The recipient of the prestigious International Center for Photography Lifetime Achievement Award 2012 has been announced as Daido Moryama. Previous recent winners include Elliot Erwitt and Annie Leibowitz, thus I felt I had to learn more about this Japanese street photographer.
I bought the Phaidon book ‘Daido Moriyama’ to see what all the fuss was about. The Phaidon series provide a great introduction to different photographers. Each of these small books starts with a lengthy essay on the work and then 55 photographs follow (the series use to be called the ‘Phaidon 55’ but I think that caused some confusion so they’ve dropped the numbers). The essay in Moriyama’s book is by Japanese film and photography critic Kazuo Nishii. It’s going to be a controversial statement but I just don’t see anything special in Moriyama’s work. There, I’ve said it and no doubt hundreds of photographers, critics and the like would be happy to line up to defend the images. Whenever I get a new photography book I force myself to spend a great deal of time looking through the images without reading any of the text – I’ll even avoid looking at the title if I can. I hope that using this approach makes me judge the image on its own merits without any preconceptions that the text might offer. On my second look through I will read any text and this then open up more layers from the image, but I will already have a bias from my first look. A big problem that I have with some of the images is the descriptions that Nishii provides. I’ll give you some examples and you can make up your own mind:
Stray Dog, 1971
There are two versions of this photograph, printed with the dog facing in opposite directions (clearly I’ve chosen the left facing one). For me this is an over exposed and grainy snap shot of a dog. The crop is very tight, perhaps to get rid of any distracting background clutter. The viewers gaze is drawn to the dog’s eyes (thanks to some dodging?). The stance, backward glance and lack of collar on the dog suggest this is a chance encounter with a stray dog.
‘Urban dogs were often featured in postwar European photography, fighting and snarling, symbolising animality. Moriyama’s dog, on the other hand, seems to have been taken from a kindred dog’s eye point of view, as if merely encountered rather than elevated to a symbolic order.’ (Nishii, 2001)
“It didn’t mean anything when I took that photo. I left the hotel and just shot the photo. If there’s meaning, that depends on the dog.” (2005)
Looks like the three of us agree on this image then!
Light and Shadow, 1981
Have a good look at this image. Spend a moment studying it and come up with your thoughts on it. What is it about and what makes it special? (I had to take a photo of the image in the book and so there is a slight distortion to the shot not present in the original).
Now you’ve got that established in your mind read on.
For me this is clearly a snapshot taken out of a train as it passed under a bridge. The bright reflection in the bottom of the image is very distracting. Once I moved past the reflection my eye was drawn to the white square in the middle of the image. The image is built on shadow and light but for me there is nothing outstanding or aesthetically pleasing from the shot.
Nishii gives his interpretation of the image as follows: ‘This picture was probably taken from a suburban train bound for Toyko. The iron girders and cement piers recall the heroic scenes of the industrialised nineteenth-century. Principally, however, this is an intersection, a point on a map between termini. Light and Shadow is a traditional title in photography, perhaps the commonest of all. Moriyama’s picture, however is less a composition than a rendering of urban topography as a kind of sundial traversed by cast shadows, which compliments the clock-time implicit in the railway system’ (2001) I have no idea what on earth Nishii is going on about.
I hope that even after three years on studying photography at University I can force myself not to come out with pretentious arty-nonsense like this (unless I need it for my exams in which case I will keep it for exclusive use then). Or who knows, maybe I’ll learn to see such things in a whole new light?!
There are some pictures from the book that I do like, and I’ve included a few for you to look at – no titles or descriptions so you can form your own opinion.
And finally, when asked what he wanted viewers to take away from looking at his photos, he replied:
“Most of my photographs are taken on the street, of objects on the street. I want to capture the relationship between objects and people. I don’t ever think about what people are going to think looking at my photographs. There are many things I can’t control. That viewers see the photographs in a different way is really important, but it doesn’t influence the work. My message enters the image, but I think it’s good if many messages enter the image, not just mine.” (2005).
Interview extracts from Theme Magazine
All images in this article are copyright Daido Moriyama.