I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“The street is always interesting because any world of images I construct is promptly dismissed once I go outside.”
Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama has garnered near-cult fascination since his images began to infiltrate the American consciousness in the late 1990s. At that time, his work rode to prominence on the wave of discovery surrounding Japanese photography—especially for book enthusiasts, who championed the strangely beautiful amalgam of poetic anti-hero and street snapshot genius in Moriyama’s urban wanderings. His photo-essay memoirs of post-war Japan, Memories of a Stray Dog, were finally translated into English by Nazraeli Press in 2004, cementing his seizure of hearts worldwide as its carefully crafted texts met their match in light and shadow. Moriyama’s work, passionate, personal, melancholic, bound by an obsession with memory, has since taken over—so much so, that he is now called the father of street photography.
For this reason, and in admiration of his ongoing photographic freedom, kurimanzutto asked Moriyama to participate in Sonora 128, a public art project and billboard exhibition space run by the gallery in Mexico City. On the eve of his debut, when his work will be projected twenty meters into the sky, above one of Mexico’s busiest intersections, Moriyama agreed to sit down with me in his studio in Tokyo and answer a few questions. After all, it’s not every day East meets West at the center of the world (Mexico City being, incidentally, the axis mundi).
Bree Zucker Did you dream of being a photographer growing up?
Daido Moriyama Not at all. Even now, I sometimes think: Oh, I became a photographer. Of course I’m glad it’s part of my life now, but until I was twenty or so I had no interest or connection to photography at all.
BZ So what drove you to pick up the camera?
DM I did some commercial design work in my early twenties and, due to the nature of that job, I would end up at photographic studios to have images taken. That was my first encounter with the species we call photographer, and really with photography itself. Somehow I felt it was more fashionable and sporty than what I was doing. Design is desk work, and I was tired of it. So I entered this unknown world, just decided it was the way to go, then took the plunge.
BZ Will this billboard be your first, large-scale public art project to date?
DM I believe so.
BZ Really? I thought the series Scandal, shown at Plaza Dick in 1970, was also large.
DM When I was young I detested doing photography exhibitions. I had an instinctive dislike for showing straightforward prints. So, for an exhibition, I would print large silkscreens or do something like signage. It was much more interesting to show photographs outdoors, not as mere prints. I’m generally not fond of showing photographs in a static way, in places like museums. I find projects like Sonora 128 much more interesting.
BZ Billboards can say a lot about a city. You often photograph them, along with other advertisements. Why is this raw media appealing?
DM I regard such things—posters and billboards, movie or TV screens, and all things that meet the eye in everyday city life—in exactly the same way, with visual immediacy.
BZ So what attracts you to depicting a city, its people and eroticism?
DM There are many reasons, but one is that I didn’t have many friends as a child, and I didn’t want to make any. Instead, I preferred walking around the city on my own. It was always in my nature to be drawn to streets, that’s the foundation. For me, everything is in the city. Cities are galleries, museums, libraries, movies, and theaters. I perceive cities to be all of these things, and that’s why I photograph them. They are alive with a breakneck momentum, with a vitality like an incredible creature or monster. There are always multiple encounters presented before you, and every time I go out I feel the external world crumbling my own self-consciousness. That what’s interesting about it, and why I don’t set particular themes in my work.
BZ Sometimes I also feel the city is a living animal, and what’s on its billboards is a reflection of its desire.
DM I respond to many things in the external world, like the passersby, objects, landscapes, architecture, and signage—each is an object of my own desire. When I go out with a camera in my hand I take these desires along. And then the city has all sorts of desires of its own, as you say. It’s about how well those desires match, or which I can manage to encounter and capture. For example, I’ve taken many photographs of Shinjuku—a stadium of desires. I can unleash my own desires one after another onto this place. There’s nothing more boring than having a preconceived notion of what to shoot and where. My central interest lies in the curiosity about what I’ll encounter.
BZ So photography can be an encounter. Do you think of it as a performance, too—perhaps a performance of the self?
DM Although I don’t think of it as performance per se, there is that nuance, especially when taking snapshots on the street.
BZ What’s the importance of the shadow for you? I often see it lurking in your images.
DM That’s a difficult question.
BZ (laughter) Sorry! I’ve waited 29 years to ask it.
DM I’m not entirely sure, but shadows put edges to the world. That’s probably what shadows are. You have to give an edge to light to give it some form.
BZ Is it important as a photographer to walk on the dark side?
DM In my case, taking photographs means carrying a certain darkness inside me. But are you referring to shady, underground worlds?
BZ Both. A photographer often sees what is evident, but which we seldom see otherwise. To see darkness often reflects some darkness within.
DM Of course that’s the case. The darkness within oneself always corresponds with the darkness carried by the world.
