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Japan’s pioneering street photographer

Japan’s pioneering street photographer

Daidō Moriyama is famous for his black-and-white images of the underbelly of Japanese society. His colour photographs are less well known, but just as captivating

Daidō Moriyama is famous for his black-and-white images of the underbelly of Japanese society. His colour photographs are less well known, but just as captivating

Eve Watling | October 3rd 2017

In 1972 Daidō Moriyama attempted to destroy photography. He released a book called “Bye, Bye Photography, Dear”, a hotpotch of blurry, indecipherable shots intended as “a book of pure sensations without meaning.” Immediately after it was published he burned all the negatives and announced his retirement from photography.

These were the actions of a photography obsessive, rather a detractor. Inspired by William Klein and the street photographers in America, Moriyama had spent the previous decade bouncing from city to city in Japan, taking photos of a country undergoing massive cultural change. His first book, “Japan: A Photo Theater”, was published in 1968. It was a high-energy, black-and-white depiction of the nation’s shadow side; painted actors, drunk businessmen, aborted foetuses. As his own intake of alcohol and drugs stepped up, so his photos became more violent and stark. “Bye, Bye Photography, Dear” was in some ways a breaking point: his work couldn’t be stretched any tauter.

But Moriyama couldn’t stay away for long. After a year, he was back on the streets, compulsively walking, and pressing his shutter with the same fierce drive as before. The title of his memoir, “Memories of a Dog” (1984), is a reference to the animalistic way he explores the city. He roves hungrily, looking up from the gutter, guided by his instincts. Film posters are to him as beautiful as blooming flowers.

He still prowls cities at the age of 79, although he now prefers to use a compact digital camera, snapping unobtrusively from waist-level. “We perceive countless images all day long and do not always focus on them,” he says. 

Moriyama is best known for his black-and-white photography; his deeply etched, chiaroscuro shots vibrate with the intensity of city life. This book, however, presents a selection of his colour photographs from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. This version of the city, while still on the seedy side, seems softer. These are images that glow with humanity.

Untitled (1970s)
Moriyama was born in 1938, so was just old enough to witness Japan’s shift from nationalistic fervour to an identity crisis brought on by defeat and destruction. His father was a salesman and the family moved from town to town. When he was in his 20s, Moriyama took up photography, eventually studying under Shomei Tomatsu, a renowned photojournalist. After reading Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” (1957), he embarked on a trip down the highways of Japan. His enigmatic photographs capture moments of other people’s lives in a rapidly changing country. 

 

Untitled (1970s) 
“It may look like I’m just pointing the camera at what’s in front of me,” says Moriyama of his snapshot technique, “but I’m trying to photograph what people see, but don’t notice – something that’s mysterious and unknown in everyday life.” He rejected carefully composed formalism, and joined the staff of “Provoke”, a short-lived but influential photography magazine which ran for three issues between 1968 and 1969. Rejecting the hifalutin language of the art world, they referred to their style as are, bure, boke (grainy, blurry and out of focus). 
 

Untitled (1970s) 
Moriyama’s desire for intensity often drew him to the seedy underbelly of the city. His work features misfits, yakuza (members of Japan’s mafia), stray animals and sex-workers. He sees cities as erotic spaces. One of his photo essays for “Provoke”, entitled “Eros”, documented a one-night stand in a hotel room. In the introduction to this book, Filippo Maggia, a critic, describes “Eros” as “never explicit but only evocative, haunting, and somewhat sad”. The same could be said of this photograph. 

 

Untitled (1970s) 
Moriyama has expressed ambivalence to colour photography, saying that it lacks the visceral, erotic edge of monochrome. Yet where they lack intensity, his colour work opens up a whole spectrum of ambiguity. Looking at his black-and-white photograph of a fish’s head, the viewer is met with a crazed stare. When fish are photographed in colour, you notice the gauzy texture, the sumptuous pinks. He manages to make a pile of fish at the market seem almost sensual. “My interest in color is increasing”, Moriyama has said recently. “What interests me is seeing my own work differently: the new, vague feeling of accepting the color work as my own.”

Daido Moriyama in Color is published by Skira and is available now. In November, three limited editions of 100 will be published. The book will come in a black cloth slipcase, along with an original framed photograph signed by Moriyama.

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