The unflinching lens – monochromatic memories

The Glass Archive presents the second in a special three-part series – The unflinching lens

Part three: Monochromatic memories

Nobuyoshi Araki, Eikoh Hosoe and Daido Moriyama, 
three eminent Japanese post-war photographers, have captured radical views of a country and people shaped by conflict, atomic bombs and rampant consumerism. They share with Peter Yeoh intimate stories and insights on their art and life.

Daido Moriyama, the “stray dog” of Japanese photography, discovers shadowy places in gleaming cities, a visual commentary of memory and loss during Japan’s hurtle into modernity

Moriyama documents a modern world marked by extremes of light and shadow. For over a half century, beginning in war-levelled Tokyo, Moriyama has wandered urban alleys with his camera, like a predatory “stray dog”, to capture aspects of Japanese society hidden or lost in the glare of unrestrained modernisation and commercialisation. Like so many Japanese artists of his generation, Moriyama experienced as a child the firebombing of Tokyo and, even if not as a direct witness, the blinding devastation of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The emphasis on shadows in his monochromatic photographs recalls the writer Junichiro Tanizaki’s now proverbial statement that: “were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty” (In Praise of Shadows, 1933). Though of a different generation, Moriyama similarly laments the loss of the shadows in a country illuminated to excess. As an antidote to the sterility of modern urban landscape, Moriyama captures for posterity the remaining traces of shadows, the underside of society’s veneer of respectability, and what can be considered the real – even if troubled – inner soul of modern Japan.

Daido Moriyama “Light and Shadow” 1981. Moriyama captures the urban scenery of Japan through the interplay of light and shadow - B & W print; courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

Do you consider your photographs to represent a real or fictional Japan?
First, I capture reality through the medium of photography. Then I turn that into a kind of fiction, and in the process discover another type of reality or realism. It’s not precisely fiction or non-fiction, but nor is it something in between. Yet when it comes to the places where I take photographs, I suppose they do exist somewhere between reality and fiction, since I look at them in a way that gives them an imaginary aspect. Furthermore, in the process of developing and printing my photographs I create another version of reality.

Photographs aimed at luring tourists to Japan often show idealised landscapes, temples, traditional gardens or portraits of geisha and so on. Do you see your photography as an antidote to such stereotyped photographs of Japan?
I actually don’t have an interest in things that are perfect, conventional, or carefully structured – such things are not the subjects of my photography. I’m much more interested in things that are imperfect, unconventional or not well structured. Even though I am looking at reality, reality always has some aspect of fake or unreality to it – to go back your question about things being real or fake. For in the end reality always has two sides: a real essence and also an aspect that is fake in some way. To the extent that reality can never be perfect, I am interested in it.

What then is the role of chaos in your life and art?
Chaos is the only place where real life of human beings can exist. It is the state in which humans live. In chaos, the life of human beings becomes interesting and enables communication between people. Life exists in chaos. A peaceful, systematised, strictly controlled existence holds no interest for me. But I even have doubts whether this society where we live can actually be seen as a strictly controlled place. Is the society we live in actually under control or do people just try to pretend it is controlled? There are various realities within the perceived social reality. And that is what interests me.

What do shadows mean to you?
To speak in metaphors, a world without shadows has no allure for me. That holds true in a broader sense as well, not only as regards photography. A world without shadows is not healthy. The same thing can be said in my own lifestyle and my own way of thinking, which flourishes in shadows. Society cannot exist without shadows or negative aspects and if society lacks negative aspects it wouldn’t be interesting. Big cities like Tokyo are always redeveloping, becoming nicer in many ways. Still there are places of ill repute, like Shinjuku, for instance. Yet a city without akusho (bad places) lacks attraction. A place that’s totally sterile and organised like a medicine chest is a not a suitable place for people to live.

Daido Moriyama, Misawa, 1971. The stray dog is the emblematic image for Moriyama as a street photographer revealing the back alleys of Tokyo - B & W print; Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

Why has Tokyo, one of the most brightly lit cities in the world, tried to eliminate spaces with shadows?
You’ve raised a huge issue, perhaps one that’s too difficult for me to answer easily. But part of the reason might be that Japan as it developed after WWII misinterpreted the meaning of “democracy”. That is why current Japanese society is distorted. Some people say it’s progress, but maybe it actually represents going backwards. In short, Japanese society has wanted stability and profit so badly that it has been distorted. That’s not the case for Japan only, but other countries as well.

Tokyo is full of stray cats, but you identify yourself as a stray dog.
Right from the start of my career, I was always a street cameraman. I have always taken photos not only on the main street but also in back alleys. I have always been more like a stray dog in my ways. Though, that is not to say that I don’t sometimes behave like a stray cat.

