Huffpost Arts
Johan Kugelberg Headshot

Daido Moriyama: A Photograph Is the Result of a Momentary Thought

Posted: Updated:

As celebrity culture, mass marketing and advertising is increasingly presented in imagery that is a mimicry of everyday life, the ultimately purely destructive force of this forgery can enslave our very eyeball.

In Moriyama's work an antidote for this pop art society of façade can be found, ever as potent as the work of Raoul Vaneigem; an immersion into the stark melancholic beauty of the discarded moments of life at its most ordinary. When Moriyama crystallizes these moments, we understand that our commonality of experience, its underpinning of beauty worship and our collective attempts at the location of aesthetic worth are a component of our arsenal against a society of spectacle. Moriyama's pictures are our pictures. Their everyday selection, his logorrhea of the eye, slows down the pace of how we gaze at our own personal familiar environment. We can see our fate laid out in front of us, like the play-by-play of a chess game in a daily newspaper.

It is Wabi Sabi as photography, where the traces we've made, the echoes of our time, infuse meaning into the discarded, the marginal and the lost.

A distant dream, a scratched cooking pot, the sound of the laughter of someone who is dead.

Daido Moriyama was born in 1938, along with a twin brother who died when he was two. His father worked in life insurance. When Moriyama was only a couple of months old, the family moved to Hiroshima leaving the sickly infant behind with his paternal grandparents in the town of Ikeda, a coastal town that bore emotional residue for Moriyama his entire life. When Moriyama commenced working on arguably his most important project, Memories Of A Dog, the narrative started in Ikeda. His childhood was spent in the town of Urawa, outside Tokyo. Moriyama mentions the chocolate and chewing gum that would get thrown to the children by GIs in passing jeeps as one of his strongest memories of the immediate postwar years.

Otherwise there aren't clear memories in his palate from these the darkest years of recent Japanese history; a time that is never to be repeated in the minds of the people who lived through it, a time that has very few available images.

In his mid-twenties, working as a photography assistant (just prior to becoming a freelance photographer), Moriyama encountered Kerouac's On The Road. In many interviews, he speaks about the value of chance encounters, of transition and of what the main character in Kerouac's novel refers to as having "seen" the road.

Moriyama describes his taking of photographs like how a Spitfire plane fires its machine guns. Rapid bursts of instinctive shooting, without viewfinder, without focus and without knowing what the image is until the moment it is distilled in the dark room has commenced for him, and will last a lifetime.

He "sees" the road.

In 1968, photographer Takuma Nakahiri shows Daido Moriyama the first issue of his photography journal Provoke, and asks him to participate in the second issue. The iconoclasm and originality of this obscure publication has reverberated continuously for over 40 years.

"I was always irritated by photography being a tautology -- how can you describe it? I used to be a photographer who interpreted things via language. And then Provoke changed me." - D. M.

The influence of William Klein's series of documentary photography books, as well as Warhol's 1968 Stockholm exhibit catalogue (basically a Klein imitation) were clear, but the work in Provoke, especially issue 2, like Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, or Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, is art so insulated, so original and so contextually devoid of its surroundings that it is hard to believe that it actually ever happened.

The narrative flow in the three issues of Provoke goes under the surface. Like texts by Joyce or Phillip K. Dick, the narrative hits you in rapid bursts of energy: disjointed, blurry, strange with crazed leaps of faith and wild juxtapositions. Images, not words: I don't read Japanese, so I've only experienced the images in Provoke, not alongside the texts. The Provoke manifesto, by Koji Taki, published in the premier issue had to wait 31 years to see its first English translation. This is how it appeared in Andrew Roth and Glenn Horowitz's landmark Provoke catalogue:

Photographs alone are not ideas. They cannot encompass the totality of a concept, nor have they the interchangeability of language. Yet, because of their irreversible physicality - moments of reality clipped by the camera -- photographs inhabit a world that lies behind language, at times provoking the world of ideas. When this happens, language can overcome its own rigid conventions, transforming into new words, new meanings.

Today, as words are severed from their material base, their reality, to flutter in space, we photographers must use our own eyes to grasp fragments of reality far beyond the reach of pre-existing language, presenting materials that actively oppose words and ideas. Thus we have to swallow a certain degree of embarrassment in order to give PROVOKE the subtitle: materials to provoke thought.


Provoke was a publication of photography that succeeded in stepping outside of time, which is what Ernst Junger said was our collective reason for getting very drunk. When Daido Moriyama was asked about Takuma Nakahiri and Provoke he said: "We were drinking every day and putting down every photographer, denouncing everything around us." Provoke certainly captures this sentiment. It also captures something of the essence of extreme intoxication: The thin-skinned hyper-reality and blurred edges of the drunk, where all ones surroundings are simultaneously heart-achingly beautiful and grotesque.
Daido Moriyama:

For me, photography is not a means by which to create a beautiful art, but a unique way of encountering genuine reality at the point where the enormous fragments of the world -- which I can never completely embrace by taking photos -- coincide with my own inextricable predicament.


Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road on a continuous roll of paper, without the formality of having to insert a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter. Like we write now, on our laptops, where the page break is an anachronism and a ritual. I'd like to think that Moriyama never had to change rolls of film, that his capture of images was not diminished by a formality like running out and the forced time-out of replenishment. That what he chose to find was found, and what was lost was simply lost.

"What is the meaning of life in a world and among human beings as grotesque, scandalous and accidental as the one in which I live and those with whom I interact?" - D. M.

I am considering the work of Daido Moriyama contextualized within the realm of the famous "Naked City" map of Paris, executed by Asger Jorn and Guy Debord in 1957.

The illustration of the psycho-geographical city landscape, where only the parts that resonate are included. The other ones are blanks.

Daido Moriyama's deeply felt humanism fills in such blanks.

A lovely feeling of everyday connection reverberates its emissions from the page. It is possible that the motif had no aesthetic value prior to it being framed by Moriyama, a value or non-value still not detached from the moment Moriyama took the photograph. History is what is happening, but an image of history is never what happened. This could be a matter of intent: It feels similar to what a drift through an unfamiliar city feels like. As we drift, we constantly frame the city with the wall of our eye, and the city frames us back with its wall of the sky. The city smiles at Moriyama, even when it is at its most wretched.

"We perceive countless images all day long and do not always focus on them. Sometimes they are blurry, or fleeting, or just glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Our sense of sight, which is active all day long, cannot be constantly coming to rest." - D. M.

The corporate circus-trick of consumer as artist is partially responsible for the relationship today between the vanguard of photographers and the cool-branding industries of commodity. This is obsequious, fawning and sycophantic. The photographer ultimately holds the short end of the stick: the images can maintain a notion of complete artistic freedom, followed by a handsome check, but this nevertheless is still only hawking products like a salesman.

I wonder how it feels for a young photographer, chasing the corporate paycheck, to ponder the work of Ed van der Elsken, Daido Moriyama and Anders Petersen -- all out-of-step with the mainstream, with lines clearly drawn between commercial and private work. Do they recognize them as saviors, the bearers of something precious?

As masters? Is it so obvious that we bring with us a romantic Rousseau-esque dream of the picturesque as we gaze, bewildered and bedazzled at the vanguard imagery of the Provoke gang?

We crave a nourishment we perceive as honest and true, if what surrounds us seems devoid of substance.

In 1972, Daido Moriyama issued the milestone book Bye, Bye Photography, Dear (Sashin Yo Sayonara). This book took the shoot-from-the-hip fragmentation of Provoke even further: fragmented, blurry, oddly cropped and distorted images flow from the pages like a drunken and distant dream, mimicking the urban landscape a la Constant, drifting through consciousness with the blurry fascination of a farmer in the city.

"Through the chain and cycle of one person's memories stimulating an entirely other person's memories, the memories of many people converge gradually into a world memory." - D. M.

Photographs are perpetual copies, said Daido Moriyama. The only good copies are the ones which show up the absurdity of bad originals, said Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld (a few centuries earlier).

The activity of creating situations instead of exploring them was what situationists claimed as their prerogative. Substituting passive existence (bad originals) with a creation of the fleeting moment of existence (good copies). The photographer chooses the situation, the viewer interprets this situation and our hope is the synthesis and creation of a new situation of collective memory. The Dadaists claimed in 1916 that uncomfortable art mirrors the suppression of ecstatic enjoyment by the powers that be. The placement of imagery in a collective memory is the third means of counter-action, alongside the drift and the détourné.

Our current overt usage of pastiche dates back to pop art: more derivative, more accurate, more borrowed, ripped-off, all references to an idealized past: scanned, collaged, silk-screened, down-loaded, up-loaded, improved upon and edited. These are bad copies and the exact opposite of the work of William Klein, Daido Moriyama and Andy Warhol; three examples of original photographic thinkers creating good copies, copies that counteract the bad copies surrounding us, especially when said copies are informed by Klein or Warhol or Moriyama.

Memories Of A Dog, Moriyama's best known work in the USA, was published as a continous narrative in the Japanese publication Asahi Camera starting in 1983. It was collected into a book published in Japan the following year, a US publication with Moriyama's poignant and Proustian autobiographical texts translated into English appearing in 2004. Moriyama's best known image, and a photograph that has reverberated through the world very much in line with the Provoke manifesto, is the photo of a stray dog, glancing at the camera with the je ne sais quoi of Satan just having blown his nose in the wall-to-wall carpeting. This image as a stand-out amongst Moriyama's massive body of work tells us a bit of how we feel as viewers, as participants in a collective memory, be it ours, Moriyama's, or the one that belongs to the mutt.

Some days our howl is that life is wretched, some days that life is wonderful. Inside the memories of a dog, that distinction never comes to pass, as everyday life is beautiful and wretched.

"The crushing force of time is before my eyes, and I myself try to keep pressing the shutter release of the camera. In this inevitable race between the two of us, I feel I am going to be burnt up." - D. M.