I’m like an antenna, I sense everything on the streets and I try to find where the signal is coming from—the signal of desire itself.
(Daido Moriyama: Interview, Daido Moriyama: Perspective Reach, Paper Sky)
Life in the streets is, indeed, a complex storybook of overlapping episodes of drama, victory, romance, tragedy, fear, euphoria, violence, curiosity, or escape. Neon signs, noise, scents, colors, texture, cars, human flurry, building shapes and forms, dead-end streets, the streak of sun rays bouncing on a window display, shoveled snow melting on a pavement, or rain showers dripping on a car roof—all evaporate into visual signals of a metropolitan life in constant movement. Even amidst the current global pandemic, many people breathed the fumes of self-quarantine like unwanted agony, whereas the breakout in the familiar streets echoed a welcoming relief and celebration.
No wonder, Daido Moriyama, one of Japan’s most captivating photographers has kept his camera lenses predominantly peeping through the dark, lively, and sometimes, secretive corners of city life.
I’d like to capture the whole city when I arrive somewhere, but I prefer to be in the backstreets so I just spend more time there. The vivid and actual objects we see throughout the main streets are pop—just cheap and junk. I don’t want to take photographs of the calm and beautiful objects or the fake serenity they make up as places, that is the pop facade.
(Daido Moriyama: Interview, Daido Moriyama: Perspective Reach, Paper Sky)
To manifest this objective, Moriyama simply clicks his shutter rapidly to freeze a footprint shadow, a half-dressed man sitting on the pavement, a lady of the night sleeping by the sidewalk, a wet asphalt road after rainfall, or girls with frizzy hair standing inside a train. His random selection of eclectic scenes that emote a particular sensibility, often only discovered after his photos are revealed, has earned his reputation for being the skillful master of snapshots.
Running until the 22nd of September this year, Tokyo Photographic Art Museum presents Moriyama Daido’s Tokyo: Ongoing, Japan's first large-scale solo exhibition of the artist after he garnered the Hasselblad International Photography Award in 2019. Encapsulating about 170 works in monochrome and color, Moriyama gives simmering vitality to Tokyo with arresting views of Shinjuku, the Golden Gai, back alleys of Ikebukuro, Shibuya’s Scramble crossing, narrow corridors outside JR lines, and others.
I keep shooting the myriad things and occurrences I come across on my way through the streets, bluntly and largely by intuition. To ‘shoot before I think, intuitively and without hesitating’ is indeed the very motto that I have adopted for myself.
(Moriyama Daido’s Tokyo: Ongoing catalog,”57 Years of Simple Routine”)
Wandering in the streets came to Moriyama at a very young age of eight. At that time, his father had to move to Fukui prefecture for work. Growing restless at home, Moriyama would fetch his father at the station every day as an excuse to go out. The joyful routine eventually triggered Moriyama’s intimate discoveries of street images and carried them on to Osaka when his family had to relocate once more.
Born in Osaka, another buzzing metropolis booming with noise and energy, Moriyama often speaks about his absence of interest in photography during his younger years. He dropped out of high school and worked as an apprentice in a small commercial design office. However, deskwork quickly bored him. He frequented the Iwamiya Photos studio in Osaka, where he consequently became an assistant to Takeji Iwamiya in 1960. At 22, this moment would be his first formal introduction to the world of photography. Shortly after one year and a half, Moriyama’s persistent curiosity about the sizzling spices of Tokyo pushed him towards the big capital. Here, at last, he made his acquaintance with one of the promising photographers, Eiko Hosoe, who gladly took Moriyama to be her assistant. From then, Moriyama gradually witnessed himself shining in the forefront with group exhibitions joined by other prominent photographers, accepting his first major award, the New Artist Award from the Japan Photo Critics Association in 1967, launching his first solo exhibition in Tokyo in 1970, and fleeing to an adventure in New York in 1971 with graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo. He has held exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), Tate Modern Museum in London in 2013 in a joint exhibition with William Klein, and more. His major awards include: 2003 44th Mainichi Art Award, 2004 Cultural Award from the German Society for Photography, 2012 Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography (New York), 2019 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, and others.
Soon, his fellow photographers took notice of Moriyama’s extraordinary technique of “chorosuna” or “sneaking shots” marked by “are bure bokeh" or a grainy, blurry and out-of-focus style, which attributes to his play of shadows and deep concentration on black and contrast. Moriyama believes in the concept of a world that dwells in “darkness, chaos, and consumerism”, which for him surround secrets, fears and desires of people. As his photographs defy self-censorship, sometimes capturing stolen moments not meant to be visible to the eye, they become themselves sources of preserved memories and unspoken desires—a theme generally prevalent in the artist’s works. The “finger snapping” of random shots has given Moriyama the freedom of voluntary choice in mirroring life’s stillness or actions that people themselves take upon unconsciously. For Moriyama, it is the “anticipation of that time that is ready and waiting for him to wake up.” (Moriyama Daido’s Tokyo: Ongoing catalog, Stepping One: The driving force behind taking snapshots, Akiko Otake)
The exhibition, Moriyama Daido’s Tokyo: Ongoing, opens with perhaps, his most famous work, Stray Dog (Misawa, Aomori, 1971©Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation), which became a symbol of both himself and post-war Japanese culture. The excellent manipulation of light against darkness and the dog’s haunting expression of its eyes were associated with notions of alienation and despair at a time when Japanese seemed to roam within themselves in search of their identity. Stretching on an entire wall are huge repetitive shots of Lips (From the series Lips 2018, Collection of Akio Nagasawa Gallery), depicting Moriyama’s microcosmic focus on the human body. The gallery leads on with monochrome and color panels, including a series of photographs Pretty Woman (2017, ©Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation), “Record 35, 2017”(©Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation), and Records 1972-73 (No. 5), 2006 (No. 6) (©Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation), illustrating graphic images on window displays and walls of buildings, and the daily stories of city people—young girls in mini-dresses waiting at the bus stop or drunk men curled around a tree in the wee hours of the morning—as well as motionless and overlooked street paraphernalia, such as abandoned litter, a bin of burned cigarettes, or kitsch billboards. The bold expression of chaos, disarray and carefree activity around Tokyo day and night streets is clearly perceived by the mixture of coarse-grained textures and bright color contrast. A somewhat erotic sensation can also be felt in the powerful red lips of Tokyo Boogie Woogie 2018 (©Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation) and close-up shots of fine black net stockings on intertwining legs in Tights (From the series Tights, 1997, 2011©Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation).
If there is one penetrable impact Moriyama’s images could shed on us from this exhibition, it would be the unexpected realization of the unconscious human struggle to imbue meaning in or provoke resistance against the choices we make in our daily routine, whether by the clothes we wear, facial expression, body language, or our indeliberate relationship with objects and nature. City life fuses all these elements together in an inevitable jungle of confusion, but only through photography can we recognize the minute and essential details often neglected by intention or ignorance. From every mode of action captured in a single frame, Moriyama cleverly extracts that piece of dark and inadmissible truth, which as he conveys through his eyes, is just as gray and indiscernible as the grainy and unfocused picture it reflects.
I always think of a photograph as no more than a slice of a surface. I would be able to emphasize this by not approaching things, but always pulling back or shifting away.
(Daido Moriyama, Comment on “K 2017”, Moriyama Daido’s Tokyo: Ongoing catalog, “Comments on Series in the Exhibition” Atsuko Takeuchi)