Photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki
Japanese Edition, Published by Shinchosha, Tokyo Japan, 1991
‘An Outsider’s View’ by Sean Davey
I remember clearly the first time that I saw the book Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey. I was sitting in the living room in a friend’s apartment, when a mutual friend ours, and fellow photographer, had just returned from Japan.
Both my friend and I received a book as a present. I received a book by Daido Moriyama, while my friend received something rather different, a slimmer, seemingly more discreet book, which had a bright red cover and no title. The book came in a cardboard slipcase with Japanese characters on it. I could not read the title, nor even discern whose work it was. The book itself immediately intrigued me.
After examining this red book for a few more clues, I resigned myself to simply look at the photographs. I had no idea what I was looking at, and my initial reaction was one of complete bewilderment. Opening the cover, the first picture showed a cat bounding through deep snow, the date ’90 2 1 imprinted in the lower right-hand corner. The picture was a snapshot and looked like it was shot in someone’s backyard. Turning the page, two more pictures of the same cat, the date identically printed on both photographs. This time the cat was inside; one image showing the cat looking out onto the snow, in the second photograph it was curled up on the covers on a single bed.
I went through the entire book from start to finish, clueless to the fact that I was reading it the wrong way (Japanese books start from the opposite end, reading from right to left rather than from left to right). I felt that something was askew and while it did cross my mind that I was missing a cultural reference (as major one as it was), I knew immediately that I was looking at one of the strongest pieces of photographic literature that I had seen. I went over the book again and again, front to back and back to front, oblivious to the meaning of the Japanese characters presented on some of the book’s pages. All I had to go off was the images and the sequence in which they had been placed. To me this book started with a cat in the snow and ended with a couple on their wedding day. To my senses at least, this work was some kind of sentimental diary.
For a number of years I have been less and less interested in what I see as being trivial components of photography; composition, technical details, and even subject matter to an extent. What is important to me in a photographer’s work is not what the photographer actually photographs, but rather what that work says about them and how honest he/she is about what they are photographing. To this day I have not seen a book of photographs so honest and personally involved as Araki’s Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey. The lack of ego so humbly and beautifully presented in this book emphasises Araki’s understanding that he himself is neither subject in, nor author of this body of work, but rather an equal mixture of both.
How terribly sad it is to see a loved one become ill and in the case of Araki’s wife Yoko, to die. The feelings of loss, anguish and emptiness permeate the lives of those who remain and who often see, up-close, the pointy end of human suffering and pain. But there is also, after mourning, celebration and eventually some kind of personal acceptance and closure, the end of one journey will always lead to the beginning of another. The power of this book lies in Araki’s ability to simply present us with a personal diary, a record of events and personal moments so expressive of so many different themes; love, loss, passion, happiness, fear, sadness, longing, death, mourning, acceptance, celebration and isolation, while sequencing the pictures into a cohesive and structured narrative.
Still to this day I have never seen a translation of the text in Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey, and I’m not really sure that I want to. Perhaps not knowing the entire story is part of the reason that I find this book so invigorating and emotionally moving. More recently I have been pondering the landscapes made by Araki that appear immediately after Yoko’s death (a photograph shows the two holding hands followed by a gurney being pushed down a hospital corridor, presumably carrying Yoko’s body). I come back to these landscapes over and over again, visualising a man who has just lost his wife, driving away from the hospital and photographing from the window of his car, questioning everything, absolutely everything that surrounds him, and doing it though photography. The photographs say nothing but they reveal everything.
Metaphors abound in Araki’s inclusion of his cat Chiro towards the end of the book, and through these pictures, I sense that Araki is starting to accept the loss of his wife and is saying his final goodbye to Yoko. If you read it like I first did, starting from the end (and as I still prefer to do) and work back to the picture of Araki and Yoko on their wedding day, the photographs of Chiro indeed mark the start of a very personal and sentimental winter journey, one that stands out as my favourite photography book to date.
This review was originally published by The Photobook Club.
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