Kohei Yoshiyuki (Japan, b. 1946-2022) ignited furious debate about photography’s relationship with voyeurism and surveillance. His exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery during the 2012 Liverpool Biennale exposed him to a wider UK audience.
His blurred stills are explicit but barely legible creating a dark voyeuristic experience
Yoshiyuki was a young commercial photographer in Tokyo in the early 1970s when he and a colleague walked through Chuo Park in Shinjuku one night. They noticed a couple on the ground, then spectators lurking in the bushes. Fascinated by these illicit games of cat and mouse, Yoshiyuki spent the next six months becoming a participant. “To photograph the voyeurs”, he later wrote, “I needed to be considered one of them”. Returning with his camera, loaded with infrared flashbulbs and film, he photographed in three different Tokyo parks over several years. The resulting body of work captures heterosexual and homosexual couples engaged in sexual activity, and the peeping toms who stalked them.
His gallery stated, Yossi Milo Gallery is deeply saddened to share the news of Kohei Yoshiyuki’s passing. Yoshiyuki was born in the Hiroshima Prefecture in 1946 and passed away on January 21, 2022. Now beloved as one of Japan’s most important photographers, Yoshiyuki broke ground with his photographs taken in the early 1970s of couples engaged in sex acts in Tokyo’s public parks, often accompanied by voyeuristic onlookers. His daring documentation of forbidden acts forced viewers to reckon with their own private lives and desires as well as the psychic unease felt collectively by the Japanese people following decades of loss and defeat for the country. It was not until 2007 that these photographs resurfaced in The Park, the artist’s first U.S. show at Yossi Milo Gallery. Photographs from the exhibition have been exhibited around the world, including at the Tate Modern, London’s exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera; the 5th Berlin Biennial and 7th Gwangju Biennale; the 2012 Liverpool Biennial and 9th Moscow Photo Biennale; and in the 55th Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Massimiliano Gioni.
In correspondence with Philip Gefter, who wrote a shining review of The Park for The New York Times in 2007, Yossi Milo wrote “The photographs are specifically of their time and place and reflect the social and economic spirit of the 1970s in Japan. Yet the work is also very contemporary. With new technologies providing the means to spy on each other, a political atmosphere that raises issues about the right to privacy and a cultural climate obsessed with the personal lives of everyday people, themes of voyeurism and surveillance are extremely topical and important in the U.S. right now.” This sentiment rings even truer today, when smartphones and social media platforms make available information and images that hitherto would have stayed behind closed doors. Yoshiyuki photographs remind us that the conflict between private and public is timeless, something we all must grapple with in every aspect of our lives.
The legacy of Kohei Yoshiyuki and his work cannot be overstated, with his unique contribution to Japanese post-war photography revealing not only the hidden activities of Tokyo’s nightlife but also an internal conflict within us all. Karen Rosenberg wrote for The New York Times in 2007 “his photographs are masterly palimpsests of perversity, in which the peeping Toms appear more exposed than the fornicating couples.” Photographs from The Park are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. In 2007, Hatje Cantz and Yossi Milo Gallery published a book of the series, which includes an original essay by Vince Aletti and an interview with the artist by Nobuyoshi Araki, which was re-published by Radius Books and Yossi Milo in 2019. Today we remember and honor Kohei Yoshiyuki. Our deepest sympathies go to his family.