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Photography

Tenmei Kanoh on his series FUCK capturing Yayoi Kusama’s orgy happening

WORDS BY AYLA ANGELOS

While visiting New York on a commission in 1969, the Japanese photographer was invited to an orgy at the studio of Yayoi Kusama – “I had no choice but to shoot!”

“I didn’t like the idea of ‘beauty’,” says Tenmei Kanoh, a Japanese photographer known for his provocative – and often nude – imagery. A natural rule-breaker, Kanoh never set out to mimic the standards associated with photography at the time; think William egggleston’s infamous Los Alamos series shot during the 70s, or Bruce Davidson’s documentation of rural life in Britain and Scotland during the 60s. Instead, he decided to use his camera to oppose the regimes of the world around him, resulting in a cathartic portfolio of works and his notorious – and very nude – series FUCK.

The nude takes centre stage throughout the entirety of Kanoh’s portfolio, a subject matter that would have commonly been considered taboo. His reasons for doing so are rooted in the politics at the time, whereafter the Vietnam War, there was a sense of freedom, expression, and revolution filling the air – followed by the May Revolution in Paris and Woodstock in America. “It was an era when the movement of angry young people, such as the psychedelics – which was borne from the counterculture of hippies – was swirling,” says Kanoh. “Even in Japan, young people were excited, like the University of Tokyo, who were divided into regimes and dissidents.” Although not involved in any of the struggles himself, Kanoh devised the idea to express this nonconformist attitude throughout his photography. “So, I took shocking pictures regardless of whether it was antisocial or not, and ’nude’ photography was the most specific way to do this. I was thinking of photography as a tool to express a message to the world, not a genre like so-called recorded or commercial photography.”

Kanoh has built an impressive career in photography and, after graduating from Nagoya City Industrial Arts High School, his earlier days were spent studying under Toichi Ogawa and Takashi Kijimi, two photographers known for elicit nudes and flowers. After which he pursued freelance photography and entered into the realms of fashion and advertising. In 1969, more specifically, Kanoh started collaborating with the men’s magazine Heibon Punch. A “youth culture bible with weekly sales of one million copies,” he explains, “as a freelancer, I was frequently featured on the nude page at the beginning of the book.” Heibon Punch’s first overseas feature was to document the people and streets of New York and, in 1969, Kanoh traveled there to do so. “It was around the time when one dollar was 360 yen, and it was a hippie culture at the time. Sure, there were hippies in New York. But at the same time, when I went to London, I felt that there were many more hippies. In New York, people of different races and classes, including young people gathering in Central Park, were mixed in different ways.”

Kanoh continued to shoot nudes in various locations around the city, which included the Empire State Building, Central Park, Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, and Harlem – “they were all guerrilla shoots,” he adds, observing and taking note of the many fascinating people and artists walking by. One of those artists was Yayoi Kusama, known for her sculptures, installations, and her famed Infinity Mirror Rooms. “I heard that there was an artist who performed with a thin cloth on nudists at Central Park,” he says, “that was Yayoi Kusama.” As things played out, Kusama invited Kanoh to visit her studio in East Village, following with the words: “I’ll perform for Kanoh-san.” To much surprise upon arrival, more than 10 men and women were having an orgy. Body parts splayed in front of him, and a sense of confidence and freedom diffused in the atmosphere; it was utter protest and revolt to the current climate, and Andy Warhol was among those who’d joined in. “I was surprised because I hadn’t heard anything in advance, although I had no choice but to shoot!”

The result of which is Kanoh’s acclaimed series FUCK, a psychedelic, rousing and performative documentation of those who attended Kusama’s orgy. In Kanoh’s eyes, the group appeared to be close friends, or those who’d usually get together for similar events. “They were very relaxed and enjoyed the orgy,” he recalls, assuredly circling the event as an onlooker, while taking pictures along the way. His subjects appear theatric in their behavior, often posing, kissing, gesturing, performing in front of Kanoh’s lens, and positioning their bodies in artful compositions. “When I ordered the poses, everyone was happy to do it,” he notes, “but basically they liked it the way they wanted.” At once the images are cinematic as much as they are freeing – it’s certainly not your typical pornographic display that might be encountered at an event of this kind.

But it’s not just the subject matter that was unusual (and groundbreaking) for its time. Kanoh also shot the series in colour, applying warping and kaleidoscopic hues so that the work would appear to have gone through a dreamscape filter. An aesthetic that was like no other during the 60s, it was an idea that came about after developing one of his images in New York – during which the lips of a white woman appeared yellow, “the blood vessels appeared through the white skin, and the brown hair appeared bright red,” he explains. “As for the colour, there was a hue that had never been seen before.” This particular shade was caused by an infrared colour film and filter, as well as some experimental use of cellophane, resulting in sharp contrast to the typical shade of monochrome employed at the time. “I heard that this film was developed for a reconnaissance aircraft for the US military to bond the North during the Vietnam War, to distinguish between the imitation jungle and the real jungle created by Viet Cong,” adds Kanoh. “It was very experimental.”

After the making of FUCK – an apt title considering the provocative nature of his imagery and ethos in general – Kanoh proceeded to have his work shown in a solo exhibition, during which the police were called and he was told to remove three of his photos. “And the next day, I became ‘the man of the hour’ and people fantasized about me as an opinion leader.” He’s had many works censored over the years, not only with Fuck, but also with an unpublished series of LGBTQ people shot in New York around 1994, “but I think it’s difficult to publish in Japan. When the day comes when I can account for it, this means that the times have caught up with me.”

Still to this day, FUCK, and all of his works for that matter, beholds much pertinence for its vivid documentation of that which usually remains hidden, covered beneath clothing, doors, societal pressures, and expectations. The nude, in particular, is still “under the umbrella of regulation” in Japan, says Kanoh, and he has a few words for any young photographers who are considering breaking the barriers like he did: “Do more!”

Discover Tenmei Kanoh’s work here: www.tenmeikanoh.com

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