A life on the streets

Photography museum celebrates Daido Moriyama's 70th birthday


‘I’m not always a stray dog. Sometimes I’m a cat,” says Daido Moriyama. “Or an insect.”

A stray dog with piercing eyes and a hint of a snarl may be the most famous of the monochrome images captured by the Japanese master of black and white photography. And as Moriyama nears his 70th birthday, it is clear that his feral days of roaming the streets, camera in hand, are not yet over.

“As long as I can walk, I will continue wandering the streets,” he says. “The streets are my territory and I still wander them aimlessly with my camera.”

Moriyama is among Japan’s most important postwar photographers. Gritty and textured, stark and poignant, his images have long cast an unsettling spotlight on an ever-changing society. Now, four decades of his photography — including his iconic stray-dog shot — are being showcased in a major retrospective to mark his 70th birthday at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Ebisu. From his early work on Japanese theaters to the cat-strewn alleyways of Shinjuku via the solitary snowscapes of Hokkaido, the retrospective collates more than 200 landmark photographs taken between 1965 and 2005.

A further collection of images of modern-day Hawaii, the most recent focus of his camera lens, spans the walls of a separate floor of the gallery. Sitting in the nearly empty cafe of the museum on a rainy Sunday afternoon, Daido reflects on the epic sweep of his lifetime’s work laid out in the gallery. Drawing deeply on his omnipresent white-tipped cigarette while gazing into the distance, he says: “Looking at four decades of my photos, I’m astonished at how many images and places I’ve photographed. At the same time I’m surprised at how little there is. These two contrasting emotions collide when I see the photographs all together.”

In 1959, Moriyama’s first encounter with a camera came when, “on a whim,” he got a job with photographer Takeji Iwamiya in Osaka and began taking pictures of his siblings and dog. Nearly 50 years later, Moriyama is unsure whether the changes in his photography reflect his own creative evolution or the shifting world around him. “I don’t know if my photography really has evolved,” he says. “Buildings change and people’s styles change. I capture the transformation of society. I record what is there. My photographs reflect the actuality of society. Maybe that’s why people can see an evolution in my photographs.”

Reflecting on the implications of turning 70 in October, he adds: “My photos are a personal record. But over the years, they are moving away from that, maybe because of my age. The older photos are more reminiscent of memories.”

From the tilt of an old industrial ship to the sharply focused feet of a lover, throughout his career, Moriyama’s photographic memories have long been an unexpected take of the mundane.

“I see moments when the world seems extremely beautiful and moments when the world seems extremely ugly,” he says. “Life is an endless succession of these moments. I’m more interested in what is raw — raw desire and raw beauty — rather than pretty things. The second I press the button and take a photograph, there is an impact between the world and myself. I shoot photos because I want to stimulate myself and my consciousness.”

Center stage in his photographs is the location: From the crumbling alleyways of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai to the tango halls of Buenos Aires, Moriyama has long been drawn to the grittier side of urban life.

“I usually choose places because of the smells and the atmosphere,” he says. “I always try to shoot the outside world. I’m attracted to society’s outlaws. The outside world is always alive and I try to capture that. I can’t just take pictures based on my consciousness.”

At first sight, Hawaii is a surprising choice. For Moriyama, however, photographing Hawaii was the fulfillment of a long-incubated dream.

“There is no clear answer as to why I went to Hawaii,” he says. “But I’ve been thinking about it for a very long time. It all started with my memories of the postwar period. I think Japan has a deep connection with Hawaii, socially, politically and on many levels.

“The first time I saw Diamond Head, I was very moved. It was like seeing John Lennon in real life.” In an unexpected digression, he says, laughing, “I actually met John Lennon in 1971 at a marijuana party in New York. What was he like? Naive and sweet. I saw him a few times in Japan at Karuizawa, riding his bicycle.”

Celebrity-spotting memories aside, another surprise is the use of color in the Hawaii exhibition. Amid endless walls of monochrome images, there is a solitary splash of color in the form of a trio of azure sea images.

