Like Songs: Photographic ballads in the 1950s to today

Reading through Time: 6 moments

Through the series Sentimental Journey, 1971 © Nobuyoshi Araki. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery.

Offering 14 series, Maison Européenne de la Photographie’s most recent exhibition proposes an alternative history of photography – told with the lens of love

Nobuyoshi Araki met his future wife and lifelong muse, Yoko, in 1968, while he was working as a commercial photographer for Dentsu within Tokyo. She was a new recruit in the advertising agency’s type room, and he had been making portraits for its internal magazine. They fell in love, and within three years were married. That same year, Araki published their first photobook: Sentimental Journey (1971).  

The collection chronicles the early days of the particular couple’s relationship: from their initial encounter, to their wedding, honeymoon vacation, and life as “a family of three” with their dearest cat, Chiro. Tragically, inside 1990, Yoko died from ovarian cancer. A year later on, Araki published a reprised edition of his book, Sentimental Journey/Winter Journey (1991), to include a hauntingly moving account of Yoko’s lifetime with the disease. Yoko has been, and continues to be, Araki’s most important subject: “It’s thanks to Yoko that I became a photographer, ” he once stated.

Araki has an infamous popularity as an erotic photographer, yet love is the driving push in his art. “You should have love to make pictures, ” he said in an job interview with Japanese publisher, Kodansha, in August 2021. However during a conversation with Uk curator Simon Baker, he admits that love can also be the very emotion he unsuccessful to capture.  

In 2016, Baker and Araki had been in a karaoke bar inside Tokyo, leafing through the catalogue of his retrospective at Musee Guimet in Paris. The photographer paused in a early image of Yoko through Sentimental Journey. “He said something like: ‘In all my time with Yoko, I thought I used to be photographing love, that it was the subject of the work. But finally, after i look at these photographs, I believe that love is lacking, that somehow I failed to capture it’. ”

From Expressive Journey/Winter Journey (1991) © Nobuyoshi Araki. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery.

Relocated by Araki’s sentiment, Baker thought about photography’s complicated relationship with love. “What’s interesting about photography is that it is associated with objectivity, ” he admits that, “but when it’s a subject that nobody agrees about, and which nobody can agree on what it looks like, exactly what does that mean? ”

Like Songs is Baker’s latest curatorial endeavour as movie director of Maison Européenne de la Photographie. “The concept was to rethink a brief history of photography from the viewpoint of intimacy and love, ” he says. Each series is like a “photographic love song”; a different take on picturing intimacy, lust and, certainly, loss.  

The inspiration for the show was sparked by his interaction with Araki, but also by a conversation with Nan Goldin 6 years earlier. In 2010, Baker was curating a major event about voyeurism at Tate Modern. Goldin couldn’t discover why her work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency , was within the show.  

During the 1972s and 80s, Goldin created a photographic diary chronicling the particular relationships between her close friends and lovers. But exactly how could one be a voyeur in their own life, she questioned.  

“I thought that all was interesting because For all of us, as a viewer, we seem like a voyeur, ” says Baker. This led him to the question: if Goldin’s Ballad and Araki’s Sentimental Journey were held up because “canonical examples of their kind”, what would the history associated with photography look like? “If [they] were both best at something, who would the other people be close to them? ”

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, 1983. The Ballad of Sex-related
Dependency. Collection MEP, Paris © Nan Goldin and courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.

Untitled, 1963 © Larry Clark; Courtoisie de l’artiste ain Luhring Augustine, New York.

Featuring 14 bodies associated with work, the Love Music exhibition is curated within the style of a mixtape. “The idea was to make the show think that a compilation of songs… a playlist of photographic series that are all about like – either inside people’s relationships or inside an intimate circle, ” Baker clarifies.  

Conceptualised as “mini-exhibitions”, the show feels as though you are “walking into the planet of each artist”. Presenting work made from 1950 to 2000, SIDE A invites us into a hotel room in Italy in 1952, where René Groebli spent his two-week honeymoon with his wife, Rita. L’oeil de l’amour (The Eye of Love) [below] is like a period capsule of the early days of their love – lazy days and cigarettes in bed.

© René Groebli, courtesy de l’artiste ou de la galerie Esther Woerdehoff, Paris

Personal letters, 2000 © RongRong& inri.

Hideka Tonomura, Mama Like, 2007 © Hideka Tonomura, courtesy Zen Foto Photo gallery, Tokyo.

We get a similar kind of intimacy in Hervé Guibert’s playful pictures of his lover, Thierry (1976–1991) and in Alix Cléo Roubaud’s Untitled (1980– 1981) – scenes from the personal privacy of the home that she shared with her husband, the poet Jacques Roubaud. In seite an seite to Araki’s Sentimental Trip, Emmet Gowin’s Edith (1967–2012) [page 49] records the course of the photographer’s 45-year relationship with his spouse: from falling in love and having children, with her death. “Photographing Edith continues to be the common thread and the redeeming experience of my life, ” he says.

