N.B. This article contains images not safe for work.
Many photographers idolise or idealise their partners in reference to historic painting — intentionally or not, they pose them according to certain representational standards. Others photograph them like pin-up nudes, telling the world that this is their life. Araki Nobuyoshi’s earlier work, for example, is often witty, tender, and simultaneously highly erotic. In other places, you can find videos of him lining models up against a wall like POWs awaiting death-by-firing-squad. As Hagiwara Hiroko remarked of Araki’s pseudo-anarchic reputation within the artworld, “commodities are always conditioned by the distribution process”. That is, Araki’s position in the artworld, and the institutional structures that market his work make his name a commodity; the “anarchy” is mostly a manufactured spectacle. There, claims (by the gallery or the artist himself) around the meaning of the work are able to work as a front for a set of representational tropes – be they the porn-snapshot, the fashion shoot, the historical prostitute-painting – put to work in the service of the Araki brand.
In 愛愛愛愛那麼多 (Love Love Love Love More), Chan doesn’t feel like a brand. His work is entirely self-directed, he explains nothing about it, and adheres to no institutional structures or standards. His photographs don’t carry any consistent aesthetic style, and make little sense isolated from one another. Instead, there are fragments that hint at a couple, e.g. heart-shaped clouds, a pair of cigarettes strewn on the ground, a toilet sign showing the colour-coded stick figures. Though Chan shows sex, with shots of e.g. fingering, a condomed dick, or a wet patch on the bed, it doesn’t feel vulgar or self-aggrandising. It feels anonymous: except for an occasional chin, there are no faces in the book, with the exception of a single shot of test-prints from Oh My Little Girl affixed to a wall. The result for me is that, as a viewer, experiencing 愛那麼多 becomes less about seeing Chan’s partner herself as his object of affection or desire, and more about how the relationship influences the way he sees the world. In that, 愛那麼多 gives a feeling for Chan’s mindset, rather than presenting that idealised portraiture so many other photographers end up leaning into.
Though that non-aesthetic might feel off-putting page to page, I’ve found it’s also what keeps me coming back to it — it’s engaging as a kind of diary or record of this period in his life, rather than as a photography book that exists according to art photography standards. The kind of feeling that 愛那麼多 gives is that stage of sexual love which photographers rarely show, that period of romance where everything you see reminds you of love, desire. That period of restrained, furtive glances in public, and no such restraint in private. It’s like a psychological diary, those random things you happen to remember from a romantic adventure, fitted into a loose bundle of pages and bound with an elastic band.
In Oh My Little Girl, published by Zen Foto Gallery, Chan shows his partner like an idol, occasionally posed even to look like a lolita cosplay character. Statues, mirrors, dolls and sculptures hint at the staged-ness to these images, to Chan’s reflexivity about desire and representation. Whereas 愛那麼多 shows snapshots of everything surrounding Chan’s partner and their lives together, Oh My Little Girl is a mix of portraiture, bondage, sex, and the occasional graveyard scene, like a location chosen for a fashion shoot.
Chan shows that stage of sexual love photographers rarely explore, where everything you see reminds you of your desire for one another.
Where 愛那麼多 feels rooted in Chan’s psychology, more diaristic, Oh My Little Girl feels more like something made for the gallery system, requiring a more conservative approach to both form and content. Several of the images printed in Oh My Little Girl appear as test-prints in 愛那麼多, connecting the two books and reinforcing that “diaristic” feel, and giving the sense that these two books hint two different sides to Chan’s life: one more work, one more play. Oh My Little Girl initially feels provocative and daring, hinting at themes like representation, desire, youth and death. However, without that feeling of anonymity like in 愛那麼多, it’s harder as a viewer to actively empathise with what’s going on. In 愛那麼多, clever and deliberate sequencing teases sexual and romantic associations from innocent pictures of food, lampshades, and clouds with holes in them. That diaristic aspect allows 愛那麼多 as a whole to cohere thematically, in contrast with the visual diversity. Comparatively, there are times when looking at Oh My Little Girl where I feel it could almost be a photography-portfolio or feature in an adult lifestyle magazine. Design-wise, the awkward to handle yellow cover and orange page sex sequence in the middle of Oh My Little Girl feel like an attempt at restoring a self-published aesthetic into these factory-made books, so that it fits better in with the rest of Chan’s catalogue.
In spite of all of this, the two books work together, acting as mirrors to one another, and when framed in this way, both are great as a pair. Looking at one without the other leaves you with only half the story, and Oh My Little Girl still offers a lot to those interested in photography’s sexual side.
I came across Chan’s work when visiting Hong Kong, and when I brought books back to conversations in England, comparisons were frequently made with Moriyama Daido and 1960s Japan’s Provoke movement, particularly with Chan’s street-oriented work. While it turns out Araki did influence Chan, these other comparisons seem superficial, irrespective of whether Chan himself likes their work.
That distribution process has an influence here too. Provoke ended over 50 years ago. The movement’s cultural circumstances – which were so crucial to its significance at the time – no longer exist. Over the 2010s the same Provoke prints have been displayed every year at various art fairs, and every year poorly-fixed darkroom originals from that era lose chemical stability. It’s appropriate that the printing company Benrido, who specialise in cultural heritage, are making reproductions of their work.
Provoke ended over 50 years ago. The movement’s cultural circumstances – which were so crucial to its significance at the time – no longer exist.
Some work from this era warrants critical inspection. For example, Fukase’s alcoholism, spousal abuse, and – speculatively – narcissism, as detailed by Philip Charrier in Becoming A Raven. This kind of history has to be de-politicised and glossed over in order for his drip-fed posthumous releases to sell effectively on the market. When not giving extensive coverage to work which adheres to stereotypically East-Asian aesthetics, the Western photography market fetishises Asian – particularly Japanese – artists ruthlessly. They construct a narrative of what photographers working today are thinking about, where reproducing the Provoke look and tying it to what these photographers are “about” is an essential component to both their cultural mindset, and their success. Being Asian and taking black and white photographs of street corners and women does not justify being tied back to Provoke retroactively. It’s unsurprising that Yokota Daisuke quickly distanced himself from superficial comparisons with Moriyama, saying in an interview with the BJP that “really, there is no philosophical meaning in making work in the same context.”
With that, what seems to make Chan special is that, at his best, he really gives a feeling of being in a place or particular circumstance, being really engaged with whoever’s there. There is so little intimacy and so much distance in work that is “like this”, whereas Chan shows dedication without being self-serious. That intimacy is where Chan works best, and where I feel he surpasses most of Araki’s efforts post-Sentimental Journey. In the few interviews I’ve seen him in, he basically calls himself a talentless hack who could stop making pictures tomorrow and not care. If that’s sincere, then it’s probably why his work is as captivating for me as it is; he’s got nothing to lose.