Though in common practice we consider black a colour, it is technically defined as the lack of colour or, more specifically, a lack of light on the visible spectrum. In photography, black is the absence of light on exposed film and the photographer reveals only what he or she wishes us to see. What is obscured is as vital as what is exposed. This selective withholding of information - this obscurity, this darkness - is, to use the parlance of cinema, the device that drives the plot. Darkness is mystery.
It is under the cover of darkness that Kohei Yoshiyuki made his best-known photographs. In the ‘70s, Yoshiyuki (a pseudonym - the artist’s real name is unknown) was a commercial photographer who stumbled across the phenomenon of couples hooking up in Tokyo’s public parks after dark - huddled in bushes and lying on makeshift beds of newspaper - as well as the Peeping Toms who crept alongside them. His series of infrared film depictions of these open-air trysts, The Park, was first exhibited in Tokyo in 1979. The photographs were originally printed life-size and exhibited in a gallery without lighting. Each visitor was given a flashlight and encouraged to view the images in the same disjointed way as a voyeur would in a dark park. After that show, the prints were destroyed, and were not reprinted again until a 2007 exhibit at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York. The prints were then shown in a more traditional gallery arrangement, and viewers could consider the series’ formal qualities as well as the cultural underpinnings of voyeurism, eroticism, surveillance and privacy that make Yoshiyuki’s work so provocative.
While much has been said about his depiction of voyeurism (and his own role as a voyeur), the images themselves utilise the tension of darkness. The ghostly white, glowing figures - both the semi-clad couples themselves and the perverse gatherings of men huddled around them - are shocking in the context of a public space. But because of the limitations of light and film, we are offered only glimpses of the scene. There is little nudity and the act of sex becomes curiously desexualised in its dim, crude banality. Bodies are fragmented by the presence of shadows, foliage and other bodies. If anything is ‘brought into the light’, it is most often the Peeping Toms themselves as they crouch nearby. If an artist uses darkness to allow a viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps, the resulting effect is almost always more frightening, exciting, repulsive or sexy than it would be if we saw what is hidden. Whether through intent or serendipity, Yoshiyuki preserves a sense of mystery in these images. But what he does divulge - in furtive, gleaming glimpses against the blackness of night - is infinitely more complex.