BZ But your signature black, in prints and books, has no fear. How did you develop this intense black?
DM It’s my disposition, and a matter of taste. I used to work as an assistant to a famous photographer named Eikoh Hosoe, so I can produce prints of any gradation. That’s what I used to do for Hoseo-sensei, but when it comes to my own photographs, it has to be as black as possible, with very strong contrast.
BZ Some might say your black and white is obvious, but your gray—there’s something so elegant and indescribable about it.
DM [Nobuyoshi] Araki-san told me the same thing. He said my photographs are all about the gray, that they’re gray tones. I don’t really understand that.
BZ Well, that’s what one photographer sees when looking at another.
DM I don’t really care about other photographers’ work, so I don’t look at them—though I do like William Klein.
BZ Klein wanted to be a painter.
DM He always painted, didn’t he? There are many paintings of his around. In my case, I haven’t really felt that I’m painting with light and shadow when I take a photograph. I wouldn’t deny it, but consciously? Almost never.
BZ What about visual noise?
DM It often happens that rock musicians ask if they can use a photograph of mine for their album art. Maybe my photos resonate with them. As for me, I don’t take photos in terms of jazz or rock, nor do I think about photography in that kind of musical way.
BZ Why is the dog your emblem?
DM It just turned out that way. Dogs, by nature, wander around the planet, and the way they go about and presumably see things has a certain impact. People think of dogs when they think of my work, but personally I don’t have any particular urge to photograph them. I´m even more of a cat person now. But I’m often told that I’m surviving or making a living thanks to that one dog photo—not that I really care what anybody thinks.
BZ I once read that you thought that last iconic shot in Klein’s New York was “so cool,” because it was taken from atop the city. Obviously, the point of view in that shot is looking down, and the perspective of a dog is always up.
DM (laughter) Certainly dogs don’t look down at much of anything. More to the point, I sometimes feel that the way I am when I take street snaps, my mode of being, is very close to that of dogs, cats, or insects. I realize my eyes become like that. I often have such sensations when taking photographs. Klein’s shot of Manhattan is great and I like it, but I’m not fond of aerial photography for my own camera work.
BZ Did you meet Klein?
DM Yes, many times. I looked up to him and found someone to introduce us when I went to Paris, probably first in 1981. It was just after he had started taking photographs again after a long hiatus. We met the day he returned to Paris from shooting in Soho, London. He showed me his film so happily, saying, “I took lots!” Now I see him when I go to Paris.
BZ Was there also a time when you stopped taking photographs?
DM Yes, for about two years. During that period I almost never carried a camera. Apart from that, it’s always been by my side. I actually first met Klein just after I began again, too, so I could really empathize with what he was feeling.
BZ What’s your advice to a photographer in crisis?
DM Stop thinking and take photographs. There’s no point in overthinking. All I would say is something dumb like that.
BZ But, as a component of thought, isn’t memory important for photography?
DM I believe so, yes. For every single photo I take, some fragment of my memory has probably made its way in there. Then the viewer also projects his or her own memory onto it. Sometimes the photograph has more impact on the beholder than the taker. To be clear, I believe the three elements of documentation [記録 kiroku], memory [記憶 kioku], and commemoration [記念 kinen] are the basis of photography.
BZ That’s a beautiful idea of shared consciousness via memory.
DM And it’s precisely what I am referring to, when I say my photograph has its own meaning, informed by my own memories, but is completed by the person who sees it, by the memories evoked in the viewer.
BZ If we share a memory, perhaps photography is collaborative.
DM Yes, completely. When I press the shutter, many aspects inside me collaborate. I collaborate with the city, and then there’s the subject being photographed. And furthermore, the viewer collaborates. A photograph arises out of so many different interactions. It might be the act of a brief moment, but many captured elements are behind it, and memory is of course just one of them.
BZ You often re-photograph, recycle, reinterpret your images and commodity culture endlessly—a copy of a copy of a copy. In Bye Bye Photography, you use throwaway negatives, even those of your friends. What’s so interesting about re-purposing such imagery for your own means?
DM When I see something discarded, be it mine or someone else’s, on the darkroom floor or elsewhere in the world, and discern a certain reality or actuality in it, for me that is photography. Discarded things are beautiful. They’re emotional.
BZ There’s something going on with this “photography atop photography” that I can’t quite grasp yet.
DM When I sense an image and capture it, it is all photography, in any and every case. But perhaps I don’t understand what you’re asking?
BZ It has something to do with appropriation, because in the West there’s this idea that documentary photography and conceptual photography are different. Looking at your work, I see them linked.
