night visions

“Being seen by absolutely no one and being unaware of being seen were similar, yet basically different.”

– from Yukio Mishima’s ‘The Temple of Dawn’


In one episode of the BBC TV series Planet Earth, thirty desperately starving lions kill and eat an elephant in the middle of the night. It’s one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen. Knowing that their night vision is far greater than that of any elephant’s, the cats wait for their prey to be isolated from its herd before leaping up onto it and mauling its flesh until it collapses. The carcass will feed the huge pride for at least a week. We’re given an extreme close-up of one of the elephant’s useless eyes, and a lingering shot of a lioness gnawing its trunk. Lightning strikes in the distance. Figures lurk in the shadows. The score is unashamedly film noir. And the entire six-minute sequence is shot in the dark on infrared.

With wavelengths just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum, infrared rays are invisible to us. The use of external equipment to detect them thus reminds us of the limits of our perceptual capacities. Feline eyes pierce much further through the enveloping darkness than the elephant’s can, while the prosthetic eye of the camera far exceeds the optical abilities of the film crew. They were crouching in pitch blackness, but as this network of watching shows, darkness isn’t something objective – it depends on who’s looking. Watching the footage, we have the strange experience of seeing something our bodies are not equipped to see. Here’s Steven Connor looking at X-ray scans:

Here, I seem to be able to see the ways in which I cannot see; I can see my own blindness. But, for this very reason, I also seem to see that I can sometimes see what I never in fact can; X-ray photographs provide the visible proof that vision can encompass a vision not its own.

The X-ray is one of several 19th century inventions that were paired with photography and led to a new conception of the camera as being not a tool for recording what we see, but a means for capturing what we can’t see. Telescopes and microscopes were also part of this shift in understanding. The relationship between seeing and knowing was becoming more complicated and the uptake of these technologies heralded a growing awareness of there being a lot more in the physical world than our senses could detect on their own.

The images in Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series Koen (‘The Park’) also push the boundaries of visibility and human perception. They activate our vision where it usually fails – in the dark. Yoshiyuki obtained them by taking his camera on vespertine prowls of Tokyo’s public parks in 1971 and 1979, furtively capturing on film the Peeping Toms he found watching people engaged in sexual acts. Using infrared sensitive film and filtered flash bulbs, the amateur photographer was able to grant himself a gaze that penetrated straight through the very darkness that made him invisible to everybody else there. The levels of complicity, performativity and victimisation on the part of the subjects remain ambiguous – we know we are seeing something we are not permitted to see, but we have the sense that the amorous subjects audacious or desperate enough to have sex in these places must have been aware of the possibility of becoming visible.

Of course, there’s nothing especially Japanese about bonking in public parks. But in their localised context the photographs underline the limits of privacy in Tokyo in the 1970s. After WWII the Love Hotel phenomena had flourished in Japan, allowing couples to rent rooms for ‘resting’, charged by the hour. And even before these short stay hotels, sex in urban Japan had often been removed from the private home – where typically very little personal space was possible – and assigned to semi-public chaya ‘tearooms’. Many 18th and 19th century ukiyo-e woodblock prints survive depicting a third party casually watching copulating couples in such venues, so Yoshiyuki’s series can be situated in a historical thread of artists recording or imagining voyeurism as their primary subject.

Blown up and printed at life-size, Yoshiuki’s photographs were shown in 1979 at Komai Gallery in Tokyo where the lights were turned off and visitors were instructed to navigate the space with hand-held torches. The prints were destroyed after the exhibition, but the photographs were published in a book in 1980 before Yoshiyuki (a pseudonym, his real name remains unknown) set up shop as a family portrait photographer and vanished into obscurity. In 2006 Martin Parr’s publication The Photobook: A History included Yoshiyuki as an unknown innovator, prompting Yossi Milo Gallery in New York to track down the reclusive artist and convince him to reprint the remaining negatives.

The photographer’s sudden destruction of the prints and abandonment of the project suggests contention might have arisen over him showing the potentially incriminating photographs that had been so clandestinely taken, very recently, in the same city. We now have a safety barrier of more than three decades between us and the images, but their capacity to involve us prevails. It is when the figures have their backs to us and evade being identified themselves that we are most heavily implicated, no matter how much distance in space and time we have secured. As with Caspar David Friedrich’s rückenfigurs (and their modern manifestations in the surrogate bodies seen from behind in video games), we are forced to enter the image because we are facing the same thing as the depicted figure in front of us.

Looking at the Koen series induces an uneasiness that has something to do with seeing the seer looking while seeing ourselves being seen looking. Paintings depicting the Biblical story of Susanna and The Elders, where an innocent woman bathing in a garden falls victim to exploitative male desire, can have a similar effect. The scene was depicted by the likes of Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Tintoretto and Gentileschi – its popularity being easily attributed to the justification it offered for a prominent fully exposed female nude, sanctioned under the category of ‘historic painting’. While a sanctimonious position is superficially implied for the viewer, we can’t condemn the invasive gaze of The Elders without indulging in moral hypocrisy, knowing that we ourselves have gone on to perpetuate the same gaze so prolifically.

When we move from painting to photography the image’s capacity for implication is even stronger, because the photograph asserts that its subject at some point existed physically before the camera’s lens. It is a curious feature of the history of photography that long after the daguerreotype was superseded by cheaper and more efficient techniques, pornographic daguerreotypes continued to be produced and sold. The photo historian Geoffrey Batchen has linked this to the status of the daguerreotype as a tactile, hand-held, unique and non-reproducible object. The private act of opening the lined daguerreotype case (as with the nominally ‘sealed’ section of a men’s magazine, sealed only from those incapable of tearing the edge of a page) must have been part of the ritualised process of stimulation. The extremely long exposure time that the sexy daguerreotype image was known to have required could also have invested it with a sense of intimacy that enhanced its eroticism.

In contrast, these gritty candid images suggest anthropological distance on the part of the photographer. Whether we like it or not we are lined up right behind Yoshiyuki in the chain of voyeurism, while in many of the images (the most interesting ones, I think) the final object of vision (the erotic act) cannot be seen. They are hardly suitable masturbation material: we are granted proximity while being denied any illusion of intimacy. Rather than removing traces of the photographer and the photographic process to suggest we are seeing directly, they make us intensely aware of the photographer and his precarious position. In this sense they are less photographs about sex, and more photographs about photography (the word means literally writing with lightbut the invention was nearly named skiagraphy, writing with shadow). These images make visible what is supposed to invisible to us – sex, yes, but also, more compellingly, darkness itself.

Catalogue essay for an exhibition of Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photographs in 2011 at The Institute of Modern Art and The Centre for Contemporary Photography in Australia, and Adam Art Gallery in New Zealand.