues—colors haphazardly half-concealing, blobbing, scraping, even hovering ominously over the various shots. There are still plenty of nudes but far more street shots here than in Blue Period. Perhaps the future for Araki meant not just looking at naked ladies but getting out of the studio. Or maybe it means something wholly other.

No matter what the intention, the painted-over photos (printed perfectly in the Session Press/Dashwood book) are uniformly fascinating, beautiful, disturbing, exciting, mysterious, and truly one of a kind. My take: Except for his most personal and moving books, the two Sentimental Journeys (about his late wife, Yoko), and maybe a few intensely focused works such as Tokyo Lucky Hole and Banquet, Araki’s photos seem always to benefit from being treated by outside media, chemical wash or paint or whatever.

They sure do here.

It was also interesting to learn more about Shashin Jidai, the Japanese art-girlie-hookup mag from the early ’80s. From what I can tell, Shashin Jidai looks like a combo of Aperture and Al Goldstein’s Screw, with spreads of great Daido Moriyama photos intermixed with a slick-mustached Araki disporting with all manner of ladies in-between ads for such ladies (pre-internet) replete with phone numbers and personal qualities.

Have to say, though, that if most of the photos in Blue Period/Last Summer came from Shashin Jidai, then that “alternative journal” was on to something. The breathtakingly sexualized photos in Araki’s book are all creative, unexpected, and lovely in surprising ways. Just as a coincidence I recently got a copy of Richard Prince’s Bettie Kline, the fanciful thesis examination of the nudie photos of Bettie Page and their “inspirational effect” on the painter Franz Kline. So I’ve been looking lately at more conventional last-century sexual subculture photography than, well, ever. As good-looking and creative as Ms. Page was, it’s a stretch to call the whips-and-chains shots of her art. Which makes Araki’s achievement all the more extraordinary. His nude model shots are almost always about color, composition, emotion, wit, humor, pathos; and they always push the erotic imagination. And that’s before the added blue wash or dabs and swirls of colored paint.

 And of course, the erotic work is only a portion of what he’s up to.

At bottom, that’s the astonishment of the Araki photographic achievement. Works of impassioned, moving autobiography and a lot of breathtakingly inspired street shots (and, alas, legions that are more banal than not). Inspired color work of flowers and food and trussed-up women, all glorious and imaginative and beautiful, and a whole lot more good ol’ bondage shots that even Irving Klaw (the impresario of Page’s gallimaufry of porn) might’ve gotten tired of. And, yes, those photos smeared and streaked with paint, and coruscated with who knows what chemicals, all as timeless as any photo anyone’s ever shot. (I have an intuition that Atget is behind them all but dare not push the notion.)

Nonetheless, when it’s finally time to weed out the whole five hundred (or five thousand) Araki photobooks, the ones that will remain, including Blue Period/Last Summer, as well as the ones mentioned above, will stand as tall on the shelf of photobooks as any work by anyone.

Blue Period/Last Summer by Nobuyoshi Araki can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Carnival of Souls are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.