DM But when I take a photograph of my own poster, I don’t do it because of a concept. I don’t think conceptually about my work. I just take photographs depending on my mood. That’s just my character, always thinking: This is photography, too. Or, This is the world, too. I only really take street snaps, and when I step outside, any concept I may have is obliterated by the city. That’s how imposing concepts of the external world are—or at least, that’s how I sense them. For me, the street is always interesting because any world of images I construct is promptly dismissed once I go outside.
BZ Speaking of the external world, you travelled to Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. What’s your impression of Latin America?
DM It’s sexy, and I like it. Buenos Aires, the city as a whole, was especially sexy.
BZ Are some cities better lovers than others?
DM Of course I want to meet a good lover, but that’s difficult. If I go to Honolulu, I have a lover there, and the same goes for Buenos Aires. Maybe I can find one in Mexico too. When I go to see New York, one of my lovers, I always visit Time’s Square, which I’m crazy about. I want to set up a hut right in the middle and live there. What about you? Do you have a city like a lover?
BZ (laughter) I loved Vienna, but only because I had a photographic affair there, a coming of age, that was crazily romantic. I’ll never forget it.
DM The equivalent for me is Kabukicho—a place where the boundary between love and hatred is paper-thin in many ways. It’s difficult to find a place like that.
BZ What’s so interesting anyway about the obscene and the taboo, sex and death?
DM They are—in its widest sense of the word, but also in the individual narrow sense—erotic.
BZ Times can change yet subjects often stay the same. Still, has photography changed for you over time?
DM There must have been changes, but I personally don’t feel my stance has changed much. I go to the same places and take photographs of the same things. In terms of world photography, I wouldn’t know, but I think it’s a good thing that there’s an interest in Japanese photography over the last decade or so, though it’s very late. I believe Japanese photography is very mature, and I’m not just saying this because I’m Japanese. When I look at the work of this country’s photographers I feel they really understand what it is. I don’t see all of what’s going on elsewhere, but I do sense there’s greater variation in general, and that’s a good thing.
BZ Do you feel aligned with any other artists today?
DM Not really. All I need are Shomei Tomatsu and William Klein. Let me add Pieter Bruegel and Andy Warhol. I don’t need anyone else.
BZ I have the sense that much of Japanese photography was a group of people talking amongst themselves. Now photography seems more of a solo enterprise.
DM Did we really talk to each other so much? There were some movements, like the group VIVO, composed of Tomatsu-san, Hosoe-san, and [Ikko] Narahara-san. I was also part of a coterie called Provoke. But in the end, each photographer is alone. It’s a solitary endeavor.
BZ But I thought you went swimming with Nakahira to debate photography? Are your Bye Bye Photography and his For a Language to Come related?
DM Yes, he was my only friend and rival. A difficult guy but charming—there hasn’t been anyone like him since. Those books came out around the same time. There´s no direct link, but that kind of relationship is undeniable.
BZ Is the photobook more important to you than the photograph?
DM The photograph comes first. There’s no photobook without photographs. On the other hand, apart from the obvious fact that they remain as a printed object, photobooks allow me to see what I’m drawn to or thinking about, how I feel about it, and what I do and don’t want to do. It’s a process whereby I have to articulate my relationship to photography, and prove it. It’s the time I spend to verify, in the most palpable way possible, what kind of relationship I’m trying to establish.
BZ It’s all about the edit, no?
DM I actually tend to entrust the editing to someone else. It’s interesting to allow the gaze of other people to enter the process. When I do it all on my own, it becomes boring—all me, me, me. I have a broad constructive framework when I make a book, but it’s better for the final outcome to make it more flexible.
BZ Is there book you’d like to make but haven’t yet?
DM Not really. I take photographs almost every day, even just for an hour. I feel all I can do is to keep on. It’s childlike fixation. The external world is infinitely actual, so I want to keep capturing it to make photobooks. But I don’t really have a theme, concept, or location I particularly want to deal with.
BZ Does photography seem like a way to make the real more real?
DM I do wish to help a different reality arise.
BZ Do you feel you’ve succeeded in what you set out to do?
DM Not at all! I don’t have any sense of accomplishment or fulfillment. That’s why I keep going.
BZ Will you ever get to the bottom of photography?
DM Do you see the bottom? You can tell me what it’s like if you do. I’ll use your answer the next time I’m asked that question. I don’t really think about such things. I’ll put it in very practical terms: when I die, that’s the end of my photography. It’s up to the next generation of photographers to continue the work. I only think about what’s right in front of my eyes.
Bree Zucker is a gallerist based in Mexico City. She is co-editor of the Madrid-based Ponytale Magazine and co-founder of the independent gallery space Galería La Esperanza. In 2014, she joined kurimanzutto gallery in Mexico City, where she currently programs their public art project and billboard exhibition space, Sonora 128.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee