“For me, photography is not a means by which to create beautiful art, but a unique way of encountering genuine reality” – Daido Moriyama.
The more you view the work of Daido Moriyama, the more it envelops you. At first, it can be easy to disregard as out of focus, sloppy, aimless, but over time the content begins to grow on you.
Born in Osaka, Japan in 1938, Moriyama moved around frequently due to his father’s job as an insurance salesman. This rootlessness would ultimately affect his work in a similar way to the work of Josef Koudelka. Starting as a graphic designer, Moriyama fell into photography by chance when he went to pick up a photograph from a photographer’s studio: “I was really struck by the atmosphere. Design was desk-bound, but this felt active… groovy. I wasn’t interested in taking pictures, I just liked the feel of the photographic world.”
After moving to Tokyo in 1961, Moriyama was influenced by the work of photojournalist Shame Tomatsu, whose generation was deeply affected by World War II, the American occupation, and the resulting westernization and breakdown of traditional Japanese culture. However, the younger Moriyama had a different relationship with the changes: “We found the mixture of the Japanese and the Western already there. We just accepted it. There was an American air-force base near where I grew up. The Korean War was on. I saw the planes going in and out, the American airmen in the bars with beautiful Japanese girls. It felt exciting.”
Moriyama has always been drawn to the gritty sides of Japan, and his work set out to document the darker side of city living. He started to photograph in Shinjuku, an area that at the time had been ravaged by the war. While many of his images were inflicted with a deep psychological pain, he was also able to capture the inherent excitement and enjoyment of roaming these areas. These conflicts in his work portrayed the conflict and trauma that was caused by the coming changes to Japanese society.
In the late ‘60s, Moriyama joined a group called Provoke, made up of left-wing photographers who wanted to redefine Japanese photography to mimic the times. “Japan was moving fast, and we wanted to reflect that in our work,” said Moriyama. Whereas historically, Japanese art and photography had worked hand-in-hand with the idea of beauty and precision, the work that came out of Provoke turned this philosophy on its head.
Technically, Moriyama’s work was grainy, out-of-focus, too dark or washed out, abstract, blurry. He followed what is known as Wabi-Sabi, the Japanese term for beauty in imperfection. While his work looked flawed, these imperfections portrayed a sense of stark reality and highlighted the beauty in these imperfect photographs of imperfect people, in an imperfect society.
Moriyama’s most famous photograph is the 1971 Stray Dog, which took on a life as a symbol for post-war Japanese culture. In a culture that had been defined by order and purity, for a photographer to identify himself with, and celebrate the idea of a stray dog, was a profound shift. It brought underlying cultural feelings to the surface of alienation, darkness, self-hatred, and despair. He showed both himself and Japan as a stray dog, roaming for scraps of identity in an uncertain and quickly changing world.
Influenced by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Moriyama saw the journey as the most important element of his work: “When I go out into the city I have no plan. I walk down one street, and when I am drawn to turn the corner into another, I do. Really I am like a dog: I decide where to go by the smell of things, and when I am tired, I stop.”
While his work has continued to have the feeling of grittiness and imperfection, over time, Moriyama began to broaden his range. Much of his work became traditionally ‘prettier,’ and some of it less dark. This included a series of fishnets and lips, as an eroticism grew in his work. Moriyama saw the city and urban life as inherently erotic, and he has continued to explore this theme greatly.
While it would be easy to say that much of Moriyama’s work is about Japan becoming Americanized, the reality of his work shows an idea more subtle than that. The resulting culture wasn’t becoming like America, it was morphing the incoming Americanization into its own, unique identity, and this struggle was the crux of Moriyama’s work.
Quotes from Daido Moriyama:
“My photography is about desire. The internal world meets the outside world and takes shape. When [my] desire takes some kind of shape, it becomes a photograph.” – Daido Moriyama
“I have to be aggressive to take photos in Shinjuku. In Shinjuku, you take photos quickly. Judging the quality of a particular shot doesn’t come first sometimes.” – Daido Moriyama
“I want to express the realness of Japan. I want to show what is really going on.” – Daido Moriyama
“[My] photos are often out of focus, rough, streaky, warped, etc. But if you think about it, a normal human being will in one day perceive an infinite number of images, and some of them are focused upon, others are barely seen out of the corner of one’s eye.” – Daido Moriyama
“For me, capturing what I feel with my body is more important than the technicalities of photography. If the image is shaking, it’s OK, if it’s out of focus, it’s OK. Clarity isn’t what photography is about.” – Daido Moriyama
“It really shocked me with the power of photography. It was as simple as that. It was only when I got out on the street with a camera myself that I started to think about how he’d done it.” – Daido Moriyama
“Walking through the city is like walking through to labyrinth, and this is what stimulates me about it” – Daido Moriyama
“It may look like I’m just pointing the camera at what’s in front of me. But I’m trying to photograph what people see, but don’t notice – something that’s mysterious and unknown in everyday life.” – Daido Moriyama