Daido Moriyama: Perspective Reach

, 2010/08/06

The second in a new series taking a closer look at Japanese photographers.

Last February Daido Moriyama spent a few days in New York City for the opening reception of his latest exhibition. “I actually didn’t have a lot of time while there but of course walked around and took photos. It had been about eight years since I had been and it felt good to be back and well, feel the cold again.” The photographs which Moriyama took that frigid week in New York took printed form as Number 15 in his more personal and willfully experimental ongoing series, Record. After over forty years of taking photographs and producing well over twenty publications, Moriyama has remained consistent- the shroud of noir that develops in the play between the grainy black and white; the subject ultimately consumed in a fleeting moment characterized by desire, or despair. Shadow and depth quietly usurp light, obfuscating and tantalizing the viewer’s gaze at the same time.

As we peruse Record #15 together Moriyama was quick to point out his pictures, “have a dark sensibility to them. And sure, I accept that.” Soon after our conversation gravitated towards the differences between the two large, oft-compared cities. Whether New York’s ethnically diverse populous was of any concern to Moriyama, we discussed the subjects he photographed a few months ago. “I don’t have any particular individuals to shoot, I think people are just part of the landscape of the city.” Moriyama continued, less concerned about the differences between cities and more pensive on something more universal, yet within the realm of the personal. “My overall theme continues to be desire and I’ve worked to capture this through people who are out and about in the city. I still take a lot of photographs because it’s my own desire as well. The desire of my desire to take photographs about desire is one in the same.” Yet, while Moriyama acknowledged New York’s diversity, it is nowhere near the forefront of his practice. The photos Moriyama has included Record #15 are more partial to the backstreets than main boulevards or touristy spots like Times Square. They capture the city’s pulse, in moments, candid or otherwise. “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.”

As we continued to discuss urban landscapes Moriyama elaborated, “cities look, or can appear different on the surface, but if you ask me about Shinjuku,” the place Moriyama has photographed most extensively and is inextricably linked, “well, Shinjuku is like a stadium or more of a pop art museum when I come to think of it. The pop and cheap junk you see everywhere is representative of our desire. The city has become a theatre for art, and the facade provides the main backdrop for events to take place but backstreets is where the real details are, it’s where you can clearly see desire. I think it’s more of an honest reflection, a tighter relationship, of how people relate to the place they are in. Wherever. People warned me in Buenos Aires not to walk to certain areas but I was curious to venture on because, well, I’m a photographer.”

Moriyama’s impassioned curiosity and taste for adventure, prompted comparisons to the nature of the war photographer- traveling, seemingly fearless and dedicated to a vision sustained by clarity and impartiality. Although, Moriyama related a sense of his own neutrality- one self-declared as a gazing position between observation and involvement with an intangible conflict of desire’s persistent scar on reality. Rather than entertain the war photographer analogy, Moriyama seemed comfortable with the term ‘backstreet photographer.’ “Actually, it’s the opposite for me. For example, subjects like perverts have an instinct to escape from my lens when I am photographing. Subjects like that tend to escape if they know they are being focused on.” After spending so much time encountering and indeed, focusing, on subjects entangled in desire, an exit method of some sort must be in place after years. Moriyama described walking away after taking a photograph, “I usually get in a taxi right away and leave. Sometimes I just want to forget what I just saw or photographed. 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, and after I do, I just want to go back home.” More resilient than melancholic, Moriyama feels that each successive photo is a step closer to an assumed clarity of the truth, and so the photographer has continued to insatiably persist in the darker corners of Tokyo just as he has for decades.

Still, Moriyama continues, actively, delving into the human soul in search of something more universal, or inherent, as if each successive photograph were an assurance. With desire at the core, Moriyama is able to focus on and refract what he feels is universal to humanity, regardless of the particular differences between cities, or nations, themselves. “People can change and cities can change too but they are pretty much set where they are.” Moriyama continued in reference to the static nature of Shinjuku, “well, it’s more like a spiral and it’s definitely not going up. New York and Los Angeles are also spiraling too, they are consumed by a lifestyle driven by desire that too often leads to excesses. And it’s not only that, there are bigger problems at the same time. It’s not only about bad people all the time.” To what degree Moriyama considers himself involved, we continued listening, “I’m more of a tentative record of the places I have photographed, I am in the spiral too, definitely not outside, but recording. If the world is perceived to be spiraling down, then I am too, in it.” Moriyama pondered, took a break and continued, “humans are difficult so I have yet to see us really spiral up- I have yet to see. I’m often asked about the history of the Shinjuku but today I’ll say that the landscape, by which I mean the fashion and buildings, has changed but the basement is the same. The violence and perverts continue to thrive.”

The palette of experiences Moriyama has had over the years in Shinjuku effectively became a template for a stylistic consistency as well as a comparative lens Moriyama has employed in places as far as Buenos Aires and as close as Hokkaido. “I shoot what I want to shoot, everything is open and there is no process of self-censorship except a little sense of fear because sometimes it gets scary.” I instinctively retort by asking about the nature of his phobia, “Well the thugs and gangsters are scary, they come out at around 2:00 or 3:00 AM so I don’t photograph them directly, but if I do, I snap quickly to capture a glimpse of what they are after and in hopes of avoiding confrontation. I’ve been caught and confronted before and had my film taken aggressively. Whenever that happens, it’s scary to see how far it will go. But that was a few years ago. Now I am much better at being discreet.”

With his studio in the near vicinity of Shinjuku where we met, Moriyama remains indifferent to any notion of whether Shinjuku has reached its end of history. For Moriyama, the business and equal parts entertainment district is still festering, full of activity and continuing to draw its raw power from an ecliptic mix of people which fascinates and repulses him at the same time. “My approach is not pessimistic nor melancholic, it depends on what I see day to day since I am always out. Taking photos everyday is my lifestyle, I am always carrying my camera when I walk around. It’s the little sense of expectation in the short term that drives my own desire to continue taking photographs. Day by day is how I relate to the future. When you see a photograph on paper, you may think about the future or the past, but it could have been taken by someone ten or fifty years ago so the photo is like a fossil itself. I have always liked photographs which provide a sense of everything- the ones that give clues to the future and the past. It’s more absolute in that way.”

A selection from this interview originally appeared in Japanese in Papersky #33 (The Movement Issue, Switzerland, 2010).

Daido Moriyama was born in 1938 in Kansai. In 1960, Moriyama relocated to Tokyo and joined the photographer collective VIVO and has since published well over twenty publications. Moriyama is widely considered one of the most influential living photographers for his representation of post-war Japan in addition to his volumes of personal work. He currently lives and works in Tokyo.

Daido Moriyama may be likely found strolling the backstreets of Shinjuku, Tokyo.



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