Kohei Yoshiyuki, whose snapshots of Tokyo’s hedonistic after-hours culture emblematized a certain sensibility in postwar Japan, has died at 76. His longtime gallery, New York’s Yossi Milo Gallery, announcer Yoshiyuki’s death on Saturday, writing, “Yoshiyuki’s photographs remind us that the conflict between private and public is timeless, something we all must grapple with in every aspect of our lives.”
With a 35mm camera in hand, Yoshiyuki positioned himself on the edges of nightlife during the 1970s. For his most famous series, “The Park,” he chronicled clandestine hookups in the city’s public spaces. The focus was more often on the men who lurked in periphery, thrilled by the spectacle. In some images, fully dressed men watch fornicating couples. In others, the lurkers are caught unbuttoning their pants or reaching out a hand. It’s unclear how cognizant the couples are of their audience.
Yoshiyuki’s images don’t necessarily critique the peepers. He was instead interested in the tension between surveillance and privacy, and the unease of a stranger’s attention. By searching for subjects in the dark, Yoshiyuki wanted to know why voyeurs looked on.
“My intention was to capture what happened in parks, so I was not a real ‘voyeur’ like them,” he told the New York Times in 2007. “But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is a voyeuristic somehow. So, I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer.”
He debuted the series in 1972 in the popular counterculture Japanese magazine Shukan Shincho. At the time, premarital sex and gay relationships were not condoned by traditional society, making the publication of his images not only rare but radical. In 1979, works from “The Park” were exhibited in Tokyo’s Komai Gallery under his pseudonym. The images were printed life-size, but the gallery was dimly lit, forcing visitors to view them under flashlight, making each viewer a peeping tom.
A cult following built quickly around Yoshiyuki, but he received little recognition from the international photography community until British photographer Martin Parr included “The Park” in his compendium The Photobook: A History, Volume III in 2006. Parr praised it as a “brilliant piece of social documentation.”
Around 2007, Yossi Milo Gallery began showing the works in New York and almost immediately drew interest from the art scene. The photographs were included in “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera” at Tate Modern in 2010, “Night Vision: Photography After Dark” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the following year, the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
Today, Yoshiyuki’s works are held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern art, among other institutions.