But for many, the trip of love is not linear or simple, and the exhibit doesn’t shy away from the more dark, messier side of romantic relationships either. In Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1963–1970), we are catapulted into the disturbing, yet moving, autobiographical account of an existence consumed by sex, medications and violence. “Prohibited photos, photos we weren’t designed to take, of a life that wasn’t supposed to happen, ” he said of the function.  

SIDE A ends with Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Intimate Dependency (1973–1986), an operatic sweep of images that oscillate between what Goldin referred to as the “light plus dark” of her life: love and loss; intercourse and violence; ecstasy and pain.

Edith, Danville, Va, 1967 © Emmet Gowin. Courtoisie de l’artiste et de la Pace Gallery, New York.

“The idea was to be diverse, to exhibit what photography can do with the subject of love”

Simon Baker

Leigh Ledare, Double Bind, 2010 © Leigh Ledare.

Goldin’s Ballad has had a huge influence on a generation of image-makers. Writing in The particular Guardian in 2014, Sean O’Hagan hails it “a benchmark for all other work in a similar confessional vein”. In SIDE B: 2000–present/Intimate Obsessions , the contemporary side of Enjoy Songs, Baker exhibits work that carries some of these concepts into the millennium.  

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, the treating intimacy and diaristic picture taking is much more present in contemporary exercise, ” Baker observes. Lin Zhipeng exhibits his extensive project, Photographed Colours associated with Love (2005–2021), a series of natural, playful portraits of his lovers. Collier Schorr provides a new body of work, Angel Z (2020–2021), a collaboration that emerged in the Covid-19 lockdown spent separated with her partner.

We all also see collaborations made at the peak of lust. JH Engström & Margot Wallard’s Foreign Affair (2011) was created in the midst of a “blind and unstoppable” romance. Conscious of love’s capacity to show both vulnerability and strength, they decided to create a record of this intoxicating period of passion.  

RongRong& inri’s appreciate story is quieter, but just as intense. It began with a long-distance relationship – she in Japan, and he inside China. Unable to speak one particular another’s language, their common tongue was photography. Personal Letters (2000) is a number of prints, scrawled with handwritten notes and exchanged in the first year of their romantic relationship.

Lin Zhipeng (aka n°223), Mask & Cherry, 2011 © n°223. Courtesy in)(between gallery.

JH Engström & Margot Wallard, International Affair, 2011 © JH Engström & Margot Wallard. Courtesy galerie Jean-Kenta Gauthier, Paris.

Collier Schorr, Angel Z, New York, 2021 © Collier Schorr. Courtesy de l’artiste et de 303 Gallery, New York.

Elsewhere, photographers raise questions about power relations, permission and taboo. In Double Bind (2010), Leigh Ledare invites his ex-wife and her new husband into an isolated bungalow, confronting the viewer with the banned intimacy of a broken relationship. Similarly, Hideka Tonomura’s Mama Love (2007), explores her mother’s sex life – a series that is disturbing, liberating and poignant all at once.  

Finally, Sally Mann presents Very pleased Flesh (2003–2009), a six- year study of the girl husband in the nude. In 1990, Larry was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes progressive muscle loss. Created using a wet- plate collodion process, Mann’s portraits are filled with layered meanings relating to the gaze, ageing, storage and mortality.

Rather than chronicling an exhaustive survey associated with photographic love, Baker wanted to gather large bodies associated with work that dealt with the topic in nuanced ways. “Putting them all together, I think there are nice echoes between the series, ” says Baker. “The idea was to be diverse, to show what photography can do with the subject of love. ”

Throughout the curatorial process, Baker maintained the repeating idea of the mixtape. “Perhaps the reason Love Songs continuously brings this tradition to mind is the sense of being submerged in the emotional landscapes of individuals we know (people we love) through the words, ideas plus emotions of people we tend not to, ” he writes within the exhibition catalogue.  

Baker asserts that these sentimental presents – an “intimate ‘curatorial’ work” – allow all of us to communicate our feelings through an “appropriated poetry”. As a photographic compilation, what does Enjoy Songs communicate to the viewers? “It’s not a quite academic show, ” Baker reflects. “It’s got a few academic propositions about objectivity and the camera, but actually, the idea is that everyone may identify with it. ” In fact, love is one of the few topics that transcends time plus geography – a general experience that allows us for connecting with stories that can really feel far away.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, plus currently holds the position associated with Online Editor. She examined English Literature and Good Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism through City, University of Greater london. Her work has been posted by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.

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