In the period after the Second World War, the Japanese photography developed a highly unconventional and unique visual language that helped lay the foundation of Japanese contemporary art. Kohei Yoshiyuki ‘s The Park, a controversial series capturing shocking nocturnal scenes, perfectly illustrates the paradigm shift of the period that became one of the highest points of innovative camera work in the twentieth century.
Documenting people who gathered in several Tokyo’s parks at night for intimate rendezvous and the many spectators that lurked in the bushes, Yoshiyuki created photos that are raw, voyeuristic and uncomfortable. While The Park has attracted much controversy in 1979 when it was first exhibited and published as a book in Tokyo, it was nearly thirty years later, in 2007, that Yoshiyuki’s project received global acclaim resulting in exhibitions throughout the US and Europe.
In a society that went through a radical change during the 1960s, many Japanese artists and photographs started exploring different ways to reflect the significant cultural revolution that was on the way. Acting as a mirror to the new Japanese society, the camera was a perfect tool to explore artists’ subjective experience of this new reality. Shaped by bold photographers who used the form in an unconventional way, this period became known as the golden era of post-war Japanese photography. A young commercial photographer at the time, Kohei Yoshiyuki created a series that became known as “nominally a soft-core voyeur's manual”.
While walking through a park in Tokyo with a friend in 1970s, he came across several couples who used the park and the darkness around them for sexual encounters. Yet, it appeared they were not alone. They were surrounded by many spectators lurking in the bushes who watched – and sometimes participated in – these coupling. As a vital part of the city, parks were rare blind spots in the urban jungle where people could behave freely. What was a relaxing family place during the day, would become a completely different world in the darkness. The scenes fascinated him as a whole - the couples having sex in the park, the people watching them or even touching them, as well as the background scenery and environment of the city.
Before starting this controversial project, he has spent several months exploring the techniques and the best equipment in order to capture these scenes in the darkness. Using an infrared strobe, an expert-level photography technique at the time, Yoshiyuki cruised around Shinjuku Central Part, Yoyogi Park and Aoyama Park close to the downtown area in the center of Tokyo. While working on the project, it was of the essence to make the voyeurs believe he was one of them. Between 1971 and 1979, he captured many couples, both straight and gay, kissing, fondling and maybe doing more, in a series that is highly unsettling and haunting.
Images from the series speak of an entire underground scene that comes to life at night, of silk shirts and flares, of grass stains and flashbulbs in the dark. Images are blurred and we can vaguely see the bodies of people who are engaged in clandestine trysts. Rather than showing the actual scenes with clear images, it is this invisibility that seduces the viewer and sparks their imagination. What is striking and controversial about these images is not the portrayal of sexual acts, but the packed crowd of voyeurs that surrounds the actors and sometimes attempts to join in.
Whether these invasions were entirely unexpected, fully anticipated, or simply predatory, is never exactly clear. As the critic, Vince Aletti wrote about the series, “There’s nothing romantic about this. Because everyone is bent on his own pleasure, the atmosphere in many of the pictures is dangerously feverish; several gatherings appear to be on the verge of a gangbang. If there’s a ritual, religious quality to some of these scenes, others are spinning out of control. The voyeurs stop looking like peep show geeks and start to resemble shades in Dante’s Inferno”.
The act of voyeurism, for the voyeurs, was kind of a game - they did it for the thrill trying to fulfill their fantasy. Rather than only depicting the couples, Yoshiyuki took a step back and incorporated these bizarre dynamics between voyeurs and the subject of their gaze in his photographs. With observers of photographs becoming voyeurs themselves, the photographer sets out a complex dynamic of looking and being looked at. Having a grainy, raw and snapshot-like quality and reminiscent of surveillance footage, these photographs implicate the photographer, viewer and subject making the work especially poignant and intriguing.
Yoshiyuki’s images reveal the hidden Tokyo and the society freed from the constraints of life by the blanker cover of night. These images belong to a specific moment in Japanese history, reflecting the economic and social realities of 1970s Tokyo, including a lack of privacy in the crowded urban environment. The majority of photographs were taken in the Chio Koen park in the Shinjuku district in Tokyo. A hotbed for political activism and the emerging center for sexual liberation in Japan, the district also attracted many photographers who wanted to capture the Zeitgeist of their generation such as Shōmei Tōmatsu, Daidō Moriyama or Nobuyoshi Araki.
At the same time, Shinjuku was a major transportation hub that had several overland and underground train lines. For couples who didn’t live together and had no private spaces of their own or were separated by extreme distances, Shinjuku was a common ground where they could meet and exchange intimacy. Thus, these images not only uncover the hidden sexual exploits of their subjects but also serve as a chronicle of a Japan we rarely see. As Martin Parr writes in The Photobook: A History, Volume II, the series is “a brilliant piece of social documentation, capturing perfectly the loneliness, sadness, and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like Tokyo.”
Being a part of something that is taboo is what makes the concept of voyeurism captivating to both artists and photographers, who constantly seek to push creative boundaries. Many of these images seem to position the viewer in the role of a “peeping Tom”, while at the same time posing questions about who was looking and why when the picture was made and whether we should participate in this point of view. On the other hand, like Nan Goldin famously said, “There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party”. 
Yoshiyuki revisits the theme of intimacy and voyeurism in another famed series entitled The Hotel, a series of grainy stills from hidden-camera footage taken in one of Tokyo’s many “love hotels” – places used exclusively by prostitutes and their clients. Youshiyuki’s works add to the long history of photographers touching on the subject of voyeurism, including Walker Evans photographing subway riders in the late 1930s using decoy lenses and concealed cameras or Weegee using infrared flash and film in movie theaters to photograph unsuspecting viewers and amorous couples in the 1940s.
Yoshiyuki was rediscovered in 2007 when The Park was republished for the first time after 1980, giving the artist the long-deserved acclaim. His project has almost instantly affected the visual culture, as the fashion photographer Steven Meisel unapologetically copied it in his editorial series Dogging.
Editors’ Tip: The Park by Kohei Yoshiyuki
This new, updated edition, featuring an interview with the artist by colleague Nobuyoshi Araki and an essay by the noted photo critic Vince Aletti, contains all 60 works from the infamous Park series, reproduced from new scans in deluxe duotones. This work has not been seen by the public since the 1970s and has been known only to cult collectors until now. As Yossi Milo writes in the introduction “one is both chilled and thrilled by Yoshiyuki's boldness, by how close he crept to his unaware subjects, by the hours he spent late at night crouched in bushes and against trees, waiting for his perfect shot."
Featured images: Kohei Yoshiyuki - The Park, 1971-73, via presentationhousegallery.org; Kohei Yoshiyuki - The Park, 1971-73, via huffingtonpost.co.uk; Kohei Yoshiyuki - The Park, 1971-73, via presentationhousegallery.org. All images used for illustrative purposes.