The explicit photographs of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki have been the subject of much controversy due to their blurring of the line between pornography and fine art. Over the course of his prolific career Araki has gained the support and acclaim of arts institutions around the world, but last year allegations of exploitation emerged which have drawn protests at his exhibitions and further complicated the legacy of this contentious photographer.

Born in Tokyo in 1940, Araki was witness to the sexual liberation that swept through Japan in the 1960s and the rise in popularity of kinbaku or shibari. This Japanese erotic tradition is a style of bondage that became prevalent in the 1950s through the photospreads of magazines such as Kitan Club and Yomikiri Romance which showed the practice of binding the body with ropes and suspending the individual in the air, often in asymmetric and uncomfortable positions. Over the past six decades Araki has produced a prolific output publishing over 400 books and participating in exhibitions all over the world, with several taking place in Japan alone each year. He has come to be considered one of, if not the, most important photographers in Japan.

Araki’s images obsessively portray beautiful young women, nude and often bound by intricate formations of rope, ranging from full figure shots to close ups of the face and genitals. Captured in black and white with a high contrast, his images depict the unblemished perfection of the model’s pale skin against her black hair. While kinbaku is an erotic tradition, it is also essentially aesthetic in its expression and prescribed formations of bindings and knots are used to create katas or forms to bind the body in unnaturalistic forms. With knees hoisted up to shoulders and arms held against the back, Araki uses these forms to create enigmatic images of contorted bodies and perfect flesh.

His photographs have been hailed as a celebration of sexual liberation, the man himself lauded as a bastion of expressive freedom in the arts. Such readings position the gaze of the model staring out of the image as the sexually empowered stare of an individual unashamedly celebrating her body and sexuality by relinquishing control. These images however have also faced strong criticism for objectifying the female form with the arrangement of the body for the viewing pleasure of the beholder reducing the model to the subject of male desire. Araki himself has dismissed such readings as simplistic, and prominent figures of the art world have defended his work. Creative Director of the New York Museum of Sex Serge Becker suggested that the viewer’s discomfort in looking at Araki’s photographs comes not from contention with his depiction of women, but from an unease with the urges which are provoked by his images: ‘Some of the discomfort is not necessarily because we disagree with him, but because he touches us and shows us aspects of ourselves we tend to cover up.’

This debate was further complicated in April last year when a former model and ‘muse’ of the photographer published allegations of exploitation during their 16 year collaboration. In a blog post about her work with Araki, Kaori detailed allegations of non-payment, failures of the artist to maintain the privacy of the model during shoots, and the use of images of her without consent. The claims provoked strong opposition to Araki’s work from feminist groups and exhibitions of his images became the subject of protests. In Berlin the activist group Angry Asian Girls Association protested a solo exhibition at the city’s C/O gallery, and in Warsaw the group Bison Ladies We Say No protested the Raster Gallery’s group show Foreign Bodies. The allegations of financial and artistic exploitation and his apparent lack of regard for the welfare of the model has given strength to the argument that Araki views the women he photographs not as autonomous individuals, but as objects for his own artistic and commercial gratification. Kaori herself wrote: ‘he treated me like an object.’

Discussing his motivations, Araki claims to work in service of the overarching themes of art – love and death – which he believes are ultimately expressed in depictions of the female nude. In doing so, Araki aligns his work with the canon of art history among countless other artists who claimed that it is by portraying the naked female form that the essential themes of life and of art can be immortalised in pictorial form. Told that an intellectual could be defined as a person who had discovered that there were more interesting things in life than women, Araki vehemently protested. ‘There is nothing more interesting than women, and nothing more exciting. Their biggest attraction is being mysterious…You absolutely cannot understand them.’

With these views, the photographer betrays a strikingly traditional opinion of women as a subject for intrigue and fascination which begs the question; do the explicit images of women Araki produces actually challenge us with something new that pushes boundaries, or are they just a new vision of the objecthood of women that has been parroted throughout the history of art?