Current Feature: Daido Moriyama
By John Hutt
If you take photographs seriously, that’s the end of the story. Moriyama’s public career began in the magazine PROVOKE vol 2., in which he shot a couple having sex in a love hotel. This caused outrage and excitement in photography circles, and propelled Moriyama into the world of fine art. His theoretical grounding and backwards evolution into non-photographer-photographer began there. The first work was against convention, against taste, and against fine art and yet it was lauded as fine art and celebrated in photography circles. So Moriyama kept pushing.
Moriyama began his work as a photographer shooting scenes in his native Shinjyuku region of Tokyo, a region that he loves and where he refined his point and shoot, voyeuristic street photography into a school of his own. Bure (shake) Boke (no focus) style has been widely imitated and widely criticized. Bure Boke was Moriyama’s way of going against the accepted style, the entire reason for its existence was in opposition to the normal way of doing things. The results of this were so interesting that the opposition became his independent expression. Bure Boke was Moriyama’s attempt at destroying photography. The photo book Hunter (1972) is seen as the finest example of this Shake-No Focus style. Hunter was the beginning of Moriyama’s deconstruction of the photographic process that reached its peak in the book Bye, Bye Photography (1972) (Shashin yo Sayonara). Moriyama’s central argument during this period was that photographs, even those that are not planned or executed well, still constitute photography. Photos are not only the images you consciously take. All photographs are equally valid and should be considered photography, and if everything is photography, then nothing is photography. To go to the limits of the medium, Moriyama would have to destroy it.
When preparing a camera to shoot, one has to press the shutter button to load the film. This action can capture whatever is around; a leg, a shoe, the wall, some blurry over or underexposed shot, these accidental images, Moriyama argued, were absolutely as important photographs as any portrait or landscape. These test shots make up the bulk of Bye, Bye Photography (1972).
Moriyama’s preferred method of expression is photo books, and his quest to destroy photography came to a head after Bye, Bye Photography (1972). Moriyama came to the conclusion that photographs, photographic skill, eye and placement were all ultimately useless. The result was seven to eight years spent not producing any work. What began as a theoretic exploration of what it meant to be a photographer ended in the realization that to be a photographer meant nothing. So, in his own words, Moriyama spent a few years “being a junkie and not taking any photos.”
It’s interesting to look at the evolution of work when the stated goal at its inception is the destruction or deconstruction of the medium. It should be noted that it’s useful to speak about Moriyama in terms of series rather than specific works due to the nature of his output - he has no interest in exhibitions. 1972 and Hunter saw Moriyama prowling the streets of Shinjyuku as a voyeur, deliberately taking the least planned, shaky pictures from his hip. Subsequently, Bye, Bye Photography (1972) took the idea to its logical conclusion. It was, according to Nobuyoshi Araki, a contemporary, admirer, and friend (in that order) to Moriyama, one of the most influential and important contemporary photo books of the time. The influence of Bure Boke was felt throughout Japan and picked up by countless photography students keen to get theoretical and nihilistic with their chosen medium. Of course, to take a shaky, unfocused picture in downtown Tokyo is not difficult, but the age-old problem of starting first with the deconstruction of a medium before completely understanding that medium takes hold here as everywhere else. The students who imitated the style of Moriyama without coming to the conclusions themselves missed the point. Or even if they came to the conclusion themselves they didn’t have the commercial background, porn background or working photographer background to push against boundaries as Moriyama had.
However, on his hiatus from photography, Moriyama realized that eventually the act of not taking pictures even if you’re doing so for artistic and theoretic reasons is meaningless. It becomes the same as just not producing work. To the outside observer there is no difference between someone theoretically opposed to the idea of the meaningful production of art and someone who just doesn’t make art. In 1982 Moriyama’s mother died and he snapped out of his haze, found a pentax, began taking photographs again and, to his surprise, found himself an influential and missed artist.
Throughout his career Moriyama has been a pornographer and commercial photographer producing work that is in turn boring and idle. The work might have been good money but it could never sufficiently satiate his interests. Moriyama is an incredible photographer, one who cannot keep a job because eventually the boredom sets in and he needs a new project. His commercial work is always short term, but his artistic mind never ceases and his photographic career continues. Now Moriyama says he cannot say “goodbye to photography”, but if he did, photography would be fine. What is written in almost every English language publication about Moriyama is that he considers his photography to be like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road – a beat stream of consciousness. It is always talking about Hunter, and while it is something that Moriyama has said, to classify one of Japan’s homegrown artistic philosophers as a reaction to a 1950s American author is poor justice. Rather, Moriyama is Diogenes asking Alexander to get out the way of his sun. Students and writers come to ask him what the meaning is behind his work, asking him to teach them or to make some new work. Moriyama does what interests him, his technique is his own, and any imitators fall flat because they are not committed to it, or perhaps are not blasé enough about the conceit of photography to achieve the same effect. He wants his work to be seen – so he puts it on t-shirts, like his famous Stray Dog of Tokyo photograph splattered across every kitsch souvenir you can find. His darkroom technique is a complete mystery, one of total instinct. When his gallery wants to make prints of his work they must take pictures of prints and reproduce them as faithfully as possible. Moriyama himself has no interest in, or perhaps cannot reproduce his prints. This fits into his entire philosophy of photography. A photograph is a record of a one time event, itself an event, itself a document.
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