Is your famous photo of the stray dog meant as a critique of modern Japan?
People can interpret the photograph in their own way. Though some see the eyes of the dog as being somehow sad eyes, resembling the eyes of people who live in poverty or unsatisfied, who are rebellious or looking to pick a fight. It can be said that it doesn’t appear to be a dog that grew up with a good family. These are eyes not looking at things from a haughty point of view but rather from below.

As a photographer do you consider yourself as a type of predatory animal then?
There are many predatory aspects of a photographer. In my case, I’m taking the photographs on the street all the time, so perhaps I’m more like a pickpocket. So perhaps that is something similar to being a predator to a certain extent.

Daido Moriyama, Early Summer for the Young, 1967. The deep contrast of light and shadow epitomises Moriyama’s photographs - B & W print; Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

Does Shinjuku represent a modern dark side?

For me, I think there are many elements of distorted modernity in Shinjuku. Simply put, the elements of the shadow or dark side that comes with modernity are prevalent in Shinjuku. It has both modernised aspects, and it has parts that are not modernised yet.

Do you prefer Shinjuku of the ’60s or ’70s or Shinjuku of today?
I’m not attracted to either the long-ago Shinjuku or the one of the recent past, because what is there now is the only thing real to me. But if I have to compare the Shinjuku of the past and that now, I would say that in the past Shinjuku had more of a human flavour. So there existed chaotic elements in pre-modern things in the past, but now there is less of that. As a cameraman what you see for the moment is what you see now; without that you cannot take good photographs.

If a thousand years from now archaeologists discover your photographs, could they reconstruct the Tokyo of today?
Yes, in a way of speaking. I have often described photography as a fossil of time and light. By looking at a fossil, you can see the vivid representation of the past, but you can also learn about current events that are happening to the people that are looking at the fossil. By looking at the way people are responding to the fossil, you can even learn something about the future.

You have photographed other cities, but can you ever know them as intimately as you know Tokyo?
When I go to another city I can immediately get a sense of place even if it’s totally new to me. My entire body works a sensor and I have a keen sense of smell that helps me find places where human desire is intense. To find such places, you have to go to chaotic places. They tend to be the back side (ura) of a city and unless you go to the ura, you cannot see people’s real lives.

Daido Moriyama, Another Country in New York, 1974. Moriyama captured the murk and gloom of a New York on the verge of financial collapse in 1971 - B & W print; Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

After Tokyo, what’s your next favourite city?
I like New York in many ways. Among places I haven’t been, I would like to go to Havana.

Why New York?
Because Andy Warhol “lives” there. The spirit of Warhol is still there.

At least one critic has likened you to Warhol. Do you agree with that assessment?
I don’t consider myself to be like Andy Warhol, though I do have a great interest in graphic design and when I take photographs on those subjects (such as pictures of soup cans), I suppose there are points of overlap. As a child, I studied painting, and for a while I even worked as a graphic designer, so in those regards there is some resonance with what Warhol did as an artist.

You lived in a temple during the ’70s – why?
That was when my life as a whole, including my work as a photographer, wasn’t going well. I wasn’t able to take photographs in a positive or assertive attitude. In those days, I sort of escaped to life in a temple; I was taking a break. But in reality that was a kind of an escape from real life. When you’re facing that kind of situation, you need to look at things like trees and flowers. I was staying in a temple in Kamakura, which is in a beautiful setting. When your spirit is weakened, you tend to look at beautiful things. Now I don’t look at beautiful natural scenery. But even if you are living in a serene environment like a temple you don’t actually get better, you aren’t healed.

You belong to a group of photographers who were born just before the war, and lived through the war. Has this shaped your view of what Japanese identity is?
The idea of photography is not searching for or trying to discover a collective Japanese identity, but rather my own identity. Though I am pleased if people can learn something about the identity of modern Japan through viewing my works. Of course Japaneseness is part of my DNA – it’s in my cells – and shapes the way I experience and respond to the world and how I take photographs. But I think that identity can shift over time, and as time moves on, we all change. Ultimately, I don’t have a clear sense of what Japanese identity is, nor do I have a clear sense of my own identity. From my point of view, the Japanese identity of the twentieth century was shaped by the experience of war, of being victims of that experience, and that we are still affected by the experience of war.

At this stage of your career do you consider yourself satisfied?
If I’m completely satisfied I could not continue to take photographs, since photography requires me to be always looking for new things. Though I wish I could be ‘satisfied’.

by Peter Yeoh
Translation by Takayuki Mashiyama and Takahide Tsuchiya

Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue three – Rapture

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About The Author

Glass Magazine New York and Tokyo editor

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