“I’ve shot a lot of people and places and the photographs which have had the most impact on me emotionally are the black and white ones,” he says. “I find black and white more erotic; it has a more profound effect on me. But I’m not strict about it. When I saw the sea at that beach in Hawaii, I thought it would be interesting to capture it in color so I bought an instant camera at a local store.”

Despite appearing as prolific now as ever, Moriyama admits that there were “difficult” moments of uninspired creatively. One such period during the late 1970s prompted a three-month solitary journey around Hokkaido and a series of haunting images of industrial ships, empty roads and churning seas.

“I’m not a baseball player so I’m not sure if ‘slump’ is appropriate,” he smiles. “But yes, I had a period when I could not see my photographs anymore. I did not know what I was shooting. I thought there wasn’t any reality in my photography.

“Now, looking back, it probably was a necessary period. For a few years, I didn’t take any photos whatsoever but I thought about photography a lot. It was a very valuable time in that sense.”

Today, he is clearly in no such slump. Never leaving home without his compact Ricoh — a favorite of his 10 cameras — and a stash of black and white Tri-X Kodak film, he takes pictures daily.

“I do feel a little bit strange if I don’t take a single photo during the day,” he says. “I’m not really interested in being an artist. I’m interested in shooting and being an artisan of photography.”

As the world around him embraces digital technology, Moriyama remains sanguine about the future of film.

“As long as they keep making film, I’ll keep using it,” he says. “But for me, what is important is to shoot. If I’m out and run out of film, I use digital.”

His fans will be relieved to hear that he has no plans for retirement. As well as working on a Polaroid exhibition with a gallery in Amsterdam, negotiating publication of a new book and planning a trip to Mexico City, the next focus of his attention is his first and last love: Tokyo.

“I’ve been in Tokyo for decades but there are still many streets and areas I haven’t shot,” he says. “I live in Ikebukuro as it’s kind of dodgy, and I’m attracted to areas like that. I want to shoot more of Tokyo.”

Later that day, Moriyama is spotted moving silently around the empty gallery, alone and eyes darting — a stray dog, a cat, or maybe even an insect — as he puts the finishing touches to the exhibition on the eve of its opening.

Iconic moments from Moriyama’s career

The Provoke era — From the ashes of 1960s social upheaval, the avant-garde magazine Provoke was born. The creation of photographer Nakahira Takuma and art critic Taki Koji, its aim was simple: to explore the boundaries of photography and text while finding experimental new ways of capturing the fast-changing Japanese society. Moriyama’s contributions include Provoke II, a quartet of four lyrical images including a blurred lover seen via a focused silhouette of the soles of her feet.

The stray dog — When Moriyama captured a stray dog on camera while roaming Aomori years ago, it is unlikely he anticipated its future impact. With its feral glare and a shaft of sunlight on its matted coat, the image has become one of his most famous. And the parallels with Moriyama himself are evident: Moriyama is the first to compare his nocturnal roaming of back streets and alleyways to the movements a stray dog among other creatures.

Hokkaido — A moment of disconnection between Moriyama’s creative vision and his photography in the late 1970s prompted a solitary soul-searching trip to Hokkaido. For three months, he based himself in Sapporo while exploring the island, taking thousands of poignant images, from industrial railway lines to bleak empty streets.

Shinjuku — Ignoring the skyscrapers and focusing his camera on the dark alleyways and back streets of Shinjuku, Moriyama’s photographs of this corner of the capital are among his most iconic. Published by Hysteric Glamour Fashion in the 1990s, the images marked a strong new vision. As a “lover of outlaws,” the seedy underbelly of the area lends itself perfectly to the gritty realism of Moriyama’s eye.

Buenos Aires — Two bodies captured mid-tango in a shaft of light: The image bears the hallmarks of both Moriyama and Buenos Aires. It was between 2004 and 2005 that the photographer made a series of trips to the Argentine capital. Another city with a captivating dark side, Moriyama was perfectly at home capturing the lyricism of tango against a backdrop of political decay.

“Moriyama Daido I. Retrospective 1965-2005 II. Hawaii” is at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography till June 29; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thurs. till 8 p.m.; closed Mon.); admission ¥1,100. For more information call (03) 3280 0099 or visit www.syabi.com