Yoshiyuki Kohei

Shinjuku, the early ’70s…

Extract from an interview with Kohei Yoshiyuki by Nobuyoshi Araki from the September 1979 issue of Weekend Super

NA: As the genius of photography, I’d like to introduce Yoshiyuki Kohei to our readers. You created a huge sensation by taking voyeuristic photographs of people having sex, and of voyeurs – peepers – watching people having sex, with infrared film. A lot of people made a lot of noise about them, but my critique consisted of exactly one line: “These are what I call photographs” (laughter). After that we met and chatted now and then, but I haven’t seen you for quite a while. Recently I received an invitation to your solo show. I couldn’t go because I was busy, but I mentioned it to the editor of Weekend Super, and heard later that he went to see it. When I asked him about it, he said he liked the way the photographs were exhibited.

KY: I turned out all the lights in the space, and gave each visitor a flashlight. That way I was reconstructing the original settings. I also blew the photos up to life size.

NA: You recreated the original settings. Viewers went into a dark room with a flashlight and looked at the photographs? But that way, you can only see part of them.

KY: Yes, that’s how I wanted them to be viewed. I wanted people to look at the bodies in the photographs an inch at a time. 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.

NA:  I heard you didn’t issue many invitations. That was a bad idea. It’s a shame you didn’t make a really spectacular gesture.

KY: I’m a coward.

NA: Cowards don’t go around spying on people and photographing them having sex. What was your motivation?

KY: It had never occurred to me to take that kind of photograph. I knew about peeping, though, and then one day I stumbled onto a scene – an incredible scene (laughter). That was when I was still an amateur. At that time, there weren’t many skyscrapers in front of Chuo Park in Shinjuku. There was a model apartment in one of them. I was walking behind it with a friend (we had just finished a shoot), when we saw something amazing!

NA: “Something.” I like your choice of words.

KY: Yes! I was shocked. They were actually fucking.

NA: They were?

KY: Yes. When I saw them, I knew this was something I had to photograph.

NA: You didn’t right then?

KY: I had my camera, but it was dark. After that I did some research. I found out that Toshiba made flashbulbs – infrared flashbulbs. Before I had a chance to use more than a few of them, they were discontinued. Then I looked around for filters, and ended up using two tricolor separation filters. After a while I heard that Kodak had some flashbulbs, so I used them. At that time, infrared flash units didn’t exist. Sunpak came out with them after I took these photos.

NA: So they’re making them now?

KY: Yes. Anybody can take photographs like these.

NA: Wow! Guess I won’t be able to have sex in dark places anymore. Are the people you photograph totally unaware of what’s going on? I’ve never used equipment like that, so I have no idea.

KY: The light flashes – a red light. I’d better not say any more (laughter).

NA: Like the lights on a passing car, from the subjects’ point of view?

KY: That’s right. Anyway, they’re so engrossed in what they’re doing that even a lot of light shouldn’t faze them.

NA: Let’s have a look at the photos. Yeah, these are amazing! Because they’re really fucking. Look at him giving it to her! You need a lot of nerve to take photographs like these. Mine are so pseudo-documentaries, so everything is staged (laughter). These days it’s the women who are aggressive. At Shinjuku Gyoen, for instance, the women are on top.

KY: I saw that sometimes, too. But I can’t photograph that. If the guy’s on the bottom, he’ll notice the camera.

NA: Look at this one!

KY: This is the real thing, too. But the guy was hopeless. He couldn’t get it up. The ambience made him self-conscious, I guess. I was right near them, listening and thinking he’d get it together. But then he said, “It’s no good” (laughter).

NA: The wonderful thing about this photograph is that it shows the peeper. It’s a self-portrait. It shows your shadow. I really like that. It’s probably strange to talk about photography theory in a context like this, but this is what a photograph is supposed to be. Oh, look, the peeper is touching her. He’s assisting. Wasn’t it hard to shoot these photographs?

KY: Well, it’s harder to photograph the peepers. But at that time, nobody ever dreamed they’d be photographed. I had a tiny camera with a flash attachment. I think it would be almost impossible to do that now.

NA: But you could do it openly, couldn’t you? Just grab one shot with your flash, and then run.

KY: I guess so. Maybe that’s the way to do it.

NA: Maybe everybody will be doing it this summer, once word about the Sunpak flash-unit spreads.

KY: I heard the company got a lot of inquiries after my show.

NA: Uh, oh!

KY: Yeah. I won’t be able to do my work (laughter).

NA: You mean nobody has ever come after you when you took photos like this?

KY: Never.

NA: Wow! Maybe you’re a Ninja.

KY: The guy who developed the Sunpak infrared strobe is a real lecher and a lot of fun.

NA: Really? He must have done a lot of fieldwork.

KY: Yes. I guess that’s where the idea came from.

NA: Lechers are the only hope for the twenty-first century. Only lechers come up with good ideas. Only lechers take good photos. So are you one, too?

KY: I think I’m completely ordinary, but I think there’s a little lecher in everyone.

NA: I guess it’s a matter of degree. I am fascinated by this topic. I like the way the legs are open here.

KY: I think she was a student – really cute. Others are much more outrageous. They get carried away.

NA: What do you mean?

KY: Once a couple walked over and laid a piece of cloth on the ground. I thought, “They’re going to do it,” and then they started fucking. The guy pulled his pants down to his knees. But most of them do it in the missionary position. Or standing up. They do it in the rain, after everyone else has left the park.

NA: That’s their chance!

KY: Right. There’s nobody around then.

NA: Why do they go to the park to fuck? Have they done it everywhere else already?

KY: I don’t think that’s why. Even if the girl isn’t thrilled about having sex there, the guy might say, “Let’s do it here.” Maybe they’ve been drinking nearby or something. But only couples who’ve had sex before fuck in a park. You can always spot them because they walk fast.

NA: Really? So you stand at the entrance watching. Then you see a couple walking fast, so you know you’ll get some shots?

KY: That’s definitely what I look for.

NA: I’m not a peeper, but I once tried to spot couples headed for love hotels [hotels that charge by the hour] at Shinjuku Station. My hunches were usually right. You can tell.

KY: I’ve never seen a couple who aren’t already having sex fuck in a park. Foreplay takes too long, and the peepers will gather around, and the opportunity is gone. They have to have had sex at least once. Even if the girl doesn’t feel like it, guys want to do it in the park. I’ve overheard their conversations.

NA: I’d like to observe sometime. We could organize a tour. Let’s do a grand tour, with you as the guide. Can you imagine a bunch of photographers filing into a park (laughter)?

KY: A photo session.

NA: So photographing them isn’t illegal?

KY: No, as long as you don’t say anything. If you keep quiet, take your photos and run, it’s okay.

NA: Really? It sounds almost criminal. You know, you could blackmail people with the photos.

KY: That’s true.

NA: So, let’s do this, all right? This summer, and make a big event of it. It’d be a shame to waste the opportunity.

KY: This summer, then!

NA: Yes, yes. Watch out, everybody. Yoshiyuki is coming (laughter).

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