Rarely has the relationship between photography, sexuality and voyeurism been addressed as directly as it is in the work of Kohei Yoshiyuki. Equipped with infrared film, separation filters and flashes, he stalked the parks of night-time 1970s Tokyo seeking out a marginal world of furtive but public sexual couplings, and more. The pictures he took have been described as among the strangest photographs ever made.
The Park collates three bodies of work from the period. The first series, featuring heterosexual encounters, was taken in the Shinjuku and Yoyogi parks between 1971 and 1973. The subject of the second, more explicit, series taken in Aoyama Park in 1979 is the activities of homosexual couples and groups. And the final section “Love Hotel” is comprised of nearly indecipherable pornographic video stills. But the most extraordinary scenes are the least graphic.
The parks favoured by heterosexuals, it turns out, were also frequented by groups of lurking and predatory voyeurs who encroached on, and sometimes joined in with, the ardent couples. All are illuminated by the unearthly bleached light of Yoshiyuki’s infrared flash. In an accompanying interview by Nobuyoshi Araki (go figure!) from 1979 Yoshiyuki explained that the flash would produce a momentary red glow – like the lights of a passing car – that would usually go undetected by the otherwise engaged subjects.
In one frame a voyeur on all fours crawls towards an embracing couple while two figures (one of whom zips up – or unzips – his flies) watch from the bushes. In another, no less than eight men can be counted – bright against the ink black sky – as they watch a pair of lovers and a riding-up skirt.
The Park is an extraordinary but unsettling collection of pictures. It is by no means obvious, for example, that the acts performed are all consensual – they certainly do not all look to be so. Nor is it apparent whether the sex is volunteered or paid for. And the nature of Yoshiyuki’s complicity and even participation is left unclear. Moreover it is evident that the pictures of homosexuals in Aoyama park, while more explicit, are markedly less intrusive – there are none of the close-ups of tangled limbs and crotches for instance.
One conclusion might be that most voyeuristic and intrusive pictures are dependent on the availability of a defenceless female body, powerless to resist Yoshiyuki’s lens and flash. Perhaps the abiding value of the provocative nature of his work is that it foregrounds such issues to the extent that they become unavoidable.